WWII wounds remain as Poland seeks German reparations 80 years on

Eight decades after the first Nazi bombs fell on Poland, echoes of the blasts can be heard in the bickering between Warsaw and Berlin over the possibility of billions of euros in war reparations.

WWII wounds remain as Poland seeks German reparations 80 years on
Archive photo shows Adolf Hitler in Poland. Photo: DPA

It was only recently that the neighbours, allies within NATO and the EU, had appeared to have turned the page on World War II.

But that changed with the 2015 election of Poland's Law and Justice (PiS) party, which sees wariness of the EU and Germany as a useful political tool. And the right-wing party has reopened discussion on reparations.

“Poland has yet to receive proper compensation from Germany… We lost six million people over the course of the war — many more than did countries that received major reparations,” Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said
earlier this month.

“It's not fair. This can't continue.”

READ ALSO: Polish president demands war reparations from Germany

PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski relaunched the issue in 2017, and since then, a parliamentary commission has been working on a new analysis of the extent of Poland's wartime human and material losses.

The figures could be even higher than those drawn up by Poland in 1947, which are equivalent to around 850 billion today, according to the commission head, PiS lawmaker Arkadiusz Mularczyk.

“It's been so many years since the war ended and Germany hasn't reflected on its past. It's more concerned with the stability of its budget than with observing the democratic guidelines of the rule of law and respecting human rights,” Mularczyk told AFP.

He claims “discrimination,” saying Germany provides compensation to other war victims while there are still Poles alive “who experienced the same suffering as the Jewish nation.”

'Reparations closed'

The German government has accepted responsibility for Nazi war atrocities but routinely rejects demands for reparations, be they from Poland or Greece.

“The German government's position remains unchanged. The matter of German reparations is legally and politically closed,” said government spokeswoman Ulrike Demmer.

According to Berlin, Poland, then a Soviet satellite, relinquished its claims for reparations to the former communist east Germany – the German Democratic Republic – in 1953.

A cross in a ruin in Wielun, Poland, stands where a church was destroyed at the beginning of the World War II.

In 1990, Poland and a united Germany signed a border agreement after the Two Plus Four conference on the reunification of Germany, followed by a good neighbour agreement in 1991. The question of reparations was never raised, leading Berlin to assume a tacit agreement that the matter had been settled.

But Polish conservatives contest the validity of the 1953 accord, claiming Warsaw acted under pressure from the Soviet Union.

They also focus on insisting that Germany has a “moral duty” in the matter, perhaps trying to avoid it ending up as a thorny legal dispute.

Reparations 'left unsettled'

Poles themselves are divided on the question of reparations.

For Tadeusz Sierandt, who was a child when the Nazis bombed his hometown of Wielun, the matter has been settled since the Allies redrew Poland's borders at the war's end.

At the time Poland lost almost half of its eastern territory to the Soviet Union but it also gained a smaller chunk of land to its west that had belonged to Germany.

“I would just be happy with the land recovered in 1945,” Sierandt, 88, told AFP.

But for historian Tadeusz Olejnik, the current call for reparations remains “morally justified”.

However, there is consensus among Germans that reparations are a closed case.

But at the same time among the country's rising political far-right – especially present in areas bordering Poland – there is talk of rehabilitating the Wehrmacht.

Ahead of the 2017 general election, the co-leader of the far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD), Alexander Gauland, said Germans “have the right to be proud of the achievements of German soldiers in two world wars.”

The comments triggered outrage from German politicians of all stripes, but the criticism did not stop the AfD from becoming the country's first nationalist party to win dozens of seats in parliament since World War II.

Poland has not yet made a formal demand for reparations,  but PiS lawmaker Mularczyk stressed that the issue must be addressed.

“With the issue (of reparations) left unsettled, we reach the point of relativising the role played by the Germans during World War II,” he said.

Two weeks after Germany invaded Poland from the west in 1939, the Soviet Union invaded from the east.

But “the Polish side is not raising the issue of war reparations with Russia right now,” Poland's foreign ministry told AFP, without elaborating.

By Stanislaw Waszak with Mathieu Foulkes in Berlin.

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How a new Berlin museum is carefully exploring Germany’s wartime suffering

A new museum dedicated to the long-silenced trauma of German civilians forced to flee eastern Europe at the end of World War II opens next week after decades of wrenching debate.

How a new Berlin museum is carefully exploring Germany's wartime suffering
An exhibit at the Documentation Centre for Displacement, Expulsion and Reconciliation. Photo: dpa | Bernd von Jutrczenka

Perhaps reflecting what its founders call their delicate “balancing act”, the new institution in Berlin carries the unwieldy name of Documentation Centre for Displacement, Expulsion and Reconciliation.

