Prologue Magazine

Spoils of War Returned

U.S. Restitution of Nazi-Looted Cultural Treasures to the USSR, 1945–1959

Fall 2002, Vol. 34, No. 3

By Patricia Kennedy Grimsted

© 2002 Patricia Kennedy Grimsted

Neptune Fountain, Peterhof, Russia

The Neptune Fountain in the gardens of the Russian imperial palace of Peterhof, near St. Petersburg, was looted by the Nazis and restituted to Soviet authorities in 1947. (Courtesy of the Peterhof State Museum Reserve)

World War II resulted in the greatest loss and displacement of cultural treasures, books, and archives in history. As the German army occupied more and more of the European continent, Nazi cultural vultures swept up millions of items from museums, libraries, archives, and individuals. While Allied bombing reduced many cities to ruble, fortunately, the Germans had hidden away much of their cultural loot— and their own treasures— in remote castles, mines, and monasteries. Many of those treasures that survived never came home from the war. Depending on who found them, some were plundered a second time, and still others were dispersed throughout the world.

In the immediate aftermath of the war in Europe, with no agreement over restitution among the Allied victors, each of the four occupying powers in Germany and Austria— the United States, Great Britain, France, and the USSR— handled displaced cultural property that ended the war in their individual zones as they saw fit. The United States undertook an unprecedented program of cultural restitution in an effort to restore displaced treasures to the countries from which the Nazis had confiscated them.1

Simultaneously, Soviet authorities, in the name of "compensatory restitution," emptied museums, castles, and salt mines in Germany and Eastern Europe, transporting millions of cultural treasures (many earlier looted by the Nazis from Western Europe) to the USSR.2 Despite the Soviet "compensatory" cultural plunder in lieu of restitution, U.S. authorities in Germany returned more than half a million displaced cultural treasures and more than a quarter of a million books to the USSR that had been looted by the Nazi invaders.

This effort is documented in the recent CD-ROM publication from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) on U.S. Restitution to the USSR, presenting facsimile inventories and related documents covering nineteen transfers between 1945 and 1959. Even now in Russia, however, many still deny such facts, just as Soviet authorities did in the immediate postwar years.

The issues remain unresolved today, as European nations still await the return of their twice-looted cultural treasures from Russia, while new laws and politicians in Moscow continue to block their return.

Soviet Spoils of War and Denial of U.S. Restitution

Soviet citizens never saw most of the Western cultural treasures brought home as spoils of war and never heard about American restitution. The Cold War and the Stalinist regime distorted the Soviet presentation of World War II and postwar developments to such an extent that even today, Western restitution of Nazi-looted cultural treasures to the USSR from occupied Germany and Austria remains a historical "blank spot." Not until the final years of glasnost in 1989 - 1990 did information gradually surface about the secret depositories for "trophy art" (as known in Russia), the millions of trophy books in an abandoned church outside of Moscow, and the kilometers of state and private archives from countries across Europe that had been held for half a century in the top secret "Special Archive."3

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the subject of restitution has been one of the most thorny issues in Russia's foreign relations. As European countries started to demand their cultural treasures and archives, Russian legislators prohibited restitution. They decided Russia needed a law "to establish necessary legal bases for realistically treating said cultural valuables as partial compensation for the loss to the Russian cultural heritage as a result of the plunder and destruction of cultural valuables by the German occupation army and their allies in the course of the Second World War."4 Nationalistic deputies in the Duma and a vast majority of the public believe that the trophies should not be returned.

In the midst of the four-year struggle over passage of the law, Russia was admitted to the Council of Europe in January 1996. In order to secure acceptance, among the commitments Russia was required to make were two specific "intents" for restitution of archives and other cultural treasures belonging to member states.5 Since that document was signed, Russia's parliamentary bodies have ignored those intents, a disregard that culminated in May 1997 with the almost unanimous passage of a law that potentially nationalizes all cultural treasures brought to Russia at the end of World War II— passed a second time over President Boris Yeltsin's veto. After Yeltsin was forced to sign the law in April 1998, the Constitutional Court upheld the law in a July 1999 ruling, and President Vladimir Putin signed amendments in May 2000.6 The conflicts about the passage of that law have created a virtual new Cold War with Western members of the Council of Europe.

