Exhibition Leads to Absurd Merkel Putin Spat

June 21, 2013 Updated: June 21, 2013

In the end, they made it. The question is whether German Chancellor Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin were able to enjoy the The Bronze Age of Europe exhibition at the Hermitage Museum of St. Petersburg. A diplomatic spat over artwork stolen by Soviet soldiers during World War II almost derailed the visit.

Angela Merkel was in a plane headed for Russia to honor the end of the “German Year” in Russia. On the agenda: Talks with Putin about economic development, attending the Russian economic forum, and a nice little visit to the high profile exhibition.

Then the notice from the Russian side: The visit to the exhibition had been cancelled. The Russians officially stated that there would not be enough time.

According to reports in the German press, however, Russia cancelled the visit because officials did not like what Angela Merkel wanted to say in her opening remarks.

She would have touched on the sensitive topic of “Beutekunst,” art that was stolen from Germany by Soviet soldiers during and after World War II. Germany has long standing claims to get the artwork back and Mrs. Merkel was intent on reminding the Russians.

According to a German government spokesperson, Merkel would firstly have praised the exhibition, with a caveat. “In addition, she would have put the situation of the artwork in context and might have mentioned the German position on the subject of ‘Beutekunst.’”

Soviet soldiers took over one million pieces or art, 3.5 million books and 1.9 miles worth of shelved archive material from German territory during and after World War II. A prominent piece of “Beutekunst” is the Eberswalde Hoard, a gold treasure and the largest pre-historic art find in Germany which is part of the current Hermitage exhibition.

Russia passed a law in 1998, giving the Russian state title to the property. Germany has always contested the claims and insists on the return of the treasures. Bilateral working groups have been established, but without much success.                                          

While the topic of “Beutekunst” likely won’t be resolved soon, Merkel and Putin in the end agreed to visit the exhibition after a closed-door meeting, but there won’t be any opening remarks.

Putin tried to brush the issue aside, telling reporters “the problem doesn’t exist” and that “nothing had been cancelled.” Merkel, however, said they had reached “an understanding” and that “the problem has been solved.”

While a full-blown diplomatic incident has been avoided, the matter will surely leave a sour-aftertaste.