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Poland pressures Germany on war reparations

January 7, 2023

Following Germany's latest refusal to pay war reparations to Poland, Polish officials are calling on the US and the UN for support. The government also aims to have its demands "clarified" to Germans.

Polish President Andrzey Duda, speaking at a podium in front of a large, vertical Polish flag
Andrzej Duda, the President of Poland, speaking at the commemoration ceremony of the 83rd anniverary of World War II, which ensued when Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. Image: Artur Widak/AA/picture alliance

"Germany's response is astonishing to us in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as well as for the Polish state. The German government cannot answer a question that was never posed. Neither negotiations nor conciliatory discussions took place." That's what Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Arkadiusz Mularczyk had to say about Germany's newest refusal to pay Poland reparations for World War II. Mularczyk made the statement on Wednesday in Warsaw. 

"We do not accept Germany's position. We reject it as completely unjustified and wrong. We will continue to act within Germany and on the international stage to urge the German population and the international community to change its position," Mularczyk said.

Annalena Baerbock and Zbigniew Rau at a press conference in Warsaw
Annalena Baerbock and Zbigniew Rau in Warsaw on October 4, 2022Image: Aleksander Rajewski/DW

The statement that had generated such widespread outrage was short and direct: "According to information from the Federal Republic of Germany, the matter of reparations and compensation for losses during World War II is closed, and Germany has no intention of negotiating the issue." The reaction from Poland's government was swift.

A response from the Poland's Foreign Ministry stated: "The Polish government will continue its efforts to settle the question of debt that was accrued a result of German aggression and its occupation of Poland from 1939 to 1945."

It's unlikely that anyone affiliated with Poland's United Right, the political alliance that has ruled the country since 2015, believed that Germany's decision would be different. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock had already made that very clear on October 4, after the Polish government had sent a diplomatic note stating demands to Berlin the day prior.

A black-and-white image of ruins in the Polish capital, Warsaw, at the end of World War II
Warsaw at the end of World War II, after it had been destroyed by German troopsImage: akg-images/picture alliance

"Germany upholds its historical responsibility unequivocally. It's our eternal duty to remember the suffering Germany brutally inflicted upon millions of Polish people," Baerbock said in a statement in October. "The pain that Poland endured was especially pronounced compared to other places. Nevertheless, from the point of view of the German government, the issue of reparations is, as you know, closed." Her remarks were directed at Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs Zbigniew Rau.

Poland demands €1.3 trillion 

Deputy Foreign Minister Arkadiusz Mularczyk is a member of Poland's Law and Justice Party (PiS), which remains the nation's largest party. Mularczyk made demands for reparations a priority years ago. Since 2017, he's headed a parliamentary committee to estimate the losses the country suffered in World War II. On September 1, 2022, the 73rd anniversary of Germany's invasion of Poland, Mularczyk released the committee's final report, which maintained the country was entitled to 6.2 trillion zloty (approximately €1.32 trillion or $1.39 trillion).

Mularczyk was appointed state secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs last year. He described Germany's response as "disrespectful to the Polish state and to Poles," just this Tuesday (January 2, 2023). "Germany does not pursue a friendly policy toward Poland," he told the Polish Press Agency (PAP). "They want to create a sphere of influence here and treat Poland as a vassal state."

West German Chancellor Willy Brandt kneeling before the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes in Warsaw
West German Chancellor Willy Brandt's famous "Warschauer Kniefall" (Warsaw genuflection) was a turning point in Germany's admission of guilt in World War IIImage: AP

In 1970, former West-German Chancellor Willy Brandt offered a moving apology when he before the Jewish Heroes' monument in Warsaw, Poland. The famous "Warshauer Kniefall" was interpreted as Germany's admission of its guilt for invading Poland. Brandt would later go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize for his contribution to normalizing ties between East and West amidst the Cold War.

Poland wants support from the US and the UN

To increase pressure on Berlin, Warsaw has turned to United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, and UNESCO Secretary-General Audrey Azoulay has been invited to Warsaw. Mularczyk recently announced a trip to the US, where he hopes to find allies in Congress.

Arkadiusz Mularczyk, Poland's deputy foreign minister, wears glasses and a tie
Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Mularczyk has made German reparations a top priorityImage: Tomasz Gzell/PAP/picture alliance

A survey carried out by the Ipsos Institute at the beginning of January 2023 found that 75% of the German population oppose Poland's demands. These results didn't stop Mularczyk from announcing an information campaign in Germany. "We hope that over time, we can convince the Germans that this question must be addressed," Mularczyk stated. He's especially counting on the younger generations in Germany.

This latest rebuffing opened the doors for Poland to intensify dissent with its neighbor. Criticizing Germany seems to be one of the Polish right wing's main objectives in the lead-up to parliamentary elections in the fall. Poland's largest opposition party Civic Platform (PO), led by former Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who served as President of the European Council until 2019, is widely condemned as Berlin's stooge.

Whichever party wins Poland's 2023 parliamentary elections in the fall will have to address the reparations issue. In the previously mentioned Ipsos survey, 66% of the Polish population support reparations from Germany. And in a parliamentary decision that the opposition supports, the Sejm, Poland's lower house for parliament, determined that Poland had never received compensation for losses during World War II, and that they never waived their claims to it.

This article was translated from German.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the Polish government was seeking €1.3 billion in compensation. The figure is €1.3 trillion.

A gray-haired man (Jacek Lepiarz) stands in front of bookcases full of books
Jacek Lepiarz Journalist for DW's Polish Service who specializes in German-Polish subjects