When the world gets closer.

We help you see farther.

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter.

Already a subscriber? Log in .

You've reached your limit of one free article.

Get unlimited access to Worldcrunch

You can cancel anytime .


Exclusive International news coverage

Ad-free experience NEW

Weekly digital Magazine NEW

9 daily & weekly Newsletters

Access to Worldcrunch archives

Free trial

30-days free access, then $2.90
per month.

Annual Access BEST VALUE

$19.90 per year, save $14.90 compared to monthly billing.save $14.90.

Subscribe to Worldcrunch

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.

[rebelmouse-image 27087910 alt="""" original_size="364x599" expand=1]

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.

You've reached your limit of free articles.

To read the full story, start your free trial today.

Get unlimited access. Cancel anytime.

Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.

Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries.

FOCUS: Israel-Palestine War

BDS And Us: Gaza's Toll Multiplies Boycotts Of Israel And Its Allies — Seinfeld Included

In Egypt and elsewhere in the region and the world, families and movements are mobilizing against companies that support Israel's war on Gaza. The power of the people lies in their control as consumers — and the list of companies and brands to boycott grows longer.

A campaign poster with the photo of a burger with blood coming out of it with text reading "You Kill" and the Burger King logo

A campaign poster to boycott Burger King in Bangkok, Malü

Matt Hunt/ZUMA
Mohammed Hamama

CAIRO — Ali Al-Din’s logic is simple and straightforward: “If you buy a can (of soda), you'll get the bullet too...”

Those bullets are the ones killing the children of Gaza every day, and the can he refuses to buy is “kanzaya” – the popular Egyptian soft drink. It is just one of a long list of products he had the habit of consuming. Ali is nine years old.

For the latest news & views from every corner of the world, Worldcrunch Today is the only truly international newsletter. Sign up here.

The clarity and simplicity of this logic has pushed Ali Al-Din to boycott all the products on the lists people are circulating of companies that have supported Israel since the attacks on Gaza began in October. His mother, Heba, points out that her son took responsibility for overseeing the boycott in their home.

A few days ago, he saw a can of “Pyrosol” insecticide, but he thought it was one of the products of the “Raid” company that was on the boycott’s lists. He warned his mother that this product was on the boycott list, but she explained that the two products were different. Ali al-Din and his younger brother also abstained from eating any food from McDonald's. “They love McDonald’s very much,” his mother says. “But they refuse.”

Keep reading...Show less

The latest