In 1983, the bombing of a French cultural center in West Berlin injured 23 people and killed one. The perpetrators, an international terrorist group, were believed to have been aided by Syrian intelligence as well as the East German secret police. The victims of the attack and their families have demanded compensation from the Syrian government ever since, and have now called for the seizing of ancient Syrian artifacts, currently on loan to a museum in Germany, as collateral until payments are made.
Regardless of whether the Syrians were implicated in the terrorist attack – Syria has denied involvement – the choice of using another nation’s cultural art in this way stirs up some touchy political issues. For one, it brings to mind repatriation debates surrounding museum collections throughout the world. Many collections in the West were amassed during the heyday of colonial and imperial enterprising, and to this day many artifacts remain outside their country of origin despite demands for their return. The question of whether the museums have any legal right to these objects or whether they should be returned to the country of origin remains a contested issue, but such debates conjure up feelings of nationalism as well as the specter of colonialism. The fact that these people in the article want to hold another nation’s cultural property hostage is troubling, and could have a negative impact on relations between Germany and Syria. Do the Germans feel they are in the position of power to assert themselves over an Arab country and their cultural belongings? I wonder if an analogous situation could be imaginable between two Western nations.