Putin rejects Merkel claim German art should return home
Soviets believed to have plundered hoards of books and art at end of second World War
Russia’s president Vladimir Putin presents a historical lithograph to Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel after their meeting at the St Petersburg International Economic Forum in St Petersburg, Russia, today. Photograph: Alexander Demianchuk/Reuters
German chancellor Angela Merkel told Russian president Vladimir Putin today that German art seized by the Soviets in the aftermath of the second World War should be repatriated to Germany, a claim the Russian leader swiftly rejected.
The tense exchange took place as they opened an exhibition at the Hermitage museum in St Petersburg during a trip by Ms Merkel to Russia.
The exhibition about the Bronze Age includes 600 items carried off by the Soviet Union as war reparations, according to the German government.
Ms Merkel said it was an important step that the works were now going on public display for the first time.
“It’s our opinion that these exhibition pieces should be returned to Germany,” she said.
Mr Putin replied that it was time to stop making repatriation claims against each other, otherwise Turkey could also demand the return of art from Germany. He said it didn’t matter to the average citizen if art is displayed in Berlin, St Petersburg, Moscow or in Turkey.
According to Berlin’s Humboldt University, the Soviets plundered more than one million books and thousands of works of art at the end of the war. Many of them have still not been traced.
Earlier it had looked as if Ms Merkel’s trip to Russia to meet Mr Putin was going to be overshadowed by a spat about the museum event, when a German government spokesman in Berlin, Georg Streiter, said Russia had called off the event, arguing that “it was impossible for the host to find the time”.
“Uproar about looted art”, “Putin is a miserable diplomat” and “Looted art scandal overshadows Russia trip”, wrote Germany’s incensed media, calling it a sign of deteriorating relations between the two countries.
Ms Merkel is in Russia to address an economic forum in St Petersburg hosted by Mr Putin and was scheduled to join him opening the exhibition at the Hermitage museum in the evening.
But Mr Streiter said Russia had called off the event. Asked what Ms Merkel had planned to say when she inaugurated the show, Mr Streiter said: “She would perhaps have once more referred to the German position on the issue of looted art.”
The exhibition is expected to include items carried off by the Soviet Union as war reparations that Germany would now like back. It is a touchy issue in both countries. The opening “would have been a lovely occasion to highlight our close cultural co-operation”, Mr Streiter said.
Mr Putin said: “I think this is a very sensitive question for civil societies in both countries... So if we want any progress, we should not blow the problem out of proportion but seek ways to solve it. Probably we should not start a discussion now because people will appear on the Russian side who would evaluate the damage done to our art during World War Two.”
The exhibition opens to the public tomorrow - the anniversary of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union.
Tension between Berlin and Moscow was apparent when Mr Putin visited the Hanover trade fair in April.
Ms Merkel, who grew up in communist East Germany, criticised Russian government pressure on foreign-funded non-governmental organisations, saying: “A lively civil society can only emerge when individuals can operate without fear or worry, of course on the basis of law.”
Her foreign minister, the openly gay Guido Westerwelle, has also protested about a new law against homosexual “propaganda”.
But Germany has to keep up good ties with Russia because of its dependency on Russian natural gas. Ms Merkel says maintaining a dialogue is the best way to improve civil rights in Russia.