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Germany supports research into Russia’s wartime losses

Archives of the western allies will be searched for clues

In a move heralded as a breakthrough in their cultural relations, Germany and Russia have begun a major initiative to analyse the looting of Russian museums during the Second World War. The “Russian Museums during WWII” project brings together the Kulturstiftung der Länder (Cultural Foundation of German States) and the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz (SPK, the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation), along with historians and art historians from both countries.

“This bilateral project is, for the first time, dealing with Russian losses only,” says Britta Kaiser-Schuster, the head of projects for the Deutsch-Russischer Museumsdialog (German-Russian Museum Dialogue), formed in 2005 to facilitate discussions between museums in the two countries.

The project’s spokesmen are the SPK president, Hermann Parzinger, and Mikhail Piotrovsky, the director of the State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg. Parzinger said last month: “The network between German and Russian museum specialists has grown over the years and research on the aftermath of the [war] on the world of culture will make this even more obvious... it touches a highly sensitive nerve on both sides.”

Russian museums experienced immense losses through destruction, looting and confiscation by the German occupying forces in the war. Most of the hundreds of thousands of objects that were listed as lost in the catalogues that have been published by the Russian Ministry of Culture since 1999 are still missing, among them the Amber Room (Bernsteinzimmer) from the Zarskoye Selo palace in St Petersburg, a gift from the Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm I to his ally Tsar Peter I of Russia in 1716.

Previous research has largely depended on “speculation and assumption”, admitted the curators of the Russian museums in a statement. This project will enable them to investigate the whereabouts of their collections through documents and archive material produced by the western allies for the first time. The focus of the investigation is on 1941 to 1950 and the project will involve more than 80 museums.

As well as providing greater transparency and clarification, the project has another aim: to create an atmosphere of trust, free from political tensions, between German and Russian scholars. The Volkswagen Foundation is giving €800,000 to the initiative. The remaining 25% of the funding is from the SPK and the Cultural Foundation of German States.