Last week Germany’s Minister of Culture Monika Grütters made the astonishing statement that the Advisory Commission that issues recommendations for questions of allegedly Nazi-looted art in German museums would not be revised to include a member of the Jewish community because that Jewish member “would be the only voice who would be prejudiced.” The statement was not idle gossip, it was to the New York Times, which was writing a feature piece about her. This was a shockingly tone-deaf statement for a German cabinet member to make. Even in a vacuum, it is logically indefensible; why would a Jewish member be more biased than a German member (about which she had no objection). And, of course, it is not a vacuum—we are talking about Germany.
Catrin Lorch, who with Jörg Häntzschel has detailed relentlessly the failures of the German government (particularly the Gurlitt saga) in restitution matters for the Süddeutsche Zeitung, spoke to a representative for the Germany ministry. Lorch reported today in the SZ (in which I am quoted as well) that in response to a request for comment, the ministry responded (my translation):
only that the quote in the New York Times was not relayed exactly correctly. Grütters said: such a person “would be the only voice that would have a potential conflict of interest.”
This is worse than her first statement, and the Ministry can no longer claim to have been caught out of context. The first accusation—bias—is bad enough, but bias can at least theoretically be unconscious and subtle. A conflict of interest, however, implies that there are two identifiable interests in opposition, in the face of which a person simply cannot proceed objectively—the implication being that to do so knowingly, rather than unconsciously, sways the outcome.
As before, in addition to how offensive it is, the explanation also fails as a matter of logic. Accepting the premise that the Jewish member would have some “conflict” by virtue of his or her ethnicity, then the same would be true of the German members. Lorch points this out as well (again my translation):
But isn’t this also true for Germans? They advise only in disputes about the return of art in German museums. In the Advisory Commission founded by the former constitutional judge Jutta Limbach, was comprised of up to eight ‘voluntary, high-ranking individuals appointed from the scientific community and public life.’ Among them in the past were only Germans.
Point being: by the ethnocentric logic of the Ministry, every member of the commission has been biased since the beginning. It should be dismissed out of hand.
It is apparent that there is no political will to reform the Advisory Commission. It is equally clear that those overseeing it should no longer be doing so.