Justice Delayed is Justice Denied – Reflections on a Life in Diplomacy

Alongside the Grace School for Applied Diplomacy, the Honors Department was fortunate to host J.D. Bindenagel for a second time in conversation about his lifetime of diplomacy, this time considering the significance of stolen art under the Nazis. To read about last-years event, click here.

For a quick background, Ambassador Bindenagel, former U.S. Ambassador and Special Envoy, played a central role in creating the national protocols on restitution, known as the Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art (December 1998). An expert on US – German relations, he has served in West, East and united Germany, including as deputy chief of mission and Chargé d’Affaires, and currently teaches strategic foresight as Senior Professor at Bonn University. It is wonderful to welcome Dr. Bindenagel (back) to DePaul for such a fascinating event!

As the event began, the room was filled with students and faculty, both in person and over Zoom, with many friendly faces from our Honors community. The turn-out was incredible, and you could feel the anticipation as people pulled up chairs, filling the room. I may be slightly biased, but the sense of community at the Grace School is astonishing (I mean what else could you expect in a room full of diplomats!)

The event, titled “Art, Memory, and Identity”, continued the practice of a conversational style rather than a lecture, with Dr. Bindenagel sitting at the front next to Professor Eugene Beiriger, from DePaul’s History Department. Before delving into the Washington Principles, the two began with a discussion of the significance of art in times of conflict. The Nazi’s, like many imperial forces, took art as a show of victory, or rather, of defeat. It is a way to show power, to control other’s identity, a tool of cultural genocide. The Nazi’s stole art from Jewish communities as well as others, such as the Poles, and either destroyed it or sold it. Much of the art taken from around Europe were religious articles that had been declared “German”, such as the Ghent Alterpiece. Bindenagel made clear that these tactics had the same intent and effect; to simultaneously reinforce German identity and destroy Jewish identity.

Towards the end of WWII, efforts began to return the stolen art. A group known as the Monuments Men (and Women), a U.S. Army force, worked to locate and recover stolen pieces, and art was returned to the governments. However, like many aspects of life, things stalled as the Cold War grew colder, and the issue of returning these lost artifacts got pushed to the side.

Following the unifications of Europe, the question began again on how to return lost art. Cases were being brought forward but there was no law or protocol. One of the first of these cases was right here in Chicago at the Art Institute, where a Degas titled Landscape with Smokestacks was found to belong to the Gutmann family. Lili Vera Collas Gutmann remembered the painting in her mother’s drawing room in Holland, before her mother died in Auschwitz ( to read more about this case, click here). There were also the famous cases of the Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer by Gustave Klimt​ or the Portrait of Wally by Egon Schiele, the latter of which saw litigation for 13 years. These cases were able to be resolved, with the art being returned to their owners who then gifted it back to museums, but there were many, many more that needed to be addressed. A significant challenge was art that had been reclaimed by the USSR before its dissolvement. After collecting Nazi stolen art from reclaimed territory, the Soviet Union had nationalized it without any efforts of cataloguing, meaning all that art was essentially lost.

But this was not the end, which is where the Washington Principles come in. As Dr. Bindenagel explained, this was a global issue in need of a global solution. Efforts began to encourage state cooperation, but it was not easy. European museums weren’t interested – it was too expensive, too complicated, the legal systems too different. But Dr. Bindenagel “found none of these reasons reasonable”. In true diplomatic fashion. he recognized the need for cooperation. They needed common efforts/desires, needed to resolve existing conflict, and needed public support. His mantra, which he punctuated throughout this event was “justice delayed is justice denied”.

The process of the Washington Principles was both complicated and inspiring, and it was fascinating to hear such a central player discuss the work. He recounted the number and variety of those involved – ambassadors, lawyers, art scholars, holocaust researchers, etc. They soon realized that the best method would be to consider existing tactics and create a set of nonbinding principles that could be implemented in the context of each individual nation and its laws. The principles are nonbinding, meaning not law, due both to the very complicated status of international law and sovereignty and also to the significant difference between US and European law.

The standard decided upon was “just and fair” – they asked countries to consider what needed to be changed in law to meet such a statement. It was more than a dispute over stolen goods, it was a fight for memory, identity, and humanity. He reminds us of the quote: “War is fought twice – once on the battlefield and then in remembrance”. Remembrance is the key to reconciliation, and the only way to move forward.

The Washington Conference On Holocaust-Era Assets was held on December 3rd, 1998 in Washington D.C. A voluntary conference, over 40+ countries attended, as well as the Vatican. The result was the 11 Washington Principles, which methodically outlined the process – how to find art, search for the provenance, return it, determine state responsibility, etc. (to see the full set of principles, click here). The image on the right shows the conference being addressed by Madeline Albright, and you can see Dr. Bindenagel sitting towards the far right. He told the story of how, at this moment, Albright had just announced that she had recently found out that she herself was Jewish, and her family had been forced to flee Czechoslovakia. An incredibly moving moment, accentuating the power of memory and identity.

Remembrance is not only significant for justice, but also for providing lessons for the future. Dr. Bindenagel and Professor Beiriger emphasized the repeating patterns we are now seeing in Ukraine. Putin has made clear that he views Ukraine as a part of Russia and therefore does not recognize Ukrainian identity. Similar efforts of destroying art have been documented, such as the destructions of libraries, theaters, and churches, and we can recognize these as attempt to destroy Ukrainian memory, identity, and personhood. Beyond the case of Ukraine, the discussion brought up many cases from around the world where the issue of stolen art remains significant, such as Iraq or post-colonial countries. Dr. Bindenagel explained that while the Washington Principles only apply to Nazi-looted art, they can and should serve as a model for future efforts to address art theft and protect memory and identity.

As the second event in a three-part series, we can look forward to Dr. Bindenagel returning next year, so keep an eye out for that – you don’t want to miss it. Again, many, many thanks to Dr. Bindenagel for his time and generosity! Many thanks also to Professor Beiriger for providing his presentation and to the Grace School for sharing some great pictures of this powerful event!



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