Since 1992, researchers in Russia and Germany have been tracking down cultural treasures that had been stolen by the Nazis. Now, 125 valuable books have been returned to their rightful homes in Russia.
What looked like a small gesture was actually a major moment in German-Russian cultural relations: Earlier this week, a representative from Pavlovsk Palace Museum near St. Petersburg received 125 books that had been stolen by the Nazis. Earlier this summer, it had become clear that the Schulenburg family was in possession of the books.
An ancestor, Friedrich-Werner Graf von der Schulenburg, had been the German ambassador to the Soviet Union up until the German invasion of Moscow in June 1941. He had received the books as a gift, knowing full well that the Nazis had plundered them in Pavlovsk.
Only after meticulous research has the story has come to light. In 1992, a working group from the University of Bremen was founded under the direction of looted art expert Wolfgang Eichwede. The researchers made it their mission to track down the Russian works which had gone missing in Germany.
"The whole looted art debate in Germany has focused on our German losses, while the philosophy of the Bremen group was the reverse perspective: What did Germans seize, steal, loot, and destroy in the Soviet Union?" Eichwede told DW.
The collaboration set precedence as Eichwede managed a subsequent project: In 2012, the Cultural Foundation of the States, the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation and the Volkswagen Foundation initiated the working group, "German Museums during the Second World War." The group's focus is the whereabouts of artifacts from six Russian museums that particularly suffered under German occupation. Among those museums was the Pavlovsk Palace.
'My dear baron'
Experts have known since the 1990s how the Schulenburg family came into possession of the 125 now-returned books. At that time - 1992, to be precise - historian Ulrike Hartung published the exchange of letters between Friedrich-Werner Graf von der Schulenburg and Nazi SS commander Eberhard Künsberg. Künsberg was responsible for the raids on Russian museums, libraries and palaces in the area around Leningrad, as St. Petersburg was then known.
"My dear Baron," wrote von Schulenburg to Künsberg on November 25, 1942, "You have filled a significant hole in the gaps of my book collection. Should you receive more books and are able to give them away, I would be pleased if you would again think of me."
The researchers' findings
Of the 300,000 books that Künsberg and his henchmen brought to Germany, 11,500 volumes came from the Pavlovsk Palace library. They wound up in Berlin. There, the former ambassador Schulenburg and others helped themselves to the plundered goods.
Schulenburg, the book-loving diplomat, selected some genuine rarities: a very early complete edition of Lessing and some French memoirs, totaling 170 volumes. This much of the story was already known in the 1990s.
But the researchers continued their work. "In the Stasi archives we found a list of books that Künsberg once gave to Schulenburg," Eichwede said. These findings were published in 1997, but didn't receive much attention beyond academic circles.
Journey of the books
Schulenburg brought the books from Pavlovsk to Falkenberg, a medieval castle in Bavaria, where the diplomat wanted to set up residency. Meanwhile, he had joined the 20-man resistance plot of July 1994, which sought Hitler's assassination. But Claus von Stauffenberg's attempt to assassinate Hitler failed, and von der Schulenburg was executed as an accomplice in November 1944. The books remained in the castle.
For decades, the books from Pavlovsk stayed in the family's possession. How they had ended up there, the family had no idea, said Stephan Graf von der Schulenburg. Had he known the origin of the books, he would have returned them sooner.
"There is blood on these books. This vile robbery is part of a war crime," Stephan von der Schulenburg told DW.
Back to where they belong
In the summer of 2013, Professor Eichwede and his team published an article in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, bringing the Schulenburg family into agreement about the books' future.
"Over the summer I got a lovely letter from Graf Schulenburg, in which he requested to return the books to our museum," Alexei Gusanov from Pavlovsk Palace Museum told DW. "With this return, our list of losses has not become much shorter, but it will also help to restore the unique interior of the castle library."
The castle library of Empress Maria Feodorovna was indeed a veritable treasure. Born as German Princess Sophie Dorothee von Württemberg and later wife of Tsar Pavel I, she read in four European languages, was educated and classically minded. Her books were set up elaborately on the shelves.
"We have a detailed plan by which we can determine where each book had been stored. Just imagine - after more than 70 years, the books have come back!" said Alexei Gusanov.
But after the books' celebratory return, the work for researchers in both countries continues.