The European Court of Human Rights has ruled against compensation claims by East Germans, who had their land seized after 1945. The German government won't have to pay billions as a result.
Many eastern German mansions were dispossessed after 1945
Rejecting the claims by 71 land owners who had been dispossessed by Soviet occupiers between 1945 and 1949, the judges said the German government was under no obligation to compensate the claimants after reunification in 1990.
The court ruled that the Federal Republic of Germany could not be held responsible for the actions of Soviet occupiers nor the former East German goverment. That's why the court has no jurisdiction to rule on the matter, the judges concluded.
A lawyer for the plaintiffs meanwhile said the group would now take their case to the UN Human Rights Commission.
"We cannot leave it at that," Thomas Gertner said, according to AP news service.
Old owners disappointed
At the center of the dispute was a decision by Soviet leaders after World War II to dispossess those eastern German farmers that owned more than 100 hectares (247 acres) of land. They distributed two thirds of it among rural workers and refugees while the rest remained with the state.
With German unification in 1990, one million hectares of land became the property of the federal republic. The old owners, who had hoped to get their property back, were disappointed, however.
Carl-Wilhelm von Herder's family, for example, lost their mansion and forest in what's now the state of Saxony. Herder believed that he would get back the land after reunification, but politicians and courts kept pointing to the German unification treaty. The document states that land that was seized by the Soviets between 1945 and 1949 could not be returned.
"Anyone who lost their land after 1949 got their land back, but no one even considered compensating us," Herder said.
The German government on the other hand has claimed that Soviet leaders would not have permitted Germany to unify in 1990 if the post-war land reform had not been accepted as a irreversible fact.
But those involved in the negotiations offer differing accounts. While former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev denies that his side insisted on keeping the land reform in place, former East German leaders said this is what happened.
Lothar de Maiziere
"The Soviet claim was non-negotiable," said Lothar de Maiziere, East Germany's only freely elected prime minister. "Anyone claiming something else today is not telling the truth."
He added that a return of the land would upset eastern Germany's new agricultural infrastructure that was painstakingly rebuilt after reunification.
Disowned farmers have been able to buy back their land, a step taken by von Herder. He paid one million euros ($1.3 million) for his family's estate.