Prologue Magazine

Spoils of War Returned, Part 2

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

Samples of library markings Section of a page of library markings found in books from the USSR that were sorted at OAD. Such album pages enabled the Depot to return 275,000 books to the Soviet Union. (260-LM-II [Volume I - Eastern])

Library Restitution from Offenbach

The major restitution shipments of library materials to the USSR were processed through the Offenbach Archival Depository (OAD) near Frankfurt, the centralized collection point and restitution center for books and archives in the U.S. Zone of Occupation.23 In what was undoubtedly "the biggest book restitution operation in library history," OAD processed more than three million displaced books and manuscripts (and related ritual treasures) between its opening in the winter of 1946 and its closure in April 1949. Offenbach restituted a total of 273,645 books to the USSR between March 2, 1946, and April 30, 1949, on the basis of confirmed library stamps, ex libris, or other markings.24 After the first shipment of eight freight cars on August 7, 1946, later shipments left Offenbach in October 1947 (329 crates) and December 1948 (14 crates), and a final transfer of books from Offenbach took place in Berlin in 1952.

As an essential ingredient in the identification process, photographs were prepared of all ex libris, book stamps, and other markings found in the books arriving for processing so that sorting could be done by collection and library of provenance.25 The system was hardly foolproof, however, as remaining OAD reports and the albums themselves make clear. Knowledgeable Soviet library specialists did not come to Offenbach to assist with identification, as was the case with some other countries. And, unfortunately, nobody at OAD knew Slavic languages well, nor did they understand the complexities of Soviet library reorganization and the migration of Russian, Belarusian, Ukrainian, and Polish collections (including many Jewish ones) in connection with post-revolutionary Soviet nationalization and wartime international border changes. Hence, it is not surprising that we find many Ukrainian library stamps listed under "Russia— 'Russland'" and others in the "Poland" section in the OAD albums. Such discrepancies explain why many books plundered from Ukraine by the Nazis and restituted to the USSR by the United States were never returned to Ukraine. Recent tributes to OAD operations usually do not mention these identification and distribution problems, which still need more thorough analysis.

While over 275,000 volumes were returned to the USSR from OAD, many more books were returned from other collecting points as well. As late as 1962, the West German government transferred nine crates of books found in the library of the University of Heidelberg to the USSR, comprising scientific and technical books from Kyiv, Voronezh, and some from unidentified libraries. It is not known if those had come through OAD, although book stamps from Voronezh appear in the OAD albums.26

Return of War Booty from the United States

Two later transfers took place in Washington, D.C., involving cultural property illegally brought back to the United States as war booty. In April 1957, Ardelia Hall, who headed the American restitution program in the Department of State, personally transmitted thirty-one icons to the embassy of the USSR in Washington. The icons (presumably from a village in Ukraine) had first been looted by a Nazi SS officer and then looted from the basement of a hospital in Halle, Germany, by an American army captain. When he tried to send his booty to the United States in two separate shipments, they were seized by U.S. Customs in Texas. Restitution of the icons to Soviet authorities was delayed because of a significant protest (with a petition from parishioners) from a local priest of the Russian Orthodox Church in America:

Only too vividly can I recall the period when Soviet government personnel . . . seized many an ikon collection such as this . . . and burned them in huge bonfires on the streets. . . . [A]ccounts reach us even today of the anti-religious feeling in the Soviet Union. . . . I am too unhappily concerned that these ikons, or any others returned to the Soviet Union would never reach a church, but would be confiscated immediately. . . . It is therefore my heartfelt plea that you do whatever you can to prevent the return of these ikons to the Soviet Union and their destruction.27

The State Department nevertheless insisted on restitution. Interestingly, documentation has surfaced recently in Moscow showing that, on May 31, 1957, the Soviet embassy in Washington turned over the icons to Archbishop Dionisii, then the acting representative of the Moscow Patriarch in the United States. Soviet authorities had determined that the icons were not of great value or historical interest.28 The present location of the icons has not been determined, but presumably they remain in the United States.

Two years later, a collection of thirty-one prehistoric bone artifacts was identified in the American Museum of Natural History in New York as having markings from an archaeological collection in Kyiv. The artifacts had first been removed to Cracow and thence taken to the Castle of Höchstädt in Bavaria. The circumstances of their illegal removal from Germany to the United States is not known, but they were presented by an army widow from Georgia to the museum, where their provenance was traced, undoubtedly in response to appeals by the Department of State for looted cultural treasures illegally brought to the United States. Formal restitution to the Soviet embassy in Washington, DC, took place on August 18, 1959. In October 1959 the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the USSR turned over the returned artifacts to the president of the Academy of Sciences of the Ukrainian SSR, A. V. Paladin.29

Statistical Approximations

The total units of cultural treasures and archives returned in those nineteen transfers comes close to 540,000, while the initial 1948 U.S. list of thirteen shipments totaled approximately 534,170 items.30 Indeed, that total figure was significantly understated because an item could denote a single painting or several pieces. On inventories that accompanied the nineteen official U.S. custody receipts, one item could denote a set of 35 - 50 glass vases, 240 books, or 26 Russian manuscripts. In the case of the Austrian transfer, the figures were for large crates of books rather than volumes. Complete records of the American transfers, including the accompanying inventories, have long been open to the public in the United States and Germany, although the actual documents are difficult to find, located as they are in a number of different boxes within the records of OMGUS and the State Department.

