Yet another dead body in the German closet

An important thread is missing from the discussion on German reparation debt to Poland: the history of the Federal Republic of Germany’s 70-year-old cynical policy in that matter. A saddening history, little known in Poland, and efficiently concealed in Germany. It’s no surprise as it is a history of resolutely anti-Polish conduct, in which the German part tried all possible tricks and even resorted to lies.

Our western neighbors pride themselves on having no problems overwhelming dark chapters in their history. It refers not only to the period of the Third Reich. In recent years they have been able to cope with such rim problems as the extermination of Herero and Namaqua tribes in German South West Africa (currently Namibia) in 1904-1907, or even the passivity of the Kaiser government in face of the genocidal crimes committed by Turkey (II Reich’s ally) on the Armenian population during WWI. SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE But German historians have studied and revealed also such cases as the attempts – made already in the post-war Federal Republic – to limit the prosecution of war criminals or the free actions of people entangled in the Nazi regime, functioning later in West German institutions, including the ministries of justice and international affairs. German journalists and historians have brought to light the Nazi past of top activists of the Federation of Expellees. The research is conducted by a commission of historians analyzing the past of the West German Intelligence personnel.

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German politicians also spare no assurances of guilt for the crimes committed by the Germans on the Polish soil in the years 1939-1945. Successive governments of the Federal Republic, from the cabinet of chancellor Konrad Adenauer to the current chancellor Olaf Scholz, take the position that the case of providing the Polish side with material compensation is legally closed.

Reason? Very simple: in August 1953, the communist government led by Bolesław Bierut waived reparations from Germany. And since the issue is closed legally, it must also be closed in the financial sphere.

For German politicians and the majority of the public, it is of no importance that this decision was dictated to the puppet government of Bierut by the Kremlin, at the zenith of Poland’s dependence on the Soviet hegemon. That, had it not been for the German attack on Poland on September 1, 1939, there would not have been any puppet government of Bierut in Warsaw, probably doesn’t even come to the minds of German politicians. And it does not occur to them at all that referring to the declaration of the puppet government of the Polish People’s Republic (hereinafter referred to as PRL) with simultaneous assurances of the will to reconcile with Poland is something that cannot be reconciled.

There is a communist regime in Poland

The German side also claimed and claims that the government of the satellite PRL waived not only reparations, but also the right to compensation for specific victims. This allowed and still allows Bonn, and later Berlin, to treat the expectations of Polish citizens, who were harmed by the Germans, with haughtiness and indifference. In these efforts, the authorities of the Federal Republic used a whole range of legal evasions and tricks.

When, in May 1958, Stanisław Stomma, a Catholic member of the PRL’s legislature, came to Bonn, he heard from the head of the Chancellor’s Office Hans Globke that although the West German side did not deny the need to compensate Polish victims, it was currently impossible because Poland was ruled by a communist regime which would discount German payments for itself.

Regardless of referring to the 1953 PRL’s statement the Federal Republic of Germany took the position that the issue of compensation could be settled only in the future peace treaty, negotiated at the peace conference with united Germany. This was the position of the government in Bonn until the end of 1989. Shortly afterwards, Germany made a characteristic turn on this issue, which will be discussed later.

But let’s return to the realities of the 1960s – flourishing West Germany (the economic miracle, Wirtschatswunder was still going on) and the woefully poor People’s Republic of Poland, slowly and on its own rebuilding the country ruined by the two occupiers.
Gdańsk, 1947. Długie Pobrzeże, ruined during WWII. Photo: PAP
For some time, the Federal Republic had been paying substantial sums to victims from many European countries and from Israel (in 1952, Bonn promised to donate to the survivors of the persecuted Jews an amount equal to several percent of the West German budget). Meanwhile, Poles were treated extremely badly. They could not invoke persecution on nationality grounds, because the regulations of the Federal Republic of Germany did not provide for such a way – and yet the majority of Polish victims of German terror were persecuted for this very reason. “In addition”. as it was written in an internal expert opinion for the authorities of the PRL “in order to make it even more difficult for Poles to obtain compensation, a provision was introduced that the payment of compensation abroad depended on the existence of diplomatic relations with the country whose citizen would be to receive it”.

100 million Deutschmarks and not a pfennig more

These bilateral relations were finally established only in 1972 - it took West Germany a year and a half to agree on the conditions, ambiguous for Poland, of the famous agreement of December 7, 1970, signed by chancellor Willy Brandt.

When in September 1972, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Polish People’s Republic, Stefan Olszowski, came to Bonn on an official visit, he was told that in the London Convention signed by West Germany, “the issue of reparations and compensation was postponed until a peaceful settlement regarding Germany” and that this problem had to be “a subject of negotiations with the future All-German Government”. So said West German Foreign Minister Walter Scheel, who did not fail to refer to the Bierut government’s renunciation of reparations in 1953.

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In turn, chancellor Willy Brandt told the Polish guest – 27 years after the war – that in terms of compensation for Poles, he encountered internal difficulties, especially from the “young generation [of Germans], which was neither responsible for the harm done nor does it want to identify itself with the offenses and crimes committed by some of the older generation”.

