By Henry Srebrnik, [Saint John, N.B.] Telegraph-Journal
Poland is now asking Germany for almost $1.7 trillion dollars in reparations for the loss of lives and damage to the country’s infrastructure during the years that Hitler’s Nazis occupied the country. Poland suffered more, in proportion to its size, population, and length of occupation, than any other nation during the Second World War.
Entire cities were virtually destroyed and some six million Polish citizens, more than half of them Jews, were murdered. Warsaw was razed to the ground following a 1944 uprising in which at least 200,000 civilians died. By war’s end, one fifth of the country’s total population had been killed. Most were civilian victims of war crimes and genocide.
Within occupied Poland, the Germans had built six notorious death camps, Chełmno, Sobibor, Bełzec, Treblinka, Majdanek, and Auschwitz-Birkenau. The Nazis also established hundreds of ghettos and slave labour camps throughout the country for their war effort. Only a small fraction of those imprisoned in Nazi camps survived.
The Poland Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) has opened an exhibition in Warsaw titled “Economy of the Third Reich,” claiming that the sources of Germany’s current economic strength rest on infrastructure and technology that was developed through the exploitation of forced labour by well-known German companies in the concentration camps.
My parents were imprisoned in one, HASAG-Pelcery, located in their home city of Czestochowa. The rest of their respective families were murdered in either the Treblinka extermination camp or in the Czestochowa ghetto uprising.
Even after almost eight decades, this has not been forgotten. Last Sept. 1, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of Poland’s ruling conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party, presented a report looking into the financial damages caused by Germany’s invasion and occupation in the war.
A parliamentary committee found the losses amounted to 6.2 trillion zlotys (roughly $1.7 trillion Canadian) and added that Poland would officially demand reparations. The sum, which represents around one-third of Germany’s present-day GDP and around one-sixth of global GDP during the war itself.
Last Oct. 10, Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau signed a diplomatic note describing Warsaw’s demands for reparations. His announcement came ahead of a visit to Poland by German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock. Rau called for a “final” and “durable” settlement between Warsaw and Berlin on the issue of the German occupation of Poland between 1939 and 1945. “Such a settlement would allow us to base Polish-German relations on justice and truth and close painful chapters of history.”
But Baerbock responded during a joint news conference that she had discussed the diplomatic note with Rau and reiterated the German government’s position that the matter was settled.
In 2004, Jochen Frowein, an expert on international law, concluded that no such demand by Poland had any chance of being upheld in a court of law. He pointed to the Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany, otherwise known as the Two Plus Four Agreement, signed in 1990, which paved the way for German reunification and also made clear that Germany would not be responsible to pay any further reparations stemming from World War II.
There is also a 1953 agreement, when Poland relinquished all claims to war reparations. However, today’s Polish government reminds Berlin that the country was at the time a Soviet satellite state and under pressure from the Soviet Union. Moscow wanted to free East Germany, another Soviet satellite, from any liabilities. The PiS argues that the agreement is invalid because Warsaw was not able to negotiate fair compensation.
Following Germany’s latest refusal to pay war reparations to Poland, Polish officials are calling on the United States and the UN for support. The government also aims to have its demands “clarified” to Germans.
“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,” Deputy Foreign Minister Arkadiusz Mularczyk declared.
He described Germany’s response as disrespectful to the Polish state and to Poles.” Germany does not pursue a friendly policy toward Poland,” he said on Jan. 3. “They want to create a sphere of influence here and treat Poland as a vassal state.” Mularczyk plans to visit Washington to find allies in the U.S. Congress.
A survey carried out by the Ipsos Institute at the beginning of January found that 75 per cent of the German population oppose Poland’s demands, while 66 per cent of the Polish population support reparations from Germany.
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 a “stooge” of Berlin and its “control” of the European Union, with which the PiS is also at odds.
But whoever wins the election will have to address the reparations issue. In a parliamentary decision that the opposition also supported, Poland’s lower house of parliament, the Sejm, determined that Poland had never received compensation for its war losses and that it never waived its claims. This isn’t going away.