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Vol 2, No 17
2 May 2000
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Germany newsNews from Germany
All the important news
since 25 April 2000

Jens Boysen

Towards Mitteleuropa after 1000 years?

On Thursday and Friday the third round of the of the regular German-Polish consultations, in Gnieno in Greater Poland took place. Chancellor Gerhard Schröder confirmed his determination to further promote bilateral economic relations to help bolster Poland's preparations for EU accession. He reiterated the point that German support for Poland's membership was not merely an act of solidarity, but that it was in Germany's national interest to do so, notably in economic terms.

He also expressed his "optimism" that Poland should be able to join the EU by 2003. He made it clear, however, that the candidate countries must not make any assumptions on accession, and must refuse to endorse any fixed entry date. This non-committal line has been consistent EU policy for years.

The Chancellor's words were directed at all the other Visegrad countries, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, whose heads of government - Miloš Zeman, Mikuláš Dzurinda and Viktor Orbán - met on Friday to sign, together with their German and Polish counterparts, the "Gnieno Declaration." This document commits all five countries to help build a "Europe [based on] of democracy and the rule of law," and to fight nationalism, racism and xenophobia.

Within this group, the German-Polish relationship, the strongest countries on either side of the present EU external border, clearly has a crucial function. Accordingly, Prime Minister Jerzy Bużek called on German companies to invest more in his country. He also agreed with Chancellor Schröder to build more bridges linking the two countries across the Oder and Neisse rivers, and to visit each other's national pavilions at the forthcoming EXPO 2000 in Hannover, Germany, which just happens to be where Schröder ruled as minister president before becoming chancellor in 1998.

The background to this meeting at Gnieno was the thousandth anniversary of the encounter in the year 1000 between the German-Roman Emperor Otto III and the Polish duke Bolesław Chrobry, which led to the establishment of a "national" Polish church organisation. At the time this was the equivalent of founding a sovereign country, and accordingly the Poles date their political existence from this point onwards – that is, unless they go for AD 962 as the year in which Bolesław's father, Mieszko, committed his realm to the Pope, another way of getting yourself registered as a state in the tenth century.

Indeed, the "Gnieno Act," together with the parallel establishment of the Hungarian church and kingdom in 1001, was part of Emperor Otto's bold plan of (re)creating a universal Roman empire, with "Germans," "Gauls," "Italians" and "Slavs" (including the Magyars) as equal partners. And, despite its complete lack of any religious appeal, the European Union project comes quite close to this time-honoured scheme. However, it seems that only Central Europeans are aware of this parallel.

Looted art: victory or law?

Ever since the end of the Cold War, Germany and Russia have been arguing about the future of the Beutekunst ("looted" or "trophy art") which the Red Army and other Soviet bodies – notably the so-called "trophy commissions" - "liberated" from German museums and private houses after 1945 and took to the then Soviet Union. Although Russia, as the legal successor to the Soviet Union, has largely confirmed the estimates made by German experts that approximately 300,000 pieces of art and millions of books from Germany are still on Russian soil, she has been insisting on the right to compensate herself for the losses suffered during the German occupation of 1941 to 1944.

In 1998, the Russian State Duma even adopted a law declaring all trophy art taken from Germany the legal property of Russia. At least this allowed the famous "Priamos Treasure," the invaluable golden hoard excavated by German amateur archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann at the historical site of Troy in the 1880s, to be exhibited in Moscow. The Soviet Union had previously denied that it possessed the treasure for decades, though it was known that Soviet soldiers had taken it from an anti-aircraft canon tower in Berlin in 1945.

Germany has challenged Russia's position on two aspects: first, that practically all Russian/Soviet pieces of art found on German soil in 1945 have been returned to Russia, not only from the Soviet zone of occupation but also from the three Western zones, and second, that under international law, no country is allowed to unilaterally compensate itself for any war losses, but has to conclude international agreements on any such action.

Implicitly, this means that the Russian policy of stubbornly clinging to such "trophies" is no more respectable than the equivalent Nazi policy of Kunstschutz, literally: "protection of art" (from the effects of war). During World War II, several art-hunting teams, at the service of [Adolf] Hitler, [Hermann] Göring, [Alfred] Rosenberg and other Nazi leaders were competing across occupied Europe on who could grab the most works of art for their respective master's private collection.

The Russian attitude is characterised by the ruling elites' incapability – or unwillingness - to rid their rhetorics of such atavistic patterns as victory and defeat, national greatness, revenge, etc. Civil society has not been firmly established yet, and new values are only developing slowly. But most of all, the attitude of "going it alone" mirrors Russia's isolation as a power too weak to exert any effective international influence, but too strong not to flex its muscles from time to time.

