Not long after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Dietmar Vorsteher, then the head curator of the German Historical Museum in Berlin, received a call that marked his career: a security guard informing him of an alarming commotion in an exhibition room.
A man was visiting the musem’s new display on the flight of refugees from the former East Germany when he spotted something familiar – his old dive boat, the one he had once used to attempt to escape from the East. Mr. Vorsteher quickly arranged for the return of the boat, but the incident has since stuck with him. Over the years it has become clear that some of the museum’s “treasure rooms are actually abysses,” he says.
The prestigious national history museum is full of stolen property. While the infamous case of the Gurlitt collection of looted artworks and the film “Woman in Gold,” about a Jewish woman’s fight to reclaim her family’s Gustav Klimt painting, have highlighted the extent to which the Nazis looted artworks, there has also been a great deal of expropriation since the end of the Third Reich: namely, in the Soviet Occupation Zone and the German Democratic Republic.
“We know far too little about our collections, the old owners know too little about their losses.”
From 1945 to 1947, the years of postwar Soviet land reform, the property of well-heeled Germans was systematically confiscated in the German Democratic Republic, or East Germany. Officials took great pride in passing properties of the former nobility to the people, symbolically sticking it to capitalism. Manors were repurposed for taking in war refugees, later becoming nursery schools and hospitals. At the time, East German museums happily accepted artworks for their exhibition halls, particularly since some of their previous works had been taken by the Russians as trophies. Museum curators saw themselves as the wards of abandoned goods, falsifying information in their inventories in order to protect the works.
Even as curators grapple with what to do with art confiscated in East Germany, many stress that compensating Jewish victims of the Nazis for extensive looting must remain the priority. Gilbert Lupfer, the chairman of the German Lost Art Foundation in Magdeburg, warned that Nazi looting of art owned by Jews in from 1933 to 1945 should not be equated with what happened in East Germany in the postwar period. Any subsidies provided to investigate stolen art, he said, should not come at the expense of research into Nazi injustices.
A leather book in the possession of the Dresden State Art Collection documents what happened to some of the goods taken in East Germany: a grand piano given to the music conservatory, a sofa that went to the church cantor. Goods were also smuggled and sold on the other side of the border, and West Berlin gallery owners raked in profits.
When the German Historical Museum took over East Germany’s historical museum after the wall fell in 1990, it inherited a shadowy fortune. Today, items marked “allocated,” “surrendered” and “disposed” raise moral quandaries for staff members of German museums, but precious little can be done about it.
“We know far too little about our collections, and the former owners know too little about their losses,” explained Gabriele Köster, director of the Magdeburg Cultural History Museum.
The Lost Art Internet Database collects reports from individuals and institutions about cultural objects looted by the Nazis. German art historians agree that a similar system would be a massive help in identifying guardians and rightful owners from the former East Germany. It’s an initiative that would need to come by way of the German Center for Cultural Property Losses. It remains unclear if such a project would ever come to fruition.
Barbara Woolsey of Handelsblatt adapted this article for Handelsblatt Global. Nicola Kuhn is a writer for Tagesspiegel, Handelsblatt’s sister publication.