11 April 2015

Russian olive branch to Greece in the form of an icon

by Marc Masurovsky

On April 9, 2015, Vladimir Putin, President of Russia, delivered the equivalent of an olive branch to Alexis Tsiras, newly-elected premier of Greece. Mr. Tsiras has the ingrate task of extricating Greece from a near-fatal case of economic catastrophe. On the occasion of his first State visit to Moscow, Mr. Tsiras received an icon representing “St Nicholas the Miracle Maker and St. Spyridon” as a gift from Mr. Putin. This was no regular icon. It had been plundered during the German occupation of Greece between 1941 and 1945. Somehow, an unnamed Russian businessman acquired it from the descendants of the German officer who had stolen the item. The icon ended up in Putin’s hands and was turned over to the Greek government as a gesture of good will towards Greece and as an act of repatriation of looted cultural property from WWII.
Tsiras (left) with Putin (right)
This is how the story has been reported in about 90 per cent of international media outlets.

Naturally, as any inquisitive child would wonder, some questions are worth asking:

1/ who was the German officer in question?
2/ what happened to him?

Only one article mentioned the name and position of the German officer responsible for the theft of the icon. Other articles did indicate that this German officer was tried and executed by the postwar Greek government, in the middle of Greece’s Civil War (1944-1949).  Most articles simply passed over these details, instead they focused their attention on the gift of the stolen icon to Greece and the circumstances of Mr. Tsiras' meetings with Mr. Putin.

The German officer’s name is Friedrich Wilhelm Müller. He spent his entire adult career in the Wehrmacht. During WWII, General Müller became deeply enmeshed in the repression and suppression of a number of villages on the Island of Crete between 1942 and 1944. These massacres earned Müller the  title of “butcher of Crete.” He was later transferred to the Eastern Front and was captured by Soviet Forces in East Prussia. Handed over to the Greeks, he was tried and convicted of war crimes. Müller was executed by firing squad in May 1947. He was 49 years old. 

The Russian news site “news.rin” reported that Müller stole the icon from the Monastery of Sparta.

A monastery in Sparta
Additional questions have no apparent answers right now but should be given extra weight:

3/ how did the Russian businessman find the descendants?
4/ why did the Russian businessman turn over the icon to the Russian government?
5/ what does this gesture towards Greece signify in terms of Russia’s overall stance on repatriation and restitution of looted cultural property on its territory, including the Jewish books from Thessaloniki, which might not have been discussed during Mr. Tsiras’ visit to the Kremlin?
6/ Is this a signal of greater empathy towards Greece, leading to other returns of cultural property?

An image of St. Spyridon