The discovery in a Munich basement of hundreds of pieces of artwork believed to have been stolen by the Nazis has spawned a movement to enact legislation that would lift Germany’s statute of limitations for certain thefts.
The new law would make it easier for Jews and others to lay claim to works of art stolen from their families during the Third Reich. Passage should be a no-brainer, despite the fears expressed by some that memories have faded in the approximately 75 years since the time of the suspected thefts. Individual claimants would still have to prove their claims in any court of law with persuasive evidence.
Hildebrand Gurlitt was a prominent art dealer who was commissioned by the Nazis to sell much of the artwork they had confiscated during the war. This included paintings by Monet, Renoir, Chagall and Picasso. However, in addition to making a profit for the Nazis, Herr Gurlitt also reportedly kept some of the works for himself. It was in the basement of his son Cornelius that the artwork in question was found.
Under current German law, victims of theft cannot sue for the return of their property more than 30 years after the crime. With respect to any property taken during World War II, this would mean that time ran out in 1975. The new legislation would provide for unlimited time to seek the return of stolen paintings. The prime mover for the new law is Bavarian Justice Minister Winfried Bausback, who summed up why the new law is needed:
It cannot be that victims of the Nazi regime are able to prove that, for example, a picture that belonged to their father or grandfather was stolen by the Nazis, then they are met with a shrugging of the shoulders and a “Sorry, but the statute of limitations has expired.”
While the thrust of the proposed law is easily understandable, there is a problem as well. The current draft requires claimants to prove malicious intent on the part of the present holder of the property, which some legal authorities say would be extremely difficult.
We trust, however, that the German authorities will come to fully appreciate the moral imperative of reversing the results of at least some of the Nazis’ crimes and pass a law that works (in other words, one without such strict requirements for proof of malicious intent). It won’t bring back one murdered Jew and it won’t relieve the suffering of even one of those who suffered unspeakable treatment. But history requires that at least this much be done.