Tag Archives: Second World War

Retracing looted and lost art after 75 years

IRP-logoAmidst the current situation around the COVID-19 virus worldwide commemorations take place of the end of the Second World War, 75 years ago. After two generations work continues on retracing objects of arts and other objects belonging to a shared cultural heritage which were taken from Jewish people by the Nazi regime or stolen by others. The process of giving back such objects is often as difficult as retracing art objects at all, not in the least because legal matters impose themselves, too. In this post I will look at a number of relevant projects, in particular at a web portal with a central function. The International Research Portal for Records Related to Nazi-Era Cultural Property (shortened to IRP) is a branch of the European Holocaust Research Infrastructure (EHRI), with a portal concerning archives and their holdings as another branch.

Combining resources

The situation in the occupied European countries during the Second World War had similarities and major differences. After the war national institutions were founded for doing research on a dark and deeply troubling period, first of all by bringing together relevant documents and archival records. Tracing the fate of Jews and other persecuted people was a most important research motive, but other themes, too, called for attention. Survivors of the concentration camps often found little help from authorities and judges in regaining possession of their belongings. In the years of reconstruction their appalling situation was often simply ignored. Research along national lines has inevitably limits.

In 2014 the movie The Monuments Men, based on the book by Robert Edsel (London-New York 2009) brought the work of curators, archivists, art historians and others near the end of the Second World War and its aftermath to rescue works of art in Europe to the attention of the general public. The website of The Monuments Men Foundation informs you about its activities. However, in this project the focus is on works of art taken from galleries and museums, not so much on private collections. Nowadays The Art Loss Register helps both individuals and institutions to recover stolen works of art.

The IRP is a special portal supporting the recovery of cultural heritage stolen, confiscated or in whatever way taken away during the Second World War. Things get complicated in the face of museums and even nations acquiring items from the collections of Jewish art dealers and collectors. In fact I have to state my explicit wish not to comment on the outcome of legal cases such as the Goudstikker case and the case of the Koenigs collection. Perhaps it better to admit we now see things from a distance, and we should be aware we can see only some parts of a chaotic period which does not allow for easy extrapolation of conclusions, apart from fearing things were grim, grey or indeed beyond imagination.

At the IRP portal you can search in the databases of eleven institutions. Some of these databases cover several countries, but you got to be aware you cannot search every database of these institutions with one search interface. For this reason the IRP portal rightly states it is a demo. The Deutsches Historisches Museum, the Getty Research Institute, the Mémorial de la Shoah, the British National Archives, the Nationalfonds der Republik Österreichs für Opfer des Nationalsozialismus, the Belgian State Archives, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the American National Archives and Record Administration are included in the central search function of this portal.

It is remarkable the resources of the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies (Amsterdam), home to the IRP portal, are not yet included in the central search interface. Thus the list of resources – under the heading Institutions – with ample information about accessing databases elsewhere is most important. The tab Collections brings you either to the central search interface or to the resource notices. Sometimes you do not land directly at the right section for a particular collection. In my view you can currently skip the Collections tab. The search interface has an advanced mode where you can enter terms for artist, location and techniques, but a notice alerts you this works only with some of the databases. Mentioning exactly for which it works or not would be a welcome addition, and a clear order of the institutions, be it by alphabet or by country, would be helpful, too. However confusing this may seem, it has the major benefit of shaking you clear of the idea to find something with just one search action at a single central resource, and it helps you to confront the fact things have been entered into databases in different ways. The IRP does help you to go in the right direction when you use its information carefully.

Logo NIOD

One of the obstacles in approaching these databases is the need for the use of standards, and not just at the interface level. The NIOD has helped creating with other Dutch archives a thesaurus for terms around the Second World War and the Netherlands. This thesaurus is a key element of the portal Oorlogsbronnen [War resources]. At the IRP portal the NIOD mentions only its archival collection concerning the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, the unit of the Nazi regime looting Europe for works of art and other objects of European cultural heritage.

On its website the NIOD has created a section Expert Centre Restitution (interface in Dutch and English). This centre hosts the database Herkomst gezocht / Origins unknown. Its core is information about works of art either taken form Jewish people or acquired in dubious other ways and at some time – or still – present in the governmental Netherlands Art Collection (Nederlands Kunstbezit). Here, too, there are warnings about the completeness of the information. The NIOD point also to the website Museale verwervingen vanaf 1933 with information about works acquired by Dutch museums between 1933 and 1945 in suspicious ways such as theft, sale under pressure and confiscation. At the IRP portal is currently no indication whether such resources will be included in the future or not. The database of Museale verwervingen, accessible in Dutch and English, has not been updated since December 2018. Its overview of links and the succinct bibliography with mainly Dutch studies are worth mentioning. While preparing this post I noticed the RKD – Netherlands Institute for Art History has very recently digitized seven archives of art dealers between 1850 and 1950. In its holdings the RKD has archival collection of nine art dealers, among them the art firm Goudstikker. Although I am not unfamiliar with art history I have not conducted special research concerning the Dutch part of the history of stolen, looted and lost art around and during the Second World War, but these digitized archives are valuable new resources, accessible with an English and Dutch interface.