Minister Olszowski was confronted in Bonn with a whole series of twisted excuses, which were supposed to dissuade the Polish side from discussing the issue of compensation. He heard that “potential claims for indemnity” of Polish citizens cannot be implemented for fundamental and formal reasons, because the deadline for submitting relevant applications expired on December 31, 1969” – and earlier, let us repeat, they were not considered due to the lack of diplomatic relations PRL – FRG.

The hosts also pointed out that the Polish People’s Republic had never recognized Germany as the successor of the Third Reich, so it should not demand benefits from West Germany. Olszowski also heard that the Polish side should not return to the issue of compensation for the period of occupation, because Germany could also “submit its claims for resettlement and loss of property left in the former German territories now belonging to Poland”, which “would not serve mutual relations”.

Therefore, Poland had to be content with only 100 million West Deutschmarks (DM) as aid for Polish victims of pseudo-medical experiments (it was the year 1972). A West German loan for one billion DM on favorable terms (1975) was to be a gesture too. Let us add that the pension agreement signed in 1975 had nothing to do with the issue of reparations.

Thus, until the end of the Polish People’s Republic, Polish victims of the German occupation did not receive a penny more than 100 million marks from 1972.

How Kohl deceived Bush

In November 1989, after the groundbreaking events in our country, chancellor Helmut Kohl visited Poland, which was later described as a “history-making event”. The West German side, taking advantage of Poland’s difficult financial situation (indebtedness), did everything to prevent the issue of compensation for World War II from appearing among the topics of talks with Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki. When this failed, the chancellor showed exceptional stubbornness on the issue.

As a result of the attitude of the West German side, Poland had to agree so that the issue of compensation would not appear at all in the extensive Joint Statement of both heads of government. Later it turned out that the only Polish politician who raised the issue of compensation from Germany was the speaker of the Diet, prof. Mikołaj Kozakiewicz. During his visit to Bonn in mid-December 1989, he spoke about the two million Poles who were making claims and added that a “dignified solution” to this matter was “conditio sine qua non of understanding and future reconciliation”. Kohl later recalled that Kozakiewicz mentioned the amount of 200 billion marks and that “it made a bad impression”.

In the weeks that followed, chancellor Kohl accomplished what many years later a columnist for the German daily Die Welt would call “a masterpiece of German foreign policy”. He convinced President George H. W. Bush that, contrary to what had been the official legal stance of successive governments in Bonn for forty years, the convening of a peace conference regulating issues related to the consequences of World War II for Germany should be abandoned at all costs. Kohl was mainly concerned with reparations.

When Kohl visited Bush at Camp David in late February 1990, he lied to him, claiming that out of the total amount of over DM 100 billion paid by Germany as compensation, Poland had supposedly received “huge amounts”. These alleged large sums, meanwhile, amounted to not even one percent, they did not even exceed one per thousand of the amount mentioned by Kohl.
Informal talks at Camp David in 1990. US President George H.W. Bush (center) receives German chancellor Helmut Kohl (right). The meeting is attended by Secretary of State James A. Baker. Photo: White House/CNP/ABACAPRESS.COM/PAP
At some point, Helmut Kohl even wanted to make the recognition of the Polish western border conditional on Warsaw confirming the statement of the Bierut government from 1953.

Without redress

In the end, he managed to take advantage of the weak negotiating position of Tadeusz Mazowiecki’s government (debt and new loan guarantees), which found it necessary to settle for the pitiful amount of 500 million marks for the “victims of Nazi persecution”. These benefits (as humanitarian aid, not as “compensation”) were then paid by the “Foundation for Polish-German Reconciliation” (agreement of October 16, 1991).

And it was only after difficult international negotiations involving the American government and Jewish organizations that in the late 1990s it was agreed that Germany would pay humanitarian aid to former Polish forced laborers – victims of slave labor for the Third Reich. Funds were paid out to approx. PLN 484,000. to Polish citizens for the amount of over PLN 3.5 billion.

Hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions of Polish victims of the German occupation did not live to see that. Some of the still-living victims did not receive any material compensation either because, for various formal reasons, they did not meet the requirements set by the Federal Republic.

They are victims not only of Germany’s terror policy. They are also the victims of the ruthless, inhuman approach of successive governments of the Federal Republic – from Adenauer to Scholz.

Against this background, it is hardly surprising that the lack of German sensitivity to Polish feelings of injustice causes deepest disappointment and misunderstanding in our public opinion. It is also very much at odds with German assurances about the will to reconcile and reach agreement with Poland, and with declarations about the importance of moral values in foreign policy.

– Stanisław Żerko
– Translated by Dominik Szczęsny-Kostanecki

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

Professor Stanisław Żerko – historian, employee of the Institute for Western Affairs in Poznań and lecturer at the Naval Academy in Gdynia, author of the study “Reparacje i odszkodowania w stosunkach między Polską a RFN (zarys historyczny)” [Reparations and compensation in relations between Poland and Germany (historical outline)], Poznań 2017.
Main photo: CAPTIONS: Warsaw 1947. Danusia Piekarzówna and her brother Janusz walking among the ruins of one of the capital’s main streets. Photo: PAP/Władysław Forbert
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