Hoping that Vladimir Putin's presidency may herald a new approach, the German government and the city of Bremen have restored to St Petersburg (as both a sign of goodwill and an indicator of German compliance with international law) two elements of the legendary Amber Chamber, originally a gift by the Prussian king Friedrich Wilhelm I to Czar Peter the Great, stolen by German soldiers in 1941 from the palace of Tsarskoye Selo and taken to Königsberg where it had been manufactured in 1718. Since 1945, it had disappeared, but recently a sideboard and a stone (gem) picture were found and were restored in Bremen. In turn, Russia is handing back 101 drawings belonging to the Kunsthalle city museum in Bremen.

Minister of State for Culture Michael Naumann insists that Germany will continue pressing for the restoration of all trophy art. There do seem to be some signs on the Russian side of a readiness to tackle the delicate topic by a step-to-step approach. Even in the best case senario, this will be a protracted process, given the "moral" value attached to these "trophies" by the Russian public. To support confidence-building, the German Länder have created a network for cataloging remaining pieces of looted art in Germany and beyond, with the objective of restoring as many as possible to whichever country. As it stands, Germany is trying to mount a "moral counter-attack."

Eternal glory? Hitler's remains in Moscow

The Russian attitude mentioned above shows also at an exhibition in Moscow – "The Agony of the Third Reich: Retribution" - to celebrate the 55th anniversary of the end of World War II, or as the Russian reading goes: of their victory in the Great Patriotic War.

The most remarkable piece on display is a part of - allegedly - Adolf Hitler's skull with the bullet hole from his suicide on 30 April 1945. The Soviet Army had dug up Hitler's burnt remains outside the Führerbunker and reburied them in Magdeburg, East Germany. In 1970 they were finally destroyed, except for the skull, which was subsequently kept in a secret place in Moscow, possibly in the KGB archives.

The fragment is displayed together with some other "trophies" from the final days of Hitler's rule, including some of his personal belongings.

According to the makers of the exhibition, their intention is to give visitors "a better understanding of the greatness of the victory." Still, many visitors do not seem to be too impressed.

After the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, the memory of World War II has remained the all-encompassing link within Russian society. While the mourning of the dead (approximately 20 million plus on the Soviet side) is certainly the aspect most important to ordinary citizens, war memories are crucial to the collective mind in a country where most inhabitants have lost everything but these memories.

As during the war itself, so in the collective memory does the cause of national self-defence take precedence over the question of Communism; this way, the army has retained its old red-starred flags and orders, and 9 May is one of the most popular holidays. In all this there is remarkably little anti-German feeling; rather, these acts of public remembrance are directed to within the Russian society. Nowadays, the call on unity and bravery is aimed at securing public patience and endurance under the conditions of neverending economic hardship.

However, this attitude is also behind the almost unanimous support of the Russians for the second Chechen war, where - apart from Russia's strategic interest in the Caucasus – collective frustration was channelled into a "classic" external enemy pattern. Only a secure and wealthy Russia would no longer need to invoke the doubtful values of military prowess and destruction.

Doubtful courage: Neo-nazis charged with attack on Erfurt synagogue

Three neo-nazi youths have been arrested and charged with an attempted arson attack on the Erfurt synagogue. On 20 April – Führers Geburtstag (Hitler's birthday, traditionally a day for neo-nazi actions) – they had thrown two Molotov cocktails against the rear wall of the synagogue; however, the cocktails did not burn and so no damage was caused.

An awkward "confession letter" had been found, hinting at right-wing extremists as perpetrators, in a manner almost too obvious to be authentic. Accordingly, the regional left-wing extremist scene had also been searched for possible connections with the attack. However, one neo-nazi youth has admitted throwing the cocktails, while the other two supported him. The main culprit said that by his "feat" he wanted to "make himself a name" in the local right-wing community.

The incident has caused high-running reactions all over Germany, with political parties and other organisations condemning the attack and expressing solidarity with the Erfurt Jewish community.

Jens Boysen, 25 April 2000

Moving on:


ZDF (Public German TV) Online News
Frankfurter Rundschau
Süddeutsche Zeitung
Der Spiegel
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung


Jan Čulík
New Czech TV News Chief

Catherine Lovatt
Romanian Local Elections

Sam Vaknin
Yugoslav Myths

Mel Huang
Estonia's Military

Gusztáv Kosztolányi
Hungarian Censorship

Oliver Craske
UK Media Look East

Brian J Požun
Slovene Skinheads

Peter Hames
Finále Film Festival in Plzeň

Elke de Wit
Anne Høegh Krohn's Debut

Elke de Wit
Goethe's Misogyny

Wojtek Kość
Polish Cultural Review

Culture Calendar:

Extremism and Coalitions

Czech Republic