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Online collection Wiedergutmachung for
National Socialist Injustice

History of Restitution

Restitution is the term used for the return of or compensation for ascertainable assets seized due to National Socialist persecution. The allied powers first focused on the return of so-called organizational assets. This refers to assets confiscated by the National Socialist regime that used to belong to persecuted organizations (e.g. parties, trade unions, religious institutions). Individual assets and property attracted attention only at a later stage. 

Frozen Assets, Restitution of Assets to Organizations

In order to restitute assets, the occupying powers needed information about their whereabouts. Moreover, they had to bring them under allied control.  For this reason, the Control Council Proclamation No. 2 of September 20, 1945 (ABl. KR 1945, pp. 8-19 PDF) and the Control Council Law No. 2 of October 10, 1945 (ABl. KR 1945, pp. 19-21 PDF) stipulated the order to freeze all assets of the German Reich, its regional authorities, the Reich organizations, and of the NSDAP and its subdivisions.

The disposal and use of the frozen assets was determined by the cross-zonal Control Council Directive No. 50 of April 29, 1947 (ABl. KR 1947, pp. 275-278 PDF). It laid down only the basic principles, though, and did not carry legal force. The assets were to be retransferred – if possible – to the organizations or to their successors. Otherwise, they should be handed over to the Länder or regional districts.

In addition, Military Government Law No. 52 on the blocking and control of property was in effect in the three Western zones and in West Berlin, which included all property seized due to National Socialist persecution. (ABl. MilReg Kontrollgebiet der zwölften Armeegruppe. Nr. 1 (1944), pp. 24–27 PDF; ABl. MilReg. Kontrollgebiet der 21. Armeegruppe. Nr. 3 (1945), pp. 18–21 PDF; Journal Officiel 1947, pp. 585–588 PDF).

In the US and French occupation zones (including the Saarland), particularly authorized Land authorities managed the restitution of frozen assets to the organizations; in the British occupation zone and in West Berlin, institutions installed by the occupying powers carried out this task. Assets lacking an adequate owner or successor were retransferred to the Land administrations according the Control Council Directive. Jewish successor organizations (in the US and British occupation zones and in West Berlin) or the re-established Jewish communities (in the French occupation zone and in the Saarland) acquired the seized assets of former Jewish communities. In order to overrule the fiscal claim of inheritance, the successor organizations were also entitled to the assets that had no surviving owner or heir because of the Holocaust. The successor organizations included the Jewish Restitution Successor Organization (JRSO) in the US occupation zone, the Jewish Trust Corporation for Germany (JTC) and the Allgemeine Treuhandorganisation (ATO) in the British occupation zone and the Branche Française (an offshoot of the JTC) in the French occupation zone.

A man stands in the foreground looking at a painting. Behind the man, paintings are leaning against a wall. Other men are sitting and standing in the background.
After the end of the war, the Allied powers stored looted pieces of artwork at central collecting points before they started to research former owners and – if possible – to organize their restitution. The picture shows workers cataloguing paintings at the Munich Central Collecting Point in 1946. | Herbert List: Katalogisieren im Central Art Collecting Point. München, 1946.

Restitution Until 1990

Restitution under occupation law

In 1947 and 1949, restitution laws enacted in the Länder of the Western occupation zones regulated the restitution to individual victims of persecution whose seized assets had been prevented from unauthorized access by MRG No. 52.

The Western zones and West Berlin adopted independent provisions: The US occupation zone enacted Law No. 59 about the "Restitution of identifiable property to victims of National Socialist repression" (USREG) on November 10, 1947 (ABl. Am MilReg 1947 G, pp. 1–25 PDF). In the British occupation zone, Law No. 59 on the Restitution of identifiable property to victims of Nazi oppression” (BREG) came into effect on May 12, 1949 (Abl. Brit MilReg 1949, pp. 1169–1187 PDF). The French occupation zone and – with deviations – the Saarland adopted Ordinance No. 120 "on the return of stolen items of property" (RüVO) of November 10, 1947 (Journal officiel 1947, pp. 1219–1221 PDF), while the BK/O (49) 180 "Restitution order of the Allied Kommandatura" (REAO) of July 26, 1949 (VOBl. Berlin [West], 1949 I, pp. 221–231 PDF) applied in the Western sectors of Berlin.

Restitution legislation had almost identical wording in the US and the British occupation zone and in West Berlin. In contrast, the RüVO of the French occupation zone and in the Saarland deviated substantially from the provisions of the other two occupying powers.

The provisions of the US and British occupation zones provided for the retransfer of assets that were still identifiable at the time of the decision on the claim. They awarded damages also in the event of destruction or loss of the assets. The French RüVO, though, lacked a regulation of this kind. 

The legislation also differed in the restitution procedures: According to the US and British legislation, the German Wiedergutmachung offices acted as arbitral authority and preceded legal proceedings in the regional and higher regional courts. Under French law, the claimants needed to assert their claims directly by means of a lawsuit without prior extra-judicial proceedings. As the restitution procedures turned out to be very complicated, claimants often sought advice from international support organizations. These organizations, such as the United Restitution Organization (URO), helped with the application and represented claimants in court.

