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The reparations war that could break the EU Poland has been forced to let go of its history

Tusk meets Scholz in Warsaw earlier this month (Omar Marques/Getty Images)

Tusk meets Scholz in Warsaw earlier this month (Omar Marques/Getty Images)


July 10, 2024   6 mins

Since its inception, the European project has always aimed to bring about the end of history on the continent, and to finally put the ceaseless cycle of war, extremism and imperialism that had torn Europe apart for a thousand years to rest.

Yet history’s severed heads have a troublesome habit of growing back. The Russian invasion of Ukraine served as a powerful reminder of this reality for the European mainstream, but other unresolved threads of the continent’s brutal and very recent past have also re-emerged in much more subtle ways.

Last week, Poles had hoped that one such long unresolved injustice, the matter of German reparations for the Nazi occupation during the Second World War, would be clarified during German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s visit to reset German-Polish relations under Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s new government. Back in 1953, under the rule of a Soviet-backed puppet government, Poland had formally renounced its claims to much of the reparations it had been promised, leaving the matter unsettled for decades. Yet the issue resurfaced under the previous Law and Justice Party (PiS) government, which, in an effort to appeal to its nationalistic base, argued that the 1953 declaration was inadmissible since it had been made by a government beholden to Russian interests. PiS intensified its efforts in 2022, when it formally requested that Berlin pay Poland over €1.3 trillion in reparations — the total estimated value of Polish wartime damages as determined by Poland’s Jan Karski Institute for War Losses. Although Tusk had previously supported such moves, his government appeared to soften its stance earlier this year, and signalled it was open to receiving other forms of compensation aside from cold hard cash. 

Tusk’s new approach and Germany’s newfound willingness to address the reparations issue didn’t emerge from a vacuum — both Poland’s swing from Eurosceptic populist rule to a pro-Brussels centrist government and the recent Rightward shift in the European Parliament have scrambled politics within the bloc. Despite its ultimate loss in this weekend’s elections, the recent success of Marine Le Pen’s National Rally has forced Scholz to prepare for an unruly France in years to come and to look for allies wherever he can find them — opening the door for a rapprochement with a newly sympathetic Poland.

At the joint press conference in Warsaw, though, despite saying all the right things about “a clear view of the past” and the “unmeasurable suffering” of Poles at the hands of Germany, Scholz dashed any hopes that Poland would receive anything close to what it is truly owed. Instead, he spoke of compensation for the few thousand still-living Polish victims of the Third Reich, the opening of a house of memory for such victims in Berlin, and closer defence cooperation with Poland along its eastern border with Russia and Belarus. In response to questions from journalists, he indirectly invoked Germany’s official state position that the 1953 decision had been legally binding, and that Berlin was no longer responsible for fulfilling its reparations obligations to Poland.

The backlash in Poland was immediate, and alongside the predictable criticism from PiS leaders such as President Andrzej Duda, commentators across Polish media denounced Scholz’s comments as “a sign of disregard for the Polish side by our Western ally and partner”. The importance of the matter to everyday Poles was also confirmed shortly after the visit — a new survey released last week found that a majority of Polish citizens supported continuing to demand compensation from Germany for the war.

Getting Germany to pay the full cost of reparations to Poland was always going to be a Herculean task politically, and PiS’s all-or-nothing approach had been bound to fail. But even in trying to make good with a Polish government that had pivoted back to his camp after years of PiS rule, Scholz offered Poland — which proportionally suffered more civilian deaths than any other nation during the war — little more than symbolic gestures and nice words about German guilt, all while leaning on flimsy, decades-old legal arguments. This attitude plays into a long-running and convenient logical fallacy that has allowed modern Germany to divorce itself from its Nazi past: that because it has reformed itself ideologically and spiritually since the Third Reich, it deserves to be tacitly absolved of its sins without having to foot the bill for them in full. 

This attitude, which hardly started with Scholz, underscores the enduring lack of understanding among modern German leaders when it comes to contemporary Polish political identity. Although wartime reparations themselves may not be front-of-mind for every Pole, Scholz’s unserious approach to the matter speaks to a much broader concern Poles have about Western Europe’s continued inability to treat their country with dignity in the international arena — especially at a time when Poland has become so crucial for countering the increasing threat to the continent from Russia. 

This isn’t to say that Germany has been wholly dismissive of the reparations issue. In 1992, two years after German reunification, Berlin did in fact pay Poland a portion of what it was owed, granting Polish victims of the Nazis around €295 million before disbursing additional funds for Poles who had been forced into slave labour in years afterward. But throughout its relationship with Germany, Poland has repeatedly had to balance its historical grievances with the needs of the present. In 2004, shortly after Poland joined Germany as a member of the EU, the Polish government itself issued a statement confirming that it had lost its right to full reparations in 1953. In the interest of European integration, Poland found it more advantageous to let go of history and satisfy itself with what it had received from Germany, at least for the time being.

