To the devoutly irreligious like me, the word “miracle” does not come easily. Yet two developments since 1945 might reasonably be described that way.
One is the establishment of the state of Israel and its survival, against all odds, as a democratic and pluralist Jewish homeland. The other is the emergence of modern Germany, rooted in the liberal and tolerant values of the West, from the ruins of utter barbarism.
It is because postwar Germany has confronted the horrors of its recent past that its indifference to the issue of looted art is perplexing as well as distressing. When an immense hoard of artworks was discovered last year in the Munich home of Cornelius Gurlitt, a reclusive dealer suspected of tax evasion, the German authorities sat on the information. Only because of a leak to the press has it become public knowledge.
Even now, the Bavarian state authorities will not release a full inventory of the art. They invite those who believe they have a claim to get in touch.
This is worse than feeble. It’s unconscionable. There are, to put it mildly, strong grounds for believing that the paintings include works looted from German Jews fleeing for their lives under Nazi persecution. Their surviving relatives and descendants may have no idea of their claim.
The Nazis knew the value of the art they looted
That doesn’t invalidate it; on the contrary, it places a moral obligation on the German authorities to seek the rightful owners.
The paintings are not spoils of war. They are stolen goods, separated from their owners by force and more subtle techniques of duress and fraud.
Restoring these works to people who have a rightful claim to them is important for more reasons than legal ones. It addresses the most poignant aspect of the tragedy of central European Jewry. The first three decades of the 20th century were regarded by many at the time as a flowering of Jewish life, whose central point was Germany. Science, art, music and literature in Germany and the German language were not only enriched but dependent on the contribution of Jews, such as Kafka, Freud, Schoenberg, Mahler, Roth and numerous others.
This culture was laid waste to by the Nazis long before the physical destruction of European Jewry.
One of the oddest contributions to the news coverage last week of the Munich hoard was from the art critic of the Guardian, who speculated that it might change our assessment of the Nazi leadership’s artistic tastes.
A more plausible interpretation is that the Nazis, who fancied themselves cultured, were philistines who nonetheless knew the monetary value of what they were looting.
The wonder, as it seems to us later observers, is that Germany’s assimilated Jews had little conception of the coming catastrophe till it was too late. In his infamous tract Das Judentum in der Musik (“Jewishness in Music”), Wagner had depicted the Jews as lacking an authentic culture and as parasitical on other nations.
The link between his poisonous views and the Holocaust is disputed, but Wagner and the Nazis tapped into a common wellspring of depictions of the Jew as alien.
Martin Buber, the philosopher, nonetheless urged at the turn of the 20th century the fulfilment of a renaissance that would bring “the resurrection of the Jewish people from partial to full life”.
Giving back to Germany’s Jews what was stolen from them is the assertion of a property right.
It is, more fundamentally still, a reassertion of their centrality to Europe’s intellectual life, and of the Jews’ determination to achieve their renaissance.