Polish Art - German Art - Who Owns What?

If you’ve traveled, you may have noticed that opinions of the press vary based on who is writing the news. So here’s a story in this week’s news – reported by two different sources – the BBC and a leading Polish news source. The story involves art theft and return of stolen art, just like the current novel and movie, The Monuments Men.

On Monday, March 31, 2014 a famous painting by Venetian artist Francesco Guardi, entitled “Palace Stairs,” was returned to Poland by Germany. Germans stole the painting from the National Museum in Warsaw soon after the Nazis invaded Poland. It wound up in Governor Hans Frank’s wartime headquarters in the Wawel Castle in Krakow. When he evacuated the headquarters, the painting was sent back to Germany with many other valuable Polish paintings such as Da Vinci’s ‘Lady with an Ermine.’ (If interested, see post dated October 6, 2013 for photo and summary of my visit to the castle and the Da Vinci portrait.)

On the subject of art stolen during WWII, per the Polish news source, a data base of Polish war-time stolen art contains 63,000 missing items, presumably stolen by Germany, that have never been returned to Poland. It further states there are negotiations underway to return 46 more pieces of art to Poland.  
However, the BBC added a twist on the ‘art theft’ saga I hadn’t heard of. During the war, Germany moved a valuable collection of 300,000 manuscripts, books and drawings from the Prussian State Library at Berlin, to an abbey in Silesia (then German territory) to protect it from Allied bombing.  The collection, today referred to as the Berlinka collection (Polish for Berlin) contains original works of famous Germans such as Martin Luther, Goethe, Friedrich Schiller and the Grimm Brothers.  However it also contains hundreds of ancient manuscripts the Prussians plundered from Polish monasteries during the partition of Poland in the 1800’s.
After WWII, that part of Silesia became part of Poland. The Polish government hid the existence of the Berlinka collection until 1977. After all that Germany did to basically wipe Poland off the face of the earth, Poland sees the collection as justified war reparations. However, Berlin officials don’t see it that way.  Germany wants the collection returned unconditionally.  Poland refuses because there is so much missing art looted by the Germans that has never been returned. Besides that, since part of the Berlinka collection includes art and manuscripts looted from Poland, why return what is justifiably Poland’s in the first place?
Today the Berlinka collection is housed in the Jagiellonian Library in Krakow. Editorial: Personally, unlike Germany, Poland didn’t steal the art;  Germany moved it there and left it. Spoils of war are spoils of war and Germany has never been kind to Poland historically. Ownership: Poland. 
Sigh – I’m reminded of what Henry told me when I asked the innocent question “Henry, why did the Germans hate the Poles so much?”.  His answer rings true for me still today – ‘Germans and Poles are like Arabs and Israelis.  They have never mixed or agreed, and they never will.’  
Credit to BBC News/Europe, Polish News (thenews.pl) and Wikipedia. 

Share Post

Tags: Poland, Polish Current Events