Poland’s cultural losses due to German wartime destruction are unimaginable

Poland, deeply marked by the war’s devastation, now faces the reappearance of invaluable artworks in German auctions. Unsuccefully demanding a reparation for cultural goods losses estimated to amount to at least 51,878 billion PLN.

World War II inflicted not only human suffering but also widespread plundering of cultural treasures. Poland, deeply affected by the war, faced the loss of invaluable artworks stolen during the conflict. These stolen masterpieces are now reappearing in German auctions, perpetuating a painful chapter of history.

The German regime targeted Poland’s cultural institutions, leading to the confiscation of thousands of artworks from museums, galleries, and private collections. These artworks were either taken to Germany as war trophies or sold at auctions. The scale of the looting was enormous, with approximately 516,000 art pieces taken by German forces in Poland. The Ministry of Culture has catalogued over 63,000 of these stolen items.

The combined value of Poland’s cultural losses, coupled with the destruction of historical and religious structures, is approximated to be no less than 51,878 billion PLN.

Minister Piotr Gliński at the National Museum in Warsaw. Photo: Twitter @kultura_gov_pl

Last week the National Museum in Warsaw recovered its painting “Portrait of an Older Man in a Wig with a Cane” by Godfried Schalcken.

Prof. Piotr Gliński, the Minister of Culture and National Heritage, said at the ceremony at the museum: “This painting was stolen by the Germans, most likely after the Warsaw Uprising, and was found at an auction in Germany last November. The Department for the Restitution of Cultural Property of the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage identified this painting as our Polish wartime loss.”

We are currently working on restituting 150 art pieces from 15 countries around the world” – added Minister Gliński.

The painting was found at an auction in Germany. Following the dedicated work of the Polish Ministry of Culture and the submission of a restitution request, it was removed from the scheduled sale. The former owner had willingly chosen to return the artwork to Poland and generously donated it to the National Museum in Warsaw.

 

„Museums lost approximately 50 percent of their collections. However, these estimates are certainly underestimated, because pre-war documentation of collections was usually also confiscated or deliberately destroyed, and in the case of private collections and religious associations, it often did not exist. The robbery of public collections was an event without „precedent and did not take place on such a scale in any of the other occupied countries, such as the Netherlands or France” – said Deputy Minister Jarosław Sellin.

„The material value of losses in works of art and artistic collections was estimated at 18 billion 605 million PLN. It should be emphasised that we are talking about losses from Polish territories within the borders of 1939, excluding the eastern lands incorporated into the USSR after World War II.” – he added.

Additionally, German laws do not facilitate the restitution process for stolen artworks. A prime example is the case of a Wassily Kandinsky watercolour, taken from the National Museum in Warsaw in 1984 and authenticated by the museum’s seal. This artwork, which is part of the museum’s collection, was put up for sale in Germany last year. This situation vividly highlights how criminal acts can be effectively legitimised. The recovery of this watercolour is complex due to the fact that it was sold through a public auction. According to German law, the buyer usually obtains legal ownership rights to the artwork, making its retrieval challenging.

As pointed out by Sallin, there are still objects within German museums and private collections that should undoubtedly be returned to Poland. „Regrettably, we also face challenges in pursuing claims to recover lost items in this regard. According to the German legal system, the time limit for ownership claims is 30 years. When we mention cultural items looted from Poland during 1939-1945, it’s easy to see that the deadline has passed.”

As a consequence, the potential owner of looted cultural items presently situated in Germany, against which a demand for restitution has been raised, may in practice refuse to hand it over.

Millions of Polish citizens who have faced unimaginable physical and psychological suffering, often losing all their possessions, have never been provided any compensation.

On 1 September 2022, “The report on the losses suffered by Poland as a result of the German aggression and occupation during the Second World War, 1939-1945” was published. The latter was prepared by the Parliamentary Team for Estimating the Amount of Compensation Due to Poland from Germany for Damages Caused During World War II, led by Minister Arkadiusz Mularczyk. A group of 30 scientists, including historians, economists, property appraisers, and reviewers contributed to the large document. The abridged version of The War Report in English is available here.

The combined value of material and demographic losses amounts to a total of 6 trillion 220 billion 609 million PLN (1,3 trillion euro). You can read more in our article It has been a year since Poland requested war reparations from Germany.

At the beginning of September 2023, Minister Arkadiusz Mularczyk participated in the unveiling ceremony of the exhibition titled: “The price of freedom: Polish losses during WW2”. The event took place in the UK’s Parliament. You can read more about the exhibition in our article Minister Mularczyk: Poland was never compensated after WW2.

The exhibition about the Polish war losses was unveiled at the UK’s Parliament. Photo: British Poles

Repeatedly, the Polish Government pressed for a resolution regarding compensation for the repercussions of Germany’s initiation of the Second World War, which led to losses in Poland’s population, resources, and cultural heritage. Unfortunately, Germany has avoided addressing this matter in diplomatic relations or individual compensation claims by Polish citizens.

Poland insist on the restitution of confiscated property and cultural treasures, along with the provision of reparations and compensation. These should be directed towards both the Polish nation and individuals or their heirs, who suffered diverse forms of harm due to actions by the German state.

Author: Patrycja Bodzek-Kurzyńska

 Cover photo: Wiki/Bundesarchiv

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