The Dutch websites figure here for a clear reason, not just to honour my regular Dutch view as a recurring element of my posts. It is perhaps wise to mention briefly some of the databases not yet included in the central search layer of the IRP Portal. In some cases the IRP’s overview makes clear an institution has not just one relevant database. Several institutions have archival collections concerning the Einsatzgruppe Reichsleiter Rosenberg. Only the database Cultural Plunder of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is directly included in the IRP one-step search. On the website of this project you can also find archival guides for a number of countries, and a section on looted libraries. Lost Art is a database of the Deutsches Zentrum Kulturgutverluste, with an interface in German, English and Russian. The WGA-Datenbank of the Landesarchiv Berlin can be consulted in German and English, and there is a useful introduction on the website of this institution concerning the Wiedergutmachungämter (restitution offices). The University of Heidelberg is mentioned at the IRP portal for its project German Sales 1901-1945 with nearly 10,000 auction catalogues. The website with the database at ArtHistoricum contains much information besides the database. The portion of this project with German Sales 1930-1945 is included in the provenance databases of the Getty Research Institute.

The resources overview at the IRP portal is precious, and exactly for this reason you would expect explanations about the way more databases will be integrated into its search function. The differences between databases are a challenge to scholars and the IRP team dealing with them. It is sensible to view the portal as a tool supporting the use of these databases, and not, or not yet, as a complete replacement of searches to be conducted in individual databases. On purpose I indicated the languages used at other project websites. It would be helpful to have at least some elements of the IRP portal in various languages. In fact not only English is used in the IRP resources overview.

An unfinished history

Among websites and projects that deserve at least mentioning here, but perhaps also inclusion at the IRP portal, are other projects concerning looted and lost art. The most often mentioned projects are the Claims Conference and Looted Art of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe. The art library of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin-Preußischer Kulturbesitz has a succinct commented list – available in German and English – with the main relevant projects and databases. The Swiss Federal Office for Culture has a section on its multilingual website for looted art from the Nazi period, with a list of links. I would like to mention here two websites not included in these overviews. Auction Catalog Segmentation is a French resource created by the Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art with a focus on the auction catalogues of the Parisian firm Drouot between 1939 and 1945. The Landesarchiv Berlin and the Zentral- und Landesbibliothek Berlin have created a website Bergungsstelle für wissenschaftliche Bibliotheken focusing on books taken from research libraries. This library participates with five other institutions at Looted Cultural Assets, with currently some 31,000 provenance records and information about 8,000 persons. Not just libraries work here together, but also the Stiftung Neue Synagoge Berlin-Centrum Judaicum and the Institut für die Geschichte der deutschen Juden in Hamburg.

Logo EHRI

How can the memory of the twelve years of the Nazi period and its history of violence, genocide and other atrocities be kept alive? The EHRI project is one of the efforts of scholars to help studying the darkest part of this period. In Berlin one of the memorials is named Topographie des Terrors. Many German memorials and other websites can be found in the extensive links list of the Gedenkstättenforum. The portal Gedenkorte Europa 1939-1945 helps you to find more places of memory in Europe. However, I will not try to answer this question with only information about initiatives for remembrance. The actions to retrace, recover and restitute objects to their owners or successors, and the efforts to entangle legal questions about the rightful ownership of such objects are part of the aftermath of the Second World War and form in a way part of its remembrance. Sometimes the stories about looted art form a painful part of the aftermath when they brought further appalling humiliation to survivors and their families. Acts and places of remembrance should not hide the ways the stories of the Second World War have also been ignored, kept silent or made invisible. Sorting things out legally about objects is one thing, bringing some kind of justice to people in the face or irreparable human and material loss and injustice done to them is another challenge. Behind these objects is the history of persons with for each her or his individual history and the history of persecuted groups during a terrible period of human history.

