A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

A Dangerous Claim

Polish demands for war reparations from Germany could undermine the post-1945 order.
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According to the Polish parliament’s research service, Warsaw could claim up to €860 billion in war reparations from Germany. Doing so might be attractive domestically, but it would put very dangerous border issues back on the agenda.

© Agencja Gazeta/Dawid Zuchowicz via REUTERS

This is how Germany today sees itself: a peaceful, democratic country at the heart of Europe that has faced up to its historic guilt from World War II, paving the way for genuine reconciliation with its neighbors. This happened first with France and other western European countries, and then came to include eastern Europe and especially Poland following the end of the Cold War. Germans believe this to be the foundation of European integration.

A huge amount of good has come from this interpretation, though Germany’s very humility about its Nazi history can sound a bit smug. And not everybody else in Europe is willing to sign up to the German viewpoint that moral and political responsibility are forever – but that in legal and financial terms, Germany has fully served its dues.

Two years ago the Greek government announced that it had a right to claim reparations from Germany for the destruction caused by the German Wehrmacht during World War II. The German government reacted coolly: reparations were a closed issue politically and legally, Berlin said. Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras did not agree, but neither did he press his claim, preferring not to strain relations with his country’s biggest creditor.

Now it is Poland, a country where German soldiers committed even worse crimes, killing six million Polish citizens (half of them were Jews) and leaving behind destruction and desolation. In mid-September, Poland published an expert opinion drawn up by the research service of the Sejm (the Polish parliament) according to which Poland was entitled to World War II reparations of up to €860 billion from Germany.

Once again, the reaction from Berlin was cool: “Of course, Germany stands by its responsibility in World War II, politically, morally, and financially,” said the German government’s deputy spokesperson Ulrike Demmer. As far as Germany is concerned, however, “the question of German reparations for Poland was dealt with conclusively in the past, legally and politically.”

Opposing Conclusions

Who is in the right? The Polish parliament is backed by legal expertise, but the German Bundestag has also produced a study of its own; and unsurprisingly, the two services come to opposing conclusions.

The Sejm’s experts claim that Poland never renounced its claims. A 1953 declaration by Communist Poland to forego any further demands was not valid because it was taken by a puppet government under Moscow’s control. In any case, the declaration would only have covered the German Democratic Republic, and not West Germany.

In contrast, the Bundestag lawyers do not just see the 1953 declaration as valid, but also point out that Poland omitted to lodge any claims after the end of the Cold War in 1990 when German unification was negotiated. Finally, they argue, World War II is simply too long ago; any possible Polish claims have expired.

At the end of the day, it would be up to the International Court of Justice to decide whose lawyers are right. But politically, it is far from certain whether the Polish government will really launch such a procedure. Taking your biggest trading partner to court – one who just happens to be the most powerful EU country as well – comes at a price.

Yet in terms of domestic politics, there are advantages. Opposing Germany is an attractive stance for many supporters of the nationalist, right-wing Law and Justice party (PiS), which has been governing the country since late 2015.

The issue of reparations – and with them, the reminder of Polish suffering and victimhood in World War II – may also deflect criticism of the PiS government’s illiberal justice reforms. Over the past several months, the EU has massively increased pressure on Warsaw to take back laws that would severely curtail the Polish judges’ independence. Yet for the PiS and its eminence grise, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, it is Germany that is dominating the EU.

“We were victims of totalitarian German policy during World War II, and for decades Poland never received any compensation, while many countries did,” Prime Minister Beata Szydlo told a Polish weekly. Redress for Poland was a question of elementary justice. Still, she added, “there is not yet a final government decision” on reparations.

The Foreign Ministry in Warsaw appears to be hesitant about such a claim; the opposition, while careful to support the view that Germany still owes Poland for the war damages, wants to safeguard good relations. Most importantly, Poland’s Catholic church has sharply criticized the PiS move. This is significant as Kaczynski’s party has its strongest support among rural Catholics.

Five bishops on the ecumenical council responsible for relations with their German counterparts wrote an open letter to the government warning that “thoughtless decisions and rashly spoken words” were putting Polish-German reconciliation at risk.

Deep Worries

German officials have been very careful about their reactions to the debate in Poland. But the reparations issue has Berlin deeply worried, and not just because of the huge sums involved. If Poland decided to pursue its claims, it would mean reopening long-dormant border issues.

In 1945, Poland lost a huge swath of its territory to what is today Belarus and Ukraine. In turn, it got “compensated” with German land situated east of the rivers Oder and Neisse, which amounted to a fifth of the former German territory. Most of the Germans who had been living there were evicted, and hundreds of thousands died fleeing west. This left such a legacy of bitterness that it took until 1990 for the German government to officially acknowledge its new border with Poland.

“Whoever raises the issue of reparations inevitably also raises the issue of Poland’s western border,” Gregor Schöllgen, a highly respected German historian, said in an analysis published by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung. “Whoever raises the issue of Poland’s western border inevitably also raises the issue of Poland’s eastern border. And whoever raises the issue of Poland’s eastern border, inevitably also raises the issue of Poland’s relations with Ukraine and Belarus.”

What a can of worms! If Poland were to follow through with its claims against Germany, it could end up undermining Europe’s post-1945 order. Europe’s narrative of peace, reconciliation and integration is much more vulnerable than one might think.