The Russian law negates countless international conventions and resolutions adopted by the United Nations, UNESCO, and other bodies, as well as several bilateral agreements, calling for the restitution of plundered cultural treasures to their countries of origin. Since the amended law, Russia has established a new Interagency Council on Restitution with complicated and costly procedures for restitution based on claims from countries other than Germany and its wartime allies and, starting in 2001, a project for describing the displaced cultural treasures in Russia.7

The extent to which information about the postwar Western Allied restitution programs was suppressed— and even denied— in the Soviet Union was apparent in the press and parliamentary debates concerning passage of that law. Duma leaders adamantly assured legislators that Russia should legally be entitled to keep all of its extensive spoils of war— especially those seized from Germany and other Axis powers— because none of the Soviet cultural treasures looted by the Nazis had been returned from Germany. They claimed, "Now we are asked to return . . . what we received from the aggressor. We ourselves, we received nothing that had been taken away."8 There was often the implication, sometimes even explicit, that, if they were not still in Germany, then the Soviet cultural treasures plundered by the Nazis must have all been taken to America. Nikolai Gubenko, the former Minister of Culture under Mikhail Gorbachev who shepherded the law through the legislature, kept repeating to the press: "'Russia Has Been Robbed Twice'— first by Fascist Germany and then by its Allies. . . . Most of the displaced cultural treasures found at the end of the war in Germany, including the Russian ones, were transported across the ocean."9

Available documentation does not support such statements, yet they persist. As the Iron Curtain fell around the Stalinist regime and Germany was divided in two, information about the significant postwar cultural restitution by the Western Allies and the retrieval of Soviet cultural treasures and archives that did take place was never made public.

Nineteen U.S. Restitution Transfers to the USSR

Documents from the National Archives of the United States provide quite a different picture. Documents now published in facsimile on the NARA CD-ROM verify a total of nineteen U.S. restitution transfers to Soviet authorities between September 1945 and August 1959. Inventories with official transfer receipts (all signed by the Soviet receiving officer) list over half a million cultural treasures plundered by the Nazi invaders from Soviet lands found after the war in Germany and Austria. Initial facsimile copies were presented in Moscow in April 2000 at an international conference as the All-Russian State Library for Foreign Literature (VGBIL).10 The corresponding Soviet copies of those documents have still not been located in Russian archives.

When Soviet authorities complained about the lack of American restitution and the rejection of Soviet claims, the Restitution Division of the U.S. Office of Military Government in Germany (OMGUS) prepared a summary list in September 1948 of the first thirteen restitution transfers from Germany of Soviet cultural treasures plundered by the Nazis. An accompanying U.S. memorandum noted that the number of items returned to the USSR— over half a million— "amounted to a far greater number of items than the number of items officially claimed [by Soviet authorities]." That document was first published in Ukraine in 1991 11 and has since been published several times in Germany as part of a German study of U.S. restitution.12

U.S. restitution transfers were organized through the Central Collecting Points (Munich, Wiesbaden, Marburg, and Offenbach), where the Nazi loot found in the U.S. Zone of Occupation was assembled, although the first three transfers took place before those centers were organized.13

Transfers from Berlin, Pilsen, and Salzburg

The first transfer, consisting of archival materials, was turned over to Soviet authorities in Berlin on September 20, 1945— days after the U.S. policy directive on restitution was issued. That shipment comprised four freight-train wagons with 333 crates (1,000 packages) of "archival material removed by the Germans in 1943 from Novgorod" that had been "stored at the Preussisches Geheimes Staatsarchiv" (Prussian Privy State Archive) in Berlin-Dahlem.14

The second American transfer to the USSR, totaling approximately twenty-five freight-train wagons of archives and other cultural treasures plundered from Ukraine and Latvia, took place on October 25, 1945, west of Pilsen, in the part of Czechoslovakia liberated by the U.S. Third Army. Those treasures had been found in early May 1945 by the Americans in the Bohemian castle of Trpísty, northwest of Pilsen, and the nearby monastery of Kladruby to the southwest. That transfer consisted of extensive early archival records from the former Kyiv (Kiev) Archive of Early Records, rare early printed books and manuscripts from the Library of the Academy of Sciences (TsNB) in Kyiv, and even more extensive early archives and museum exhibits looted by the Nazis from Riga. The inventory of the Kyiv archival materials had been prepared and signed by the volksdeutsch Slavic scholar Nikolai Geppener, whom the Nazis had taken with the shipment. He turned down an American offer of asylum and insisted on accompanying those treasures back to Kyiv; after his return, however, he was persecuted as a Nazi collaborator.15