The many sides of Belgium’s legal history

Banner Digithemis

In the ocean of legal websites you encounter very different sites. There are relatively few attempts at creating portals. When I saw the Digithemis portal for Belgian legal history and discovered its qualities it was only a matter of time before I would write about it here. Digithemis has been created by the Centre d’Histoire du Droit et de la Justice, Université Catholique Louvain-la-Neuve. Currently there is no portal site for Dutch legal history, and thus there is every reason, not only for Dutchmen, to look at this website. It might well inspire scholars in other countries, too.

Simple layout and rich contents

Logo CHDJ, Univers't Catholique, Louvain-la-Neuve

One of the powerful aspects of this website is its simple layout, with an implicit promise you will not get lost here. The subtitle Système numérique d’information historique sur la Justice is best translated as “digital system for historical information about justice”. Under the first heading Applications three databases are presented. The first, Belgian Magistrates, is concerned with officials in the Belgian judicial system. The database contains personal information, details about nominations, jurisdictions and institutions. Cubes, the second database, gives you judicial statistics, information about the number of cases and given verdicts in Belgian courts of justice. As a matter of fact I was hunting for websites with historical statistics when I ran into Digithemis. The third section brings us a bibliographical database for Belgium’s legal history. The database is the fruit of cooperation between the CHDJ at Louvain-la-Neuve and the project BeJust 2.0 – Justice et Populations.

In the second section, Ressources documentaires, you will find four subjects: legislation, doctrine, jurisprudence, and surprisingly again judicial statistics. Under Legislation you can find the French versions of the various codes of Belgian law, bulletins of the Ministry of Justice (circulaires), legislation concerning the judicial structure of Belgium, and a similar section for Congo during the colonial period. For doctrine you can look at a number of legal journals, at mercuriales, discourses pronounced at the start of the judicial season by the attorneys general, and there is a bibliographical database for criminology with some 8,500 entries. The corner with jurisprudence seemed at first straightforward: for arrêts of the Cour de cassation between 1832 and 1936 you can consult the Pasicrisie, alas currently not available, and for the period 1937-2011 there is a similar site, but here I can see only verdicts between 2002 and 2015. A very much contested period in Belgium’s history comes up with the online version of La jurisprudence belge depuis le 10 mai 1940The section for judicial statistics is enhanced by a historical overview and a concise bibliography.

The section Expositions virtuelles contains two virtual exhibits. The first, Classified, looks at Belgian military intelligence forces. The second one, Mots de la Justice [Words of Justice] is concerned with images and imagery of law and justice. The accompanying congress in Bruges earlier this year has figured on this blog at the time the bilingual catalogue was published.

The next stop of this tour are the contributions, As for now there are only two scholarly articles. The Lignes de temps interactives show interactive timelines for three subjects, women and legal professions, the Belgian judicial organisation, and the jury d’assises. In particular the timeline for women in the legal profession is telling. Ten short videos with presentations in French and Dutch about recent research are the last element of this section.

Logo BeJust 2.0

Finally the links section of this website confirms its claim to be a portal for legal history. The concise choise of links concerns Belgium, France, digital resources, and some Transatlantic websites and projects. In the right sidebar you can browse for interesting items in a RSS feed. This portal does build on other major projects in Belgium, starting with BeJust 2.0. Other portals often have an events calendar, but it seems Françoise Muller and Xavier Rousseaux wisely have built a compact portal with space for future extensions. The footer of the portal mentions the 2016 prize of the Fonds Wernaers awarded by the Fonds National de la Recherche Scientifique (FNRS) for the best scientific website.

More statistics

Logo Lokstat

I found the attention to statistics a strong feature of this portal. I could not help noticing that it might be useful to add a more general website for Belgian statistics to this portal. The University Ghent has created the Lokstat project, an abbreviation of Lokale statistieken, local statistics. This project currently offers local statistics taken from the 1900 census in Belgium, with additionally an agricultural census from 1895 and an industry census from 1896, this one accompanied with maps. It would be interesting to combine these data with judicial statistics.

As a Dutchman admiring these efforts of a neighbour country I have not yet found similar Dutch judicial statistics at a special platform. The Centraal Bureau voor de Statistiek (CBS) has made a fine website for Dutch Censuses 1795-1971, accessible in Dutch and English. At CBS Historische Collectie you can consult digitized reports from almost two centuries. For the field of law and justice there are mainly reports from the second half of the twentieth century, for example prison statistics (1950-2000), crimes between 1950 and 1981, juvenile criminality (1974-1981) and crime victims (1980-1984). A quick look at general publications since 1813 in this digital collection shows judicial statistics were part and parcel of the yearly overviews. For four Dutch provinces there are yearbooks since the 1840’s (Provinciale verslagen).

