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Opinion: Is Poland's demand for war reparations a threat to German-Polish relations?

Poland's government is insisting that Germany pay reparations for crimes committed during the Second World War. During a recent visit to Warsaw, Dagmar Engel posed the question of how such demands should be handled.

Sometimes one is presented with interesting perspectives by chance. This week, both a think tank in Berlin, as well as one in Warsaw, sent out invitations for discussions. In Berlin, in front of a German audience, an advisor to the Polish president spoke — one of the many topics was the compensation demands being made by the Polish government. At the beginning of the week, Poland's Parliamentary Analysis Office (BAS) issued an opinion claiming that Poland has a legal basis to seek compensation for losses suffered during the war.

Read more: Poland has no right to WWII reparations, German lawyers say

Meanwhile at the think tank in Warsaw, the topics of populism and European solidarity were being discussed. As well as another advisor to the Polish president, the panel included guests from Germany. The Polish audience asked critical questions about German immigration policy and Germany's role in Europe — reparations were not mentioned at all.

Kommentarbild Kommentatorenfoto Dagmar Engel

DW's Dagmar Engel

Familiar patterns

After the event, people who were asked about the reparation issue responded with groans and eye-rolling. The populist ruling party (PiS) always seems to demand reparations from Germany when things are not going well on the domestic political front. In the past, you could rely on an overwhelming majority being behind the reparations claim.

What Nazi Germany did to Poland was horrible; there is no doubt about that. But the topic no longer interests young people in Poland. Depending on the questions asked, surveys reveal different majorities: between 49 and 69 percent are in favor seeking compensation. In other surveys, more than two-thirds of respondents say the subject of reparations is closed.

Read more: Berlin dismisses Polish demands for WWII reparations

The German government and the Bundestag agree with this position. This issue has been legally dealt with. But it is still cause for concern, as German-Polish relations have not been the best under PiS rule. There is not much faith that the PiS government's actions will be guided by reason, good neighborly relations and a commitment to the European Union. Experts warn of the consequences of compensation claims for fear of reopening disputes that have long been resolved, such as territorial claims. Not only Polish-German reconciliation is at stake. Anyone who questions Poland's western border by demanding compensation risks a renewed conflict over the eastern borders with Ukraine and Belarus.

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Some of the Poles at the discussion Warsaw recommended ignoring the demands and not giving into provocation. In fact, the time and effort saved by ignoring them could be used more meaningfully to foster German-Polish reconciliation — for instance, by investing in the German-Polish youth organization or setting up future funds, like the ones in Greece in Italy that are used to promote academic and social activities related to World War II. Local projects could also create a mutual culture of remembrance for Germans and Poles. This would signal to victims that they have not been forgotten and that reconciliation is desired. But a precondition for this is good will.

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