German historian: The reparations issue is still open

German politicians will eventually have to confront the issue. For the time being, I see indications of a change in the attitude around the topic of reparations, which is happening due to the pressure on Germany, but also due to the ongoing war in Ukraine, says Dr Karl Heinz Roth, a historian, physician and member of the Foundation for Social History of the 20th Century (SfS).

TVP WEEKLY: Since at least 2018, you have repeatedly said that on the reparations issue, Poland should not act alone, but together with other countries making claims against Germany. Now Warsaw has decided to act internationally. The fates of Greece, Italy, and a dialogue with Namibia – which has an unresolved account of wrongdoings by Germany dating back to colonial times – regularly come up in the debate. Is the internationalisation of reparation claims a recipe for success in pursuing them?

In the face of the arrogance of Germany’s political elite, joint action is necessary. And I am very pleased that the solutions I have been talking about for years – cooperation with other countries are being implemented. My own contribution to the debate itself is modest, but I know that Greece has reacted strongly to the new waves coming from Poland on the reparations issue. Some time ago, a book was published by the Greek diplomat Aris Radiopoulos, who systematised the subject of reparation claims based on the archives of the Greek Foreign Ministry. Radiopoulos's work on the subject ran parallel to my research on the scientific framework for reparation claims and was done in collaboration with our Foundation for Social History of the 20th Century. Recently, a major conference was held in Athens highlighting the importance of a joint initiative for the redress of grievances, with former Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos highlighting the urgent need for joint action with Poland. In addition to this, it is good that Poland has made contact with Italy, but – and this is particularly pleasing – that it has started to notice Namibia, which has been formulating its claims against Germany for the crimes committed by the troops of the German Empire against the Herero and Nama peoples between 1904 and 1908.

In internationalising the issue of the German reparation debt to Poland, Warsaw also asked the United States for support. The only problem is that without Washington’s agreement, with the “Two-plus-Four Agreement” [also known as the Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany - ed] the German authorities in 1990 could sidestep the reparations issue. It is therefore fair to ask about the real chances of American assistance in this matter.

In my opinion, getting the United States interested in this topic is an important step. A positive response in America will have a special effect and influence on German politicians and diplomats. Yes, in 1990, during the negotiations of the "Two-plus-Four Agreement", the United States supported Germany on the exclusion of the reparations issue from the document, it even came to the point where the then-German Foreign Minister and his American counterpart jointly agreed that the term “peace treaty” could not be included in the document, because, with the introduction of this concept, the reparations demands would become relevant again. However, I believe that how the United States will respond to pressure from Poland and other countries on Germany over reparations is crucial. The question is whether America will be willing to initiate a treaty adjustment in this new situation. This is particularly important because the exclusion of the issue of reparations from the treaty was not tantamount to their annulment. The matter is still open. And that is why Poland's move towards Washington is of particular importance.

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And yet, it is interesting that Berlin, in rejecting the reparation claims of Poland, but also of Greece, refers to a treaty in which reparations are not mentioned at all. On 1 June, the federal government, once again referring to the “Two-plus-Four Agreement”, announced that for Germany, the reparations issue is closed. This was in response to a question from the parliamentary club of the [democratic socialist] Linke party, which concerned the massacre committed by Waffen SS troops against the inhabitants of the Greek village of Distomo, but indirectly referred to the Polish claims. It can therefore be said that this treaty is Berlin's crowning argument to justify its refusal of reparations. Is it high time to dispel the myth of the “Two-plus-Four”. Perhaps this is the place to start?

That's right, this treaty, not only on a verbal level, but also in all documents of the German Foreign Ministry and the German Chancellor's office from 1990 onwards, has been used to reject reparation claims. The message is always the same: “By virtue of the Two-plus-Four Agreement, the reparations issue has been definitively closed”. With no mention, of course, of the fact that the issue has merely been omitted, but not removed, with the treaty fulfilling the conditions of a peace treaty, even if it does not claim to be one. After all, the provision on the renunciation of Germany's nuclear weapons is a clear peace regulation referring directly to the post-war situation. I, therefore, believe that Germany's extremely hardened stance on reparations argued by the “Two-plus-four Agreement” masks the federal government's weakest point.

  We only have to consult secret documents from the time the treaty was negotiated to see the intensity with which the reparations issue was dealt with and why it was decided to exclude it. The government's response to Linke, which you mentioned, also argues that in the Paris Charter for a New Europe, a document signed in November 1990, the member states of the European Union took note of the treaty's provisions and approved them. But this too omitted the issue of reparations. This is why the governments of Greece, Poland, and more recently, Serbia are reminding themselves of this fact. And the issue of the treaty, or rather the omission of the reparations issue, will be a decisive element in their dispute with Germany. This is why the position of the United States and whether it is willing to correct the provisions of the treaty are so important because only Washington can do this.

