Austria commemorates this year its annexation to Nazi Germany, as German troops crossed the Austrian border on March 12, 1938. This was not only the end of Austria as an independent state but also the beginning of terror, theft and slaughter, especially for its Jewish citizens. The murderous looting culminated in the November pogrom (“Reichskristallnacht”), later becoming more systematic (“Arisierung”) since the state wanted a monopoly on this massive raid.
As the Third Reich was finally on the verge of collapsing, a second wave of organized looting began, at the hands of the advancing Red Army. Much which the Nazis had stolen from more than 20 European capitals such as Paris, Brussels, Vienna, The Hague or Belgrade fell into the hands of the Soviets. Precious pieces of art, entire libraries and millions of documents were shipped as “trophies” to Moscow. Among these items were German and Austrian Judaica still being held in Russia.
In contrast to the much more spectacular art restitution cases, restitution of documents is a rare phenomenon, which nonetheless seems to be governed by power relations. Jacques Derrida’s analysis on how archons keep information physically and politically “in place” has not lost its actuality. In 1945 the Special Archive (“Osobyi Arkhiv”), built by German and Austrian war prisoners, was established by the Soviet intelligence services within the Interior Ministry (NKVD). It served as a depot for all looted foreign documents which fell into the hands of the Soviet Army during World War II.
At first this archive was only used by the NKVD (later KGB) itself, for identifying enemies and traitors, therefore it remained top secret until 1990. In 1992 it was finally opened to the public for research, while in 1999 it was integrated into the Russian State Military Archive. The core of the collection includes official records of the Nazi regime, especially from the security forces, but also records from governments of European countries that had been occupied.
The archive also contains materials from Jewish and Masonic groups, political parties, various non-governmental organizations and associations, newspapers and unique documentary materials of private origins. The most precious German and Austrian Judaica are entire archives of Jewish communities, with records dating back to the 18th century.
Carrying out research at the Special Archive, however, can be a Kafkaesque experience. One can never be sure getting the right answer from an archival “gatekeeper,” especially when it comes to the mere existence of certain files.
From a Russian perspective many of these items constitute a legitimate compensation for its losses and suffering during World War II. This explains why many German documents are still being kept in Russian archives, as they bear witness to Russia’s victories against Hitler, hence becoming a matter of national identity. Nonetheless, this explanation does not apply to victims of Nazi Germany and its allies. In 1998 the Russian constitutional court nationalized all looted art and archives, making them the property of the Russian state. All victims of national socialism are to a certain extent exempted from this law, as they may officially ask for the restitution of their property, but in fact nothing of the kind has happened. The only successful case based on this law occurred in 2004 as the Rothschild family got its archive back due to a masterpiece of diplomacy. They purchased on the free market letters of Czar Alexander II and gave them as a “present” to the Russian state.
Between 1955 and the 1960s vast amounts of documents were handed over to East Germany and mainly to other socialist countries of Eastern Europe (Poland, the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, Yugoslavia and Romania). After the dissolution of the Soviet Union millions of records were restored to France, the Benelux countries and the United Kingdom. In addition, 46 death register books were returned to the Museum of Auschwitz.
Nevertheless, this process, which was made possible through glasnost and Perestroika, had its critics from the very beginning. Opening archives to the public, the restitution of looted documents and the collaboration with foreign research institutes was regarded by nationalist groups as piracy against Russia’s heritage. The most prominent and heavily criticized example was the partnership with the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace from Stanford University. What could have been of mutual benefit was now perceived as a sellout of Russia.
Hence restitution efforts and attempts at scientific cooperation were always determined by the current political situation. Much remains to be solved through discrete negotiations and potential barter agreements, though restitution of Judaica is a question of morals and not business.
The author is a free journalist having written comments for the Neue Züricher Zeitung and Die Presse in Austria.