Stash Of Nazi-Stolen Art Is About More Than Just Billions

A German perspective on the mind-boggling modern art discovery this week in Munich - one more sign that the Nazi past is fading into history.

Chagall's "The Fiddler." Other works of the French Jewish artist were among those found in Munich.
Chagall's "The Fiddler." Other works of the French Jewish artist were among those found in Munich.
Thomas Steinfeld

MUNICH – The 1,500 artworks found this week in Munich and seized by the authorities have been described as a “rediscovered treasure.” It is an apt description.

By all accounts, there is a dramatic story behind this historic cache of art missing since the Third Reich, a tale of a modern-day lair and an eccentric old man. It has also been reported that a pair of hardy policemen stumbled upon the trail that led to this buried treasure, whose value is quite simply immeasurable. A figure of one billion euros is being thrown around, but as only a very small number of the works have been identified, the value could turn out to climb far higher.

Germany has made efforts to compensate many of those who had their property confiscated during the Third Reich. The government has tried to right the wrongs when it comes to the Prussian manors and “Aryanized” department stores, pension claims and forced labor. Although those affected know that there can be no true compensation for the pain inflicted, the financial payments have been a gesture towards reconciliation. History has largely done its work and time has passed, more than the 60 years that Sir Walter Scott once claimed to be the ideal interval for a historical novel.

However, when it comes to art the rules are different. Every demand for the restitution of an artwork that was stolen or confiscated during the Third Reich has the potential for scandal. That is because every work of art is unique and irreplaceable and, ironically, art can never truly be owned, a peculiarity that makes it all the more desirable.

But it is also simply because the value of artworks, especially modern art, has increased dramatically over the last 40 years. And the fact that the history of modern art is so closely tied to the history of Jewish artists and art dealers makes this betrayal all the more shameful.

A Van Gogh self-portrait is auctioned in Switzerland in 1939. It was one of the works branded as Degenerate art by the Nazis, confiscated and sold for $40,000.

Highly complex legal situation

A treasure has been found in Munich and the authorities seem to have cast themselves as its new protectors. This has led Berlin art lawyer Peter Raue to demand that a complete list of the discovered works be published immediately. The authorities have replied that they are in the middle of an ongoing trial and therefore cannot reveal the individual works involved.

It sounds like there is another chapter still to come in this story. But the authorities’ approach is correct, as the legal situation is highly complex. Some of the artworks discovered in this cache were not taken from private owners. They come from the “Degenerate Art” exhibition organized by the Third Reich with the aim of turning the German people against modern art movements that were considered un-German or Jewish Bolshevist. This involved taking exhibits from many museums, so the works did not belong to artists, art dealers or private collectors.

More than a treasure

The Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-confiscated Art are binding for museums but not for private owners. Under certain circumstances, the latter can legally own confiscated artworks. Therefore it is not only 1,500 paintings that have been discovered, but also the potential for hundreds or even thousands of legal battles, which could stretch out for decades.

Whether the discovery in Munich came about by chance or was the result of a tip-off, it represents far more than a few precious paintings. It is a story of the skyrocketing value of art in a time of increasing financial prosperity. It is a story of the shameful treatment of Jewish artists, art dealers and collectors, which will not be forgotten. It is a story of the fundamental distinction between public and private ownership. And it is a story of the Third Reich, a period that is just now beginning to fade into history.

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Erdogan And Boris Johnson: A New Global Power Duo?

As Turkey fears the EU closing ranks over defense, Turkish President Erdogan is looking to Boris Johnson as a post-Brexit ally, especially as Angela Merkel steps aside. This could undermine the deal where Ankara limits refugee entry into Europe, and other dossiers too.

Johnson and Erdogan in NYC on Sept. 20

Carolina Drüten and Gregor Schwung


BERLIN — According to the Elysée Palace, the French presidency "can't understand" why Turkey would overreact, since the defense pact that France recently signed in Paris with Greece is not aimed at Ankara. The agreement covers billions of euros' worth of military equipment, and the two countries have committed to come to each other's aid if they are attacked.

Although Paris denies this, it is difficult to see the agreement as anything other than a message, perhaps even a provocation, targeted at Turkey.

Officially, the Turkish government is unruffled, saying the pact doesn't represent a military threat. But the symbolism is clear: with the U.S., UK and Australia recently announcing the Aukus security pact, Ankara fears the EU may be closing ranks when it comes to all military issues.

