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Amber Room and Beutekunst
World War II caused damage to humanity in various different aspects. One of the aspects that it affected acutely was humanity’s cultural accomplishments—which were affected in the form of looting. Looting, which was rampant during WWII (conducted by both the Axis and the Allies), was the cause of several cultural artifacts being removed from their context or, in some cases, destroyed as a symbol of supremacy of the invading forces. This report focuses on one such article that was the subject of looting: the Amber Room.
The Amber Room, dubbed the “Eighth Wonder of the World,”1 was the brainchild of Prussia’s King Friedrich I who built it in 1706 as part of the Royal Palace in the newly created Kingdom. The room was commissioned to be built by the Danish craftsmen Gottfried Wolfram, Ernst Schacht and Gottfried Turau—all of whom were skilled amber artisans at the time. Upon its completion, the room stunned many diplomats who flocked to Berlin, then the capital of Prussia, in order to see it. However, in 1716 it changed ownership when Friedrich’s successor, Friedrich Wilhelm I, presented the room to Pyotr the Great of Russia as a diplomatic gift in return of his promise of an alliance against Sweden. The room was then disassembled and transported to Pyotr’s Winter Palace located in St. Petersburg, Russia. It again changed residence in 1755 when Empress Yelizaveta Petrovna had it transferred to the Catherine Palace in Tsarskoye Selo, Russia. It remained in the Catherine Palace until 1941—the early days of World War II. In 1941, Germany, under the Nazi regime led by Adolph Hitler, launched Operation Barbarossa—
(Greenfield Pg. 221)
2 a campaign aimed at annexing Russia, which was now under Communist rule led by Stalin. Sometime between June and October 1941, the German troops penetrated into the depths of Russia and managed to capture Tsarskoye Selo. The German troops looted much of the luxuries in the Catherine Palace except for the Amber Room, since it was regarded as being German in the sense that Prussia was considered as a part of German heritage. The Amber Room was again disassembled and transported to a museum inside Königsberg Castle in Königsberg, Germany, to be displayed along with other war loot. This was rather ironic since Königsberg happened to be the birthplace of the Room’s original master, King Friedrich I. The Amber Room kept residence in Königsberg until 1945. By this time, the tide had changed in World War II: the previously masterful German forces on the Eastern Front were faced with an onslaught from the Red Army. The Red Army, finding new life, pushed back German forces back into Poland and were within a few miles of Königsberg. At this point, the fate of the Amber Room becomes unclear. According to some, the Room was again dismantled and shipped under the direction of Hitler who wanted the “German” cultural treasures to be kept out of the hands of Slavic hands. Former SS Troopers with knowledge of the transaction say that the crates filled with the disassembled amber were shipped by train to Thuringia, Germany, where it was hidden in an abandoned silver mine (a survey of the mine did not yield any results)2. Others claim that a submarine carrying the crates was sunk after being hit by a torpedo in the depths of the Baltic Sea3. In any case, the Amber Room was never seen again4. Most historians seem to be of the opinion that the Amber Room was accidentally destroyed during the bombing of Königsberg in the days preceding its
(Shukman Secs. 2,3; Caryl Par. 4) (Caryl Par. 4) 4 Parts (e.g. mosaics and panels) of the Amber Room have surfaced over the years, but the Room itself has not.
3 capture. However, a substantial minority agree with the latter two outcomes.
During its latter years of existence, the Amber Room was a lightning rod of dispute. The dispute was not so much concerning its ownership as much as it was about the Room’s identity. This was especially evident during the birth of German nationalist movement in 19th century. By the 19th century, the Amber Room had been in Russian possession for a century or so. During this time, it had undergone some renovation (e.g. Russian religious ikons and depictions of Pyotr the Great were added) to fit the tastes of its Russian masters. Consequently, it came to be seen as a pseudo-Russian work of art by the Russians. However, during the pan-Germanic movement, German nationalists seeking to tie themselves to the glories of Prussian and Austrian empires appropriated the Amber Room as a Germanic artifact. This, in a sense, replicates the actions of the Greek nationalists who attempted to draw a similar inspiration from the Elgin Marbles, among other artifacts. However, in this particular case, the establishment of a connection to their past heritage by the German nationalists is much more justifiable since a mere two centuries separated the current generation from their heritage. In any case, this admiration of their Prussian heritage by the Germans was grasped upon by Hitler (who is purported to have said, “Amber is German Gold”5) and the Nazi Party in the late 1930s then acted upon during Operation Barbarossa in 1941 as they “reclaimed” the Amber Room from Russia. Upon the capture of the room, curator Arthur Rohdes of the Königsberg Castle Museum rejoiced in a letter to Hitler: “The Amber Room has literally and figuratively returned to its Motherland, the territory of Great Germany. There is no doubt that this
(Rice Par. 23)
