Why Germany's Nazi Art Seizure Was Wrong

In serving the plundered art worth hundreds of millions, historical justice is being served. But it comes at the expense of legal rectitude.

Franz Marc's 1911 "Horses in landscape", one of the 1,280 Gurlitt artworks
Franz Marc's 1911 "Horses in landscape", one of the 1,280 Gurlitt artworks
Heribert Prantl

Cornelius Gurlitt, the 81-year-old art collector who was discovered to have stashed away a unique collection of modern masterpieces looted by the Nazis, has signalled that he will return the artworks to descendants of their original Jewish owners.

MUNICH — The seizing of the 1,280 Gurlitt artworks by Augsburg’s district attorney two years ago was a legal error — a major, and in some ways incomprehensible error. Reading the dryly ambitious search-and-seize request that made it possible doesn't help the case.

The charges were tax-related — and to deal with this minor case the authorities moved in on a collection of art valued in the hundreds of millions of euros. The reaction was completely out of proportion, bordering on the scandalous. But at the same time, the seizure itself was a blessing in the sense that it led to fantastic discovery and revelation: A bad application of the law yielded the truth about the fate of a genuine cultural treasure.

Before their dubious seizure, the pictures were dead. Now with the research into their provenance, they're talking. They talk about their past, where and in whose premises they hung. They tell the tale of forced sale, of plunder. The artworks are imbued with the invisible signs of Nazi crimes, but also the very visible ones of having been hoarded and hidden.

List of looted artworks — Source: National Archives Washington

Law has limits

Many of the seized works were the objects of greed and avarice. They once adorned the salons of Nazi bosses and the stockrooms of Nazi-era art dealers, as their rightful owners disappeared into concentration camps. In a moment in time when the last human witnesses are dying, when memory thus risks expiring, the future of Holocaust remembrance lies very much among objects, with pictures such as these.

The pictures are silent witnesses of Nazi crimes, and prompt renewed discussion of those crimes. When trying to analyze the legal ownership of these pictures, we discover how difficult it is for the heirs of Nazi victims to get back the belongings wrongfully taken from their grandparents. The law books aren’t up to handling the repair of acts of political perversion.

Many of the Gurlitt pictures represent injustice itself. And yet they should not have been seized: The law isn’t about getting pictures to talk. The law is only there to ascertain guilt and mete out punishment.

Cornelius Gurlitt was not directly responsible for the crimes associated with the pictures: He inherited the art, which is not illegal. The value of the art adds up to at least 10,000 times the amount of his alleged tax issue — 9,000 euros. In this sense, Gurlitt has suffered an injustice.

But of course the people to whom Gurlitt’s pictures formerly belonged suffered far greater injustice. It can’t be compared. Maybe the story is a ruse of history that brings us eyeball-to-eyeball with the very limits of justice and the law.

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Migrant Lives

The Other Scandal At The Poland-Belarus Border: Where's The UN?

The United Nations, UNICEF, Red Cross and other international humanitarian organizations seems to be trying to reach the Polish-Belarusian border, where Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko is creating a refugee crisis on purpose.

Migrants in Michalowo, Belarus, next to the border with Poland.

Wojciech Czuchnowski

WARSAW — There is no doubt that the refugees crossing the Belarusian border with Poland — and by extension reaching the European Union — were shepherded through by the regime of Alexander Lukashenko. There is more than enough evidence that this is an organized action of the dictator using a network of intermediaries stretching from Africa and the Middle East. But that is not all.

The Belarusian regime has made no secret that its services are guiding refugees to the Polish border, literally pushing them onto (and often, through) the wires.

It can be seen in films made available to the media by... Belarusian border guards and Lukashenko's official information agencies.

Tactics of a strongman

Refugees are not led to the border by "pretend soldiers" in uniforms from a military collectibles store. These are regular formations commanded by state authorities. Their actions violate all rules of peaceful coexistence and humanitarianism to which Belarus has committed itself as a state.

Belarus is dismissed by the "rest of the world" as a hopeless case of a bizarre (although, in the last year, increasingly brutal) dictatorship. But it still formally belongs to a whole range of organizations whose principles it violates every day on the border with Poland.

Indeed, Belarus is a part of the United Nations (it is even listed as a founding state in its declaration), it belongs to the UNICEF, to the International Committee of the Red Cross, and even to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Photo of Polish soldiers setting up a barbed wire fence in the Border Zone near Krynki, Belarus

Polish soldiers set up a barbed wire fence in the Border Zone near Krynki, Belarus

Maciej Luczniewski/ZUMA

Lukashenko would never challenge the Red Cross

Each of these entities has specialized bureaus whose task is to intervene wherever conventions and human rights are violated. Each of these organizations should have sent their observers and representatives to the conflict area long ago — and without asking Belarus for permission. They should be operating on both sides of the border, as their presence would certainly make it more difficult to break the law.

An incomprehensible absence

Neither the leader of Poland's ruling party Jaroslaw Kaczyński nor even Lukashenko would dare to keep the UN, UNICEF, OSCE or the Red Cross out of their countries.

In recent weeks, the services of one UN state (Belarus) have been regularly violating the border of another UN state (Poland). In the nearby forests, children are being pushed around and people are dying. Despite all of this, none of the international organizations seems to be trying to reach the border nor taking any kind of action required by their responsibilities.

Their absence in such a critical time and place is completely incomprehensible, and their lack of action raises questions about the use of international treaties and organizations created to protect them.

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