The Polish government continues to press for German reparations for damage suffered in World War II. The required sum is 1.3 trillion euros, which is roughly three times the current federal budget. “First of all, the federal government should position itself on this,” Poland’s new ambassador to Germany, Dariusz Pawlos, told the “Welt am Sonntag”. Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock (Greens) did that and her answer, like that of her predecessors, is: no.

The dispute over compensation has flared up again and again for years. In September, a Polish parliamentary commission presented a report that came up with damage totaling 1.3 trillion euros. “The issue of reparations is of fundamental importance for Poland. This is not just a political issue, it is about Poland’s dignity,” said Arkadiusz Mularczyk, Deputy Foreign Minister and Commissioner for Reparations.

But from a German point of view, the matter is settled, there is no legal basis for corresponding payments. She’s probably right, at least legally. The subject has been dealt with several times in agreements and contracts. Around 1953, when Poland explicitly waived claims for reparations. Or in 1990, when the country made no claims as part of the two-plus-four negotiations. Ten years ago, the International Court of Justice in The Hague also dismissed a similar lawsuit brought by Italy against Germany.

But being right does not necessarily mean being right. Especially not on such a sensitive issue as Nazi rule over Poland. Hundreds of villages and parts of cities like Warsaw were destroyed by the Germans, around six million Poles lost their lives, including three million Jews. It should come as no surprise to anyone that this frenzy is still present for many Poles after almost 80 years. Especially since West Germany actually came out of it relatively “cheaply”.

Exact figures on this are difficult to obtain. It is disputed, for example, how much the former German territories that were ceded to Poland were worth. Or how high the German foreign assets were that the Allies had confiscated. What is certain, however, is that the GDR had to bear the significantly larger share of reparations than the Federal Republic. So by 1953 the Soviet Union dismantled almost 2500 factories and almost half of the railway network and shipped everything east. According to estimates, the GDR paid for 97 percent of all German reparations in this way.

With the end of the dismantling, the government in Warsaw declared that it would refrain from further reparations by the whole of Germany. However, the current Polish governing party PiS considers this decision to be ineffective. The reason: Warsaw was not able to pursue its own policy at the time because it was completely controlled by the Soviet leadership in Moscow. Some international law experts and historians see it the same way, but Poland continued to refer to the validity of the decision several times afterwards.

It is primarily Polish conservatives, such as PiS party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who are keeping the issue simmering. Although the 73-year-old holds no official position, he is considered the man who controls both Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and President Andrzej Duda “from the back seat,” according to the Polish media. In a recent speech he said: Today the Germans want to achieve by peaceful means what they once set out to do by military means. Such references to Nazi Germany are intended to help get his party out of the polls. The PiS has been in power for seven years, and elections are due again next fall.

The leadership in Warsaw has now announced that it intends to take its claims for damages through the institutions: “Now Germany has a choice: either it sits down at the negotiating table with Poland, or we will discuss the matter in all international forums – in the UN, in the Council of Europe and in the European Union,” said Mularczyk. In addition, an international conference on the subject is to be held because other countries are also affected. In addition to Poland, Greece is demanding reparations from Germany. However, the chance that Germany will have to pay more than one trillion euros in reparations should not increase as a result. However, a kind of political-moral reparation may open up to others.

In the 2012 judgment in The Hague, the judges suggested setting up a victim fund in a side note. Similar to that for Nazi forced laborers in 2000. So far, around three billion euros in reparations have been paid to various Polish groups, including concentration camp prisoners and forced labourers. It is not yet clear whether there will be such a compromise or a similar one. Ambassador Pawlos contradicts the accusation that the demands for reparations are part of an anti-Germany election campaign: “It would be frivolous to believe that the issue will simply disappear after the 2023 elections.”

Sources: DPA, “Welt am Sonntag”, “Welt”, Federal Agency for Civic Education, ZDF, Konrad-Adenauer-Foundation