Yet on the eve of yet another opportunity to gain the recompense that their country is owed, Polish leaders’ contemporary political interests appear to have trounced earnest desires for full historical justice once again. With his eye on Poland’s most immediate concerns, Tusk declared that he had heard what he needed to hear from Scholz and agreed to effectively put the wrongs of the past aside in exchange for Germany’s help with the pressing security challenges on Poland’s doorstep.

It would, however, be in Tusk’s interest to keep up the pressure on Scholz to satisfy Poland’s demands. Arguments that he has been too conciliatory towards Germany and other European heavyweights have historically been easy fodder for the narratives of PiS and other Right-wing parties, and although Tusk’s party came out on top in Poland’s European elections last month, the far-Right Confederation party’s strong showing should set off alarm bells in his mind about the future of Poland’s electorate. His failure to secure meaningful reparations at such an opportune moment in Poland’s relationship with Germany would haunt his political prospects not only with Poland’s Right, but also with parts of his own base, too. While it may indeed be the case that Poland has no leg to stand on with regard to reparations under international law, as Poland’s Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski said in February of this year, “the issue of moral, financial and material compensation has never been realised”.

“In the interest of European integration, Poland was forced to let go of history to satisfy itself with what it had received from Germany.”

This point is particularly salient because the reparations process at the end of the war was indisputably tarnished by politics and corruption. At Potsdam in 1945, the Western Allies gave the USSR the right to dispense reparations from Germany on behalf of Poland, which, after the war, became a Soviet satellite state. Poland received only a portion of the machinery, raw materials and military hardware the Soviets seized from Germany on its behalf after the war, until of course the USSR compelled Poland to make its 1953 declaration in an effort absolve communist East Germany from further obligations. As a result, the country that would have likely benefited the most from its full share of reparations was robbed of them prematurely — a reality that, while unchangeable in the eyes of the law, remains otherwise indefensible to this day.

Germany has been critical for Poland’s post-Cold War development and national security, which has made these historical loose ends difficult to satisfactorily address. But adequately dealing with history and developing a mutually beneficial relationship should not be a binary choice — the latter would only be strengthened through the former. And even if full reparations to the tune of over €1 trillion is out of reach, alternative forms of compensation, like rebuilding historical buildings the Nazis destroyed across Poland, additional funds for economic development, and payments not just to still-living survivors, but also to the countless families across Poland that remain impacted by the war almost 80 years later are all on the table as substitutes.

Satisfying such material demands would be a step towards not only closing the darkest chapter in Polish-German relations and delivering justice for its victims, but also affirming that Poland is indeed an equal partner to Germany in a rapidly changing EU. While Europe’s West may be content to live out its post-historic fantasy, in Poland and other eastern members of the bloc, the past haunts our lives at every turn. As it becomes clearer that the EU’s destiny will be defined by its eastern half, acknowledging this and addressing it seriously is no longer a luxury for the European mainstream — rather, it has now become central to its very future. 


Michal Kranz is a freelance journalist reporting on politics and society in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and the United States.

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Dengie Dave
Dengie Dave
11 days ago

An even thornier question is the part the Polish nation and ordinary Poles played in the Holocaust, and then after when thousands of surviving Polish Jews returned from the concentration camps to find their homes had been occupied by Poles who refused to give them back. I’m not sure but I believe the Jews who lost their homes never received reparations. This is a political hot potato in Poland. In 2023 the Polish education minister said the government would no longer fund academic work it deems “insulting to Poles”, a move widely understood to be a direct attack on the country’s Holocaust researchers. The government also temporarily suspended school trips to Poland for Israeli children over a dispute over the the educational content. The official government narrative is that the Poles were the Jews’ greatest friends, but there’s a deal more nuance than that. There was a level of complicity, whether by Nazi coercion or willingly, but there’s push back against academics and others who address this awkward piece of history.

Peter B
Peter B
11 days ago

I’m not convinced that Germans living now are responsible for the actions of their distant ancestors more than 80 years ago. Nor that introducing such concepts of hereditary guilt is anything but a bad thing.
By the way, is Poland also asking for reparations from Austria and Russia for occupations and conquests within the last 300 years ? Or more recently, the Soviet Union which arguably did at least as much damage to Poland as Germany ? Why only Germany ?
It is also worth noting that Poland (which is doing pretty well right now) has done extremely well from EU funding over the past 3 decades. And where did that come from ? Well, the largest single contributor to any EU funding is always Germany. Just saying.
Poland is deservedly doing well these days largely through the honest hard work of its people. Don’t ruin it by turning them into reparations grifters.

