WHEN CORNELIUS GURLITT was recently laid to rest at a cemetery in Düsseldorf, a eulogist, speaking in style, quoted the pessimist philosopher of life Arthur Schopenhauer: “We share the same environment, but each lives in a different world.” The funeral was the provisional end to a farcical episode in a long-running play: the politics of memory. Still, many unanswered questions remain. Reason enough for Passages to commemorate Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of Hildebrand Gurlitt, who died more than half a century earlier, in 1956, in a car crash.

The episode opened in November 2013 with the belated disclosure that in 2012, German officials probably acting without sufficient legal authority had confiscated more than twelve hundred works of art that Gurlitt had inherited. His father had been a protagonist of the Nazis’ “Degenerate Art” operation, and so they suspected that looted art was among the pieces in Gurlitt’s Munich apartment. Additional and apparently more valuable works were subsequently discovered in a house near Salzburg. It now appears that the actual number of looted works is in the single digits and might well be zero. Even cases that initially seemed clear-cut, such as that of a painting by Henri Matisse, have come to appear rather ambiguous; German authorities have received several requests for restitution. The potential heirs are confronted with two different testaments, one of which puts a Swiss museum in an awkward spot: Gurlitt bequeathed the collection of pictures, whose value was grotesquely overstated in early reports, to the Kunstmuseum Bern. Its trustees will have to consider how to deal with this inheritance—Swiss collections are already rife with works whose fates are intertwined with the baneful history of the Third Reich. This makes Gurlitt’s legacy both a challenge and an opportunity.

Gurlitt seems to have been an aging recluse and art enthusiast who now and then drew on his parents’ collection to help pay for what appears to have been a modest lifestyle. Some sales were transacted in Switzerland, and on one such occasion, Gurlitt attracted the attention of the German customs authorities by traveling with a considerable sum in cash; although he was under no obligation to report the money, his actions prompted suspicions of tax evasion. The ensuing firestorm in German newsweeklies and national daily papers as well as the international press was symptomatic of a media landscape in which some journalists seemed to have lost all sense of decency. Speculating wildly, commentators blew the case up into a sensation and created the sense that one of the last-surviving major war criminals had been caught. The reports and editorials with their sometimes-sanctimonious tone and lack of interest in the legal details was one thing; another was the glaring light the case shone on provenance research and restitution machinery, which is all too often driven by profit seeking and careerism beneath a moralistic veneer.

As it is, Germany has an image problem right now: Growing numbers of its citizens profit from speculative financial and real-estate investments; the social classes drift apart as the state gradually abdicates its responsibilities; and most pertinently, Germany is now a society of heirs, professional sons and daughters who strive as adeptly as possible to manage what has fallen into their laps. Inevitably, some of the riches are the direct or indirect fruits of the depredation of large parts of earlier populations: Germany’s, especially the German Jewish, as well as that of the entirety of Europe. Our country’s present wealth is founded on millions of wrongs, as the contemporary historian Götz Aly has trenchantly pointed out in his recent studies and opinion pieces. It is hard to acknowledge this history, and Germany’s failure to acknowledge it is the lasting stain on the character of a nation that often prefers to forget, its ostensible interest in history notwithstanding. Speaking in Berlin, Ronald S. Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress, had every right and reason to point out one tip of the iceberg—the fact that works unlawfully acquired by the state still grace the walls of museums and administrative offices—reminding his listeners of the rather dilatory approach Germans long took to the task of accounting for their past. But there are also other voices in the debate, fewer but clearly audible, that have called for a sort of reconciliation with the past, and they cannot be dismissed out of hand as revisionist. One prominent advocate of this position has been the Munich-based contemporary historian Michael Wolffsohn, whose own family was affected by the Aryanization policies of the Third Reich. We should not callously ignore these voices, although the effort must be made to rectify flagrant wrongs.

The Gurlitt case may also be remembered as an object lesson in the waning of public outrage in the face of complexities that forbid any cut-and-dried judgment. But what does it teach us? The past keeps catching up with Germans, and with a vengeance: the Third Reich is a history that will not be bygone. Twenty or twenty-five years ago, it was the debate over possible financial compensation for former victims of forced labor; now it is the debate over the status of works of art in museums and private collections (which Lauder has described, with a skewed but striking image, as the “last prisoners of war”) and the need to reappraise the role of the international art trade. In that regard, the auction house Neumeister in Munich has demonstratively led the charge. The Gurlitt case, it seems, has added a new dimension to this issue, but then it only seems so. Thirty years ago, Martin Broszat advocated a historicization of National Socialism; by and large he was right, but we should make one minor addition: We need an analysis and historicization also of our mentality in dealing with the past. Perhaps we will then understand as well why we still fail to do our homework—for as the case of Cornelius Gurlitt has forcefully reminded us, “we share the same environment, but each lives in a different world.”

Translated from the German by Gerrit Jackson.

Olaf Peters is professor of art history and art theory at the Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg in Germany, and curator of “Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany,” up through September 1 at the Neue Galerie, New York.