You once wrote that the issue of Polish reparation claims should be considered in isolation from who happens to run the government in Poland. And yet, in conversations with German politicians, it appears that they think it is enough to wait out the Conservative governments, and that after a possible change of power in our country, the reparations issue will evaporate. Are we right?

We do not know what the outcome of the Polish elections will be, but in the parliamentary vote, opposition politicians also supported, in the majority, the assertion of claims from the German Government. I have always believed, and I have said so explicitly even to those friends who used the argument that "reparations are, after all, only wanted by the Polish conservatives and the liberal opposition is opposed to them,” that reparations are an important topic for the majority of Poles. Since practically every Polish family lost someone close to them during WWII, the memory of the German occupation is deeply rooted among Poles. And I think any Polish government will have to take this into account. The German government takes a short-sighted view of the issue. Maybe two years ago I would have diagnosed the situation differently, but after almost the entire Sejm [Poland's Parliament - ed] voted in favour of claiming reparations, I see a change.
Gdansk, 1947 - Long Pobrzeze (City Coast), ruined during World War II. Photo: PAP
In a recent interview with Polish Radio 24, the then ambassador of the Federal Republic of Germany, Thomas Bagger, not only reaffirmed his government's tough stance on reparations, but also stated that the subject of claims is a Pandora's box that is better not opened. Would you interpret these words as a threat?

If, in such a situation, someone makes threats, they do so out of fear. Of course, if there is recognition of a state's reparation claims under international law, it will not be without far-reaching consequences. Look at Serbia, for example. At the states of the former Yugoslavia, Belarus, or Ukraine. Under international law, the latter two states were part of the Soviet Union, but this does not preclude their ability to assert their claims under the new conditions. That is why I am talking about the broad implications and the fact that, in the European context, there is nothing to prevent the dispute from moving to the OSCE, to which all the states we mentioned belong. But it is also true that there would be a domino effect, to which we should nevertheless respond positively. So, yes, it is a threat, but it is a threat based on fear. And I am convinced that the issue of reparations should be pushed further, regardless of the threats from the German government.

Leaving aside the Polish claims, do you not think that the question of reparations has become extremely topical in the face of the war in Ukraine? There is already talk of future war reparations to Ukraine from Russia. The German government will therefore probably have quite a problem in avoiding responsibility for its own crimes.

If the situation you mention were to arise, the German Government would find itself in an extremely uncomfortable position. Ukraine could put the matter this way: We are now jointly making reparation claims against Russia, but before that, let us settle the issue of outstanding reparations from Germany. In this sense, the reparations issue is becoming topical, and it looks like it will remain topical, despite some predictions. It may also be that the mere threat of reparations will make even the greatest of global powers come to the conclusion that waging war is no longer viable. The reparation issue will thus also gain great importance as part of an effective tool for influencing the shape of the international order. And when the former European colonies in Africa are included, the horizon will widen even further.

My book on the reparation debt also appeared on US bookshelves, and the publishing house that agreed to publish it justified its interest on the grounds that there is an intense debate in the US about reparations for the descendants of the slave population. So even in the US, the topic is stirring up emotions.

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We were recently able to speak to a representative of the Herero ethnic group, among those African peoples who were victims of colonial crimes in what is now Namibia. This man was disappointed with the German government's stance towards organisations representing the descendants of the victims. How do you view Namibia's reparation claims?

I have dealt with this topic in depth, and it has also been the subject of my discussions with other historians. Some of them acted on behalf of the federal government, but over time they resigned because they could no longer support the position of the authorities. The fact is that in the reparations negotiations with Namibia, the behaviour of the German government was horrible. It played up the Herero and Nama peoples by communicating to them that only the Namibian government was the party to negotiate with. Except that neither the Herero nor the Nama have any seats in the government. Meanwhile, the Owambo people and their representatives collaborated with the German Empire between 1904 and 1908. The federal government is fully aware of this and is using this fact to play up the Namibian government on the one hand and to sow discord between the Herero and Nama peoples and the Owambo on the other.

