1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

What are reparations?

June 30, 2023

The US state of California is considering paying reparations to descendants of slaves, thereby marking a turning point in American history. What other examples have there been of reparations in the past?

A hand reads "pay" calling for reparations for loss and damage at the COP27 U.N. Climate Summit in 2022
Image: Peter Dejong/AP/picture alliance

According to international law, reparations are payments made by a state to compensate for a violation of said legislation, for instance when illegal attacks or war crimes are committed. For centuries, parties who emerged victorious from wars were often in a position to assign blame to those who had caused the war in the first place — regardless of whether it had been fought to fend off an aggressor, or waged as a war of aggression.

UN charter

All that changed after World War II, when wars of aggression were outlawed by the charter of the newly established United Nations. It is only since then that a comprehensive ban on the use of force has been in effect. In the era that followed, many came to realize that it can often take years for the true causes of conflicts to emerge. And that injustices can never be remedied unless perpetrators take responsibility.

After World War I, the Versailles Peace Treaty obliged the German Reich to pay 20 billion gold marks in reparations, which today would be equivalent to about €100 billion ($109,5 billion). In addition, the German Reich had to hand over 90% of its merchant fleet. Later, the victors demanded yet more money. Ultimately, an agreement was reached setting out 132 billion gold marks in reparations, which had to be repaid with interest. Germany made its final reparations payment in 2010.

World War II reparations

After World War II, Germany was again forced by the victors to pay reparations. Unlike World War I and the Treaty of Versailles, however, this time, there was no peace treaty. Above all, the US, France and England were interested in strengthening rather than weakening West Germany, which they needed as a buffer state against the Soviet sphere of influence. The Cold War had begun.

Destroyed buildings in Warsaw
Poland paid a heavy toll in World War II, yet received no reparationsImage: PRASA/Prasa/dpa/picture alliance

Instead of focusing on financial reparations from Germany, the victors dismantled key industrial plants, shipping them home. At the London Debt Conference of 1953, German negotiator Hermann Josef Abs achieved a sustainable reduction of Germany's reparation debt. The initial sum of 29.3 billion marks was reduced to 14.8 billion, with the US in particular generously waiving repayments.

Poland and Greece, who were not involved in these negotiations, however, are still demanding considerable reparation payments from Germany to this day. Poland alone is seeking €1.3 trillion in reparations, which Germany rejects.

The Vietnam war

To this day, the US refuse to pay reparations, or any other form of compensation, relating to the Vietnam war. Worse still, in 1993, Vietnam's government was forced to assume the debt of the former South Vietnam to obtain loans and have a US embargo lifted.

In 2007, however, the US did grant $400,000 to clean up dioxin residue in the former war zone. In May 2009, former US President Barack Obama increased US aid to Vietnam from $3 to $6 million dollars. Claims submitted by Vietnamese cancer patients were, however, rejected by US courts.

US planes spray defoliant on the Vietnam jungle
Between 1962 and 1971, the US sprayed defoliant over Vietnam's forests to deny Communist forces the use of jungle cover Image: Everett Collection/picture alliance

Iraq and Kuwait

It took until February 2022 for Iraq to pay off its war debt from the 1990 Gulf War. The United Nations reported that Iraq had paid out a total of $50 billion. On August 2, 1990, the Iraqi army had invaded neighboring Kuwait. Then-Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein declared Kuwait a province of his country. But an international force led by the US intervened and forced Iraq to retreat.

Germany's colonial legacy

Between 1884 and 1915, the German Empire ruled over what is present-day Namibia. Locals resisted the German colonizers and their human rights abuses, who in turn used immense brutality to suppress their subjects. Germany's campaign of cruelty culminated in the war against the Herero and Nama peoples between 1904 and 1908, which led to an estimated 100,000 deaths. Herero and Nama were murdered by German troops, dying of thirst in the desert or in concentration camps.

After long decades in which Germany did not want to accept blame for the deaths, an initial agreement was reached in 2021: Germany acknowledged the genocide, apologized and agreed to provide €1.1 billion in reconstruction aid. But to this day, neither government has signed the agreement.

Reparations remain a difficult issue. Whether a payout can be agreed ultimately depends on the goodwill of both sides, the perpetrators and the victims. The decisive factor here is also whether enough political and cultural pressure can be brought to bear on former victors to admit their guilt.

Even the United Nations charter has done little to change the fact that reparations are only ever made when perpetrators admit responsibility.

This article was translated from German.

Thurau Jens Kommentarbild App
Jens Thurau Jens Thurau is a senior political correspondent covering Germany's environment and climate policies.@JensThurau