Elderly couple sitting at a table, opposite them a woman leafing through a large pile of documents. Another group of people at a table can be seen in the background.
Applicants receiving support for their restitution proceedings at the URO office in Tel Aviv on February 20, 1966. | bpk-Bildagentur, Bild 30019535

Each occupation zone installed special restitution courts to serve as final courts of appeal: the Court of Restitution Appeals in Nuremberg for the US occupation zone, the Board of Review in Herford for the British occupation zone, and the Cour Supérieure pour les Restitutions in Rastatt for the French occupation zone.

With the “Convention on the Settlement of Matters Arising out of the War and the Occupation” (BGBl. 1955 II, pp. 405–468, here p. 423 et seqq. PDF) of 1990, the courts merged into an international Supreme Restitution Court based in Herford. Berlin had an independent Supreme Restitution Court due to the particular situation of the city. 

The assets subject to restitution law included not only tangible objects, but also rights and notions of rights (trading assets, inheritances, business assets). Restitution law applied to all identifiable assets seized from their owners by force or under constraint between January 30, 1933 and May 8, 1945, for reasons of race, religion, nationality, ideology or political opposition to National Socialism. This included immoral legal transactions or illegal action, and other authority or government activities (laws, expropriation or confiscation).

The legal title of restitution applied to all assets located within the geographical scope of application of the law (objective territorial principle). Later, the principle also recognized a legitimate claim if there was proof that the asset entered the geographical scope of application after its confiscation. From 1954 onwards, the Berlin REAO order also recognized seizures by the German Reich in the later Eastern Sector of the city if the damaged party or its legal successor had his or her permanent abode within the territory of the Federal Republic of Germany or in West Berlin between January 30, 1933 and May 8, 1945.

It was settled case-law of the German Federal Court of Justice (BGH) that Wiedergutmachung claims could only be pursued in accordance with the respective restitution and compensation provisions. The allied restitution laws therefore took precedence over the German Civil Code: The 30-year limitation period of the Civil Code did not apply either but rather the very short application periods of the allied regulations (see BGH decision of October 8, 1953 – IV ZR 30/53, BGHZ 10, 340, 343). In 2012, the BGH partially revised this decision and admitted a restitution claim under § 985 BGB "if the property seized as a result of persecution was lost after the war and the owner only became aware of its whereabouts after the deadline for filing a restitution claim had expired" (BGH decision of March 16, 2012 – V ZR 279/10 PDF). This happened regardless of the still effective Restitution order of the Allied Kommandatura (REAO) for Berlin, whose deadlines had long since expired.

Federal Restitution Act

The allied restitution provisions did not take into account the claims against the German Reich, in case they aimed at any kind of monetary compensation. The "Federal Act for the Settlement of the Monetary Restitution Liabilities of the German Reich and Legal Entities of Equivalent Status" (Federal Restitution Act) of July 19, 1957 (BGBl. 1957 I, pp. 734–742 PDF) addressed these claims, which the German federal government had already recognized in the 1st Hague Protocol in 1952. The allied restitution provisions also remained effective, even though the majority of the legal proceedings had come to a decision by the end of the 1950s.

The Federal Restitution Act governed restitution claims for monetary compensation against the German Reich, including the special assets of the German Reichsbahn and the German Reichspost. The law also applied to restitution claims against the former Land of Prussia, the Reichsautobahnen company, the former National Socialist party (NSDAP) with its subdivisions and affiliated associations, and other dissolved institutions as well as against the Reich Association of Jews in Germany and the Emigration Fund Bohemia and Moravia. All of these state institutions were considered involved in confiscating Jewish property. In addition, the act reopened the deadlines for filing claims.

The Federal Restitution Act also adopted the territorial principle according to which the restitution or monetary compensation was only possible for assets located within the geographical scope of application of the act, i.e. the Federal Republic of Germany and West Berlin, at the time or after its confiscation. One exception were claims relating to personal belongings confiscated in a foreign harbor when the persecuted person had emigrated from the German Reich. The German government had promised to satisfy these claims already in the Hague Protocols. The third amendment of the REAO order of October 2, 1964 (BGBl. 1964 I, pp. 809–814 PDF) further extended the REAO provision according to which the seizures of the German Reich in later East Berlin were deemed to be within the scope of application. The provision now also included seizures of other legal entities named in the Federal Restitution Act. Moreover, it now also applied to victims who had resided in Eastern Germany and in East Berlin from 1933 to 1945 and had moved to Western German Länder until December 31, 1961. 

When the claimant had his or her residence or permanent abode in areas with whose governments the Federal Republic of Germany did not maintain diplomatic relations, claims were rejected. This diplomatic clause excluded Eastern Bloc countries and prevented foreign currency from entering the other side of the Iron Curtain during the Cold War.

