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Opinion: Reparations for Poland - Kaczynski's latest diversion

Poland's de facto leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski has revived demands for German war reparation payments, despite the issue being tabled for decades. The move is nothing more than a diversion, says DW's Bartosz Dudek.

"The suffering brought upon Poles by the Germans in the name of the German people is simply unfathomable. We Germans feel a deep sense of shame for those crimes. We have taken responsibility in the past and will do so in the future," Rolf Nikel, Germany's ambassador to Poland, recently explained in a speech delivered on the country's National Warsaw Uprising Remembrance Day.

Indeed, the monstrosity of German crimes, not only against Polish Jews but also others, including the 150,000 civilians butchered during the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, will forever remain a disgrace and an unforgettable injustice. It is all the more so given that hardly any of those Germans responsible for the deeds were ever brought to account. That, too, will always be a blot on the history of Germany's justice system.  

$45 billion for Warsaw alone

Those crimes carry not only a moral price, but a material one as well: In 2004, Warsaw's then-mayor, Lech Kaczynski, calculated that Germany was liable for reparation payments of some $45 billion dollars (38 billion euros) for the destruction of Warsaw alone. If one were to extrapolate the amount to include the whole of Poland, one would certainly arrive at a figure 10 to 20 times higher. That would be a sum that could only be paid out over decades and across generations. When one considers that Germany's final reparation payments to France and Belgium for the First World War(!) were not made until 2010, one gets an idea of the dimensions of such a demand.

Dudek Bartosz Kommentarbild App

Bartosz Dudek leads DW's Polish department

But lessons drawn from the experience of war reparations after World War I led to a desire to avoid making the same mistake when World War II came to an end. For it is viewed as an undisputed fact that the burden of reparation payments and the economic crisis that these brought about paved the way for Hitler's Nazi dictatorship. The victors learned their lesson. In the 1953 London Debt Agreement it was decided – admittedly, without the participation of the Soviet Union and Poland – that reparations would be pushed off indefinitely. But even the Soviet Union, in the aftermath of the 1953 Uprising in East Germany, elected to forego calls for further reparation payments in order to help the newly founded German socialist state financially.

Under pressure from the Kremlin, Poland's former Communist government did the same. It was a difficult step to take, but it was prudent nonetheless. In 2004, the Polish government reaffirmed that decision when, in return, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder promised that the German government would not support demands for damages lodged by expellees against the Polish government. The decision came about due to the fact that Germany had relinquished former eastern territories to Poland as compensation for German war crimes.

With that, it was thought that the idea of war reparations was off the table for good. So one has to ask: Why has Poland's ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party decided to once again raise the subject?

Payback for criticizing Poland

There is a simple answer to that question: For Poland's de facto ruler, PiS chairman Jaroslaw Kaczynski, foreign policy is nothing more than a further function of domestic policy. In light of the tensions arising in the government in the wake of its failed reforms of the country's justice system, Kaczynski and his defense minister, Antoni Macierewicz, are obviously seeking to create a diversion. The narrative that "Poland, which got up from its knees" is now standing up to its powerful neighbor Germany, is one that goes over well with conservative nationalist voters. Even during the Communist era, fomenting anti-German sentiment was always a surefire tactic for drumming up support for the government in the eyes of the people.

Moreover, this new proposal can certainly be seen as a response to the consistent criticism that Germany and Brussels have been voicing over Warsaw of late. "The children and grandchildren of the degenerate murderers won't instruct us on democracy," as PiS politician Bartosz Kownacki recently said. Several stories about the deputy defense minister's dubious contact with Russians have appeared in the German press over the last few days.

Yet, even if the issue of reparations is used as a domestic policy issue, stirring such resentments is poisonous for German-Polish relations. It also once again highlights Jaroslaw Kaczynski's reckless understanding of politics, in which the aim of consolidating power justifies the use of any means necessary.

On the other hand, Germans must also be cognizant of the fact that by renouncing any right to war reparations, the Polish people also contributed greatly to German postwar reconstruction, and eventually German prosperity. That renunciation was anything but natural – considering the unfathomable suffering that Poles were subjected to by Germany in the name of the German people.

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