Some 14 million Germans fled or were ejected from what is today’s Poland, Russia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, the Baltic states, Romania, Slovakia and the former Yugoslavia between 1944 and 1950.

Escaping the Russian army and later forced out by occupying powers and local authorities, an estimated 600,000 Germans lost their lives on the trek.

Those who fled included people who had settled in Nazi-occupied territories as well as ethnic Germans who had lived for centuries as minorities.

Seventy-six years after the conflict’s end, director Gundula Bavendamm said Germany was finally ready to talk about their suffering, while still acknowledging the unparalleled guilt of the Nazis.

“We are not the only country that needed quite some time to face up to painful and difficult chapters of its own history,” she told reporters at a preview of the museum before it opens to the public on Wednesday.

“Sometimes it takes several generations, and the right political constellations.”

‘Universal’ experience

The 65-million-euro museum takes pains to place the Germans’ plight firmly in the context of Hitler’s expansionist, genocidal policies.

It is located between the museum at the former Gestapo headquarters and the ruins of Anhalter railway station from which Jews were sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp.

Just opposite is a planned Exile Museum devoted to those who fled Nazi Germany.

Access to the second-floor space spotlighting the Germans’ exodus can only be gained through a darkened room covering the Holocaust.

The first-floor exhibition looks at the “universal” refugee experience, covering mass displacements in countries such as Vietnam, Myanmar, Lebanon and India after the 1947 partition.

“Hyper-nationalism is one of the prime causes of war and forced migration – they almost always go together,” curator Jochen Krueger said.

A folding bicycle used by a Syrian asylum seeker crossing from Russia into Norway in the spring of 2016 resonates particularly in Germany, where more than 1.2 million people arrived at the height of that refugee influx.

Dropped stitch

An estimated one-third of Germans have family ties to the mass exodus at the war’s end and the museum presents their often poignant heirlooms.

A haunting cross stitch with a rhyme about kitchen tidiness hangs unfinished, a dark thread still dangling from the cloth because the woman working on it suddenly had to run from advancing Soviet troops.

A girl’s leather pouch is marked with her address in Fraustadt, now the Polish town of Wschowa: Adolf Hitler Strasse 36, displayed in a case near a well-thumbed Hebrew dictionary.


Keys from a villa in Koenigsberg — today’s Kaliningrad — that was fled in 1945 and from a house in Aleppo, Syria abandoned in 2015 symbolise the enduring hope of returning home one day.

“Everything you see displayed here is a miracle because it survived the journey,” Bavendamm said.

The around 12.5 million people who made it to what would become East and West Germany as well as Austria often faced discrimination and hostility.

Now decades on, the museum’s library offers assistance to families hoping to retrace their ancestors’ odyssey.

An audio guide provides context in English, Polish, Czech, Russian and Arabic in addition to German.

And a “Room of Stillness” allows people to sit and reflect on difficult memories.

‘Last remaining gap’

A shroud of silence and shame long covered the suffering experienced by German civilians during and after the war.

Groups representing the expelled in the post-war period sometimes had links to the far right, and occasionally agitated against government efforts to atone for Nazi aggression.

Only after the Cold War and a long process of international reconciliation did incidents such as the devastating Allied firebombing of Dresden or the 1945 sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff ship carrying German refugees gain an airing.

The far right’s claiming of such events to underline German victimhood also complicates efforts to find the right tone to broach the subject.

News magazine Der Spiegel called the museum “a statement to the left and the right wing, to Germany and abroad. It is meant to close a last remaining gap in German remembrance”.

The seed for the project was planted in 1999 by Erika Steinbach, an archconservative lawmaker who had voted against the recognition of Germany’s postwar border with Poland after the fall of the Iron Curtain.

An infamous Polish magazine cover depicted Steinbach as a Nazi dominatrix forcing Germany’s chancellor at the time, Gerhard Schroeder, to do her bidding.

However Schroeder’s successor Angela Merkel recognised the necessity of the museum and in 2008 agreed with broad mainstream support to establish a centre dedicated to a spirit of international reconciliation.

Historians from across Europe and Jewish community representatives were enlisted as advisors.

“Understanding loss is at the heart of the project – loss of property and ownership in general but also loss of social status, of community, of loved ones,” Bavendamm said.

“But it’s also about how people manage to process loss and perhaps, after a time, begin to look toward a better future.”

SEE ALSO: ‘We just didn’t realise’ – What it was like growing up in post-Nazi Dachau