Furthermore, the German government has rejected all Namibia's complaints and claims for compensation and has instead offered Namibia a so-called “development aid” of €1.1 billion, which was also included in the conciliation agreement initialled (but not yet signed) between Namibia and Germany in May 2021. This aid, however, is earmarked for specific purposes, such as improving infrastructure along the migration route of the Herero and Nama people. The scandal is that there has been a discussion about land reform in Namibia for decades. And this discussion is directly related to the Herero and Nama fund, because the slaughtered and enslaved representatives of the Herero people, who were locked up in a concentration camp, were deprived of their land. After all, the immediate cause of the Herero and Nama uprising of 1904 was that German settlers were seizing their land. After the uprising was crushed, the practice of land confiscation intensified. For today's Germans, the issue of land ownership in Namibia is still highly problematic, as a powerful group of landowners are mostly Germans. Therefore, the Herero and Nama people's disappointment with this 2021 agreement is fully understandable. Under an agreement that presupposed minimal financial support from Germany, their own government cheated them and excluded them. Let's face it; the support was in no way adequate to their claims. I believe that this matter is not over yet.
An exhibition at the Shoah Memorial Museum in Paris dedicated to German crimes in Namibia. The exhibit, which was on view in 2016, was titled "The First Genocide of the 20th Century." Photo Sebastian Kunigkeit/DPA/PAP
And when did the issue of Namibia's claims begin to resonate more intensely in the German public debate?

This reminds me of a certain panel discussion, about 10-12 years ago. I had previously suggested to the moderator of the panel and to the participants that the topic of reparations for Namibia should also be raised, and at that time this issue was not as well known to the public as it is today. The reaction from my colleagues was immediate. I was told that my proposal could have serious consequences and that it would be just like Pandora's box. Imagine a situation where a state that, under international law, has committed genocide against the people living in its former colonies pays compensation to their descendants. German colonial rule in central and eastern Africa, so-called German East Africa, was no less brutal than that in the area of present-day Namibia. Although there was no genocide, there were mass murders and massacres, the victims of which were even more numerous than those in Namibia. From the perspective of today's Germany, the reparation of one victim would result in further claims. All over the world. Not only against Germany. “Because what, for example, would happen with the Dutch East Indies?” my friends asked me. “After all, were crimes not also committed there? And what about the crimes of Britain in India?”

There is another issue. For many years now, warehouses in German ethnographic museums have been combed for the skulls and bones of murdered Herero and Nama, which had been studied by racist German anthropologists in the early 20th century. These remains are now being returned to Namibia, and this is obvious and necessary. Just as it is necessary to expedite the restitution of African cultural heritage found in German museums, but this does not mean that we should stop there. The history of colonialism demands reparations on a large scale. Reparations that will enable post-colonial states to develop independently of the world powers, both established and emerging. Once again, therefore, a global perspective opens up that only confirms the thesis that the question of reparations is important.

But one might ask: “What does Africa have to do with Poland? After all, it's a different continent, a different crime, a different time.” What would you say to that?

First of all, I would bring up the argument that genocide and war crimes are not subject to a statute of limitations under international law. The time of the crime committed plays no role. Hence the American discussion on slavery, which did not crop up yesterday. Secondly – and I say this from a German perspective, since this would be my response to those from Poland who do not see the connection between the Namibia case and the war crimes committed under German occupation in Poland – everything is encapsulated in the concept of “continuity”.

In Namibia, General Lothar von Trotha, commander of troops of the German Empire, was the first to implement the concept of war of attrition later developed by the German General Staff. Trotha commanded the operation to suppress the uprising in order to annihilate the Herero and Nama peoples. When he failed, he banished these people to the desert and cut off their access to water so that they would die of exhaustion. This was a concept of systemic destruction that was not something he came up with, but originated with the German General Staff. As a historian, I could now explain in detail how this concept was translated into the reality of WWI. In short, there is a certain continuity in the concept of a war of attrition, which was carried over from the German Empire to both world wars. After all, under the Empire, German colonial troops became elite units, and then their traditions were adapted for the Wehrmacht. So we have continuity in a certain structural order.

Another example of continuity is the unchanging position of the Federal Governments: both vis-à-vis the claims of Herero and Nama and the Government of Namibia, and vis-à-vis the countries that have made reparation claims in relation to the crimes of WWII. The pattern is always the same, although in the case of Namibia, the “Two-plus-Four agreement” obviously has no meaning. The argument, however, remains the same, namely: “Under international law we are not obliged to make reparations”, or that “the statute of limitations has expired,” which is already an absolute absurdity.

A few years ago, it was unthinkable to link the Namibia issue with the claims of European countries. When I brought up the subject in lectures, I was met with incomprehension. In Germany, however, this has changed. And I am sure this will also happen in Poland and other countries.
Karl Heinz Roth, Hartmut Rübner “Wyparte, odroczone, odrzucone. Niemiecki dług reparacyjny wobec Polski i Europy” [“Disavowed, deferred, rejected. The German reparation debt to Poland and Europe”], Zysk i S-ka, 2023
You recently published a new edition of a book on the German reparation debt, and I wonder whether the German reparation debate is different than it was a decade ago.

