Chancellor Angela Merkel's strained relationship with Russian president Vladimir Putin reached a new low yesterday after a diplomatic spat over German art looted by the Red Army in 1945.
Dr Merkel was in St Petersburg to attend an economic conference with the Russian leader to boost bilateral trade ties already worth €80 billion annually. Business concluded, the two leaders were scheduled to attend the opening of the exhibition Bronze Age – Europe without Borders at the Hermitage museum.
The problems began when Dr Merkel indicated she would use her speech to point out that not all exhibits belonged in Russia. Particularly controversial is the inclusion of 81 gold objects, discovered in Eberswalde near Berlin in 1913. Considered the largest Bronze Age hoard ever found in central Europe, it has been in St Petersburg since 1945.
Yesterday morning, the chancellor’s spokesman said the exhibition visit had been cut from her itinerary as “it was impossible for the [Russian] host to find the time” to attend.
Spoils of war
Dr Merkel's spokesman confirmed she was planning to remind her Russian audience of "the German position" on Soviet looted art. After the Red Army conquered Berlin in 1945, over a million books and thousands of artworks vanished from German museums – along with train tracks and the contents of entire factories. Moscow says these were legitimate reparations after the Nazi attack on the Soviet Union in 1941, including a massive plundering of Soviet museums and libraries.
Some 1.5 million looted objects were returned to East Germany by 1960, including Berlin’s famous Pergamon Altar and Dresden’s Green Vault, the treasury of the Saxon kings. Today, Russian authorities say they hold less than 10 per cent of German art that found its way to the Soviet Union in 1945.
But Germans insist Russia is in violation of a 1990 treaty on looted art by holding on to treasures such as gold excavated by Heinrich Schliemann in 1873 from the ruins of Troy and the Eberswalde gold on show in St Petersburg.
Yesterday afternoon, events took another unexpected turn when Mr Putin announced that the visit was back on. A scheduling conflict had been flagged, he said, and "now we have seen that we have enough time".
Dr Merkel said vaguely that a “direct talk” with the Russian leader had “solved the problem”.
And so she was, after all, guest of honour at the museum founded by Catherine the Great – the Russian empress of German descent often named by the German leader as her political role model.
German experts in looted art said they hoped yesterday’s visit would bring movement into a deadlocked debate.
“Things went off-track in Germany in the 1990s when we demanded back things under international law without putting this in a historical context . . . or accepting historical responsibility,” said Prof Wolfgang Eichwede, expert in looted art at the University of Bremen, on German radio.
“If we had taken a more co-operative position from the start, we would probably be further along.”