BERLIN — No image says more about Germany’s efforts to confront its World War II history than a 1970 photograph of Chancellor Willy Brandt kneeling in front of a memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
For Germans, Brandt’s gesture was a powerful display of both humility and shame, marking a turning point in the country’s collective post-war contrition — a process that allowed them to come to terms with, if not overcome, what they had wrought.
If only Poland agreed. After paying Poland about €1.3 billion in the early 1990s, Germany thought it had closed the book on the question of its war-related obligations toward Warsaw. Now Poland’s populist government is trying to reopen it.
“In a situation where Poland received only 1 percent of all damages paid as the country that suffered the greatest destruction and losses, the question is whether there can be only one answer,” Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Szymon Szynkowski vel Sęk told POLITICO in an interview. “So yes, we have the right to expect such a discussion.”
As Poland risks being ostracized in Europe for a controversial judicial reform that critics say violates basic democratic principles, the country’s ruling Law and Justice party, PiS (pronounced “peace”), which blames Berlin for the EU scrutiny, is fighting back by trying to reopen the reparations debate.
“A large part of the Polish public wants these issues to be addressed” — Milan Nič, analyst with the German Council on Foreign Relations
A high-level Polish delegation led by Szynkowski vel Sęk, a rising star in the government with ties to PiS chairman Jarosław Kaczyński, visited Berlin last month and cited the issue as one of the main problems dogging Polish-German relations. Germany insists that the reparations question was settled by a series of post-war agreements, including a 1991 accord under which Warsaw agreed to forgo further claims.
Though Germany’s direct payments to Poland were modest, German officials often point to their country’s agreement to relinquish claims on territories annexed by Poland after the war. Some of those areas, including parts of Pomerania and eastern Prussia, had been under German control for centuries.
Even so, few in Poland, which also lost historic territories after the war, believe Germany paid anywhere near enough. Given the magnitude of German atrocities in Poland, such calls aren’t easily dismissed.
“A large part of the Polish public wants these issues to be addressed,” said Milan Nič, an analyst with the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), who has studied the issue and worked to facilitate Polish-German dialogue. “The Poles tell the Germans, ‘you think this is closed, but it isn’t for us.’”
The question is whether Poland’s government is raising the reparations issue as a tactic to feed anti-German feelings and shift blame for its own problems in Europe to Berlin, or if it really plans to pursue the issue.
So far, the signals have been mixed.
In January, Polish Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz insisted Warsaw doesn’t want the issue to damage ties between the two capitals. “This topic doesn’t exist in the relations between our two governments,” he said.
At the time, Poland was hoping for more German support in its dispute with Brussels over its judicial reform, support that wasn’t forthcoming.
Then in March, Polish MP Arkadiusz Mularczyk, a PiS member tasked with investigating the reparations question, drew headlines by claiming that Germany owes Poland €690 billion.
“This discussion is taking place and it’s necessary” — Szynkowski vel Sęk
“We’re talking about very large but justified reparations for war crimes, for destroyed cities, villages and the lost demographic potential of our country,” Mularczyk said at the time.
Szynkowski vel Sęk, a fluent German speaker who was partly educated in the country, struck a more diplomatic note, suggesting there could be some room for compromise.
“I intentionally use the word damages instead of war reparations,” he said.
In other words, even if Berlin has international law on its side when it comes to the reparations question, there’s nothing to stop Germany from agreeing to address Poland’s grievances by offering further compensation.
“This discussion is taking place and it’s necessary,” Szynkowski vel Sęk said.
If the calendar is any indication, that discussion is bound to intensify in the coming months. Next year marks the 75th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising, a seminal moment in Polish history during which the resistance tried to free the country from German occupation. German troops quelled the revolt, killing as many as 200,000 Polish civilians in the process, in one of history’s greatest atrocities.
The danger for Berlin is that the compensation issue will become tangled in what will inevitably be a highly emotional commemoration, further straining relations with its neighbor.
“The Germans don’t understand the depth of the problem,” Nič said.