Jewish council criticizes Gurlitt Nazi art return

Germany’s plan to hand hundreds of confiscated paintings back to the son of a Nazi art dealer has raised the wrath of Jewish organizations. The World Jewish Congress, meanwhile, has stated the country's reputation is on the line.

Jewish council criticizes Gurlitt Nazi art return
The works were found hidden in a Munich flat. Photo: DPA

The chief prosecutor in Augsburg, where a task force is leading an investigation into Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of an art dealer who worked for the Nazis, said around 300 of the 1,400 works found in a Gurlitt’s Munich flat could be returned to him.

He acknowledged on Tuesday that many of the hundreds of works confiscated from his home in February 2012 clearly belonged to him outright.

Prosecutor Reinhard Nemetz said he had asked a task force working on the spectacular find to identify such paintings "as soon as possible".

But on Wednesday President of the Central Council of Jews in Germany Dieter Graumann said: “After the whole thing was dealt with almost conspiratorially for 18 months, the hasty reaction of a blanket return [of the paintings] is surely the wrong way to go about things," the Süddeutsche newspaper reported.

He added that the case had a "moral and historical dimension".

Meanwhile the head of the World Jewish Congress told AFP that Germany's credibility was on the line in its handling of the hoard of priceless artworks. He said the country must take bold steps to give back property to its rightful owners.

Saying that the more than 1,400 paintings, sketches and prints by the likes of Picasso, Matisse and Chagall hidden in a Munich flat may just be the "tip of the iceberg", WJC President Ronald S. Lauder said Germany has a moral obligation to speed up the return of Nazi-looted art.

He called on the country to take two immediate steps: eliminating a 30-year statute of limitations on reclaiming stolen property and forming a commission that would help process claims and examine public collections for stolen works.

"The principal obstacle to the recovery of Holocaust-looted art that is inprivate hands is the statute of limitations because it prevents judicial inquiry and recovery," he said in a telephone interview from New York.

"The German government should address the problem because the Holocaust is unique and the statute of limitations was never intended to deal with massive wartime looting perpetrated in the course of genocide."

CLICK HERE to see some of the confiscated paintings

Lauder said he had proposed to the German government the creation of acommission, on which he was willing to serve, which would help process claims by individuals and museums who lost art during the Nazi period.

"They should have this commission that looks at all the requests, has all the records and is able to sort it out, decide which (claims) are real, which are not real," Lauder said.

"The fact is we can give a great deal of help to them. We are experts inthe field and we understand what can be done and we've seen what other countries have done successfully."

'Tip of the iceberg'

He warned that rightful owners of paintings in the Munich hoard could find themselves entangled in protracted, expensive legal battles with no guarantee of getting their property back.

"It'll take years in the courts and it'll be a mess," he said. "This may be the tip of the iceberg, there may be hundreds if not thousands of other pictures in Germany that we don't know about, that some day will come to light. This commission can do a great deal of work toward that."

Lauder said he was disappointed Germany had not been more aggressive in the identification and restitution of stolen art.

"Germany has done so much to make things right (since the Nazi period) and this is something that of all the things we've done it's the easiest because of the fact we have records — this is not dealing with dead human beings, this is dealing with art," he said.

"It's incongruous because they've done so much – why on something like this which is very straightforward, they stop. I'm scratching my head to understand."

He criticized the fact that although German authorities seized the works at the Munich flat of Cornelius Gurlitt in February 2012, they had remained silent until Focus magazine made the find public this month.

"They initially reported it as a tax avoidance scheme and not for what it really is – it really is someone having stolen Holocaust art and basically saying to the German government, 'Haha, I have it, you can't touch it'," he said.

"Every work belongs to either a museum or an individual who had had that work on his wall and was taken out by the Nazis. So every one is important. They may not all be Picassos and Matisses but in their own right they're important, they're important to somebody."

Gurlitt, the son of a powerful art dealer who acquired and sold countless precious works for the Nazis, gave a defiant interview to this week's Der Spiegel magazine in which he vowed not to give up his works without a fight.