4 great masterpiece will never return to Russia for that would be tantamount to one thing—the ruination of everything we call Great Germany.”6 The capture of the Amber Room by Hitler had catastrophic consequences for the German culture—consequences that make the Amber Room a relevant topic in modern day7. The consequences were largely the result of retaliation on the part of Russia for the loss of its treasures (not only the Amber Room, but also other treasures lost in the pillaging of Tsarskoye Selo). As the Red Army advanced into the heartland of Germany, the Army looted many of the artifacts stored in German museums. The artifacts included “the most prized works in German national collections: the Pergamum Altar, the ancient altar of Zeus; the ‘Trojan Gold’, the diadems and necklaces said to have been worn by Helen of Troy,…drawings and paintings by Dürer, Goya, Titian, Rembrandt and Cézanne; a Gutenberg Bible (one of only 40 in existence); and…works by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Velázquez, as well as Raphael's Sistine Madonna.”8 In 1949, some 5 years after the end of WWII, the Geneva Convention of 1949 adopted a Treatise for the Protection of Cultural Properties in the Event of Armed Conflict. The convention essentially demanded that all cultural properties confiscated during wartime be returned to their respective countries9. However, Russia refused. The basis for the refusal was that Germany was not returning the Amber Room. Based on the accounts of German prisoners of war, Russia had reason to hope that former Nazi officials did indeed know the hidden location of the Room. However, Germany protested
(Rice Par. 20) It must be noted that in the modern day, the debate about the return of the Amber Room is fused with the return of other artworks. Hence, any discussion about the “return” of the Amber Room is not so much about the existence and the return of the Room as much as it is about its symbolic role in negotiations for the other artworks (to be discussed). 8 (Scott-Clark and Levy Par. 13) 9 (“The Hague Convention of 1954”)
5 that the Amber Room was destroyed and charged that the Russians were merely using the Amber Room as an excuse for not returning the looted artifacts.
In defense of the Germans, their claim is probably quite true. An inquest conducted by the Russian KGB in 1950 concluded that the Amber Room was likely destroyed in a fire10. In addition, the Russian intent of holding these treasures due to the loss of the Amber Room was displayed in a recent transaction. In this transaction, the Hermitage exchanged pictures painted by Monet, Goya, and Duerer (that were part of the loot taken home by the Red Army) in exchange for a panel from the Amber Room that was confistcated from the family of a former SS Trooper by German authorities. Russia's Deputy Minister of Culture, Pavel Khoroshilov noted that the “the return of even one element of the Amber Room is a fine symbol”11—and if Germany had not offered to return the panels, Russia would probably not have been willing to return the paintings. This is not simply the opinion of the Deputy Minister of Culture, but that of Russia itself. The relative unanimity of such an opinion in Russia was evident when the Russian Duma passed the “Trophy Art Law” which decreed that all art that was “displaced” to Russia from Germany would be considered Russian property12. This law was especially passed to for a legal standing in case Germany requested for the art through the UN’s UNESCO agency. The passing of the law essentially meant that the only way Germany could regain its lost art was if it could “return” the Amber Room.
(Parfitt Par. 8-10) (Bohlen Par. 6) 12 (“Federal Law on Cultural Valuables Displaced to the U.S.S.R. as a Result of World War II and Located on the Territory of the Russian Federation”)
6 For Germany, a sense of dignity is at stake in this dispute. Being the scapegoat for WWII, Germany has been subject to exploitation by being morally compelled to right the wrongs of their ancestors. Convincing Russia to return the paintings would symbolize being released from this obligation since the arts’ return would represent a pardon of the nation’s crimes by a victim. Perhaps, this can even be used as an argument for the restitution of their paintings. After all, it is quite unrealistic for a country to be perpetually penalized for the crimes of their ancestors.
However, one may argue that Russia has every right to keep Germany’s art as reparation. After all, as the Director of the Hermitage Museum, Mikhail Piotrovsky notes: “[T]he destruction of the Amber Room…is [the] fault of the people who started the war. Those who begin a war are responsible for all destructions happening during that war in both moral and legal terms. As for the Amber Room, it should be worth remembering that these were Germans who took it away from Tsarskoye Selo.” The view that the Germans caused the suffering is, for the most part, universal. In response to the loss of the Amber Room, the least Germany could do to repay the “debt” is to allow Russia to keep the artwork. The paintings in question are a “site of memory” in that it connects the present day Russia to the Amber Room. The restitution of the artwork would represent the severance of the link between Russia and the Amber Room, which would be just as devastating as the loss or destruction of the Amber Room. Hence, it is out of question that Germany, which is responsible in “both moral and legal terms” for the loss of a renowned antiquity, demand the restitution of its art after having destroyed or lost another nation’s art.
