The law would encompass all ‘movable’ property including artwork, Jewish ritual objects, heirlooms, books and other valuables plundered by the Nazis.
The new legislation, if passed, would make it easier for survivors and their families to seek the return of their artwork and other valuables. Until now, claimants have been barred from any legal remedy, as 1975 was the cut-off year for filing Holocaust claims for restitution under the German statute of limitations.
A great many Jewish families, however, discovered only recently that their property was on public display in German museums, or rotting in museum basements.
“Removal of the 30-year statute of limitations would be a major step in the right direction,” Mel Urbach, a restitution lawyer based in New York who represents clients in dozens of claims in Germany, said in an interview with Yated.
“Legislation has long been needed in Germany that would eliminate technical defenses that put the burden of proof on survivors or their heirs. Due to “much confusion and ambiguity in the law,” he said, “German museums and private collectors have been successful in frustrating and derailing claims.”
‘THIS IS WHERE THE CRIME BEGAN’
“They know what’s been stolen,” World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder told AP after leading a conference in Berlin on the subject of looted art. “And what they’ve been doing is turning a blind eye.”
He said Germany had not addressed the complicity of museums in holding onto Nazi-stolen valuables. At least 6,000 German museums are owned or partially owned by the German government. According to Jewish Claims Conference estimates, 20,000 looted items are still on display in these institutions.
Lauder welcomed the legislation as “evidence of good faith.” He noted that Germany had already negotiated compensation on “the difficult issues of slave labor, stolen bank deposits and insurance policies,” and that the country should deal with Nazi-looted art in the same comprehensive manner.
Nazi-looted art still hangs in German museums, government offices and private collections and the country’s legislation needs to be changed in order to facilitate their return, he said.
“The onus should be on museums, not the victims of Nazi plundering, to search their collections for stolen works and track down their rightful owners.”
“Austria has done this. France and Holland have made steps in this direction. The UK has a commission that is available to examine claims and advise the government on restitution,” said Lauder, adding, “But this is Germany, where the crime began. More is required.”
Looted art held by public institutions and museums falls under a set of international rules called the Washington Principles, which are not bound to a statute of limitations.
In 1998, Germany, along with 43 other countries, signed that accord, agreeing to take measures to restitute and compensate for the damage caused by the wholesale looting of art owned by Jews under the Third Reich. But the country has not lived up to its commitment, Lauder said.
GURLITT SCANDAL, A PUBLIC RELATIONS FIASCO
The proposed legislation comes in response to harsh criticism surrounding the government’s bungled treatment of the “Gurlitt scandal.”
Hundreds of artworks stashed in the Munich home of Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of an art dealer who collected and sold artwork for the Nazis during World War II, were discovered by German authorities in 2012. The affair was hushed up for almost two years while police investigated Gurlitt for tax evasion.
Then a German magazine broke the story, triggering an avalanche of criticism against Germany for not making the discovery public, and posting the paintings online where those that were stolen could be identified.
The incident had the impact of rolling back Holocaust history for many Germans, those uneducated about this shameful period as well as older Germans who prefer not to remember.
Criticism by world powers increased a few weeks ago, after a fresh scandal erupted following media reports that Nazi-looted paintings hang on the walls of the German Parliament itself.
Observers say the new restitution law will face some resistance in the German parliament, as Germans tend to feel they have done all that is required of them in squaring accounts with victims and survivors.
Germany prides itself in having taking the lead in Holocaust restitution in Europe, working out agreements to return or compensate stolen real estate, pensions and insurance policies, and reaching a slave labor settlement with survivors after years of grueling negations.
But critics say the quest on Germany’s part was not so much for justice as it was for legal peace from U.S. lawsuits.
Deborah Sturman, a key litigator in the first lawsuits in U.S. courts for Holocaust slave labor victims, asserts in Holocaust Restitution: Perspectives on the Litigation and Its Legacy, that “German industry fought back with all its might” (p. 222) against the U.S. lawsuits and during the negotiations for slave labor restitution. In the end, she writes, it was the drive to stop the lawsuits in the U.S. courts at the lowest cost possible that fueled German willingness to reach a settlement.
Looted art, worth billions cumulatively, was not a part of these settlements. Germany agreed to tackle art restitution separately with the Washington and the Joint Declarations of 1998 and 1999. In 2003 it set up the “Limbach Commission” to adjudicate Nazi-era claims and restitution conflicts regarding stolen art and other valuables.
But the Commission, staffed by esteemed legal experts and historians, has heard only a handful of cases. Its recommendations, while generally adopted by German courts, are non-binding and parties can simply choose not to appear.
In the 7 or so cases the Limbach Commission has heard, it has ruled in favor of Holocaust claimants – a fact that is likely deterring German museums and private individuals accused of holding stolen art from submitting to the Commission’s jurisdiction.
THE TELLTALLE NAZI LEDGERS
In retrospect, had attorneys engaged in restitution settlements with the Germans in the late 1990s understood the magnitude of the art plunder, the systematic way in which it was carried out — and the records the Nazis themselves kept of the plundered paintings and artwork, they might have insisted on including these crimes in the class action lawsuits and settlements.
