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Poland and Germany: Whoever lets the genie out of the bottle

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Since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, Poland has received daily threats from Russian propagandists that it will be the next country. Nonetheless, Poland’s Law and Justice party (PiS) government has decided to start a row with Germany – one of our closest allies – by demanding huge war reparations for the destruction caused by Hitler’s “Third Reich”.

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On September 1, the anniversary of the outbreak of World War II, PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski presented a report that put Poland’s war losses at $1.3 trillion. This is the first time the PiS has raised the issue with Germany since it began talking about reparations seven years ago after taking power. The facts of the case are formally and morally clear.

After World War II, the Allies decided that the injured parties should receive material reparations rather than financial ones. German factories were to be dismantled and relocated – or the work done by the Germans would benefit the aggrieved states, which were divided into an 18-country “western mass” and an “eastern mass” consisting of the Soviet Union and Poland. The “Ostmasse” received its share mainly from the Soviet occupation zone in East Germany.

looting of assets

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Poland was to receive 15 percent of this share, and on August 16, 1945, the governments in Warsaw and Moscow signed an agreement governing the transfer of reparations. The USSR was to receive up to $10 billion (at 1938 prices), but historians estimate that it ended up receiving $3-4 billion – about a third of East Germany’s potential output. By this time, the USSR was already looting assets earmarked for Poland under the Potsdam Agreement.

The Kremlin then imposed a tough condition on Poland: in order to receive its share of German reparations, Poland had to produce its coal at an extremely low price and export it to the Soviet Union. However, this arrangement proved to be more expensive than the reparations proceeds. In 1957, Poland agreed to forego collecting additional reparations in exchange for ending the ruinous export conditions.

The allocation of German reparations to Poland had been a sham. Of the $3 billion raised by the Soviets (in the form of factories, ships, automobiles, motorcycles, bicycles, and railroad vehicles), Poland received only $225 million (7.5 percent).

Formally, the question is closed

In December 1970, Poland reaffirmed its waiver of reparations claims under a new agreement with West Germany that recognized Poland’s border on the Oder and Neisse rivers. Without this recognition of the post-war borders, the existence of the Polish state would have been called into question. Formally, then, the question of reparations is closed.

In addition, the Polish Constitution clarifies in Article 241 that “international agreements concluded in accordance with the previous constitutional order (including the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Poland of 1952) shall be treated as ratified international agreements with prior legal consent.” On appeal on the same documents, the German government also considers the topic to be closed.

Germany is indeed in a great historical debt. German aggression in World War II caused unprecedented destruction, including the total destruction of the capital, the destruction of countless cultural assets, and the deaths of six million Polish citizens (including three million Jews—a fact Kaczynski tries not to mention).

Gloomy heritage Soviet era

To make matters worse, with the end of the war Poland was forced under the Soviet boot. The traces of this dark legacy are still omnipresent today.

On the other hand, it must be recognized that Poland’s economic success over the past three decades would not have been possible without Germany, which was also the most ardent supporter of Poland’s accession to the European Union and NATO.

True, many Polish banks and companies are owned by companies in Germany, which is where the profits go. Such arrangements, however, gave Poles access to the capital they needed to rescue their country from ruin. These mutually beneficial exchanges have fostered a spirit of reconciliation and goodwill.

Against this backdrop, Kaczynski’s demands for reparations have drawn fierce criticism from everywhere except in the PiS-controlled media. Many see this as yet another example of the extraordinary backwardness of a man notorious for living in the past.

Warsaw conceptual artistry

But Kaczynski appears to believe that such demands will improve PiS’s position ahead of next year’s parliamentary elections. And, of course, the topic is helpful in distracting attention from the government’s fight against rampant inflation (currently over 16 percent) and very high energy prices.

But Kaczynski let the genie out of the bottle. On September 14, the Sejm (one of the two chambers of the Polish parliament) voted in favor of a resolution, signed by most of the opposition MPs, calling on Germany to pay compensation. There are two basic differences. First, there is no talk of reparations (which cannot be obtained formally), but of compensation for losses.

Second, the resolution was backed by the opposition, including Donald Tusk’s Liberal Civic Platform and The Left, led by Adrian Zandberg, who said “only a teaspoon remained of his family’s property.” A Civic Platform MP stated: “Next year a new Polish government will be formed that will take care of these issues.”

Kaczynski no doubt hoped that the opposition would drop all Polish demands for reparations. By apparently jumping on the bandwagon, the Civic Platform can undermine his campaign strategy. But that also means that the topic has taken on a life of its own. The outcome is uncertain, but paradoxically, the best protection for Germany may be Kaczynski himself, whose outrageous proposals to resolve such issues cannot be taken seriously.

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Source: Tagesspiegel

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