What will Aukus mean for NATO?

Turkey has long felt left out in the cold, at odds with the European Union over a number of issues. Yet now President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is setting his sights on another country, which also wants to become more independent from Europe: the UK.

Europe's approach to security and defense is changing dramatically. Over the past few months, while the U.S. was negotiating the Aukus pact with Britain and Australia behind the EU's back, a submarine deal between Australia and France, which would have been worth billions, was scrapped.

The EU is happy to keep Erdogan waiting

Officially, Turkey is keeping its cards close to its chest. Addressing foreign journalists in Istanbul, Erdogan's chief advisor Ibrahim Kalin said the country was not involved in Aukus, but they hope it doesn't have a negative impact on NATO. However, the agreement will have a significant effect on Turkey.

"Before Aukus, the Turks thought that the U.S. would prevent the EU from adopting a defense policy that was independent of NATO," says Sinan Ülgen, an expert on Turkey at the Brussels think tank Carnegie Europe. "Now they are afraid that Washington may make concessions for France, which could change things."

Macron sees post-Merkel power vacuum

Turkey's concerns may well prove to be justified. Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel always argued for closer collaboration with Turkey, partly because it is an important trading partner and partly because it has a direct influence on the influx of migrants from Asia and the Middle East to Europe.

Merkel consistently thwarted France's plans for a stricter approach from Brussels towards Turkey, and she never supported Emmanuel Macron's ideas about greater strategic autonomy for countries within the EU.

But now she that she's leaving office, Macron is keen to make the most of the power vacuum Merkel will leave behind. The prospect of France's growing influence is "not especially good news for Turkey," says Ian Lesser, vice president of the think tank German Marshall Fund.

Ankara fears the defense pact between France and Greece could be a sign of what is to come. According to a statement from the Turkish Foreign Ministry, the agreement is aimed "at NATO member Turkey" and is damaging to the alliance. Observers also assume the agreement means that France is supporting Greece's claims to certain territories in the Mediterranean which remain disputed under international law, with Turkey's own sovereignty claims.

Paris is a close ally of Athens. In the summer of 2020, Greece and Turkey were poised on the threshold of a military conflict in the eastern Mediterranean. Since then, Athens has ordered 24 Rafale fighter jets from France, and the new pact includes a deal for France to supply them with three frigates.

Photo of French President Emmanuel Macron and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on September 27 in Paris

French President Emmanuel Macron and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on September 27 in Paris

Sadak Souici/Le Pictorium Agency/ZUMA

Erdogan’s EU wish list

It's not the first time that Ankara has felt snubbed by the EU. Since Donald Trump left the White House, Turkey has been making a considerable effort to improve relations with Brussels. "The situation in the eastern Mediterranean is peaceful and the migrant problem is under control," says Kalin. Now it is "high time" that Europe does something for Turkey.

Erdogan's wish list is extensive: making it easier for Turks to get EU visas, renegotiating the refugee deal, making more funds available to Turkey as it continues the process of joining the EU, and moderniszing the customs union. But there is no movement on any of these issues in Brussels. They're happy to keep Erdogan waiting.

Britain consistently supported Turkey's ambition to join the EU

Now he is starting to look elsewhere. At the UN summit in September, Erdogan had a meeting with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the recently opened Turkish House in New York. Kalin says it was a "very good meeting" and that the two countries are "closely allied strategic partners." He says they plan to work together more closely on trade, but with a particular focus on defense.

 Turkey's second largest export market

The groundwork for collaboration was already in place. Britain consistently supported Turkey's ambition to join the EU, and gave an ultimate proof of friendship after the failed coup in 2016. Unlike other European capitals, London reacted quickly, calling the coup an "attack on Turkish democracy," and its government has generally held back in its criticism of Turkey.

At the end of last year, Johnson and Erdogan signed a new free trade agreement, which will govern commerce between the two countries post-Brexit. Erdogan has called it "the most important treaty for Turkey since the customs agreement with the EU in 1995."

After Germany, Britain is Turkey's second largest export market. "Turkey now has the opportunity to build a new partnership with the United Kingdom and it must make the most of it," says economist Ali Kücükcolak from the Istanbul Commerce University.

Erdogan is well aware of this, as Turkey is in desperate need of an economic boost. Inflation currently stands at 19%, and the currency's value is consistently falling. Turks are feeling the impact on their daily lives: food and rent are becoming increasingly expensive, while salaries remain unchanged.

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