Website of the German Lost Art Foundation

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.