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Culture

A Treasure Returns to Germany

For more than half a century, 111 stained glass windows from a church in Germany were locked up in a museum vault in Russia. Now Russia's parliament has voted to give them back.

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Priceless 14th century windows will return to the Marienkirche in Frankfurt on the Oder

Pastor Wolfgang Töppen is a happy man. For years, the retired cleric has been campaigning for the full restoration of the 14th century Marienkirche (St. Mary's Church) in the eastern German city of Frankfurt on the Oder. Last week, Wolfgang Töppen came a big step closer to his goal.

On Friday, Russia's state parliament agreed to return more than 100 stained glass windows to the Marienkirche. The priceless 14th century windows had been taken to Russia at the end of the Second World War.

The Russians considered them "trophy art", just like millions of other cultural treasures seized from Germany after World War II. For the Russians, these treasures were a form of reparations for their war losses.

Needless to say that Germany sees things differently. German churches, museums and cultural institutions have been fighting for years to get some of their long-lost treasures back.

And the German government has supported them in their struggle. The possible return of "trophy art" has therefore often propped up on the agenda of German-Russian summits.

"Russian property"

But three years ago, Moscow officially declared all "trophy art" Russian property – much to the dismay of the Germans.

Since then, Russian museums have only rarely given individual items back. The German side has acknowledged their good-will by helping restore Russian artworks destroyed by the Wehrmacht during the war. Or by giving financial aid.

Which is why there could be a connection between Friday's decision to return the Marienkirche windows and Russian President Vladimir Putin's visit to Germany this week.

Wladimir Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin

The Russian President (photo) will arrive in Weimar on Tuesday for two days of talks with members of the German government. Putin is due to negotiate Russia's economic debt.

Frankfurt's treasures

But regardless of the political implications, the odyssey of the Marienkirche windows before, during and after the Second World War, is a very concise example of the entanglements of 20th century European history.

Before the Allies began bombing the eastern German city of Frankfurt on the Oder, the Germans dismantled most of the precious interior of the Marienkirche and put it into storage. The stained glass windows were taken down in the summer of 1943, photographed, catalogued and boxed.

As the Soviet Army approached on Frankfurt on the Oder, the boxes with the 14th century windows were taken to Potsdam on the outskirts of Berlin. Here they remained - tucked away safely until the capitulation of the Third Reich.

In the turmoil of the days that followed, the Red Army packed up the boxes with art treasures and took them to Russia. And for the next half century, their whereabouts remained a mystery.

Frankfurt's Marienkirche in ruins

By the end of the World War II, the Marienkirche in Frankfurt on the Oder had been largely destroyed. Only a few ruins survived the bombing raids.

In later years, the communist rulers of East Germany wanted to tear the remains of the church down. But the people of Frankfurt on the Oder stood up in protest. They wanted to save and restore the Marienkirche, one of Germany's largest gothic brick churches.

However, renovation of the church didn't really get under way until German reunification. It was only in the 1990s, that the church finally got a new roof.

Long-lost treasure re-discovered

It was only after the demise of the Soviet Union that the people of Frankfurt found out that their long-lost stained glass windows had survived the Second World War.

The windows had been hidden away in the vaults of the Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, for over fifty years – and hardly anyone knew of their existence.

When pastor Wolfgang Töppen heard that the windows hadn't been destroyed in the war, he started to campaign for their return. But since "trophy art" is a sensitive issue in German-Russian relations, the German foreign ministry asked him to keep things quiet.

For the next few years, both sides cooperated without making a lot of fuss.

Since 2001, specialists at the Heremitage museum have been restoring some of the 14th century stained-glass treasures. Ties with western art historians intensified.

Back in Frankfurt by next year?

Frankfurt's mayor Wolfgang Pohl hopes the windows will be back in place in the Marienkirche by next year, when the city celebrates its 750 year anniversary.

But for those who want to get a glimpse of these cultural treasures before they return to their place of origin in Germany: the St. Petersburg Hermitage Museum has put some of them on show in a special exhibit.

''Marienkirche Stained Glass'' focuses on 15 of the most spectacular windows. The show closes September 1, 2002.

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