“This is Soviet-style imperialism”: Interview with Director-General of Berlin Museums, Wolf-Dieter Dube

Dube reacts angrily to Russian delays over restitution and responds to the opposition of Irina Antonova, veteran director of the Pushkin Museum



Russo-German negotiations over the restitution of war booty taken to the Soviet Union by the Red Army after 1945 have been at stale-mate for two years now. In an essay on World War II in the catalogue of the “Berlin-Moscow, Moscow-Berlin” exhibition (in Berlin until 7 January 1996; at the Pushkin Museum, Moscow, 1 March-1 July 1996) , the director of the Pushkin Museum, Irina Antonova, says that she does not believe the Russians have any obligation to return the cultural property taken from Germany after 1945, a line she has maintained throughout (see The Art Newspaper No. 40, July-September 1994, p.4).

Citing 1,700 towns and 17,000 villages destroyed in the Soviet Union by the Germans, she believes that the war booty still in Russia (including the Schliemann treasure) should remain there as compensation. The Art Newspaper has met with Wolf-Dieter Dube, director-general of the Berlin museums and the person most directly involved with the relevant comissions in negotiations for restitution.

Professor Dube, this is the first time that Mrs Antonova has declared in a western forum that Russia should keep everything it still holds. What is your reaction?

My colleague Mrs Antonova can say what she likes, but the situation remains very clear: from the point of view of international law, this is property that belongs to Germany. There are the directives of UNESCO, accepted, incidentally, by ICOM (International Council of Museums) of which Mrs Antonova is an honorary member, which say that artistic and cultural goods may not be taken as war booty and must therefore be returned if they have been removed.

In any case, this thorny matter of restitution is not just a Russo-German problem, but an international problem. Russia is holding on-going negotiations with France (it has to give back the archive of the Foreign Ministry); with Holland (the Koenigs Collection, which belongs to Rotterdam); with Hungary (a series of private collections that belonged to Jewish families and that had been confiscated by German troops and were taken from Germany to Russia in 1945); and with the Ukraine (goods taken to Moscow to protect them from the German advance, but never returned). I would say that such behaviour can only be described in one way: Soviet-style imperialism.

But how is it possible for Mrs Antonova to take this position without the Minister of Culture Sidorov and President Yeltsin saying anything?

Sidorov keeps changing position and saying different things. Now it seems that he has said that Russia will give back goods only from private collections, but will keep everything that was already in public collections before 1945.

But it is difficult to interpret the Russian position. Consider the fact that Sidorov has signed a number of contracts for the restitution of some private collections, but nothing is coming back. And then there is the scandalous case of the Gutenberg Bible, held in the Library of International Literature in Moscow. We managed to obtain its restitution against a voluntary payment on our part of DM3 million (£1.3 million; $2.1million) for rebuilding work on the library. Well, three months ago, the German federal government paid up, but do you think the Russians have moved since then, even to answer our letters?

What about the argument used by Mrs Antonova of the destruction inflicted by German troops and the disappearance of 600,000 objects from Russian museums?

In no way do I wish to play down the damage done by German troops, but in many cases we are dealing with legends. If Mrs Antonova refers to 600,000 vanished objects, I reply that in 1945-46 official documents record that the Americans sent 500,000 shipments (implying more than one item in each) to Moscow, so I would say that whatever was taken from the USSR to Germany all went back. In reality, much was destroyed by the Soviets themselves in their policy of scorched earth ahead of the German troops. If it really comes down to a matter of compensation, well, so be it, but on a case by case basis; and I do not understand why the Hermitage and the Pushkin, which lost very little, should keep everything for themselves. I feel, however, that the underlying problem is quite different.

What might that be?

Until the end of the 1980s, the Soviet Union regularly restituted war booty. This proves that, as they had no right to it then, they have no right to it now. The collapse of the USSR and the independence of so many ex-Soviet republics mean that if the big Russian museums, principally the Hermitage and the Pushkin, restitute goods to the European museums, they will also have to give things back to the White Russian, the Caucasian and the Ukrainian museums. Not for nothing is the opposition to restitution coming from the museum directors who fear for their collections, rather than from the higher echelons of the State. So I would not attach too much importance to Mrs Antonova’s statements as she is, after all, only a museum director.

But how and when will there be a solution to the problem?

Not before the next German elections, I believe.The Russians will then want to make a gesture of cooperation towards the country that more than any other has invested in Russia since 1989. Look, when Mrs Antonova talks of compensation, she should go and look at the statistics of German aid to Russia—thousands of billions of Deutschmarks paid by the German tax payer.

One last question: is it true, or just another legend, that when you went to Moscow last Spring to see the Schliemann treasure, Mrs Antonova said at the last moment that the keys to the safe store could not be found?

Almost true. When I arrived she had the nerve to say in front of my colleagues that I was motivated by mere curiosity and that she would not show anything to a gawper.Then she excused herself by saying that the warder of the safe store, who seals it every time it is closed and is the only one with the authority to open it, was ill in hospital and so nothing could be done.