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    Foreign academics on German reparations to Poland

    “The payment of reparations to Poland for crimes and destruction is a historical obligation of Germany,” Prof. Stephan Lehnstaedt, a historian at Touro College in Berlin, said in an interview with PAP. These claims are fully justified, added German historian and physician Dr Karl Heinz Roth. Dr Luke Moffett of Queen’s University Belfast pointed out that Polish efforts to obtain reparations should include diplomatic pressure and a legal route.

    “So far, none of the Polish governments has made a written demand for reparations from Germany, but once there are official claims, the government in Berlin will not be able to reject them,” Lehnstaedt pointed out.


    “Germany should do this if only because it is such an important issue for Poland. It is a historical obligation, given Germany’s heritage. And you can only say something about it if the Polish wishes and demands are specified and presented (…) I believe that Germany cannot in principle completely reject these demands for moral reasons,” the German historian said in an interview with PAP (Polish Press Agency) at the end of August.


    He added that “reparations are also a question of good neighbourliness and cooperation,” and that “really a lot” can be done with cooperation, not confrontation. “And it is quite clear that Germany cannot respond to serious claims with alms, otherwise it would lose credibility,” Lehnstaedt assessed.


    The researcher and author of the book, also published in Poland, “Der Kern des Holocaust. Bełżec, Sobibór, Treblinka und die Aktion Reinhardt“ (English: The core of the Holocaust. Bełżec, Sobibór, Treblinka und Reinhardt Action), pointed out that “Poles, compared to victims in the West, received much less compensation, and in some cases, there was no compensation.”


    “The Polish government should demand this; something needs to be done here urgently,” he stressed. According to the German historian, the German public’s knowledge, and awareness of the occupation of Poland and Nazi crimes on its territory is quite low and limited to a few elementary facts.


    “I believe that good neighbourliness requires knowledge, understanding and respect. It is clear that the German culture of remembrance has highly problematic gaps. There should be no prioritisation of victims. And this is something that needs to be worked on if commemoration is to be more than an empty term,” Lehnstaedt concluded.


    “Poland and the Poles suffered particularly badly as a result of the German occupation. The resulting reparation claims do not fall under the statute of limitations,” Roth, in turn, argued in an interview with PAP.


    He explained that the reparations issue for Poland will only have a chance of success if Polish efforts are combined “with all other countries whose reparations claims have so far been paid the least.” He listed among them the countries that emerged after the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, as well as Ukraine, Belarus, and other occupied territories of the former USSR.


    “Only if they acted together, for example in the framework of the OSCE, could these countries put so much pressure on the German power elite that they would force them to negotiate. In the light of the current political-military confrontations, this seems hopeless,” Roth assessed.


    The historian is the author of the book “Verdrängt, vertagt, zurückgewiesen. Die deutsche Reparationsschuld am Beispiel Polens und Griechenlands” (English: Repressed, Rejected, Deferred. Germany’s reparation debt on the example of Poland and Greece), co-written with Hartmut Hübner and published in Germany in 2019.


    “The idea (to write the book) was born out of the realisation that Germany, as the hegemonic power of Europe, cannot escape this historical burden. Germany dissociated itself from Nazi crimes and developed a broad +culture of remembrance+, and its politicians asked the victims for forgiveness. However, they have ignored the material side of reparations and refused to pay reparations. This behaviour is hypocritical, as we pointed out in our book,” Roth recounted. He admitted that the position he co-authored “did not meet with much approval in Germany.”


    “War reparations are the right way for those who caused the suffering and those who suffered it, to end the hostility and move on,” Dr Luke Moffett of Queen’s University Belfast, whose main research area is war reparations, told PAP in turn.


    Referring to Polish claims against Germany, he noted that efforts to obtain them should be accompanied by parallel diplomatic pressure and a legal path. As an example of such successful efforts, he pointed to the case of Namibia, which received compensation from Germany for the genocide of the Herero and Nama tribes in 1905-08. This happened despite the lack of a formal legal basis, as a result of political pressure on Germany, Moffett stressed. This shows that “such issues can be resolved even if there is no legal basis, as long as there is political will,” he pointed out.


    As the Queen’s University Belfast researcher noted, in the case of Poland, the diplomatic route is necessary because demanding reparations before international tribunals would have little chance of success. This would have to involve demonstrating that there is a legal basis for reparations, which in turn would require an amendment to the peace treaty, he explained. 


    “The peace treaty is a kind of contract and both sides would have to agree to change it, and I don’t think Germany would want to do that. It’s not just a legal issue, it’s a political issue and there has to be a lot of pressure on Germany. And such pressure can have an effect,” Moffet explained.


    He added that the issue of Polish claims is more difficult than, for example, those faced by Greece for years, because of the subsequent agreements between the PRL (Polish People’s Republic) and East German and PRL and West German authorities. The historian pointed out, however, that Germany does not want, as a rule – and neither does the UK – to have past cases covered by reparations, as this would set a precedent that would encourage others to make similar claims.

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