Presentation of the official delegation of Germany at the Vilnius Forum
Dr. Tono Eitel, German Ambassador to Lithuania
3-5 October 2000
Germany sent an official delegation led by Tono Eitel to the Vilnius International Forum on Holocaust-Era Looted Assets who gave the presentation, 'Implementation of the Principles of the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets in relation to Nazi-confiscated Art in the Federal Republic of Germany', set out below.
All countries present at the Forum agreed the Final Declaration.
In accordance with the requirements of the Allied restitution provisions, the Federal Act on Restitution and the Federal Indemnification Act, the Federal Republic of Germany fulfilled merited claims on the grounds of confiscation of works of art by the Nazi regime soon after WW II, and set up the necessary procedures and institutions for enabling persons entitled to such indemnification to enforce their claims vis-¹-vis other parties liable to restitution. The claims primarily arose to those who immediately suffered damage and their legal successors or, in the case of Jewish assets, to the successor organizations established in the Western zones and Berlin. The material restitution was effected either on a case-to-case basis or by global settlement. The restitution law and the general civil law of the Federal Republic of Germany thus finally and comprehensively provide for issues of restitution and indemnification of Nazi-confiscated art, especially from Jewish property.
In the German Democratic Republic (GDR) the compensation pursuant to Allied law of wrongs perpetrated under National Socialism never went beyond a rudimentary stage. In the course of German reunification, the Federal Republic of Germany has undertaken to apply the above-mentioned principles of the restitution and indemnification law also for the former GDR. There, too, Nazi-confiscated art has been and still is returned or indemnified in accordance with the provisions of the Vermögensgesetz (Property Settlement Act) and the NS-Verfolgtenentschädigungsgesetz (Federal Indemnification Act concerning persons who suffered damage at the hands of the National Socialist regime). Thanks to the global filing of claims on the part of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany Inc. (JCC) in its capacity as today's association of successor organizations claims situated in the accession area with regard to cultural property of Jewish parties having suffered loss have been filed. As formerly in the West German Laender, material indemnification on a case-to-case basis was sought; where this was not possible, compensation was effected by global settlement.
Irrespective of such material compensation, the Federal Republic of Germany declared its readiness once again at the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets on 3 December 1 998 to look for and identify further Nazi-confiscated cultural assets in accordance with the principles adopted there in so far as the legal and factual possibilities made provision for it to do so and, if necessary, to take the necessary steps in order to find an equitable and fair solution.
Immediately after the Conference in Washington, the Federal Republic of German launched a process of communication between the Federal Government, the Laender and the local authorities on the application of the principles adopted in Washington and began to work on a relevant joint statement. The aim of these endeavors consisted in implementing the principles of Washington, illustrating them as a national task on the one hand and to make use of the structures and procedures of the federal system for this purpose on the other.
The decision taken by the Foundation Committee of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Committee on 4 June 1999 which was supported by the Federal Government and the Laender was the first visible sign that this procedure was a success. It was also a forward-pointing sign for all public collections in Germany. This decision authorized the Chairman of the Foundation to seek mutually agreeable solutions with legitimate heirs of Nazi victims including the handover of works of art, regardless of whether this was the compulsory consequence of a legal provision.
Meanwhile, the Foundation of Prussian Cultural Heritage has returned a number of notable works of art (including drawings by Vincent van Gogh, Caspar David Friedrich and Otto Müller as well as paintings by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Hans von Marees).
Other public museums followed this example (such as Wallraf-Richartz Museum / Museum Ludwig of the City of Cologne with a painting by Otto Müller, the Neue Pinakothek in Munich with a tryptichon by Leopold von Kalckreuth). Privately owned collections (such as Emden Art Museum with another painting by Otto Müller) were also returned, some of this happened out of the limelight in a most unspectacular way. The Federal Government, too, has returned works of art, namely a painting by Adolph von Menzel and another painting by Oswald Achenbach. In connection with these returns, names of Jewish art collectors and patrons such as Silberberg or Littmann (formerly Breslau) who had slipped into oblivion for more than 50 years resurfaced.
Preparations are currently underway to make further returns.
After the Washington Conference, the Federal Government Commissioner for Cultural Affairs and the Media addressed the Ministers of the Laender, the national associations of local authorities and the associations of museums, libraries and archives in a number of letters, requesting them:
1. to apply the principles adopted at the Washington Conference available to all public collections,
2. to intensify all endeavors to identify and disclose any still unidentified works of art that have not been returned to their former Jewish owners in their inventory of public collections and
3. to conduct detailed investigations into the acquisition procedure using inventory and other archive documents (if necessary, beyond the period between 1933 and 1945).
