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Berlin sees Polish reparations as a long since settled

Wojciech Szymanski
August 4, 2017

German politicians and lawyers consider the possibility of World War II war reparations for Poland as a closed case. High-level threats from Warsaw have been met with confusion and dismay in Berlin.

German military vehicles approaching Warsaw in World War II
German military vehicles approaching Warsaw in World War IIImage: ullstein bild - SV-Bilderdienst

Warsaw has raised the specter of German war reparations for Poland repeatedly over the last several years. In 2004 a special commission estimated that damages incurred by the Polish capital alone during World War II amounted to more than $45 billion (38 billion euros). The commission was convened by Lech Kaczynski, then Warsaw's mayor. The topic has routinely strained German-Polish relations since the national-conservative Law and Justice party (PiS) returned to power in 2016.

Shortly after the party regained power, its leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, announced that Poland and Germany had outstanding accounts to settle from the Second World War. He went on to say that the issue of war reparations between the neighboring countries had never been resolved. Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany's foreign minister at the time, answered Kaczynski's claims with a letter stating that Poland had no legal basis for demanding such damages. He reminded Kaczynski of Poland's relinquishment of reparations in 1953. Poland's government did indeed waive its right to war reparations from its western neighbor at the time – yet that neighbor was the East German Democratic Republic (GDR). Today Warsaw argues that Poland's former communist government was forced to waive its rights by the Soviet Union.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski
Poland's de facto leader Kaczynski has suddenly stirred the pot with his talk of reparationsImage: imago/Eastnews

1953 waiver of reparations stands

Now Warsaw is going a step further. PiS parliamentarian Arkadiusz Mularczyk has requested that the Bureau of Research in Poland's lower house of parliament, the Sejm, assess whether Poland has any right to demand damages from Germany according to current international law. The answer to Mularczyk's request is due on August 11.

As far as German lawyers are concerned, the issue was resolved years ago. In 2004, Jochen Frowein, an expert on international law and the former director of the Max Planck Institute in Heidelberg, along with a Polish historian, came to the conclusion that no such demand by Poland had any chance of being upheld in a court of law – and that remains the case today. In his opinion the question has been "legally resolved and definitively settled." He also points to the Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany, otherwise known as the Two Plus Four Agreement. The agreement, signed in 1990, paved the way for German reunification and also made clear that Germany would not be responsible to pay any further reparations stemming from World War II.

Frowein refutes Polish Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz's claim that Poland's 1953 waiver is invalid because communist Poland was not a sovereign state. "Poland's 1953 renunciation of reparations claims against Germany remains valid today," says the German legal expert. "The fact that the constitutional situation in Poland has changed and that it is no longer a communist state does nothing to change the validity of that declaration. Many other treaties that Poland signed at the time have also remained in effect."

Karl-Georg Wellmann
Bundestag MP Wellmann thinks Germany is giving Poland quite enough alreadyImage: picture-alliance/ZB

Strange demands

German politicians agree. Christian Democratic Union (CDU) parliamentarian Karl-Georg Wellmann points not only to the legally binding character of the 1953 waiver but also to the current EU budget, from which Poland profits greatly. "We would gladly remind the Polish government that Poland receives some 14 billion euros from the EU each year," as Wellmann told DW. Poland is the largest net recipient of EU cash and Germany the largest net contributor. Germany pays roughly 4 billion of the 14 billion euro total – and has been doing so for years.

"Germany has always stood by Poland, and was the country that did the most to make sure that it not only became a member of NATO but also of the EU. Poland has profited dramatically from that fact," argues the CDU politician. "To put all that into question by issuing such odd demands is something that Europe simply can't understand."

A political maneuver?

For Thomas Nord (Left party), who heads the German-Polish parliamentary group in Germany's lower house, the Bundestag, current talk of war reparations is nothing more than a "political maneuver" by the Polish government in its dealings with Germany and the EU. "It always easy to point to Germany's role in the Second World War, it is morally correct and justified," says Nord. "If you pair that with talk of reparations one can exert more pressure on Germany and use it to one's own political advantage at home. The only problem is that it is not supported by international law." He adds that Germany's moral obligation towards Poland will forever remain.

That is also the attitude of the German government: Deputy spokeswoman Ulrike Demmer recently answered a press question on the subject by saying that Germany feels a political, moral and financial responsibility for the Second World War. She emphasized, however, that the question of reparations was resolved long ago – legally and politically.