Seb Dakin
Seb Dakin
11 days ago
Reply to  Peter B

Even more so when you consider the 1953 agreement (which while one might justifiably claim invalidity for since it was forced on Poland by the USSR, that’s harder after it was then apparently validated by the Poles in 2004). This whole reparations thing, be it of ‘colonial’ powers to countries decades into independence, or of countries who invaded and caused damage to (Japan to Korea) needs some kind of statute of limitations.
And if governments can disown diplomatic agreements earlier regimes made, why can’t the governments disown damage done by earlier regimes? Are only some types regimes to be held accountable for the sins and decisions of the countries they are in charge of? Can countries just back out of agreements after a change in government?

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
11 days ago
Reply to  Peter B

Indeed The Hague and Geneva Conventions condemn collective punishments where reparations is merely a national form of collective punishment. Moreover Poland has been as much affected by Russian invasion, expropriation and killing as it has by German. Why should the sons, grandsons and great grandsons of Germans who went along willingly or unwillingly with Nazi policies be forced to compensate Polish individuals who suffered no direct detriment themselves. It is well past time for reparations.

Brian Kneebone
Brian Kneebone
11 days ago

Without Kaiser Bill, no WW1; no Bolshevik revolution; no great depression; no Nazi party ; no WW2; no nuclear weapons so soon; no Cold war; no Maoism, etc., etc.

The USA became even more powerful than it otherwise might have been. The UK went down hill faster than might have been the case otherwise, etc., etc.

Reparations! Where to start. Germany would be strong contender as to which country did the most to b****r up the 20th Century.

Bernard Davis
Bernard Davis
11 days ago
Reply to  Brian Kneebone

The Germans certainly did their bit to b****r up the 20th Century, or at least the first half of it. Then the Yanks seized the baton and buggered up the rest.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
11 days ago
Reply to  Bernard Davis

Lol…you’re not wrong…

Richard Ross
Richard Ross
7 days ago
Reply to  Bernard Davis

Sure. The USSR was just a benevolent bystander in the B****ing-Up Olympics of the 20thC.

Christopher Chantrill
Christopher Chantrill
11 days ago

Remember? We tried reparations after World War I under the lordly wisdom of former Princeton President Wilson. It didn’t end well.

Tom Lewis
Tom Lewis
11 days ago

My ancient Briton face wants compensation from my Viking nose.
And while we’re on about it, I would be more than happy to accept compensation payments (+ 8% interest) from the Angles / Saxons / Jutes and Normans. After all, it’s only fair, I’m sure EVERYONE would be happy then, I mean “What harm could it do ?”. It’s not like the Germanic tribes have ever resented paying up.

Santiago Excilio
Santiago Excilio
11 days ago

Reparations are a terrible idea in any event (World War II anyone?) and there also has to be some statute of limitations on these things, if they are not negotiated at the cessation of hostilities then time should be called on any obligation in pretty short order. Otherwise where would it ever end? UK claiming reparations from Denmark for the Viking incursions in the 700’s? Or Tunisia wanting reparations from Italy for the destruction of Carthage?

Tom Graham
Tom Graham
11 days ago

The idea that reparations for WWI were to blame for WWII are Nazi propaganda.

The very huge difference is that the reparations after WWI were paid in the years immediately after the war: The money paid and received involved the same people who were involved in the war. There are not Germans left alive who bear any responsibility for anything that happened in WWII.

Rob N
Rob N
11 days ago
Reply to  Tom Graham

While having sympathy for your point an Internet search about Germany’s WW1 reparations shows “The 1953 London Agreement on German External Debts resulted in an agreement to pay 50 percent of the remaining balance. The final payment was made on 3 October 2010, settling German loan debts in regard to reparations.”

Ri Bradach
Ri Bradach
11 days ago

So, Poland is claiming this enormous reparations bill from Germany, but nothing from Russia whose Red Army flattened all of Poland and half of Germany, then forced the Eastern half of Germany and Poland into communist subsidiary states.

Germany has paid those who directly claimed to suffer from their occupation of Poland, so what is left is no different from the French hijacking of Versailles- revenge.

No wonder Poland isn’t demanding anything from Russia, they remain fearful of Russia.

Fafa Fafa
Fafa Fafa
11 days ago
Reply to  Ri Bradach

They use the Willie Sutton principle.

Graff von Frankenheim
Graff von Frankenheim
11 days ago

In the photo: why do these ‘leaders’ both look like someone stole their toys and threw them in the fireplace? Answer: they’re both left-wing authoritarians and therefore by definition miserable human beings out to make everyone else as miserable as they are. Total “Cluster B” types. See this study: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12144-023-04463-x

Vesselina Zaitzeva
Vesselina Zaitzeva
11 days ago

Agreed. Knowledge about Cluster B helps explain many things and connect the dots. Especially given that most politicians show distinct Cluster B traits.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
11 days ago

Err…didn’t Poland take a hundred mile leap westwards after WW2…at the expense of Germany and the population there which was expelled. For example Breslau is now Wroclaw…wonder what the value of all that real estate is…more or less than the claimed reparations?