It is not because you find everything at particular websites, but because they help you to look further, to value information, to think about problems you want to study or to contact scholars or read their work, that portals such as Digithemis deserve a warm welcome and attentive followers. Digithemis should serve as an invitation for the creation of similar portals for other countries and regions, too.

Facing the past

Jede Epoche ist unmittelbar zu Gott, every period is for God at the same distance. This dictum by Leopold van Ranke has often been used to harshly criticize and ridicule his views. It has definitely harmed his reputation. How close are historical periods to a historian? Are some periods not closer to them because of a familiarity fostered by years of research? Are some periods not much farther away from us because we do not readily respond to them? Specialisation can be a hindrance to perceive other subjects, periods and approaches. Historians have to face the temptation to behave like Gods at a safe distance, with the ultimate view and judgment of history and people. Doing academic history is not always and automatically a safeguard against bias and prejudice, but it definitely can help preventing the worst excesses.

A few weeks ago Eric Hennekam, a Dutch archivist who devotes much time to his blog, a website with news on archives and several other online activities including Twitter, almost lamented the launch of www.tweedewereldoorlog.nl, a new Dutch portal about the Second World War. Again a website on this period! At first I intended to share his view, but after visiting this portal I changed my mind. I am afraid I am a medievalist, with admittedly knowledge of and interests in other periods and subjects, but there’s no undoing my focus on medieval history. I have my copy of the multi-volume official history of The Netherlands during the Second World War by Lou de Jong, but apart from that I have only a few books on this period. The services of a portal which leads you to both written and audiovisual sources, to both educational resources and research institutes, can be really useful. Combining the strengths of the National Institute for War Documentation (NIOD), the audiovisual archives of the Dutch broadcasting organizations and other institutes is not in itself a bad idea. The use of the term erfgoed, “heritage”, on this portal is probably more alarming. It points to the different perceptions and representations of history which can lead you away from a more distanced way of doing history.

It is now four weeks since the appearance of a new study on the role and behavior of Dutch barristers during the Second World War by Joggli Meihuizen, Smalle marges. De Nederlandse advocatuur tijdens de Tweede Wereldoorlog (Amsterdam: Boom, 2010). Meihuizen is a researcher at the NIOD. The research for this study was supported by the Dutch Bar Association. The reactions on Sans égards, a study published in 2007 by Meihuizen on Adriaan Pitlo, a famous law professor at the University of Amsterdam, and his behavior towards Carel Polak, a Jewish lawyer, during and after the Second World War, contain for me the warning to keep here a safe distance. In Dutch historiography about the Second World War much stress has been put on the discernment between morally justifiable and immoral behavior. In 1983 former NIOD director Hans Blom gave his inaugural lecture at Amsterdam University the title In de ban van goed en fout? (Enthralled by good or wrong?). Chris van der Heijden’s Grijs verleden: Nederland en de Tweede Wereldoorlog (Grey past: Holland and the Second World War) (Amsterdam 2001) was often seen by the general public as a defamation of historical truth.

Using words as accomodation, indicating the many hues and grey zones, is difficult to swallow when this does not seem to fit in with one’s own recollections of the war period. Few things are probably more confronting than comparing your own memories with more general views of any event: your own view might appear to be biased, you might have created your vision of things, others might have a very different view of affairs. Things are perhaps made more heavy for Dutch people because of the sheer impact of the first war on Dutch territory since 1813. The Second World War has become The War. However, it is normal for historians to distinguish between continuity and change, and it is perfectly sensible to look for both also when studying the Second World War. Two generations after the end of this terrible war it is still living memory, a period to which people are sensitive.

The Dutch Bar Association wanted the NIOD to do research on Dutch barristers precisely because of the diminishing powers of memory, the small number of lawyers still living who were practising at the bar in these years, and because archival records about barristers are relatively scarce and difficult to trace, and finally to break the silence and to penetrate the mists of time. Meihuizen entitled his study Narrow margins. How much scope for behaving differently actually existed? How much scope could one perceive? Only after reading his study carefully one can say whether he has succeeded in bringing to light in a valid and consistent way the officium nobile during a most challenging period. What can we really ascertain at this distance in time, with the particular difficulties of the sources used, with due respect to the people living in a period where angels fear to tread? Facing the questions of war in the midst of a war is different from looking at it from a safe distance in time or place. I have no idea of my own response to such challenging situations.

As for portals on particular historical periods, some periods are indeed almost hidden behind portals and websites, others suffer from unjust neglect by the world of virtual access to information. Bringing together information, giving judicious comments on websites, and pointing to easily overlooked information available online, is really important.