Looting and Restitution During World War II: a Comparison Between the Soviet Union Trophy Commission and the Western Allies Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Commission

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From the earliest civilizations, victorious armies would loot defeated cities or nations. the practice evolved into art theft as a symbol of power. Cultural superiority confirmed a country or empire’s regime. Throughout history, the Greeks and Romans cultivated, Napoleon Bonaparte refined, and Adolf Hitler perfected the practice of plunder. As the tides of Second World War began to shift in favor of the Allied Powers, special commissions, established to locate the Germans’ hoards of treasure, discovered Nazi art repositories filled with art objects looted from throughout Europe. the Soviet Union Trophy Commission and the Western Allies Monuments, Fine Arts, and ... continued below

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Zelman, Laura Holsomback May 2012.

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  • Zelman, Laura Holsomback

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From the earliest civilizations, victorious armies would loot defeated cities or nations. the practice evolved into art theft as a symbol of power. Cultural superiority confirmed a country or empire’s regime. Throughout history, the Greeks and Romans cultivated, Napoleon Bonaparte refined, and Adolf Hitler perfected the practice of plunder. As the tides of Second World War began to shift in favor of the Allied Powers, special commissions, established to locate the Germans’ hoards of treasure, discovered Nazi art repositories filled with art objects looted from throughout Europe. the Soviet Union Trophy Commission and the Western Allies Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Commission competed to discover Nazi war loot. the two organizations not only approached the subject of plunder as a treasure hunt, but the ideology motivating both commissions made uncovering the depositories first, a priority. the Soviet trophy brigades’ mission was to dismantle all items of financial worth and ship them eastward to help rebuild a devastated Soviet economy. the Soviet Union wished for the re-compensation of cultural valuables destroyed by the Nazis’ purification practices regarding “inferior” Slavic art and architecture; however, the defeated German nation did not have the ability to reimburse the Soviet State. the trophy brigades implemented a process of restitution in kind to make physical reparations through the confiscation of Nazi war loot. the Western Allies disagreed with the Soviet Union’s policy. the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Commission endeavored to return artwork looted by the Germans to the rightful owners or surviving descendants. Historically, the Western perspective of the Soviet Union’s actions was that the trophy brigades looted the conquered German Reich; however, during the period of Glasnost and after the fall of the Soviet Union, personal memoirs and interviews of Soviet trophy brigade members and museum officials have become available, and the Soviet viewpoint better understood. By analyzing both organization’s principles and actions, historians can assume a new disposition. the trophy brigades and the MFAA worked to salvage Nazi war loot, but the two commissions took divergent approaches as to what should be done with the spoils of war. It must be appreciated that decisions made sixty-seven years ago were made by nations attempting to do what they deemed morally correct but the lack of communication behind each ideology has made Western nations stand in judgment of the Soviet Union’s response.

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  • May 2012

Added to The UNT Digital Library

  • Nov. 6, 2012, 3:03 p.m.

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  • June 14, 2017, 4:50 p.m.

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Zelman, Laura Holsomback. Looting and Restitution During World War II: a Comparison Between the Soviet Union Trophy Commission and the Western Allies Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Commission, thesis, May 2012; Denton, Texas. (digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc115187/: accessed June 27, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, Digital Library, digital.library.unt.edu; .