Late last month, Russia handed over six medieval stained glass church windows – the last of a set of 117 panes from the Marienkirche (St. Mary’s Church) in Frankfurt an der Oder, on today’s Polish border, carted off to Moscow in 1945.
At a ceremony to mark the occasion, German Culture Minister Bernd Neumann said the restitution was a sign of improving relations between the wartime foes.
This proves that “with goodwill on both sides, and despite all the problems, progress is possible even if achieved only one small step at a time,” he said.
Russian Ambassador to Germany Vladimir Kotenev, who attended the ceremony, noted that Nazi Germany had been guilty of wanton looting during the war and stressed that the process of restoring property to its rightful owners must be mutual.
“I would like to stress the word ‘mutual’ because there are still harsh critics and the issue of looted art is often treated in the media as one in which it is the Russians who owe a debt,” he said. “It is often carelessly – or intentionally – forgotten that during the raids of the Wehrmacht many Russian museums were systematically plundered.”
The Gothic windows, removed from the church during the war by the Germans to protect them from bombing, were among train loads of art treasures hauled back to Russia, along with prisoners, industrial and consumer goods.
After protracted negotiations, 111 of the medieval panes were returned in 2002, restored and reinstalled at the church.
The last six, representing scenes from the Old Testament, were believed destroyed until 2005 when they were discovered at Moscow’s Pushkin Museum. It took another three years to win agreement for their return to Germany.
Disputes over art treasures seized during and after the war have marred German-Russian relations for years.
In the 1950s, after the death of Stalin, the Kremlin authorized the return to Germany of 1.5 million works of art, including the celebrated Pergamon Altar, built in the second century BCE and now one of Berlin’s top tourist attractions. But further negotiations have proven difficult.
In 1997 the Russian parliament passed a law declaring artwork seized from Germany to be rightful spoils of war to compensate for the sacking of its own collections.
This has allowed the Pushkin Museum, for example, to hold on to the so-called ‘Priam Treasure’, bronze and gold artifacts dating back to Homeric times, which were dug up in the 1870s by the German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann at the site of the ancient city of Troy.
Many of these treasures, including that of Priam, were held secretly for years after the war in Russian museum stock rooms and only recently brought out to be put on public display.
In 2007, for example, the Pushkin Museum staged a major exhibition of 700 Merovingian artifacts that had disappeared from Berlin in 1945 and that were believed destroyed.
Germany has encountered similar problems in seeking the return of art treasures from other former Soviet republics.
Last summer, a couple of German tourists visiting a museum in Simferopol, southern Ukraine, stumbled across 87 paintings which had belonged to a museum in Aachen before the war.
German authorities, who thought they had been destroyed, have now started negotiating their return.
But German foreign ministry spokesman Jens Ploetner recently acknowledged that this was a “sensitive” subject given the fact that “Ukraine lost a lot of its cultural heritage when under German occupation.”
Disputes over war booty are not just limited to the former Eastern Bloc.
Last year the respected news magazine Der Spiegel reported that the French army had also seized a number of paintings from a museum in Wuppertal, in western Germany, at the end of the war.
Several of them, including one Renoir and two Delacroix, are now exposed at the Louvre in Paris, but Germany has preferred to say nothing lest it offend its neighbour and ally, according to the magazine.