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Why is Poland demanding €1.3 trillion from Germany for World War II?

Hitler beim Abschreiten einer Ehrenkompanie

Warsaw, Poland – On September 1, marking the 83rd anniversary of Germany’s invasion of Poland and the outbreak of World War II, the Polish government released a document titled “Report on the Losses Sustained by Poland as a Result of German Aggression and Occupation During the Second World War, 1939-1945.”

Poland demands €1.3 trillion of war reparations from Germany

Its main conclusion has been making headlines since its release: the cost of the war is estimated at €1.3 trillion, nearly half a trillion more than its previous claim in 2019, which the Polish government now demands from Germany as war reparations.

The head of the parliamentary committee in charge of the document, Arkadiusz Mularczyk, said that “this report is a report of closure and of opening. We close the period when Poles didn’t know what losses Poland had incurred during World War II […]. It is also a report of an opening – we open the conversation with Germany about its responsibility for World War II.” 

Not long after its presentation, a spokesperson for Germany’s foreign ministry responded unequivocally: “The position of the German government is unchanged, the question of reparations has been concluded.” For Germany, the issue of reparations is closed as “Poland renounced further reparations a long time ago, in 1953, and has several times confirmed this renunciation. This is a basic foundation basis for today’s European order.”

What happened in 1953?

This clearly stands in opposition to the claims now expressed by the Polish government. Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Szymon Szynkowski vel Sęk argued that “the report shows that the compensation liability of Germany has not expired, that the declaration made in 1953 had at least three significant legal defects.”

On August 25, 1953, the government of the Polish People’s Republic renounced their claim to German reparations. According to the agreements reached in Potsdam, Poland was to receive compensation through the Soviet Union, with Soviet officials claiming that $6 billion should be deducted from the final amount due to wealth differences between the territories lost in the east and gained in the west.

Undoubtedly Poland did not receive all the money it was initially entitled to. There are even voices arguing that it had to pay extra for the reparations due to unfavourable agreements made with Moscow.

However, questions remain about the extent to which the decision to renounce German war reparations was valid. The committee led by Mularczyk provides two main reasons against its legitimacy.

First, the decision was made by an unsanctioned authority – the ​​Council of Ministers, not the Council of State which was the only government body authorised to make such decisions. Second, it was an agreement with the German Democratic Republic, not the Federal Republic of Germany with whom communist Poland did not maintain diplomatic relations but whose administration effectively dealt with the issue of reparations.

Ruling PiS party steps up anti-German rhetoric

Few are convinced by the legitimacy of the arguments presented by Polish officials. Poland’s claim is further contradicted by the “Two Plus Four Treaty” signed in 1990. „If we had any more claims, we should have submitted them before it entered into force”, explained professor Władysław Czapliśnki from the Institute of Legal Sciences of the Polish Academy of Sciences.

The publication of the report received mixed reactions in Poland. Most agree that certain extra reparations should be paid to Poland.

But opposition figures, along with political pundits, highlight the failures of Polish diplomacy on the matter and point to the somewhat suspicious timing of its release, which they say is meant to reignite anti-German rhetoric to boost popular support ahead of elections next year.

Many commentators also believe that the publication of the report is meant to distract public opinion from more pressing economic matters.

With near-to-zero chance for Germany to agree to pay up, the topic might nevertheless continue to be front-page for some time ahead of the next parliamentary elections, scheduled for autumn 2023.

By Wojtek Wieczorek