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Poland demands compensation from Germany

Magdalena Schwabe
March 19, 2024

After the first official visit of the new Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk to Berlin, there are many signs of normalization in Polish-German relations. However, the issue of compensation remains unresolved.

Donald Tusk, left, shaking hands with Olaf Scholz at a press conference. They are smiling and facing the cameras, in front of Polish, German and EU flags.
Poland's new prime minister, Donald Tusk, at his meeting with German chancellor Olaf Scholz in Berlin in FebruaryImage: Annegret Hilse/REUTERS

Poland and Germany are still haunted by their difficult past. Eighty-five years after the German invasion of Poland triggered the start of World War II, the question of whether Germany should pay reparations to its neighbor is back on the agenda.

"Settling the bill would be historically justified," Donald Tusk, the newly elected Polish prime minister, told German Chancellor Olaf Scholz during his first official visit to Berlin in February.

Tusk, a former European Commission president, said that Germany "still has work to do" on the issue of moral and material compensation but added that the subject should not be allowed to poison relations between Germany and Poland in the future.

Two weeks earlier, at a meeting in Berlin with his German counterpart, Annalena Baerbock, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski had called on the German government to "think creatively about finding a form of compensation" for Poland's losses in World War II.

Reparations row

Demands for compensation are not new. For eight years, the previous right-wing nationalist PiS government used anti-German rhetoric to try to score points with its domestic audience.

The PiS leader, former Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, repeatedly emphasized that Germany had not yet settled its historic debt. His government calculated that Germany owed Poland more than €1.3 trillion, which represents payment for the forced labor of around 2.1 million Poles, the loss of eastern territories to the Soviet Union and the stolen lives of some 196,000 Polish children who were forcibly Germanized.

In September 2022, the Sejm, Poland's parliament, passed a resolution calling on Germany to accept responsibility. It was supported by some members of what was then the opposition, including Tusk. However, the opposition insisted on replacing the word "reparations" with "compensation." Tusk's political opponents have used this to try to discredit him as a "traitor" and an "agent of Berlin."

Black and white panorama of a bombed-out city; only a few charred trees and the remains of a church stand out amid the rubble.
By the end of World War Two, in 1945, Warsaw had been almost completely destroyed by the occupying GermansImage: EPU CAF/dpa/picture alliance

In 1953, Poland waived its right to reparations, which are, specifically, financial demands made by one country of another. This is the prevailing view of most legal experts and historians in Germany and Poland. It does not apply to reparation claims by individual victims of the Nazis.

In 2022, Poland issued a diplomatic note to Germany, 50 other states, the United Nations, NATO, and the United States. The PiS government did not want to make its precise contents public. It later emerged that the note did not make any mention of reparations. The chairman of Poland's Committee for War Reparations, Arkadiusz Mularczyk, visited Berlin shortly afterward, but his call for a debate in the Bundestag about paying reparations to Poland, as happened with Greece, was not heeded.

Since the change of leadership in Warsaw, the reparations debate has reignited. In late February, at a ceremony to confer awards on the authors of the report on war damages, President Andrzej Duda described Tusk's waiving of reparation claims as "a disgrace." He also questioned Poland's 1953 declaration of renunciation, which Germany considers binding.

Markus Meckel, who became foreign minister of East Germany after the country's first democratic election in 1990, explained to DW why reparations were taboo for Poland even after German reunification.

"It was strategically smart to waive the claim to reparations," said Meckel, who took part in the "2+4" talks between the two German states in conjunction with the Allied powers.

"Back then, our absolute priority was the question of the border. If anyone raises this again today, they run the risk that nationalists in both countries will revive the border issue."

Headshot of Markus Meckel, with white hair and beard, in casual clothes, sitting in front of some shelves and a row of furled flags.
Markus Meckel, East Germany's first democratic foreign minister, has devoted himself to German-Polish reconciliationImage: Magda Schwabe/DW

Resumption of talks

The prevailing opinion today in both Berlin and Warsaw is that while the issue of reparations may have been settled in terms of international law, at a moral level, it remains unresolved.

On 22 January, Poland's deputy foreign minister, Wladyslaw Teofil Bartoszewski, told the Polish radio station RMF FM that his department was working on a concept for compensation. Bartoszewski's father was imprisoned in Auschwitz during the war; he later served as Poland's foreign minister. Marek Prawda, the undersecretary of state for eastern and European affairs — an experienced diplomat who was previously Poland's ambassador to Germany and its representative to the European Union — has been made responsible for developing the concept.

Berlin has expressed willingness to cooperate on the issue. "We are engaged in a constructive and partnership-based exchange with the Polish side on questions of remembrance and the processing of our difficult shared history," a Foreign Office spokesperson told DW.

"We want to shape this with a view to the future and in collaboration with Poland. At the same time, it remains the case that, from our perspective, the question of reparations has been closed."

The resumption of bilateral government cooperation, which was suspended by the PiS, is also on the cards; and Germany and Poland are engaging in trilateral talks with France again, in the format of the Weimar Triangle.

Specific demands and symbolic gestures

Nyke Slawik is a member of the Bundestag, Germany's lower parliament, representing Alliance 90/The Greens. She explains that there are many possible ways for Germany to make restitution to Poland.

"All the democratic parties in the Bundestag agree on deepening our cooperation with Poland," she said.

Slawik, whose father is Polish, cites compensation for individual victims as the top priority. What is being discussed is a pension fund and covering the costs of medicines and treatment for around 45,000 Poles. Slawik would also like the construction of the German-Polish House in central Berlin to progress faster.

Nyke Slawik, a blonde woman wearing a dark blue scarf and holding an iPad, sitting next to a window.
Nyke Slawik, a German Green parliamentarian, wants Germany to find ways to offer Poland compensationImage: Anna Maciol/DW

Slawik believes Germany has a responsibility to support the revival of Poland's lost cultural assets. A prime example at the moment is the reconstruction of the Saxon Palace in Warsaw, which the occupying Germans destroyed after the suppression of the Warsaw Uprising in 1944.

Mutual security instead of a paper war

Mecke wants to give Poland more security guarantees. In light of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Meckel believes closer cooperation between Germany and Poland on security policy is essential and argues that Germany should have a greater presence on NATO's eastern flank. Meckel goes further than many German politicians in calling on both Germany and Poland to support Ukraine's bid to become a member of NATO.

The topic of reparations remains on the agenda for the German-Polish relationship, although it is now called compensation. Over the past eight years, and given the trillion-euro demand made by the previous government, Berlin had distanced itself from Warsaw. Now, though, there is a clear willingness in the German capital to engage in discussions again — even about the most difficult topics.

This article has been translated from German.