Germans driven out of Poland at the end of World War II said Tuesday they would file a lawsuit this year to reclaim their assets, aggravating an already bitter debate between the wartime foes.
An estimated nine million Germans left Poland after World War II
The Prussian Claims Society representing Germans expelled from current-day Poland told the daily Berliner Zeitung it would take its case before Polish and European courts to reclaim ancestral assets they say are rightfully theirs.
The group's supervisory board chairman, Rudi Pawelka, said the two-pronged legal approach was aimed at boosting its chances of success and challenging German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's pledge to fight any such claims.
"Normally you would have to go through the appeals process in an individual country (before going to a European court)," Pawelka told the newspaper. "We will see what means the government will bring to bear against the independence of the courts."
The organization could not be reached for comment Tuesday, saying on its answering machine that it had closed its offices until Thursday.
Schröder dismisses reparations
Gerhard Schröder (right) and Poland's President Aleksander Kwasniewski in front of the monument to child insurgents in Warsaw
Schröder (photo, right) on Sunday firmly dismissed reparations demands by Germans forced to leave Poland after the war, ahead of commemorations in Warsaw marking the 60th anniversary of the city's failed uprising against the Nazis in 1944. He said given Germany's blame for the war and the Nazi atrocities committed in Poland, his government could by no means accept restitution claims which effectively "turn history on its head."
"Property issues related to World War II are no longer a subject of controversy between our two governments," Schröder said referring to past discussions between Berlin and Warsaw. "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.
The chancellor has often said that while Germans who were forced to abandon their homes undeniably suffered, it is wrong to put their fates on a par with those of Jews or other Polish citizens who bore the brunt of Nazi aggression.
Testing the government's resolve
Pawelka said the Prussian Claims Society now aimed to test the government's resolve in opposing the claims.
Polish officials plant a marker near the German-Polish border at the Oder river in 1945
He said that because Polish courts would likely reject the lawsuit out of hand, the Society would file claims at the same time with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
Pawelka stressed, however, that the organization had no intention of victimizing Poles a second time.
"We never said that a Pole who lives in a house or on property that once belonged to a German must leave it," he said.
"I don't understand why this fear is being stoked," he said, adding that the organization sought "solutions that are bearable for both sides."
Polish officials are wary
Polish Foreign Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz warned Monday that Schröder's rejection of reparations demands by Germans did not close an issue which has dogged relations between the two neighbors.
"The declaration is of great importance for Poland and the Poles, but does not close the issue once and for all," he said.
Cimoszewicz (photo) presciently warned that German expellees might press their claims further.
"One could imagine theoretically that German expellees file claims with European tribunals even if their cases are rejected by Polish and German courts," he said after Schröder's speech on Sunday. Expellee organizations estimate that nine million Germans were forced to leave Poland after World War II and that 13 percent of them owned real estate there. Today, the groups say that there are up to 30,000 unsettled claims.