When does reparation turn to extortion?

One of my favorite movies is Woman in Gold. Based on a true story; Maria Altmann, an elderly Austrian Jew fought a legal battle to seek justice and retrieve a family portrait stolen by the Nazis in Nazi Austria. This was not just any portrait. It was the famous Gustav Klimt gold painting of her aunt Adele Bloch-Bauer. Since 1941, the painting had been hanging in the famous Belvedere Palace in Vienna.

In Nazi Europe, works of art belonging to prominent Jewish families were routinely pilfered and given as gifts to high ranking officers and their wives. For example, the diamond necklace worn by Adele and beautifully painted in Klimt’s portrait, was stolen and given to Luftwaffe Commander Herman Goering and his wife Emmy. She wore it at lavish Nazi functions.

Like many other Holocaust and Nazi survivors, Maria Altmann watched Nazi thugs barge their way into her home and steal anything they considered valuable. Maria remembers the knock at the door and plain clothes Gestapo walking in and literally ripping paintings off walls and carrying them away. Her father’s Stradivarius cello also fell victim to the indiscriminate pillaging of these thugs. Always wondering about her aunt’s portrait, Maria would have remained silent, had she not discovered a serious loophole in her aunt’s will which the Austrian government had either overlooked, or failed to admit.

Her aunt Adele died of meningitis in 1925, leaving everything to her wealthy sugar magnate husband Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer. But a codicil in her will stated that after her husband’s death her paintings to include her portrait, would be donated to the Austrian State Gallery. Ferdinand died in 1945. The paintings had long been stolen. In 1941, German attorney Friedrich Fuehrer sold The Lady in Gold to the Austrian State Gallery. It was not until 1998 that Maria Altmann eventually discovered that The Lady in Gold had never been donated but in fact stolen. Retaining a young American lawyer and a friend of the family, Maria set out on a painful legal journey to retrieve her aunt Adele and other paintings that had belonged to her family and stolen by the Nazis. She was on a mission of reparation.

In the late ’80s and early ’90s, Swiss banks suspected of hiding Nazi assets, settled Holocaust reparation suits for $1.25 Billion. Was that enough? Probably not. One cannot put a price on pain. In 2006, five of the paintings retrieved by Maria were worth $325 million. The Lady in Gold was eventually sold at $135 million. This raised eyebrows especially since Maria had emphatically implied that the lawsuit was about justice and not money. Following the sale of The Lady in Gold, New York Times chief art critic Michael Himmelmann came close to accusing Maria of “cashing in” on the “…crazy, intoxication art market…” He conveniently failed to mention that there was one important sale stipulation; the painting had to hang in the Neue Galerie in New York City to be enjoyed by the public. After the movie came out in 2015, Variety film critic Peter Debruge added a byline to his review by saying that the removal of the painting by Maria from the Austrian museum was a “…significant loss to Austria no matter how ‘nasty’ the movie tries to paint Austrians”. I beg to differ. I wonder if Peter would have felt the same way had uniformed thugs burst into his home and carted his stuff away?

So when does reparation turn to extortion? My argument (once I get to it) is based on my opinion that reparation is morally and ethically justified in holding accountable those who do intentional wrong. Not everyone holds to that opinion, because as I have just discovered there are those who exploit for political gain. Leonid Bershidsky, an opinion columnist for Bloomberg, has written a scathingly provocative opinion column on Germany’s WWII reparation responsibilities. He was not speaking about the Holocaust or Jewish property. It seems that Greece and Poland have suddenly developed a case of reparation fever.

Leonid’s opinion is a hypothetical mixture of political innuendo and “morality policing” wrapped in 21st Century reparation humanism. Greece and Poland are not new to the reparation game. Some Democrats in US Congress are demanding reparation for slavery. Most of them are unlikely slave descendants but it plays well in politics. Which leaves us to an important question that no one is brave enough to ask: how far back are we to pay for our forefathers’ sins? Following that logic, and digressing for a moment, why not go back a few thousand years and ask reparations from Norway for Viking pillaging? Or ask Italy to reimburse Christians for Roman atrocities at the Coliseum? How about the Catholic Church paying back Jews and Muslims for the Inquisition? The French did not do too well either. French soldiers under Napoleon were notorious brigands and stripped gold and silver from churches as they marched across Europe. I think France should pay up. The road to reparation can be endless. Should there be a statue of limitations on reparation?

The difference between reparation to Jews in Nazi Europe and war reimbursements is that Jews were specifically targeted because of who they were. The Nazi government broke into their homes and stole their belongings. No amount of money in the world will ever bring back what they lost. They lost more than just “stuff”, they lost their identities. Jews lost their lives, property, heritage, and their families in one swoop. Maria’s suit against the Austrian government was purely about justice. She wanted to take her heritage back. The Lady in Gold was a painting of her aunt who she loved very much. Retrieving the painting was like retrieving her aunt. The systematic pilfering of Jewish property was premeditated toward the final solution, and within the evil parameters of total annihilation of the Jews. When the Austrian State Museum acquired the painting in 1941, they only referred to it as The Lady in Gold eager not to reveal the fact that Adele was Jewish. There can never be a statute of limitations on bringing such evil to justice.

