Artibus et Historiae no. 69 (XXXV)

2014, ISSN 0391-9064

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NAWOJKA CIEŚLIŃSKA-LOBKOWICZ - Restitution Policy in Europe since 1945: Tensions between National Constructions of Memory and Politics (pp. 267–274)

In the immediate aftermath of WWII, the Western Allies and the Soviet Union formulated divergent restitution policies for art and artefacts looted during the war. This first wave of restitutions, which lasted to the beginning of 1950, was dominated by the US policy based mainly on the 1907 Hague Convention of War. While the military governments in the western occupied zones of Germany and Austria mostly adhered to these regulations, the Soviet Union and its satellite states only chose to abide by them, when it was in their interest. Interestingly enough, Western European states in the case of the so-called inner restitution also selectively ignored these regulations.

During the Cold War the successful restitution became increasingly rare. The few spectacular cases in which such restitution occurred were mostly politically motivated.

The second wave of restitutions began soon after the fall of the Berlin wall and continues until today. It tends to be initiated at two different levels. On the one hand, it has occurred at the level of nation states and their respective governments. Based on the public international law, it (mostly) concerns the mutual return of looted and/or displaced artefacts. On the other hand, the second wave also concerns the restitution of art confiscated by the Nazi regime between 1933–1945 to their rightful owners and/or heirs. While there is usually no more enforceable legal claim to these restitutions – with some exceptions – many states have decided to honour these claims since 1998 as an ethical obligation (Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art; 2009 reinforced in the Teresin Declaration).

Drawing on selected examples an article examines how national and nationalistic constructions of memory have hampered transnational efforts at restitution. An author argues that the first wave already demonstrates the seemingly irreconcilable differences in how restitution was understood in national and international contexts, whereas the second wave illustrates the interaction of the official policy in different states and the opposing national narratives on World War II and the Holocaust.

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