Kulturgutverluste in der DDR – Ein Spezialinventar zu den Stasi-Unterlagen (Lost Cultural Property in the GDR - A Special Inventory of Stasi Records)
Any form of provenance research needs to be based on viable foundations. But while it is easy enough to state this truism, it can be difficult to find such foundations. And these are far more difficult to lay down—especially for lost cultural property in the Soviet Occupation Zone and the GDR. Although there has been a critical awareness of this field up until now, there has only been sporadic academic research and few reliable findings. Data protection regulations mean no victim list exists of citizens affected by SED state despotism. Many files with personally identifiable information located in the archives are still subject to the usual retention periods. Such barriers significantly hamper provenance research for the period 1945–1990.
Suppose that, when checking stocks of a historic book collection, the name N.N. appears as a handwritten inscription in some of the volumes. A look at the institution’s own object documentation reveals only that the books were not donated by N.N. him or herself, but were “handed over” or “transferred” by a public body, e.g. the district council cultural department, the tax office or the customs authority. So where do we start with the question of why a public authority was obviously distributing private property here?
Promising approaches to research have rarely been implemented to date. If the surviving individual records (e.g. object files, correspondence, various notes) did not offer any more additional information, the researcher had to weigh up the effort involved against the benefits, and often moved on to the next group of objects. After all, there is no point searching for a person’s civil status documents, former residential address or traces in external archives without a geographical reference and without clear evidence of an injustice suffered.
Of course, it was possible to submit the specific name to the Stasi Records Agency (BStU) as a search request—i.e. so it could be checked whether the Ministry of State Security (MfS) had created an individual dossier on N.N. But if that was not the case, it was simply futile to search for any MfS collaboration with the district council cultural department, tax office or customs authority in question.
A few weeks ago, a finding aid was published which helps to fill in some of the gaps in this field: Auf der Suche nach Kulturgutverlusten: Ein Spezialinventar zu den Stasi-Unterlagen. Berlin 2020. (In Search of Lost Cultural Property: A Special Inventory of Stasi Records.) Resulting from a collaboration between the German Lost Art Foundation and the Stasi Records Agency, the publication consists of more than 600 pages detailing the involvement of the MfS in losses of cultural property in the GDR. If cultural property was seized with the assistance of the MfS, if the confiscation was pre-organized, if the person concerned was observed beforehand, or if individual objects and institutions were put on record in this context—then these sources have been incorporated into the finding aid, provided they revealed themselves to the archivists during the two-year compilation period.
Names of persons are not listed unless they are a historic or public figure. Data privacy regulations do not permit the real names of the persons concerned to be mentioned without their (revocable) consent. However, all names found, which have had to be anonymized in the publication, continue to be available in the internal BStU database—and therefore possibly also the above-mentioned N.N. For provenance research, this means that specific name inquiries submitted to the BStU can now be cross-checked even more comprehensively than before by the employees there. But for the individual user too, the published work should not be underestimated, since it creates maximum transparency within the existing legal framework. For provenance researchers specifically, it opens up a path into the Stasi records.
Access to most of the MfS files is (as is to be expected with a secret police force) possible primarily by means of personal card indexes. This means that one could only make any progress with the Stasi files if one already knew details such as the names of persons concerned and their dates of birth, preferably to the exact day, as the key to the file search.
A finding aid, however, aims to lead researchers to the specific files that are important for a research question and point the way forward—even without requiring more in-depth knowledge, which is often not available at this stage. When tailored to the requirements of provenance research after 1945, this means that searching the Stasi records for a geographical reference, institutions, events, persons involved and even objects is now very promising. If the present-day collections contain, for example, some prints by Max Uhlig or a painting “Mönch” (Monk) by Eduard Grützner, results would be recorded in both cases (Dresden AOPK 479/87, MfS AIM5056/87, MfS AZI985/89). Such results may indicate seizures of cultural goods in the GDR, representing initial starting points for a possible investigation.
In addition, research into Nazi-confiscated property can also benefit from the BStU finding aid: in the Stasi records, a number of files from the period prior to 1945 are available as historic copies or material collections. “Paintings looted by the SS Panzer Division ‘Das Reich’ and documentary lists of the War Booty Office of the Reich Main Treasury” (MfS SdM 932) from the years 1942–1943 or confiscation reports of the Reich Main Security Office relating to “important library materials (books, card indexes and journal series) from academic institutions […] from Kiev, Belarus and Lviv” (MfS HA XX 5233) for the years 1943–1944 can thus now be researched.
It would be gratifying if, in the 30th year of German unity, the new special inventory did not merely provide a better basis for investigations into lost cultural property in the Soviet Occupation Zone and the GDR, but could also raise awareness of the need for research and the necessary communication of information for the purpose of reappraisal.