21 May 2011

May 1945 and beyond

The Second World War is over in Europe and North Africa. The Third Reich no longer exists. The only active military front is in Asia where the Japanese Imperial Army continues to put up fierce resistance to American-led troops. That all comes to an end with the detonation of two atomic devices, one over Hiroshima and another over Nagasaki, in early August 1945.

60 million people are known to have died as a direct result of the Second World War. This figure includes six million Jewish men, women, and children exterminated in death camps, ghettos, forests, fields, marshes, and concentration camps. It also includes at least 5 million men, women, and children of other faiths decimated in concentration camps, forced labor, in villages and cities across Axis-occupied Europe. The remainder died in the crossfire between rival armies, as victims of reprisal killings, from hunger, disease, and exposure to the elements.

The victorious Allied powers set in motion policies to effect the repatriation of assets looted by the Axis to the countries from where they were forcibly removed. While laying down complex reparations formulae that leave no country satisfied, they also lay claims to assets owned by the Reich and its collaborators in countries often referred to as ‘neutral’, viz., Sweden, Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, and to a far lesser extent, Turkey, and Argentina.

Restitution is often confused with repatriation, but one thing is certain, restitution can only mean one thing: return of a stolen object to its rightful owner.

France and the Soviet Union argue for replacement policies—to replace objects stolen from them with objects of similar quality and value in the current possession of the defeated powers. The United States and Great Britain oppose such a move. While France continues to press for replacement into the early 1950s, the Soviet Union does not quibble over words and policies. It is busy removing untold numbers of items, equipment, and other goods from countries that the Red Army overran in its bid to defeat the Third Reich as partial payment for its losses—both infrastructural and human. One out of every three Soviet male between the ages of 17 and 45 is dead or unaccounted for at the end of the global conflict.

It is fair to say that 90 per cent of all those involved in direct fashion with the cultural plunder of Europe escaped severe punishment, with the notable exception of Alfred Rosenberg and a handful of his acolytes.  The rest faced mostly fines, escaped prosecution altogether, and few were tried and handed down light sentences. 

Every formerly occupied country in Europe busily enacts laws that restrict the ability of victims to recover items plundered by fellow citizens. Most egregious are the waivers granted to so-called third-party transactions: all individuals who were involved in brokering forced sales and illegal removals of property are granted the benefit of the doubt, lest it be explicitly proven that they knowingly handled items which had been misappropriated for racial and other reasons.  Worst of all: the main proponent of postwar restitution, namely the United States, walks away from the restitution process in the early 1950s, feeling that the job was 'well done', ignoring the plight of claimants who by then have become naturalized US citizens.

No one has done an accounting of the numbers of claimants who actually obtained restitution of lost items and assets.  Judging by the number of victims, their surviving next of kin, the figures can only be ridiculously low--in the single percentile digits.

Where are all the looted objects, aside from those which victorious armies recover by the truckloads in the aftermath of victory?

From East to West:
  • items removed from Soviet territory, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Poland, find their way into Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. For instance, many cultural objects stolen in Poland are discovered in the French zone of Occupation in Germany, while Russian icons, books from the Ukraine and private collections from Latvia end up in various parts of Austria and Germany.  Although a percentage of those items are repatriated to the Soviet Union, the picture is unclear as to their numbers and the percentage that they represent of all items recovered by Allied forces.
  • items from Yugoslavia enter Italy, Austria, and Switzerland.
  • items from Italy go north to Switzerland, Germany, and Austria, as well as west to Spain and France (after August 1944).
  • items from France, Belgium, Holland, travel to Italy, Spain, Germany, and as far as Austria and Poland, and in some cases even to German-occupied Ukraine where Belgian books looted by the ERR find a final resting place.
  • items discovered in the various zones of occupation controlled by Great Britain, the United States, France, and the Soviet Union in Germany and Austria will never be properly repatriated and/or restituted and, instead, are transferred to the territories of the occupying powers.
Meanwhile, the international art market continues to thrive unabated. Art dealers and museum officials, especially in the United States, press the US military to release unclaimed items and entrust them with their sale and safekeeping since their owners are more than likely dead.  Jewish relief organizations confuse recovery with rehabilitation and are quick to sell items that might be restitutable so that they can obtain quick cash, granted, to assist survivors.  However, a significant number of choice items end up in libraries and collections, in Europe, North America, and Palestine, sometimes at the expense of recovering Jewish communities in liberated Europe.

Plundered items infest bustling black markets across Europe; their sheer numbers make it impossible for local and Allied police and investigative agencies to intercept them. As a result, these items will slip through export restrictions and end up in collections as far away as Argentina.

The residual problem of World War II and Holocaust-related plunder is a global problem since, if half of what has just been put forth is correct, looted items are to be found everywhere, both in private and government hands. If we want to resolve this question in a way that is acceptable to all parties, knowing full well that full, 100 per cent restitution was--and will never be--possible, all countries involved must come to the table and carve out a solution which allows them once and for all to close the book on one of the worst chapters of human history. Failing that, all that we have accomplished is to inform the next generation that plunder is permissible and the passage of time allows the thieves to enjoy the fruits of their mischief without fear of accountability.