German Property Lawsuit Raises Fears in Polish Town | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 07.04.2007
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German Property Lawsuit Raises Fears in Polish Town

Hundreds of inhabitants of a northern Polish town are on the sharp end of a legal battle rooted in Germany's World War Two defeat, a case that has revived barely buried fear and hatred.


Old wounds still run deep, even 62 years after many Germans were expelled from what is now Poland

Lidzbark Warminski, an unassuming community of 17,000 people, has found itself in the spotlight because of a lawsuit at the European Court of Human Rights by a German association seeking the restitution of property that lies in present-day Poland.

The case, filed late last year by the small, privately-funded Prussian Trust, has aggravated simmering resentment between Poland and its little-loved western neighbour.

One of the 22 claimants represented by the trust is Felix Hoppe, who was born in 1931 near what was then the German town of Heilsberg in East Prussia.

The Hoppe family's holdings -- both land and buildings -- were seized by the Polish authorities after World War II and are now home to 2,000 residents of Lidzbark Warminski.

"I'm very worried. I live in a house which, so they say, belongs to the town. The mayor keeps reassuring us, but I've heard it said that the house is part of the lawsuit," said Maria, a forty-something industrial worker who declined to give her surname.

Border shift

The Prussian Trust lawsuit stems from the redrawing of borders agreed by the Soviet Union, Britain and the United States at the 1945 Potsdam conference.

Cementing the defeat of the Nazis, the victorious Allies awarded large parts of eastern Germany to Poland, in "compensation" for the swathes of territory Warsaw lost to the Soviet Union.

1939 Einmarsch deutscher Truppen in Polen

Large swaths of German land were given to post-war Poland as recompense for Germany's invasion

Millions of Germans, including the teenage Hoppe, were forced from their homes by the advancing Soviet army or later by Polish security forces, often brutally. The property and land they left was seized by Polish authorities and repopulated largely by Poles who had been expelled from the east.

At the time, the land loss was widely seen as a fair payback for the bloody Nazi occupation of Poland, which cost the lives of six million Polish citizens. The regions, which had been German for centuries, make up around a third of modern Poland.

Feel it's still German

According to a recent opinion poll, a quarter of Germans consider that the former territories are still German and 40 percent regret their loss.

Hoppe said it was high time for redress.

"I don't have any moral scruples. Why should I? This property was stolen from Germany," he told AFP from his current home in Münster, in western Germany.


The city of Wroclaw in Poland was once German Breslau

"It was a human rights violation. We suffered enormously from the expulsions," he said.

Asked what his message is for the current inhabitants, Hoppe said: "I would say to the people in Lidzbark Warminski, 'You live on someone else's property.' This lawsuit is legitimate."

In Lidzbark Warminski, local historian Slawomir Skowronek rejected Hoppe's stance. "This case is immoral," Skowronek said.

"The Second World War destroyed the old world. Heilsberg would have stayed a little German town and Hoppe would have kept his property if the government elected by his parents hadn't made war on the whole world," he said.

The property claims are seen by many in Poland as part of a wider bid by Germans to portray themselves as victims of World War II.

A flood of suits is unlikely, however, because the Prussian Trust's action is far from well-supported in Germany, even by the powerful Confederation of the Displaced (BDV), which represents two million Germans.

Diplomatic row

The trust's action has sparked a diplomatic dispute, as Warsaw repeatedly calls on the German government to act to prevent property lawsuits, saying they go against a 1990 treaty which said that Germany had no territorial claims in Poland.

Zentrum gegen Vertreibungen in Berlin Erika Steinbach

Erika Steinbach heads the "Center Against Expulsions" and is often at the center of heated debates on the issue of postwar expelles in Germany and Poland

The treaty did not deal with the thorny question of claims by individuals.Poland's conservative President Lech Kaczynski has made a string of scathing attacks on Germany over the issue.

He has previously warned that Warsaw could counter German lawsuits with multi-billion-euro (dollar) cases for destruction during the Nazi occupation.

But Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel, in line with all post-war German governments, has remained as neutral as possible on the issue to avoid clashing head on with the large numbers of affected Germans.

"The German government is playing games," said Skowronek.

Skowronek said he agreed with the Polish government's position that Berlin should pledge to meet the cost of all property claims against Poland -- a solution ruled out by German authorities because of the potentially colossal sums involved.

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