Reparation Claims

Poland’s Weak Hand

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Poland’s Prime Minister Beata Szydlo review the guard of honour during the welcoming ceremony in Warsaw
German-Polish relations have turned rather frosty. Source: Reuters

The latest salvo from the Polish government regarding World War II reparations from Germany may be part of a European Union poker game, but Germany is not bluffing when it says it rejects the idea.

Legal experts for the Polish parliament Monday released an opinion that Poland can claim reparations for the loss of life and property during the war, rejecting any notions that the country had relinquished its claim or that time has run out on it. The 40-page document also argues that Poland was excluded in postwar reparations settlements and that the minimal amount paid by Germany was far less than paid to other victims.

Polish officials have recently suggested that reparations claims could amount to $1 trillion, though the government has not yet made any formal demand and the legal expertise is non-binding. The German government was quick to reject the new claim, as it has others in the past.

The revival of reparations claims comes amid a deepening rift between the two neighbors. Germany is applying pressure on Warsaw far-right government regarding a law it sees as violating EU protections for an independent judiciary, as well as for Poland’s refusal to accept its share of the more than 1 million refugees that arrived in Europe in the past two years. But while reparations may be a sensitive matter, Poland has a weak hand legally – and Germany is not likely to blink.

“I don’t find a way Poland can make a claim on a legal basis.”

Michael Bazyler, law professor, Chapman University

“I don’t find a way Poland can make a claim on a legal basis,” said Michael Bazyler, a law professor at Chapman University and an expert on reparations. “Perhaps as a moral right, but in international law, I just don’t see it.”

Mr. Bazyler, who emigrated from Poland at age 11 and still holds a Polish passport, is sympathetic to claims that Poland has not been sufficiently compensated, but finds their legal case shaky. “I don’t see how they could win any suit with the International Court of Justice,” he said.

The escalating conflict between Poland and Germany reflects centuries-old tensions between the eastern and western halves of Europe, with the West ahead of the East in terms of prosperity and power throughout history. The Nazi aggression in World War II was the culmination of centuries of antagonism, saddling Germany with a grim legacy as it increasingly asserts its leadership in the EU.

It is this historic divide that US President Donald Trump exploited when he traveled to Warsaw in July, seeking to drive a wedge between the “new Europe” in eastern and central Europe and the “old Europe” in the West, led by Germany.

Two years ago, Greece revived its demands for German reparations as the Berlin government pushed strongly for austerity measures to bring Greece in line with its debt and deficit limits for the euro zone. At that time, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s government floated an amount close to $300 billion and threatened to seize German assets in Greece.

It never followed through, and Athens eventually folded to the dictates of the foreign lenders’ troika – the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund – to continue rolling over its debt while deflating its economy.

Poland’s case is more complex. The country lies on an indefensible plain between Russia and Germany, and those two powers, along with Austria-Hungary, partitioned Poland out of existence in the 18th century, each taking the portion on its borders. Poland was reconstituted only in 1918. Then in the wake of World War II, the victorious Allies meeting in Potsdam shifted Poland’s borders to the west, ceding parts of eastern Poland to the Soviet Union and taking over regions in the west that belonged to Germany before the war.

It was a 1953 agreement between Poland and East Germany to renounce all claims to reparation that is the basis for reunified Germany to reject any new claims. The Polish government says that 1953 accord was not valid because it was made between two puppet regimes of the Soviet Union – in Moscow’s interest and not that of Poland. Germany in turn argues that subsequent Polish governments have accepted the renunciation as a fait accompli.

Mr. Bazyler, the law professor, agrees. “Even after they were no longer the Polish People’s Republic, they had opportunities to make a claim,” he said, notably at the time of the 2+4 talks in 1990 that led to the reunification of Germany and a border treaty with Poland.

Germany has in fact paid billions in reparations to Poland and other countries, and continues to pay compensation to survivors every year through the Claims Conference. In 1991, it set up a foundation specifically for German-Polish reconciliation, and in 2000 another foundation for “Remembrance, Responsibility and Future” endowed with €5 billion from German government and industry.

The far-right Law and Justice government currently in power, however, is mounting what it calls an “historical counteroffensive” to rewrite these chapters of history. While Poland is substantially bigger than Greece, it is likely to learn the same hard lesson – if it wants to remain in the European Union, it will eventually bow to Berlin’s will.

There is little question that Germany would win this battle over reparations on legal grounds. And there is a good chance the EU will weather the storm of this reactionary Polish government, and Warsaw will fall in line. But the escalating conflict is nonetheless dangerous, and there is also a risk that this centuries-old antagonism will reopen divisions in Europe.

It is, in short, high-stakes poker, made more so with the US president kibitzing on the sidelines.


Darrell Delamaide is a Handelsblatt Global writer and editor based in Washington, DC. To contact the author:

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