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German Leader Rejects Restitution Claims

DW staff (hg)August 2, 2004

Speaking at an event in Warsaw to commemorate the 1944 uprising against the Nazis, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder made clear that his government did not endorse German claims for the return of ancestral property in Poland.

Schröder wants to heal the scars of war in PolandImage: AP

It was the first time that a German chancellor had been invited to take part in commemorative festivities to mark the Warsaw uprising. Gerhard Schröder’s appearance, however, was overshadowed by renewed calls from Germans demanding the return of property which they were forced to leave behind in what is now Poland during the final stages of World War II.

Polish leaders had expected the German chancellor to take a clear stance on such restitution claims, and amid the odd whistle and boo from the crowd he lived up to anticipations:

"We Germans know full well who started the war and who were its first victims," Schröder said acknowledging the Nazi atrocities in Poland and added that because of German's blame there was no longer room left for discussing restitution claims which "turn history on its head."

"Property issues related to World War II are no longer a subject of controversy between our two governments. Neither the German government nor any other serious political force supports any restitution claims still being voiced. This is our position, and we won’t hesitate to make this position clear before international courts, if need be," he stressed.

Even with Schröder's assurances, Polish Foreign Minister Woldzimierz Cimoszewicz warned that the issue may not be closed. "One could imagine theoretically that German expellees file claims with European tribunals even if their cases are rejected by the Polish and German courts," he said.

While praising Schröder for emphasizing the pride and patriotism of the Polish people, Erika Steinbach, president of the Federation of Expellees, blamed the chancellor for leaving expellees in legal limbo by not changing German legislation.

Time to move on

Jerzy Stabinsky, a Polish author who was in Warsaw during the 1944 uprising against the Nazi occupiers, said it’s high time the two nations left their war-related debates behind to look forward to a future as members of and partners in the European Union.

"A lot of time has passed since the events in 1944," he said and stressed that it is time to move on. "The scars of war should have healed, and there are now more important tasks for our two nations to tackle jointly."

Schröder und Kwasniewsk in Warschau
Gerhard Schröder (right) and Poland's President Aleksander Kwasniewski with a 6-year-old boy scout honor child insurgents in Warsaw, Poland.Image: AP

Chancellor Schroeder said governments could only do so much to promote a better understanding between the two nations. He called on ordinary people to intensify their contacts and learn each other’s language:

"We must not let up in our efforts to promote closer cultural ties between our societies," he said and pointed to exchange efforts between young Poles and Germans which will help shape the common future. "By doing so, we’ll act in the spirit of those who lost their lives in the Warsaw uprising," the chancellor vowed.

Schröder also used the occasion to reject a private German group’s idea to build a memorial center in Berlin commemorating German expellees. He dismissed the plan as "unacceptable" because it would unilaterally spotlight German suffering and play down its origin in Nazi aggression.