7 Additionally, it is up to debate whether Germany is truly committed to returning any pieces of the Amber Room that is periodically found in private collections. The German government seems only to respond whenever it feels opportune to do so. For example, consider the panels that were returned to Russia in 1998. When the panels were returned, the State Duma was deliberating the “Federal Law on Cultural Valuables Displaced to the U.S.S.R.” The return of the panels during the deliberation of the law was not merely coincidental—it was a political move aimed at appeasing Russia once the German government felt its chances of reclaiming the looted artifacts ebb. Moreover, some of the panels found were found in active military bases in Germany13. It is not very likely that an archeological survey takes place on a military base, so one may suspect that the knowledge of the panels was known beforehand. In such a case, it would clearly prove the German’s unwillingness to refurbish the Amber Room (or at least parts of it) to Russia. Furthermore, one can even question whether these artworks even belong to Germany. Artifacts in German museums during WWII contained many artifacts from other countries that Germany occupied14—such as France, Czechoslovakia and Poland. While it is not known how these objects appeared in German museums, it is widely held that the objects where the subjects of widespread looting conducted during the war. Many of the paintings by Monet, Titian, and Rembrandt, that were considered to be looted by Germans, were in turn looted from by the Red Army during the closing days of WWII. These paintings, among others, constitute the category of the beutekunst15 that the Germans demand to be returned. Supposing that the Russian loot is returned, would
("CZARIST TREASURE FOUND ON BASE IN GERMANY" Par. 1) (Hartman Par. 3) 15 German word for “trophy art”; this term is used by Germans in regards to the German artifacts held by Russia
8 Germany be willing to return paintings it had looted? In 2006, many German museums expressed outrage over the restitution of artwork that was “confiscated” from Jews or from occupied countries16—that is to say that Germany is not willing to return the beutekunst that it holds. Thus, it would be hypocritical of Germany to uphold Russia to the standards outlined by the Geneva Convention while Germany itself defies those very standards.
The Dispute in Modern Day
The dispute has reached an impasse for the most part. Between the fall of the Soviet Union and the present day, talks have been held in an attempt to resolve the issue. These talks have had limited success in that it has nurtured some goodwill between both the nations. For example, Ruhrgas, a German petroleum company, took Russia by surprise by offering to fund the reconstruction of a replicate of the Amber Room. Additionally, the exchange of the artifacts referred to earlier was the result of these talks. However, with the passing of the “Trophy Art” law essentially ended any controversy regarding the paintings in question—from the perspective of Russia. As one might expect, German cultural institutions (and, in some cases, other international institutions) often rebuke The Hermitage whenever it holds an exhibition that includes any of the beutekunst. As far as one can predict, the controversy spawned by the disappearance of the Amber Room will be one that will not be resolved in the near future. If anything, it is entirely possible that the issue may be further exacerbated by some rash action by either side as tensions between Russia and the West grow. On the other hand, perhaps time will soften the bitterness Russia feels at the loss of their jewel. That is something one cannot
(“Alarm in Germany over restitution of disputed Nazi art.”)
9 foretell. However, one can envisage the outcome of the dispute to be one of immense interest as it would serve as a precedent for other similar cases involving other countries.
"CZARIST TREASURE FOUND ON BASE IN GERMANY." St. Paul Pioneer Press (1991): 4A. "Federal Law on Cultural Valuables Displaced to the U.S.S.R. as a Result of World War II and Located on the Territory of the Russian Federation". 24 Nov. 2007 <http://docproj.loyola.edu/rlaw/r2.html>. "The Hague Convention of 1954." The International Council on Monuments and Sites . 14 May 1954. ICOMS. 24 Nov 2007 <http://www.icomos.org/hague/hague.convention.html>. “Alarm in Germany over restitution of disputed Nazi art.” Deutsche Presse-Agentur 2006. 4 Dec. 2007 <http://arts.monstersandcritics.com/features/article_1223079.php/Alarm_in_Germany _over_restitution_of_disputed_Nazi_art>. Bohlen, Celestine. "ARTS ABROAD; A Homecoming for Treasures Looted in War ". The New York Times. 24 Nov. 2007 <http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9403E3DF1130F934A15757C0A96 69C8B63&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=all>. Caryl, Christian. "Not forever Amber." U.S. News Online. 24 July 2000. 22 Nov. 2007 <http://www.usnews.com/usnews/doubleissue/mysteries/amber.htm>. Greenfield, Jeanette. The Return of Cultural Treasures. Second. NYC, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Hartman, Carl. "Nazis stole 600,000 pieces of art." Associated Press 11 Feb. 2000. 5 Dec. 2007 <http://web.archive.org/web/20010708154314/http://www.oregonlive.com/eventsguid e/index.ssf?/eventsguide/00/02/ap_nazis11.frame>. Parfitt, Tom. "Red Army, not the Nazis, destroyed tsar's Amber Room ". The Telegraph. 24 Nov. 2007 <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/htmlContent.jhtml;jsessionid=DTWL45BM2DNU5QFI QMFCFFWAVCBQYIV0?html=/archive/archive/1999/07/06/wkun06.html>. Rice, Patty. "The 2003 reopening of the Amber Room: Tsarskoye Selo, near St. Petersburg, Russia." Highbeam Encyclopedia. 2004. Heldref Publications. 4 Dec 2007 <http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G1-121713307.html>.
Scott-Clark, Catherine and Levy, Adrian. "The amber facade, part two." The Guardian Unlimited. 24 May 2004. 24 Nov. 2007 <http://www.guardian.co.uk/weekend/story/0,3605,1221229,00.html>. Shukman, David. "On the Trail of the Amber Room." British Broadcasting Corporation 1 Aug. 1998. 22 Nov. 2007 <http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/143364.stm>.
“Amber Room.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 1 Dec 2007, 18:16 UTC. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 6 Dec 2007 <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Amber_Room&oldid=175094556>.
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