Soviet Complaints about U.S. Restitution

Heated US - Soviet Exchanges

During the growing Cold War, Soviet authorities began to complain bitterly about American nonrestitution of cultural treasures despite the fact of those U.S. shipments. They constantly complained about the slowness of the Western Allied restitution process and about the rejection of many of the Soviet claims. Heated correspondence between U.S. and Soviet commanders regarding the progress and specific problems of restitution testify to the rapidly intensifying Cold War between East and West in Germany.

For example, in March 1949, the commander in chief of the Soviet Forces of Occupation, Marshal Vasilii Sokolovskii, sent an angry letter to the U.S. commander in chief, Gen. Lucius D. Clay. Sokolovskii described what he termed "an intolerable situation . . . with regard to the restitution of Soviet property." He alleged that although "almost three years have elapsed since . . . the agreements on restitution, . . . the fact is that work has actually not begun." He suggested that American authorities were "endeavoring to effectively disrupt the return of Soviet property looted by the Hitlerites." Alleging "deliberate spoilage or theft," he affirmed, by such actions "American authorities are causing material damage to the Soviet Union and ignoring the national sentiments of the Soviet people."31

General Clay addressed many of the Soviet complaints in his reply:

    Of course, I find it impossible to reconcile your statement without supporting data that the return of restitution properties to your Government has not begun with the actions which we have taken to process the claims filed by your Government.
    . . . In addition to the return of properties located as a result of the investigation of claims submitted by your Government we have also returned a number of paintings for which no claims were filed. We believed this action on our part was a positive demonstration of our desire to fulfill our obligations to restore looted properties.
    As to your comment regarding the large percentage of rejections of Soviet claims, I can say only that the Soviet claims were not prepared as carefully as were the claims filed by other nations. This matter was repeatedly called to the attention of your Restitution Mission, but little, if any, additional supporting data was furnished to support subsequent claims.32

Lack of cooperation between U.S. and Soviet authorities over restitution issues reflected much larger political issues on the agenda.

American Knowledge of Soviet Plunder

Soviet complaints appear less serious when one realizes that U.S. restitution transfers were continued even though the Americans knew about the extent of Soviet seizures from German museums, libraries, and archives. The Allied Control Council in Germany never agreed to a principle of "restitution in kind" or "compensatory restitution," but Soviet authorities followed their own principles. Even in 1946, Soviet representatives in Germany quite openly admitted the extent of their seizures and, cynically describing German cultural valuables as "war trophies," refused to submit a list of those they had taken to the USSR.33 American authorities had many lists but chose never to make them public. Indeed, U.S. data about the Soviet cultural plunder in Germany was much more extensive than previously acknowledged, according to reports that surfaced recently in the National Archives. For example, in 1947 OMGUS authorities in Germany obtained and sent to Washington extensive inventories describing the cultural treasures shipped to Moscow. One report detailed "Russian Removals from the Islamic Department of the Former Prussian State Museum." Another noted: "Flakturm-am-Zoo and the Pergamon were completely emptied of the considerable material they contained in June and July just before the arrival of American and British forces in Berlin." Appended was a note that "the Russians took from the Dresden museums everything except German 19th century paintings and a few second rate other things and plaster casts."34

The data available to American authorities have not been published since, although they corroborate data released in Moscow over the past decade and other details published recently in the West.35 Not prepared for a confrontation with Soviet authorities over Soviet cultural seizures, American authorities chose to remain silent on that issue, although they did refuse "compensatory restitution" or "restitution in kind" to Belgium and other countries when it was requested. Apparently by the same token, however, there was little U.S. publicity about American restitution to the USSR, to the extent that even those associated with the U.S. restitution program, when queried recently, had "no recollection" of U.S. shipments to the USSR.36 In a context of the growing Cold War, the U.S. restitution had apparently not been publicized at the time in either the West or the USSR.

Cases of U.S. Non-Restitution

The U.S. transfer documents and inventories now available in the newly published CD-ROM should help counter the criticism that many cultural treasures from Soviet lands found in Germany were not returned to the USSR. It should also counter the impression that many Soviet cultural treasures found by the Americans were taken to the United States.

War Booty

Yes, there were examples of U.S. wartime or postwar seizures of booty against military regulations. One of the most notorious cases, namely the Quedlinburg Church treasures from Germany looted by an American soldier from Texas, curiously brought no government prosecution, and the heirs sold the trophies back to Germany in 1991 for a "finder's fee" of nearly three million dollars (after costly legal proceedings in the United States).37

In contrast, however, the example of the thirty-one icons seized by U.S. Customs in Texas shows that American authorities were trying to counter the problem of war booty. The return of the prehistoric artifacts found in the American Museum of Natural History in New York provides another example of the attention American museums were paying to the provenance of postwar acquisitions. Many other examples of war trophies seized in America and returned to their country and institution of origin can be documented.

The Baltic Exception

In fairness, we should recognize that U.S. authorities did not restitute several categories of cultural materials in the immediate postwar period. For example, treasures from the Baltic States were not returned because the United States did not recognize the annexation of those countries by the USSR. Justification for nonrestitution in other Baltic cases involved the legal argument that their owners had resettled abroad. That was, for example, the argument for the disposition of the so-called "Schwarzhäupter treasure," consisting of "85 pieces of ornamental silver of varying age and importance" that belonged to the Riga Blackheads, a commercial fraternity in Latvia. Restitution custody was granted on the basis of a claim from their successors then in Western Germany.38

Spoils of War Returned, Part 1
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).




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