But much of the meticulous history surrounding the plundered art was not well known at the time. It gradually came to light in the late 1990’s with the discovery and online publishing in England of two massive ledgers that the Nazis created in 1941-1942, to catalogue the confiscation and extortion of truckloads of artworks.
Ironically, thanks to the German passion for thoroughness, this inventory tells the sinister history behind the disappearance of thousands of works of modern art, termed “degenerate art,” (“Entartete Kunst,”) by the Nazis, who asserted it would corrupt the Germany people.
The Nazi ledgers list reams of artworks torn from museum walls and public institutions, some of which were considered “decadent” merely because the artists were Jews. The ledgers containing the inventory of stolen artworks also list their fates. Some are marked “X” for destroyed, while others list a price and a buyer.
Historians point out that the Nazis were experts in duplicity, in painting heinous crimes with legal-sounding jargon: “Resettlement” was code for deportation to death camps, “arbit macht frei” meant “we will work you to death.”
Likewise, listing “a price and a buyer” is often intended to disguise extortion, historians say. 70 years later, this duplicity is the cause of intense controversy between German museum officials and Holocaust survivors wrangling over ownership of the artwork.
In legal hearings to determine whether a particular painting was stolen or legitimately purchased from its Jewish owners, German officials offer Nazi correspondence attesting to the transaction. Survivors and their heirs dismiss Nazi-era letters and documents as worthless, nothing more than a legal veneer to cover up forced sales. The very notion of using Nazi “evidence” to support claims of honest transactions is absurd, they say.
HITLER’S WAR STARTED LONG BEFORE KRISTALLNACHT
From the moment Hitler took power in 1933, long before Kristallnacht, Nazi persecutions against German Jewry were launched, rapidly escalating with each passing month.
With the Aryanization of Jewish businesses and property and the ejection of German Jews from all the professions, and from all public offices and institutions, Jews faced economic disaster. Violent street attacks against Jews in broad daylight became commonplace.
In that climate of terror, with their lives and their family’s lives in the crosshairs, Jews turned over the businesses and property to Nazis and their agents for well below their value. Desperate to raise the exorbitant sums it cost to flee the country, many sold everything they had. Some fled for their lives without managing even a forced sale.
Realizing the artwork they pillaged was valued at fabulous amounts, the Nazis hired art dealers to sell some of the degenerate art to foreign dealers for the purpose of enriching the Third Reich.
At some point, the plunder of “degenerate art” was channeled into beefing up the private art collections of top echelon Nazis like Herman Goring, noted attorney Mel Urbach.
“It’s as if these barbarians sought to prove their membership in the human race by championing art and culture,” he said. “Hitler himself was a failed artist. From his rantings in his book Mein Kampf, one reads of the vicious enmity he harbored toward the Jews who he believed were on the board of the art university that rejected him, and by extension abhorred all Jews and determined to annihilate them.”
The devotion to world-famous and fabulously expensive art is deeply embedded in German culture. Even as the country sees itself as Europe’s moral compass, it has perversely and hypocritically insisted on holding onto property it knows is stolen.
Passing the new restitution bill will require breaking out of that mindset.
The proposed legislation was drawn up by Winfried Bausback, the Bavarian justice minister, who last week presented it to the upper house of the German Parliament, which represents Germany’s 16 states.
“It cannot be that victims of the Nazi regime are able to prove that, for example, a picture that belonged to their father or grandfather was stolen by the Nazis, then they are met with a shrugging of the shoulders and a ‘Sorry, but the statute of limitations has expired,’” said Bausback, according to a New York Times article.
The proposal must clear committees in the upper house and then win approval from both Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government and the lower house of Parliament.
Monika Grutters, Germany’s culture minister, endorsed the bill, telling lawmakers it was “unbearable that there is still Nazi-looted art in German museums.” If the law wins a broad majority in parliament, it could become law before the summer recess, she said.
‘BAD FAITH’ CLAUSE AN OBSTACLE FOR SURVIVORS’ FAMILIES
Some noted hurdles still facing Holocaust claimants even if the bill does become law. “Any claimant trying to recover lost heirlooms would still need documentation showing ‘bad faith’ on the part of the acquirer,” the Wall Street Journal noted.
In other words, original owners of artwork, books, Judaica and other heirlooms, would have to prove that the current holders suspected it was stolen but failed to verify that before taking possession of it.
That would be very difficult if not impossible to prove in most cases, since the incriminating documents admitting these suspicions would likely be in possession of the party holding the loot.
Nevertheless, advocates of the new law welcomed the proposed changes as an important step in helping to bring justice and closure to the victims of the Nazis.
“Returning heirlooms seized from victims under terror, whether art, religious objects, books or other valuables, is crucial to restoring to their descendants a tiny part of a lost legacy,” Urbach said. “12 years of systematic looting, first across Germany than all of Europe. 12 years of persecution and slaughter. No accolades go to Germany for this long-overdue move. It is the very least they can do.”