“Germany should heed reparations call” writes Leonid Bershidsky. According to him, Greece and Poland are quasi justified in demanding “reparations” from Germany. As a major EU “player” Germany is responsible in holding EU smaller states accountable for their financial woes. Germany forced them to tighten up their economic belts. And that’s a bad thing? Pressured by far left parties that have made strides in recent EU elections, the EU is agonizing over Germany’s “dominance”. Leonid opines that the Polish left leaning Law and Justice party found a way to politically brow beat Germany into guilt submission. He called it a “headline-generating way”. In lay terms: they capitalize on WWII and Nazi Germany to justify their outlandish demands.

The reparation and reimbursement debacle goes back to the end of the war when it was never really sorted out by the four conquering allies. During the Potsdam conference of 1945, the Soviet Union took on reparation claims of its new annexed nations to include Poland. Like it was inevitable. At the same time, Western allies also promised reimbursement and reparation. Their noble intentions were to reimburse through German industrial assets. But the beginning of the Cold War threw a wrench in the proverbial spoke of the 1953 London Agreement on German External Debts. The long promised and awaited peace was rudely and abruptly replaced by the Iron Curtain. That put debt on the back burner of a divided Europe. When the Cold War ended in 1990, the three major allies: US, UK, and France were too busy high-fiving and “blessing” the reunification rather than thinking about reimbursement. The fourth ally aka the Soviet Union, had long forgotten about reparations to Poland and other satellite nations. They figured that their 30 plus years of annexation and “support” was repayment enough.

Germany lives in a state of perpetual “guilt”. Polish and Greek politicians are cashing in on that guilt for political and economic reasons. In doing so they minimize justified reparations like those of Maria Altmann. Poland insidiously accuses Germany of “colonizing” Eastern Europe and monopolizing markets and economies. Germans are still paying a 7% solidarity tax that was supposed to last three years after unification and until East German infrastructure is rebuilt. Germans have stopped asking why they still pay this tax. Germany has carried the financial weight of the former Eastern Bloc for the past 30 years. Germans have contributed more than their share in reconstructing former Eastern Europe and smaller states.  When is enough, enough?

The EU depends on Germany’s wealth and assistance but sans accountability and responsibility. When Germany asks for fiscal restraint, WWII conveniently comes up. Leonid Bershidsky commiserates with the Greeks who are still upset about the bailouts by “big German Banks”. Really? Who did they expect would bail them out? Their own defunded banks? The ones whose ATM’s ran out of money half way through the day? What about Greece’s responsibility in curbing inane spending? A nation that for 40 plus years allowed its work force to retire at 50 and live on pensions. A social system that drained coffers and ruined an economy. The two biggest industries shipping and tourism went to pot. The former because of inefficient and bad labor practices, and the latter because of poor service and neglected facilities. A country living on debt, blaming Germany for their inadequacies. Now they want to pull out the “reparation” card!

Leonid submits that Germany should “understand” the needs of both Poland and Greece. His reasoning is that by virtue of its size and historic guilt Germany is automatically responsible for the “EU’s success”. Can’t make this up, and the best is yet to come. Leonid is of the opinion that there should be a more “equitable distribution of wealth throughout the bloc”, and that Germany should be more “flexible” because it has an “ethical burden”. There should be “solidarity” based on checks and balances weighed against the “moral hazard”. Germany’s “moral hazard” that is. Leonid concludes that even if Germany cannot fiscally pay the $1 trillion that Greece and Poland are demanding, it should at least be more accommodating to their economic interests. That’s like saying; we don’t care that you have nothing, we want it anyway. So basically, every time a nation wants money they can cry WWII, reparation, and extort Germany and German tax payers into submission.

Trivializing reparation is as wrong as committing the evil that requires reparation. Germany is well aware that no amount of reparation will ever absolve it from the horrors it caused Jews like the Altmann or the Bloch-Bauer. There are still over 100,000 stolen works of arts that had belonged to Jewish families missing. German authorities are always on the lookout for information on their whereabouts to retrieve and return them to their owners, or at least their descendants.

Holocaust survivors are growing old and will soon fade away into history. Their story must still be told and their right to reparation still justified. Which is why I find Leonid Bershidsky’s attempt at making a case for Greek and Poland reparation claims borderline offensive. Maria Altmann and others stand on the high moral ground of their claims. Demanding reparation because of political fiscal stupidity is wrong on all levels. But according to Leonid’s final words all that Germany has to do is accommodate. “Then perhaps, the noisy demands for reparations will die down.”

Bershidsky, L. June 10, 2019. Germany should heed reparations call. Stars and Stripes (Bloomberg Opinion)

History vs Hollywood. Woman in Gold 2015. Retrieved from: http://www.historyvshollywood.com/reelfaces/woman-in-gold/

About the Author
Judith was born in Malta but is also a naturalized American. Former military wife (23 years), married, and currently retired from the financial world as Bank Manager. Spent the last 48 years associated or working for the US forces overseas. Judith has a blog on www.judith60dotcom Judith speaks several languages and is currently learning Hebrew.
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