Edgar Degas’ painting for the Place de la Concorde, State Hermitage Museum
- This lesson explores the art and cultural objects taken from Germany by the Soviet Army at the end of World War II. Since then, a debate over ownership has engaged both nations. Students will discover details, review key issues, and appraise the claims for possession.
Visual Arts, Social Studies, English/Language Arts
- Learn about art taken from Germany as reparation “in kind” for Soviet losses during the war.
- Research the issues of ownership in relation to works of art taken from Germany by the Soviet Army at the end of the war.
- Analyze the ongoing debate that has accompanied this aspect of World War II since war’s end.
- Never Forgetting: The Legacy of War (Part One)
- video goes here
With 25 to 30 million people killed in Russia—plus the destruction and loss of so many cities, towns, works of art, and cultural monuments—how was the seizure of objects in the wake of the war seen as different from the cultural and personal theft that was perpetrated throughout the war by the Nazis?
It is estimated that around 2.5 million works were taken out of Germany at the end of World War II. As the Soviet Union settled into its control over Eastern Europe, it returned approximately 1.5 million objects to museums in East Germany in 1958. Large numbers of the works of art taken out of Germany did not resurface following the war, leaving many to speculate that they were destroyed. For a group of 74 Impressionist and Modern paintings, those fears were laid to rest in 1995.
Class Debate: Who Owns German Art Held in Present-Day Russia?
- Never Forgetting: Legacy of War (Part Two)
- video goes here
Organize students for a debate about the ethics and legality of who owns the works of art taken from German museums. Split the class into two halves, create teams, or arrange students in whatever method supports instruction. The debate will address reasons why Russia should keep the works that Soviet soldiers took out of Germany at the end of World War II—or why they should be returned to German museums. Allow adequate time for students to prepare their arguments. Determine the format for presenting the debate and allow time for post-debate reflection.
Students are expected to research articles on the web in relation to the arguments for and against the return of art to Germany.
After the debate discussion has ended, view the following clip:
Given the outcome of the debate in class, how do the words of Mr. Piotrovsky affect students’ thoughts on the subject?
- Never Forgetting: The Legacy of War (Part Three)
- video goes here
In the earlier clip, Mykhail Shvydkoi said, “My position is simple: We have to find a civilized solution. Remember, we still have to live in Europe together for a long time … knowing that a German painting is hanging on the wall of the Pushkin Museum … That can’t heal the pain … That’s not the end of the story. We should find a civilized way out of this.”
What do these comments tell you about his view of the art taken back to Russia? How is this view at odds with Nikolai Gubenko, who said, “Let two or three generations pass and then deal with this. Right now it’s impossible to resolve this problem without bloody tears”?
What do both of these comments say about the possible future of the art taken from Germany at the end of the war?
In 2003 Mykhail Shvydkoi and Nikolai Gubenko went head to head on this issue. Shvydkoi attempted to return 20 works from a much larger group of objects taken from the Bremen Kunsthall (Bremen Art Museum) by a Russian captain at the end of the war. Because the works were stolen by an individual and not taken for the State, Shvydkoi believed that the works (a mere fraction of the 362 drawings taken and given to the State Hermitage Museum) could be returned as a gesture of goodwill. But Shvydkoi faced criminal charges if he attempted to actually return the objects to Germany. The debate goes on as to the fate of these and other treasures still retained by the Russian government.
View the following footage on the DVD Never Forgetting the Legacy of War and continue the discussion about Russia and reparations for the loss and the spoils of war. What would be the best solution to this issue?
In 2008 a total of 28 German museums conducted exhibitions celebrating what was given back by the Soviet Union from the 1940s through the1950s, in the hope to break the ice in negotiations for the return of the other 1 million objects. Research the subject and find out what other stories there are on the restitution of art seized by the Russians from Germany at the end of the war.
National Council of the Social Studies
II. Time, Continuity, and Change
IV. Individual Development and Identity
V. Individuals, Groups, and Institutions
Language Arts more info
Writing Standard 4. Gathers and uses information for research purposes.
Level III [Grades 6–8]
7. Writes narrative accounts, such as short stories Level 4. [Grades 9–12]
8. Writes compositions about autobiographical incidents
Level IV [Grades 9–12]
11. Writes reflective compositions.
National Standards for Arts Education
Achievement Standard [Grades 5–8]
Content Standard 4: Understanding the visual arts in relation to history and cultures
Students describe the function and explore the meaning of specific art objects within varied cultures, times, and places.
The Greatest Theft in History: Lesson Links
- Casualties of War The war’s impact on family, community, city, and country is presented. The lesson then enlarges to include other targets of war—culture, the diversity of creative expression—and guides students to probe the full magnitude of The Greatest Theft in History.
- Who Owns Art? Discover the arguments presented in the lawsuit Maria Altmann vs. The Republic of Austria which involved the return of five paintings to the heir of a victim of Nazi theft.