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NAZIS

Panel fails to rule over ‘stolen’ church treasures

A German mediation panel heard a dispute on Wednesday between a Berlin museum and the heirs of World War II-era Jewish art dealers over a vast medieval church art collection.

Panel fails to rule over 'stolen' church treasures
The Guelph Treasure or "Welfenschatz" includes gold and silver relics, gem-studded crucifixes and other ornate Christian artefacts. Photo: DPA

Called the Guelph Treasure or "Welfenschatz", it includes gold and silver relics, gem-studded crucifixes and other ornate Christian artefacts, some dating back to the 11th century and believed to be worth hundreds of millions of euros.

The fight centres on whether its three Jewish former owners sold the collection under duress and below market price in a deal with the Prussian state in 1935, two years after Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler rose to power.

The case comes when Germans are being accused of foot-dragging on the return of Nazi-looted art to their rightful owners following the discovery of a vast trove of long-lost artworks found in a Munich flat.

Germany's government-backed Limbach Commission which reviews such cases, with a former state president, top court judge and historian among its eight members, started hearing the dispute Wednesday, said a spokeswoman.

CLICK HERE to see artefacts from the Guelph Treasure

Later in the day she told AFP the closed meeting had ended and that "the discussions are ongoing and a recommendation is expected in coming weeks". The findings are non-binding but are seen to carry significant moral weight.

In the years-old dispute on the now 42-piece collection – the largest German church treasure in public hands – the heirs claim that the art dealers had no choice but to sell it to the Nazi state below value.

The syndicate of Frankfurt art dealers had bought the collection in 1929 but saw its value drop sharply as the market collapsed in the Great Depression.

Having sold off about half of the pieces, they parted with the remaining objects in the 1935 sale to the state of Prussia, then led by Hermann Goering, the Gestapo secret police founder and air force chief.

The Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which oversees the Berlin museum now holding the treasure, says the dealers received "a fair and appropriate price".

"Although the sellers were Jewish citizens, some of whom were resident in Germany at the time of the sale and some of whom lived abroad, the sale of the Welfenschatz was not a forced sale resulting from Nazi persecution," it said in an online statement.

It also pointed out that at the time of the sale, the collection was in storage in Amsterdam and not under "the authority of the German state".

Markus Stötzel, a lawyer for the Jewish families, has stressed that "all the participating art dealers and their relatives lost their personal and professional existence in Germany due to racial persecution".

READ MORE: Bundestag denies 'stolen art' claims

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NAZIS

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.

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