The WJC, which Lauder has chaired since 2007, represents 100 Jewish communities outside Israel.

The billionaire philanthropist and art collector, son of the cosmetics mogul Estee Lauder, set up a foundation in 1987 with the goal of rebuilding Jewish communities in central and eastern Europe devastated in World War II.

READ MORE: Who is the recluse behind the Nazi art haul?

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German justice contaminated by Nazis in post-war years

Germany's justice system was still filled with former Nazis well into the 1970s, as the Cold War coloured efforts to root out fascists, according a damning official inquiry presented Thursday.

Professors Friedrich Kießling and Christoph Safferling present their report
Professors Friedrich Kießling and Christoph Safferling present their report "State Security in the Cold War". Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Uwe Anspach

In the 600-page collection of findings entitled “State Security in the Cold War”, historian Friedrich Kiessling and legal scholar Christoph Safferling focused on the period from the early 1950s until 1974.

Their research found that between 1953 and 1959, around three in four top officials at the federal prosecutor’s office, which commissioned the report, had belonged to the Nazi party.

More than 80 percent had worked in Adolf Hitler’s justice apparatus, and it would take until 1972 before they were no longer in the majority.

“On the face of it they were highly competent lawyers… but that came against the backdrop of the death sentences and race laws in which they were involved,” said Margaretha Sudhof, state secretary at the justice ministry, unveiling the report.

“These are disturbing contradictions to which our country has long remained blind.”

‘Combat mission’

It was not until 1992, two years after Germany’s national reunification, that the last prosecutor with a fascist background left the office.

“There was no break, let alone a conscious break, with the Nazi past” at the federal prosecutor’s office, the authors concluded, stressing “the great and long continuity” of the functions held and “the high number” of officials involved in Hitler’s regime.

Chief federal prosecutor Peter Frank commissioned the study in 2017. The federal prosecutor’s office is one of Germany’s most powerful institutions, handling the most serious national security cases including those involving terrorism and espionage.

With more than 100 prosecutors, it is “the central actor in the fight against terror,” the report authors said, underlining its growing role in the decades since the September 11th, 2001 attacks in the United States.

The researchers were given unfettered access to hundreds of files labelled classified after the war, and found that rooting out alleged communists was often prioritised over other threats, including from the far right.

“In the 1950s the federal prosecutor’s office had a combat mission – not a legal but a political one: to pursue all the communists in the country,” the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung said in a summary of the report.

‘Recycling’ Nazis

The fact that West Germany widely used former officials from the Nazi regime in its post-war administration had long been known.

For example, Hans Globke served as chief of staff and a trusted confidant to former conservative West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer between 1953 and 1963 and was responsible for recruitment to top posts.

However, Globke had also been a senior civil servant in the Nazi-era interior ministry and was involved in the drafting of the 1935 Nuremberg race laws that imposed the first dramatic restrictions on Jews.

In recent years, systematic digging into the past of key ministries and institutions has unearthed a troubling and previously hidden degree of “recycling” of Third Reich officials in the post-war decades.

A 2016 government report revealed that in 1957, more than a decade after the war ended, around 77 percent of senior officials at the justice ministry had been members of the Nazi party. That study, also carried out by Safferling, revealed that the number of former Nazis at the ministry did not decline after the fall of the regime but actually grew in the 1950s.

Part of the justification was cynical pragmatism: the new republic needed experienced civil servants to establish the West German justice system. Furthermore, the priorities of the Allies who won the war and “liberated” the country from the Nazis were quickly turned upside down in the Cold War context.

After seeking to de-Nazify West Germany after 1945, the aim quickly shifted to building a capitalist bulwark against the communist threat. That approach often meant turning a blind eye to Germans’ previous involvement in the Third Reich.

In recent years, Germany has embarked on a twilight attempt to provide justice for concentration camp victims, placing several former guards in their 90s on trial for wartime crimes.