In a third transfer in December 1945 scientific materials from Smolensk were restituted to Soviet authorities in Salzburg, Austria. The receipt (dated December 5, 1945) records the transfer of "30 cases" containing "books, Herbariums, Minerals and Zoological-, Botanical-Collections," together with "3 large stuffed animals . . . and a special scientific Precision-Scales." It has not been determined if the materials were ever returned to Smolensk.16

The Munich Central Collecting Point

Six of the U.S. restitution shipments to the USSR, constituting large transfers of archaeological materials, treasures of the visual arts, and other museum exhibits, were processed through the Central Collecting Point (CCP) in Munich. The first director, Craig Smyth, memorialized operations there in a well-illustrated published account.17 The Munich CCP received the contents of the most important depositories in Bavaria that had been used for art treasures "saved" from Soviet lands by the so-called Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, or ERR (Special Command Force of Reichsleiter [Alfred] Rosenberg), one of the most notorious Nazi agencies responsible for cultural looting. The three most extensive ERR depositories in Bavaria for treasures from the East were the Castle of Colmberg, near Lehrberg (Landkreis Ansbach); the Castle of Höchstädt (Landkreis Dillingen), near Augsburg; and the former Carthusian (Salesianer) Monastery of Buxheim, near Memmingen.

As the treasures of the visual arts and museum exhibits were brought to the American Central Collecting Points, property cards were prepared for individual items of significant value, or for lots of collected items, similar to the cards that had been prepared by the ERR during the war. In many cases, items were photographed at the collecting points, and most of those pictures have been preserved.18 Many of the ERR inventories of treasures from Soviet lands were recovered with the items themselves and helped CCP specialists determine the repository from which they had been looted. Some recently found ERR inventories even have the U.S. Munich property-card numbers added in pencil. Additional inventories according to presumed repository of origin were also prepared by CCP specialists in Munich.19

Despite the ERR inventories and efforts of overburdened Museum, Fine Arts & Archives (MFA&A) restitution officers, many of the property cards for art from the Soviet Union are not as detailed or accurate as desirable. As one blatant example, a portrait of Emperor Alexander I (ca. 1825) by George Dawe, probably from one of the imperial palaces near Leningrad, is listed as "Portrait of a general, standing (before landscape)." The art specialists (most with the ERR) involved in looting from Soviet lands often had neither good reference materials on which to base their own inventories nor time to prepare the detailed card descriptions for looted art. Soviet art historians were not on hand at the collecting points to monitor identification and descriptive work (although U.S. authorities had expressed willingness to receive specialists), and many of the Soviet officers who were sent to accept restitution shipments were not qualified museum specialists.20

Among the highlights in the Soviet Munich shipments were icons from many different churches in Novgorod and Pskov, twelfth-century mosaics from the Cathedral of St. Michael of the Golden Domes in Kyiv, collections of insects and herbaria from the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences, and thousands of prehistoric archaeological finds from the Crimea. There were ethnographic exhibits from Kharkiv, Poltava, and Minsk; and treasures of the decorative arts from many museums in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus that had been found in Bavarian castles and monasteries.

The most notable Soviet restitution shipment processed through the U.S. Collecting Point in Munich (transfer #11 [Munich #5]) consisted of several freight cars with the Neptune Fountain from the Russian imperial palace in Peterhof outside of Leningrad (now again St. Petersburg). The Nazis had confiscated the fountain because it was a German production. The Americans found the dismembered fountain in a basement storage vault in Nuremberg and returned it to Soviet authorities. Restored with the missing components according to original drawings, the fountain now dominates the upper gardens in Peterhof. The fountain was last restored in 1997, but even today, tourist guides are unaware— or else never reveal— that the fountain was returned through the American restitution program.21

There were also two small shipments of importance to the USSR from the Wiesbaden Collecting Point, but fewer works of art from Soviet lands ended up there. A final transfer of 276 paintings and other treasures that took place in Berlin after the collecting points were closed down had been initially processed in Wiesbaden.22

Spoils of War Returned, Part 2
Spoils of War Returned, Part 3
Spoils of War Returned, Part 4


Patricia Kennedy Grimsted is research associate at the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University and is a leading authority on archives of the former Soviet Union and Soviet successor states. She has written widely on World War II displaced cultural treasures, including Trophies of War and Empire: The Archival Legacy of Ukraine, World War II, and the International Politics of Restitution (Harvard University Press, 2001).


Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.