Furthermore, the Federal Government Commissioner together with the Cultural Foundation of the Laender and the Federation of German Museums made a direct appeal to publicly-owned museums to investigate whether they were in possession of any works of art that were confiscated from their Jewish owners during the Nazi regime.
With a joint "Statement by the Federal Government, the Laender and the National Associations of Local Authorities on the Tracing and Return of Nazi-Confiscated Works of Art, Especially from Jewish Property" of 14 December 1999, the relevant local authorities of the Federal Republic of Germany took up the principles of the Washington Conference on Nazi-Confiscated Art and implemented them.
With this statement, the institutions mentioned above have displayed their willingness to return any Nazi-confiscated art that can be allocated to certain persons who suffered damage, to the legitimate owners or their heirs after investigating each individual case. Furthermore, all public institutions in the Federal Republic of Germany are called upon to examine the works of art in their possession at their own initiative and to disclose any acquisition procedures that are unclear or "suspicious". The Federal Government, the Laender and the local authorities also undertook with their Statement to bring their influence to bear on the competent bodies of the state-owned museums, libraries and archives along these lines. Furthermore, privately organized facilities and private persons have also been called upon to abide by these principles and to act accordingly.
In order to assist the German public institutions to continue the search they launched in the past for Nazi-Confiscated art, particularly Jewish property, a task force consisting of representatives of the Federal Government, the Laender and local authorities are drawing up a so-called recommendation in cooperation with experts of museums, libraries and archives. This is intended to provide recommendations on the effective search for Nazi-confiscated art that has not yet been identified and to provide assistance in preparing decisions. The institutions concerned will themselves continue to be responsible for finding a solution which will have to be found taking the circumstances of each individual case into consideration.
The idea of providing the institutions with a "recommendation" of this kind sprang from a hearing held by the Federal Government Commissioner for Cultural Affairs and the Media in February of this year in which representatives of the Laender and local authorities as well as experts of museums, libraries, archives, art dealing, historians and "art detectives" were involved.
Another important component of the catalogue of measures aimed at implementing the Washington principles is the German Internet Web site announced in the joint statement. The Internet-Web site www.LostArt.de has been available since April of this year. It is operated by the Coordination Agency of the Laender for the Return of Art in Magdeburg. This agency will be expanding its Internet project in future (probably from January 2001) under the new designation Coordination Agency for Lost Art with considerable financial support from the Federal Government. It is to give German institutions the opportunity to publish globally the works of art they hold in their possession which are suspected of being or cannot be ruled out as being Nazi-confiscated objects on the one hand. On the other hand, it also is planned to enable those persecuted by the Nazis and their heirs to "advertise their search" publicly for the works of art they are looking for. This way it will be easier to compare information that is available, simplifying the search particularly for persons who have suffered damage.
In the pilot phase of the Internet project that was launched back in April, data is published on art originating from the property of the German Empire. This includes objects that Hitler collected for a museum he planned to set up in Linz. These objects were the focus of provenance investigations for many decades, which were conducted under Allied sovereignty initially, and later by trust management. In order to rule out that these objects did not include Nazi-confiscated works of art that were hitherto undiscovered and to give hitherto unidentified claimants the opportunity to file claims they had not sought to enforce before, the Federal Government is making use of the possibility to publish information on the Internet. The Web site database is updated continually and is supplemented, inter alia, by photographs of the individual works of art.
In doing so, the Federal Government is endeavoring to the best of its ability to support the attempts made by the former owners or their heirs or legal successors to reclaim their property.
The Federal Government has also set up a working unit which subjects art emanating from the former property of the German Empire to a renewed investigation of origin.
The explosiveness of our issue had also been underestimated in Germany up to a few years ago. People were inclined to rely on the assumption that all traces had been investigated exhaustively in connection with the restitution and indemnification proceedings. Everybody here present should be aware that legal instruments are only suitable up to a point when an attempt is made to find the most fair and equitable solution possible in individual cases. In the past few years, there has been a tangible increase in the awareness of competent people at museums, libraries and archives vis-¹-vis this issue. The change in attitude can be attributed to new findings that are the result of ongoing international discussions about the consequences of the atrocities of holocaust, war and persecution which received new impetus from the Conference in Washington, to more intense research in the field of the history of art and last but not least to the new generations of Germany who are keen to obtain an objective grasp of their historical legacy.
The Federal Republic of Germany is aware of its historical and moral responsibility to achieve clarification swiftly yet cautiously, in order to administer justice in each individual case to those who are the genuine claimants.
Vilnius International Forum on Holocaust-Era Looted Cultural Assets Website, accessed 27 November 2002. The website no longer exists (20 July 2007).