East German church recovers stained-glass windows from Russia

International Herald Tribune 21 December 2008
By Judy Dempsey

The last set of windows returned by Russia to the Maienkirche after a more than 60-year exile in Russia.

FRANKFURT AN DER ODER: This drab Eastern German city, which was almost completely destroyed during the last days of World War II, boasts the most spectacular medieval stained glass windows that any mayor could dream of showing, especially during Christmas festivities.

The windows have finally been returned to their home in the Marienkirche, or Church of Our Lady, after a more than 60-year exile in Russia. At 20 meters tall, or 65 feet, they depict scenes from the Old Testament in fantastically powerful images and strong colors.

In an unusual gesture, the Russian government returned the last of 117 glass panes to Frankfurt an der Oder last month, ending a long diplomatic effort by both the local and the federal government. "It is a further sign of reconciliation and the friendship between our countries," Bernd Neumann, the German culture minister, said during the ceremony marking the windows' return.

These last few windows, once restored, can now be built back into the restored Marienkirche, from where they had been taken by German curators just before 1945, when the 700-year-old church was destroyed as the Red Army advanced. They were brought for safekeeping to the Neue Palais in Potsdam, where Soviet troops confiscated them as booty.

In contrast to the Marienkirche windows, the vast majority of the 2.3 million cultural items that the Red Army took during its advance through Germany in 1945 still remain in Russia, including paintings and libraries, porcelain and sculptures. 

Stalin regarded the confiscated art not only as a way to strip Germany of part of its cultural identity but as the price to pay for the unimaginable devastation committed by the German Army in Russia during the war. The Russian government still uses this argument to retain the vast majority of the art.

"The issue of looted art is often treated in the media as one in which it is the Russians who owe a debt," Vladimir Kotenev, the Russian ambassador to Germany, said at the ceremony to celebrate the Marienkirche windows' return. "It is often carelessly, or intentionally, forgotten that during the raids of the Wehrmacht, many Russian museums were systematically plundered."

In April 1998, the Russian Parliament even passed a law declaring that "cultural valuables translocated to the U.S.S.R. after World War II" were the property of the Russian Federation. The only exceptions was property owned by the Roman Catholic Church, Jews or political victims who had suffered under fascism.

Mayor Martin Patzelt of Frankfurt an der Oder said the past was difficult to overcome.

"Russia's unwillingness to return the art shows just how deeply complicated is the relationship between Germany and Russia, even when it comes to art," he said. "I can understand sometimes why Russia has been so reluctant to return the art. It is about the destruction wrought by German troops in Russia during World War II."

Ever since the late 1940s, successive German governments had been trying to persuade the Russian authorities to return the war booty, which the Germans call Beutekunst, or looted art.

"It was almost impossible to find out what had become of these cultural items," said Britta Kaiser-Schuster, project leader of the German-Russian Museums' Dialogue. This independent foundation, established in 2005 and supported by 80 German museums whose art may be held by Russia museums, works with its Russian counterparts in an attempt to examine the storage depots, identify the works of art held there and improve cooperation.

"The only time Moscow agreed to give back any items to museums in any great number was in 1958, but that was to the museums in East Berlin," Kaiser-Schuster said. "Maybe it was because the Soviet Union supported the East German Communist regime's attempts to create its own cultural identity vis-à-vis West Germany. Who knows the real reason?"

In the case of the Marienkirche's windows, it had been assumed that the 117 stained-glass panes had been destroyed, lost or stolen. Sandra Meinung, who is now responsible for restoring the windows, said that during the 1980s the authorities in Frankfurt an der Oder had made several inquiries with few results.

Then in 1991, as the Soviet Union was collapsing and Germany was reunited, a Russian art historian discovered 111 panels packed away in a storage depot belonging to the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. That discovery triggered extensive diplomatic efforts by the Lutheran community in Frankfurt an der Oder.

But the Kremlin was in no rush to return the panels, or indeed any other cultural items. It was not until 2002 that the first of the 111 panes were returned to the Marienkirche - after the Parliament sanctioned their return. German diplomats said it was a gesture by Russian president at the time, Vladimir Putin, who was making his first official visit to Germany.
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