Saal Schloss Rötha

Soviet Occupation Zone & GDR: Basics and Overview

In what ways was the expropriation of cultural property carried out after 1945 in the Soviet Occupation Zone and in the GDR? See here for historical background and information on basic research and literature recommendations.

Historical Background

The aim of the political, economic and social transformations that began in the Soviet Occupation Zone on 8 May 1945 and were continued by the GDR state from 7 October 1949 was to follow the model of the Soviet Union (USSR). This objective was not arrived at through the free will of the population as expressed in democratic elections but was established under the protection of the occupying power in that key positions were filled with communist cadres and opposition efforts were deliberately weakened.

After the merger of the KPD and the SPD in 1946, the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) regarded itself as the sole bearer of social progress. Its self-image as the “party of the German working class” gave rise to its all-embracing claim to leadership at all levels in the “socialist workers’ and peasants’ state”. Throughout the period of its rule through to 1989 (the “dictatorship of the proletariat”), the consolidation of this claim always included the expropriation of private property without compensation in favour of the state (“Volkseigentum” – “people’s property”).

Expropriation was not only carried out based on relevant laws but also by bending and abusing the law and by other unfair means such as the involvement of the Ministry for State Security (MfS or “Stasi”). Private property expropriated from the socialist state served, among other things, to obtain urgently needed foreign currency in that it was sold to the “non-socialist economic area” (NSW).

It was characteristic of expropriations in the Soviet Occupation Zone that there was sweeping criminalisation of arbitrarily defined groups without establishing individual guilt (“land-owning aristocrats”, “war profiteers”). One typical feature of expropriations in the GDR was the criminalisation of individuals based on constructed or distorted accusations of guilt (“economic criminals”, “deserters from the republic”, “speculators”).

Unresolved property issues were excluded from the Basic Treaty drawn up between the two German states in 1972 and reserved for a later agreement. Retransfers of expropriated private property were regulated by federal law from 1990 onwards (under the Property Act – “Vermögensgesetz”, VermG) and from 1994 (under the Compensation Act – “Entschädigungs- und Ausgleichsleistungsgesetz”, EALG).

Key Events

Basic Research

Regardless of the legal situation, even more than 30 years after the end of the GDR, there is a need for systematic research to be carried out into the expropriation, transfer and general loss of cultural property between 1945 and 1990. The historical processes and structures involved have not been sufficiently investigated; the same applies to the methods used by the authorities, institutions and actors involved, and also the history of those affected by state-run art and cultural property expropriations.

For this reason, the Foundation Board of the German Lost Art Foundation has approved annual financial support for basic research since 2017.

Funding in the research area “Soviet Occupation Zone/GDR” was approved

until 2019 with an annual amount of EUR 250,000
for 2020   up to EUR 300,000
for 2021    up to EUR 500,000
for 2022    up to EUR 700,000
for 2023    up to EUR 800,000

from funds provided by the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media. This sum was and is available in addition to the funding volume for NS provenance research and provenance research into cultural goods and collections from colonial contexts.

Basic Documents

Contact persons in the Department for Cultural Property Losses in Europe in the 20th Century

Dr. Uwe Hart­mann
Tel: +49 (0) 391 727 763 14
E-Mail: uwe.hart­mann@kul­tur­gut­ver­lus­

Ma­thi­as Dei­nert
Research Advisor – Confiscation of Cultural Assets in the Soviet Occupation Zone/GDR
Tel: +49 (0) 391 727 763 32
E-mail: ma­thi­as.dei­nert@kul­tur­gut­ver­lus­

Sa­bi­ne Kra­mer
Project Management and Documentation – Soviet Occupation Zone/GDR
Tel: +49 (0) 391 727 763 43
E-mail: sa­bi­ne.kra­mer@kul­tur­gut­ver­lus­

Further Content

old depot of Potsdam Museum
More information on the funding of basic research in the area “Soviet Occupation Zone and GDR”
Cover "Provenire" volume 3
Publications, events and exhibitions relating to the expropriation of cultural assets in the area “Soviet Occupation Zone and GDR”
Volkseigentum Tisch
The approach to retransfers of cultural property expropriated in the Soviet Occupation Zone and the GDR