Stephanie Surface
Stephanie Surface
11 days ago

What about whole of Silesia counting as reparation, becoming part of modern Poland after WWII as the German population was either killed or forced to flee their homes. When I visited Polish Silesia, two decades after the wall fell, the Polish people didn’t seem to have any animosity against Germans and were quite happy, how with the help huge amounts of EU funds(mostly from Germany) the Polish infrastructure, including former German churches and country houses, was newly built and restored. I also met old people from former East Poland, who told me, how their families had to flee their homes, as that part of Poland was integrated into the Soviet Union, now Ukraine. They were forced into cattle cars, as some of their villages and homes were burnt down. Some of those trains were exhibited in the main square of Wrocław (former Breslau).
When will the question of reparations ever end? Will it take 100 or 200 years or even more?

Peter D
Peter D
11 days ago

I agree with you, enough is enough. Maybe if the Germans start asking for their land back, then maybe this topic will go away for good.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
11 days ago

Funny how shakedowns are seldom received well by their targets. Forcing people who had nothing to do with the past to hand over money to people who also did not live in that past is a lousy strategy unless the goal is to foment division. In that case, it’s brilliant.
payments not just to still-living survivors, but also to the countless families across Poland that remain impacted by the war almost 80 years later are all on the table as substitutes.
The timeline is going to be fluid. The same reparations grift is afoot in the US and it’s been far longer than 80 years since our great reckoning with the sins of a previous era. And “countless families,” too. I’m half surprised there is no similar effort to go after the successors of the Ottomans, Romans, Mongols, and assorted others who carried out bad acts.

Jürg Gassmann
Jürg Gassmann
11 days ago

Allied victors have always been very generous in rewarding their friends by giving away other people’s land, not just in Europe, but the world over.
After WW II, Stalin’s Soviet Union kept that part of Poland which the Soviet Union had annexed following the carve-up of Poland between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. It’s now part of Belarus.
Poland was compensated by giving Poland the eastern third of Germany, and half of East Prussia (the Soviet Union kept the other half). Poland brutally ethnically cleansed the German lands it was given of all Germans (including any Jews who wanted to return).
There are politicians in Germany who darkly hint that any serious Polish talk of reparations will reopen the question of formerly German lands.
The formerly Warsaw Pact members of Europe have gloried in the US’ tacit approval to their acting out their revanchism and resurrecting their former dreams of grandeur. The EU has been too willing to go along with that. It must stop, or we’ll have another Thirty Years’ War.
It’s no a question of “end of history”. It’s growing up and moving on.

Mangle Tangle
Mangle Tangle
10 days ago

I get the impression that the author thinks the Poles are entitled to cash – lots of it. Well, how about the Czechs, the Slovaks, and the list goes on, who, if it hasn’t been for Adolf, would not have spent 50 years under the Soviet boot. I don’t think there’s enough cash or a sound enough principle to justify any of this…

Simon Woods
Simon Woods
10 days ago

Germany never made anything like the level of reparations it should have and indeed thanks to the americans deciding not to punish the nation, it did very well after the war ended unlike the UK which remained in bankruptcy for decades. Very few Nazis were brought to justice and the few that were, received lenient sentences. Numeous Nazis went back into German government and industry. Most of the industrial companies that assisted Hitler are still house hold names in Germany – Krupps, Siemens et al. Many former nazis were involved in the setting up of the nascent Common Market in the 1950’s together with many of the Vichy French. The EEC and what followed primarily benefited Germany and that was an Irony. De Gaule said as much and always distrusted the institution based on a template dreampt up by Hitler and his advisors in the late 1930’s. At Nurember only 11 or 12 were hung rather than the 10,000 or more who should have been. There are no words to describe the horrors perpetrated by German forces over the 5 years of the war. Although the Debt is historic morally it is still owed however if Germany did repay, in monetary terms at todays values it would very quickly be bankrupted. There are many who would say – would that be such a bad thing? Too late now of course but what happened will always remembered and I suspect that one day there will be some kind of reckoning since History will always out in the end..

Howard Ahmanson
Howard Ahmanson
10 days ago

Well, the poles got a big slice of German territory in 1945, mostly cleared of people, with most of the towns intact. Shouldn’t that count for something?

Robert Harris
Robert Harris
9 days ago

It’s a pity that there are no surviving dinosaurs, because they would have had every right to sue God Almighty for hurling that gigantic rock at their planet.

edmond van ammers
edmond van ammers
9 days ago

Might I get compensation for my grandparent’s bombed house in Rotterdam and their car commandeered by the Wehrmacht? LOL