The German Oberfinanzdirektionen (Superior Finance Directorate, here: Department of Federal Assets) conducted the restitution proceedings. Claimants were able to appeal against the decisions at the Wiedergutmachungskammer (court for restitution-related matters) or, in the Länder of the former French occupation zone, at the regional court divisions. The supreme restitution courts adjudicated at last instance. As a rule, the Wiedergutmachung authorities and courts in West Berlin always had jurisdiction in cases of proven transfer of the seized property to the territory of the Federal Republic of Germany and Berlin (without specifying the exact location).

Burden Equalization

Under the Equalization of Burdens Act (BGBl. 1952 I, pp. 446-533 PDF), victims of National Socialist persecution could also claim compensatory payments for damage to their property if they had been forced to leave the country prior to their expulsion or if their property had been seized prior to the war damage. This became effective by special provisions of the "11th Ordinance on Compensatory Payments under the Equalization of Burdens Act" of December 18, 1956 (BGBL. 1956 I, pp. 932-935 PDF). Displaced victims were entitled to assert restitution claims for war-related material damage, loss of savings, and damage caused by expulsion, especially in and from Eastern Germany (Ostschäden). The provisions particularly addressed victims who did not qualify for any kind of compensation or restitution due to persecution-related confiscation of property or due to emigration and deportation. Compensatory payments were usually only available to those directly affected. In case of war-related material damage, victims of National Socialist persecution were recognized as directly affected, even though they had been deprived of their property before the damage occurred (e.g. due to bomb attacks). They were hence entitled to compensatory payments for the loss of value at the time of the deprivation.

Persecuted persons, who had left the later territories of expulsion due to emigration or deportation, received the status of so-called “Fiktivvertriebener” since they would have been expelled as Germans in 1945 anyway. They also obtained the right to compensation for damages caused by expulsion.

Damages caused by expulsion included damage to real property, agricultural and forestry assets, business assets, household effects, rights and interests, objects for the exercise of a profession etc. The damage had to result from persecution-related seizure. For this reason, the monetary compensation followed the value of the loss at the time of the seizure and not at the time of the victim’s displacement. Restitution was also possible for so-called Ostschäden, i.e. damage to rateable assets located in the formerly German Eastern territories that belonged to non-displaced persons (e.g. real estates in Silesia of a Cologne owner). Persecuted persons could apply for compensatory payments for these seized assets at the burden equalization offices. 

To obtain the status as “Fiktivvertriebene”, victims had to be of German nationality or ethnicity. According to § 6 of the Federal Expellee Act, anyone who has professed German nationality in his or her home country qualified as an ethnic German, “provided that this profession is confirmed by certain characteristics such as origin, language, education and culture”. Particularly Jewish victims who had emigrated from Eastern Europe often considered it demanding and humiliating to have to prove their Germanness e.g. by language tests.

In 1941 als der Krieg in Kroatien uns erreicht hat wurde ich aus meiner Familie herausgerissen. Meine Frau, meine drei Söhne Mutter und Geschwieste nie mehr wieder gesehen. Alle sind in Auschwitz umgekommen. Ich frage mich wi ich es fertig bringe hier zu sitzen und mich zum deutschen Kulturkreis zu bekennen. [In 1941, when the war in Croatia reached us, I was torn away from my family. I never saw my wife, my three sons, mother and siblings again. They all died in Auschwitz. I ask myself how I manage to sit here and profess my German culture.]
Answer in a written language test, cited in: RzW 1966, p. 155.

Restitution in the New German Länder

As a matter of fact, the Soviet occupation zone and in the GDR did not actually restitute seized assets to the persecuted victims. After the German reunification, the federal government hence took a range of legislative measures to remedy this injustice.

In an exchange of notes with the former occupying powers on September 27/28, 1990, the German government promised to provide for the restitution of assets confiscated in the former GDR territory between 1933 and 1945. The Unification Treaty transferred the restitution provisions and the Federal Compensation Act in form and content to the acceding territory. This was a rather symbolic gesture, though. Due to the expired deadlines, the provisions no longer had any practical effect. 

The "Act Regulating Open Property Matters” of September 23, 1990 (BGBl. 1990 II, pp. 1159–1168 PDF) governed restitution matters in the new German Länder. Adopted as part of GDR legislation, the Act came into force with the Unification Treaty. It primarily regulated property transfers after 1945 but also applied to the restitution of property seized because of persecution in the territory of the new Länder between 1933 and 1945. It referred to the Berlin REAO with regard to the assumption of a persecution-related loss of property.

The Act Regulating Open Property Matters generally provided for the retransfer of assets; however, compensatory payments were also possible in accordance with the Victims of Nazi Persecution Compensation Act of September 27, 1994 (BGBL. 1994 I, p. 2632 PDF). For the assessment of damages, the regulations of the Federal Restitution Act applied. In case of heirless Jewish assets, the Act designated the Jewish Claims Conference as legal successor.

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