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Europe

Berlin Shocked By Polish Reparations Vote

The decision of the Polish parliament on Friday to demand reparations from Germany for World War II draws dismay from German lawmakers.

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National borders don't always match those of claims

Poland's ambassador to Germany, Andrzej Byrt, said the decision was "a reaction to the actions of the Prussian Claims Society." The expellees' lobby group, led by Rudi Pawelka, is currently planning a string of international lawsuits aimed at returning property and assets to ethnic Germans who were forced to flee Poland in the millions after World War II.

"Mr. Pawelka and his consorts started this debate, he's unleashed dramatic fear among Poles," Byrt told a German newspaper over the weekend. Despite the parliament's decision, Byrt said he did not believe the Polish government would actually make any official reparations demands of Germany. "The Polish government considers the question of reparations to be finished," said Byrt.

Old fears arise anew

The Polish parliament unanimously called on the government to estimate the total damages Germany caused Poland in World War II and to begin talks with Berlin. The text of the resolution stated: "Parliament declares that Poland has not yet received war reparations payments and damages the for the enormous extent of destruction and material and non-material costs brought on by German aggression, occupation and genocide." Additionally, the parliament rejected all claims for compensation or restoration of property from German expellees. In recent weeks, lobby groups for the expellees, like the Prussian Claims Society, have issued demands that have sparked tremendous resentment in Poland. Many of the country's citizens see the lawsuit threats as an effort to put German expellees on the same footing as the Polish victims of German war crimes.

The issue is emotionally charged in Poland, where old fears, painful historical experiences and the late consequences of a propaganda program that stoked fear of Germans in the population for decades. It's a bitter realization for anyone who has worked on behalf of the decades-long reconciliation process that has resulted recently in the closest cooperative relationship ever seen between Germany and Poland. And the consequences of any lawsuits could be enormous. In addition to the financial effects, Poles fear Germans would return to the eastern European countries they once occupied -- an uncomfortable notion for historically aware Poles, who have a clear idea of who was the culprit and who was the victim in World War II.

Slowing progress

The legal position is clear. A treaty between Germany and Poland officially recognizes the Oder and Neisse rivers as Poland's western-most border. Germany is Poland's most important trading partner, and both countries are members of NATO and the European Union, and Germany was also championed Poland's political needs when it negotiated its EU membership. Additionally, Poland dropped all of its demands for reparations payments from the Germans during the 1950s.

In Berlin, politicians have been astounded by the Polish parliament's demand, and the Polish government has called for a diplomatic solution between Berlin and Warsaw. In a newspaper interview, the German Social Democrats foreign affairs spokesman, Markus Meckel, said he was greatly disappointed by the vote. And the press department at the chancellery in Berlin repeated previous statements from Chancellor Gerhard Schröder that both countries consider the question of reparations settled.

Debate in parliament

The resolution agreed to by the Polish parliament is a political resolution and it has no legally binding effect for Prime Minister Marek Belka or his government. "Were trying to create a dialogue with the governments of Poland to find a solution that finalizes all concerns about damages, also in the legal sense," Belka said. Ironically, the text approved on Friday was milder than earlier drafts. Conservative and nationalist parties originally penned a tougher resolution, but the country's leftist parties said they would not accept any explicit demand for reparations. The final outcome was a vaguely formulated demand that the government "take appropriate measures to address the concerns."

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