What Lies Beneath

Nazi art, Bosnian graves, and Syria's dark secrets.


Treachery and crimes against humanity rarely stay buried forever. Despite all of the obfuscation and lies by their perpetrators, time has a doggedly persistent way of bringing truth to the surface — sometimes literally and sometimes figuratively. Two recent remarkable stories from Europe dramatically underscore that fact.

In Germany, a king’s ransom of an art treasure, worth more than $1.35 billion was discovered in a grotty apartment over-filled with expired canned goods. Among the 1,500 paintings were exquisite masterpieces by Picasso, Renoir, Matisse, and Chagall. So how did a national gallery’s worth of art end up in a depressing Munich apartment behind a stack of 30-year-old canned beans owned by an almost identity-less recluse, Cornelius Gurlitt? The line traces directly back to the Nazi persecution of Jews and "decadent artists" in the run-up to World War II.

Gurlitt’s father, Hildebrandt, an art historian and dealer had been charged by Hitler with the task of destroying art the Nazis deemed objectionable in the late 1930s. Gurlitt assembled the collection through seizures and buying entire collections for pennies on the dollar from Jews eager to flee Germany. Many of the Jews sold off their prized collections under the most extortionary of terms: they would only be granted exit visas from Germany if they turned over the paintings at farcical prices.

But Gurlitt, rather than destroying this vast trove of paintings or selling them off to support the Nazi war machine, secreted them away, subsequently claiming that they had been incinerated in the fire-bombing of Dresden in 1945. How exactly the collection passed from father to son remains a mystery, but now the difficult process of determining actual provenance and, hopefully, returning as many of the works to their rightful families, has begun — more than 75 years after this art was effectively looted by the German state.

In Bosnia, a major discovery of a very different kind was making headlines: a mass grave in Tomasica with the remains of at least 360, and maybe significantly more, people. The bodies — men, women, and children; Croats and Muslims — are of villagers thought to have been slain by separatist Bosnian Serbs in the early 1990s.

But the fact that we are still recovering remains in Bosnia 20 years after the fact should not be entirely dispiriting. The pursuit of accountability, and the desire to bring closure for families who lost loves ones in the conflict that consumed the former Yugoslavia, has been considerable. The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia has secured convictions of scores of people, including some big fish from every major party to the war. Sixteen Bosnian Serbs were convicted for war crimes committed in the general area of Tomasica. Forensic excavation teams have scoured the countryside for years of patient, grinding, and incredibly laborious work to continually shrink the number of people simply listed as "missing" from the conflict, even if it means delivering remains to a heart-broken family. Closure is better than no closure.

Like the art looted by the Nazis, the crimes committed in the concentration camps, and the reality of the Yugoslav war, the decades have helped lay the truth bare.

One cannot help then but wonder how many years will pass before we learn the truth about exactly what is happening right now in Syria. While the West may content itself to turn away with the minor triumph of having rid Syria of its chemical weapons capacity, the killing continues apace. The estimates — and they are wild estimates shrouded in the fog of war — are that some 115,000 people have been killed, two million people are now refugees, and another five million are displaced in Syria.

How many tribunals will be required to bring those culpable to account? How many years will it take to raise the dead interned in makeshift graves by their executioners? How long will it take to repair $30 billion of economic damage, an economy that has shrunk by half, and a disturbing new outbreak of polio? Perhaps most importantly, how long before the world decides that the cost of inaction is higher than the numbers of people seeing hope extinguished on an almost daily basis?

Policymakers at the United Nations, in Washington, Moscow, and Brussels may well think that there is simply no appetite to grasp the nettle that is the Syrian tragedy. Maybe they are right.

But, then again, time can be the harshest judge of all.

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