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Wartime Losses: Basics & Overview

Here you will find information on the historical background to wartime losses, focusing on the end of the Second World War and the immediate post-war period. In addition, we look at questions relating to the documentation and return of wartime losses and present networking initiatives.

Historical Background

In the course of the Second World War, millions of cultural properties were destroyed, looted, displaced and relocated. The losses in Poland, Ukraine and other former Soviet territories, for example, came about as a result of the destruction of cultural properties and architectural monuments, as well as targeted looting by the National Socialists. Special German units such as the Reichsleiter Rosenberg Task Force were deployed to steal cultural property in Western and Eastern Europe. In addition, German troops and civilians helped themselves to cultural treasures in the occupied and contested territories purely for personal gain.

When the war came to an end and in the subsequent period, there were cases of cultural property being looted and transferred in Germany by the Allied Forces. In particular, the Soviet Trophy Brigades were deployed to compensate for the destruction and losses suffered in their home country by seizing “loot” in occupied Germany. In addition, thefts carried out by individual military personnel or civilians and the shifting of borders (for example in Silesia) meant that cultural properties that were displaced did not return to their place of origin or were located in new territory all of sudden, even without having been displaced. In spite of extensive restitutions made during the post-war period, there are still numerous works among the cultural goods displaced as a result of war that previously formed part of public and private collections.

In order to document the cultural goods displaced as a result of war suffered by German public institutions (museums, libraries, archives) and create a basis for their restitution, ten German federal states founded the “Koordinierungsstelle der Länder für die Rückführung von Kulturgütern” (Coordination Office of the Federal States for the Return of Cultural Property) in Bremen in 1994. Since 1998, all 16 federal states – and from 2001 onwards also the federal government – have participated in the Koordinierungsstelle (Coordination Office), which was given its headquarters in Magdeburg in 1998 and merged into the German Lost Art Foundation in 2015.

Important Events

Documentation of Wartime Losses

Even before the Second World War came to an end, documentation of endangered collections was created in the form of photographs and index cards, and the first lists of losses were published. As early as 1944, the Polish government in exile in London was presented with an almost 500-page publication by Krakow art historian Karol Estreicher on the loss of cultural property in Poland during the German occupation.

From the 1990s onwards, increasing numbers of these so-called loss catalogues were produced, and since 2000 the Lost Art Database has been available as a platform for information on looted and displaced cultural properties. The research database Proveana, which went online in 2020, offers a compilation of catalogues issued not only by German institutions but also by those in Poland and Russia to publicise the items they lost as a result of the Second World War.


The initial point of reference for restitutions is international law, in particular the Hague Convention with respect to the Laws and Customs of War on Land of 1907. Since then, numerous intergovernmental agreements have been concluded in which countries commit to the restitution of cultural property displaced as a result of the war. One of the consequences of these agreements was that government commissions were established in the 1990s to discuss restitution issues in bilateral rounds of negotiation. The German-Ukrainian and German-Russian restitution commissions are particularly worthy of mention here. 

When cultural properties displaced during the war turn up in the art trade, for example, or when private individuals offer to re-acquire such objects, questions arise for the owner institutions as to how to proceed swiftly and in the correct manner. Regardless of the particularities of each individual case, the “Appearance of wartime losses (“trophy art”)” checklist serves as an initial guide and a legally non-binding recommendation for those concerned.

Networking among Scholars

The exchange of information saw a major boost as a result of initiatives by scholars, some of them international in orientation. In November 2005, at the initiative of the Cultural Foundation of the German Federal States and the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation in Berlin, more than 80 museums that suffered wartime losses founded the German-Russian Museum Dialogue. Since then, the aim has been to conduct joint research into the cultural properties in Germany and Russia that were displaced as a result of the war. In the project “Kriegsverluste deutscher Museen” (“Wartime losses of German museums”), scholars analysed transportation lists of cultural properties and took this as a basis for reconstructing the biographies of those objects that were taken from German museums to the Soviet Union after the end of the Second World War.

With a focus on book collections displaced as a result of the war, the German-Russian Library Dialogue was launched in Moscow in September 2009 at the initiative of the Cultural Foundation of the German Federal States, the Margarita Rudomino All-Russian State Library and the Berlin State Library. This research initiative set itself the goal of cataloguing the holdings available in Russian libraries, making them publicly accessible and bringing collection items together on a virtual basis by means of digitisation projects.

Both initiatives have been instrumental in advancing research and scholarly networking on the subject of wartime losses. When the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine began in February 2022, these activities were put on hold.

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

Fine Kugler, M.A.
Research Advisor on cultural property displaced as a result of war
Tel:  +49 (0) 391 727 763 36
E-mail:  fine.kugler@kul­tur­gut­ver­lus­

Dr. Maria Obenaus
Research Advisor on cultural property displaced as a result of war
Tel:  +49 (0) 391 727 763 41
E-mail:  ma­ria.oben­aus@kul­tur­gut­ver­lus­

Further Content

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More information on the funding in the area wartime losses
Empty picture frames as a call for the return of paintings from the West Berlin Gemäldegalerie in Berlin-Dahlem which were previously stored at the Central Collecting Point Wiesbaden, 1953-1955
Exhibitions, publications and explanatory videos on the subject of wartime losses
Paintings are taken out of a box while many people watch
The history of the returns of wartime losses and the legal situation in this connection