A lot has changed. I remember that at the beginning, after the book was published in Germany, I was devastated by the massive criticism, especially coming from German historians. We have seen some shifts here, as well as in the approach of professionals. I, on the other hand, have in front of me an issue of the magazine Geschichtswissenschaft, with a text by Stephan Lehnstaedt, with whom I spent a good few hours discussing the topic following the reparations conference in Warsaw (organised in 2018 by the Western Institute). Lehnstaedt represented a restrained position at the time, being in favour of Poland applying for individual reparations for the 30,000 to 40,000 non-Jewish former concentration camp inmates still alive. He has since changed his opinion somewhat. Today, he says that Germans should accept that every Polish family made a sacrifice during the German occupation, and we must not simply close the discussion. Although he did not support reparations, he did not reject them either. And this is something new. Just as it is something new that the expert opinion contained in my book has been taken into account in the discussion by experts from the scientific department of the Bundestag, as Prof. Magdalena Bainczyk of the Western Institute pointed out to me. In conclusion, I see signs of a correction of the German position.

However, it is important to note that the political class is still questioning the sense of any debate on reparations, and the Greens, who only a few years ago were willing to support at least partial reparations for Greece in the case of Greek claims, are today, through [former Greens leader and current German Foreign Minister] Annalena Baerbock, ruling out such an eventuality in the case of Poland, but I have the impression that politicians, too, will eventually have to face up to this problem. For the time being, I see indications of a change in the atmosphere around the topic of reparations, which is happening under pressure from Germany, but also from the ongoing war in Ukraine. Because every day we hear – and see – what the situation of a population conquered by an aggressor is, how human rights are violated, etc. And I welcome the fact that the [Polish] publishing house Zysk wants to publish the second edition of my book. I see this as a precursor to another discussion.

You mentioned the Green party, which, when they were in opposition, at least in part, supported the restitution claims of Greece. And now that they are in the governing coalition, they have changed their minds.

The Greens also reject the Greek demands today, the same demands they defended earlier. Their joining the government was accompanied by a change of mindset. I have been in touch with a group that supports Greece as well as with a distinguished elderly lady who set the tone for the Greens' earlier activities on the Greek claims. However, since the Greens entered government, their activity in this field has died down. I know from Greece itself that the claims are now unequivocally rejected, which clearly shows the change of course of the Greens. I have the impression, by the way, that the Greens have changing course not only on this particular issue, and this will probably be reflected in the polls.

Last year, we spoke about your assessment of the Polish war loss report. Looking back from the perspective of almost a year since its publication, has this report influenced the position of the German side in any way?

Once again, I would like to emphasise that the report is a very detailed document. The method adopted in calculating Poland's war losses during the German occupation is highly complicated, as it assumes not only tangible losses, but also the impossibility of generating national wealth as a result of the human and material losses incurred. This is an exceptionally strong argument. In our conversation last year, I said that the calculations of the war loss amounts from the report are almost identical to the calculations I presented in my book on the German reparation debt towards Poland. The report said EUR 1.3 trillion, compared to the EUR 1.12 trillion I calculated in the book years ago.

The only shortcoming of the report, from my point of view, is that it does not take into account the reparation payments that Germany has nevertheless made. I believe that the report should have been supplemented with this information. It was unnecessarily silent, because both West Germany and East Germany paid some reparations. However, this does not change the fact that, compared with the EUR 1.12 or 1.3 trillion estimates, this is only a fraction of what Poland is entitled to. According to my calculations, these German benefits were the equivalent of around EUR 120-160 billion, and we are talking, after all, about more than a trillion euros. I believe that this matter should become the subject of additional discussion, but looking at the picture as a whole, the Polish report on war losses was a decisive step on Poland's part.

At one point, there was uncertainty as to whether the report would be published at all, and then as to how far its calculations would show the true scale of the damage, but when it was finally released, all doubts disappeared and it became clear that we were dealing with a very good report, that could not be called into question in any way. From the beginning, I have been calling for the War Losses Report to be translated into German and published as soon as possible. And in my opinion, it should neither be published by the Polish Foreign Ministry nor by the Polish embassy in Germany, but by a German publishing house, with an extensive preface. If this publication were to be further accompanied by a conference, Poland would have succeeded in elevating the topic of reparations to a new, higher level.

– Interview conducted by Antoni Opaliński

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– Translated by Roberto Galea
Main photo: March 1945. Graves on a Warsaw street. Photo: PAP/CAF
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