Prof. Dr. Benjamin Lahusen, Head of the project "Law without Law" at the European University Viadrina

Mr. Lahusen, why is the restitution of art in general, but especially in the case of property stolen by the National Socialists, so difficult?

You can't tell who a work of art once belonged to just by looking at it, or how it came to be traded, at what price and with what reasons it has changed owners. All this poses great difficulties for provenance research. Uncertainties frequently remain even after years of investigation. This open situation exists in the face of significant non-material and in many cases material values. It is therefore important to bundle and systematize the existing knowledge about cases of restitution. But that is precisely what's not happening, probably because the institutions concerned fear that restitution could set a precedent and induce covetousness.

Where does the project "Law without Law" take up this issue and who does it address?

At the moment, any restitution starts more or less from scratch. Who has so far been compensated what and for what reasons is, beyond individual cases: this is unknown. The German Federal Government refers to the federal states, whilst the federal states refer to data protection. The fact that our practice of restitution is based on normative foundations that produced a vast array of court decisions and specialized literature between 1945 and 1975 is hardly thought about. We want to make this knowledge visible again and make it accessible for current practice, i.e. for former owners and their heirs, for employees of museums and cultural administration, for provenance research or for lawyers.

What aspirations or goals do you have for the project, and at which point can it make an important contribution to the debate on the culture of remembrance?

The restitution of cultural property is one of the few issues where the memory of the Shoa demands more than a confession. In the end, Germany may have to give up a cultural asset. Unfortunately, in the public perception this is often perceived as a loss rather than as an act of reconciliation; and in the worst case this goes hand-in-hand with antisemitic stereotypes. After all, it is not restitution at this time that is the true loss, but the deprivation at that time. It is important to our project to endow the restitution of cultural property with a different narrative and to find a way to carry out historical responsibility today, especially since there will soon be no more historical eyewitnesses.