June 21 (Bloomberg) -- Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Vladimir Putin canceled the joint opening of a Russian exhibit of art looted from Germany, inflaming a spat dating from the Nazi regime’s collapse at the end of World War II.
The German and Russian leaders had planned to speak at St. Petersburg’s Hermitage museum today during Merkel’s visit to the Russian city for a business conference. The plan was ditched after Russia said there wasn’t enough time for Merkel to give her opening remarks, German government spokesman Georg Streiter said. Merkel might have alluded to Germany’s stance that Russia is holding the art illegally and should return it, he said.
“President Putin apparently didn’t have the option to stage an opening that included speeches, so that was that,” Streiter told reporters in Berlin. “Opening remarks would have been needed to put this exhibition, with its special background, into context.”
Merkel, who is running for re-election on Sept. 22, hasn’t pushed Russia on looted art in the past. While the two countries are linked by trade, including Russian energy supplies to Germany, Merkel has criticized Russian treatment of civil-society groups and differed with Putin on ending the fighting in Syria.
The exhibition “Bronze Age -- Europe Without Borders,” showing at the Hermitage from June 21 to Sept. 8, includes about 600 objects taken to Russia from Berlin either during or at the end of World War II, when Stalin’s Red Army rolled into the defeated Third Reich’s capital.
After the war, museums in Soviet-occupied eastern Germany were left with almost nothing. About 2.5 million items were packed up and sent to the Soviet Union. In an act of friendship to communist East Germany in 1958, 300 train cars from Moscow and St. Petersburg brought back art treasures including the Pergamon Altar, now in Berlin’s Pergamon Museum.
Yet 1 million artworks are still missing, including the Bronze-Age gold treasure of Eberswalde, which is to be exhibited at the Hermitage show for the first time since the war ended in 1945, alongside treasures from Werder, Sonnewalde, Weissagk and Dieskau, all in eastern Germany.
A replica of the Eberswalde gold is on display in the Neues Museum on Berlin’s Museum Island. A label next to it explains that the original is still in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow.
Germany has been pressuring Russia for the return of the missing art ever since German reunification in 1990 -- sometimes gently, sometimes more insistently. Yet many Russians, including museum directors, view the booty as legitimate compensation for Soviet treasures looted or destroyed by Adolf Hitler’s troops. Under Russian law, German art taken by Stalin’s Soviet Trophy Commission is Russian state property.
Merkel and the German government “maintain the position, backed by international law, that the objects brought to Russia should be returned,” Streiter said. “Russia has a different view.”
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