Poland’s demands for reparations could have more to do with politics than history


via Wikimedia Commons

Zbigniew Rau addressed Germany with demands for $1.3 trillion as well as recognition of how Nazi occupation has had a crippling impact on Poland to this day.

Last month, Poland’s right-wing party leaders announced that Germany owes $1.3 trillion to Poland in reparations for the Nazi invasion and occupation during World War II. The sudden and untimely action of the Polish government suggests that there is more to the demands than the country’s poverty rates and somber history. Some point to the fact that it is an election year, and the previously dominant right-wing party has faced some turbulence during this election. 

To the people of Poland, the severity and weight of the Holocaust are tangible throughout the nation, its history, culture and people. According to PBS News, Poland’s foreign minister, Zbigniew Rau, states that Germany should make an effort to educate Germans about the crippling effects of war on a nation and its people.

From 1939 to 1945, Poland faced atrocity after atrocity at the hands of Nazi Germany, due to rampant antisemitism. After Poland was liberated, it fell to the control of the Communist Soviet Union. Germany paid some reparations to Poland during this time. However, because both Eastern Germany and Poland were under Soviet control, the Soviet Union dismissed the remaining reparations Germany owed, explained Phillip Slaby, a European history professor at Guilford College. 

Now, after 77 years, the sudden demand for reparations seems odd. This year is an election year in Poland, and tensions have been high so far. The  country’s right-wing party, the Law and Justice party, has been in power on and off since the 2005 presidential elections. 

According to Slaby, the Law and Justice party has faced negative predictions in election polls, and they are “in danger of losing their majority.”

“From my best understanding, it’s very much political,” Slaby said.

To possibly swing the campaign in their favor, the Law and Justice party rehashed the deep-seated feelings of Polish citizens on the Holocaust and reminded the nation of its victimhood at the hands of Germany. 

As reported by AP News, German officials consider the issue of reparations “closed” and already taken care of. So far, Germany has made no indication of paying $1.3 trillion in reparations. After World War II, Germany paid about 63 billion euros to Poland, and according to Slaby, “as far as Germany is concerned, they’ve done what they needed to.”

John Haynes, an AP World History teacher at the Early College at Guilford, agrees that this situation is not entirely about money. He called attention to a document Polish officials compiled before demanding reparations. The document includes “a list of atrocities” and outlines how much Germany is expected to pay for these atrocities. Haynes questioned the purpose of the document and also pointed to the tension in Poland, which has been growing since the end of World War II.

Haynes brought up the fact that during and before the war, there were Polish government officials and others who held strong antisemitic views and who played a role in Jewish persecution. He also brought attention to Poland’s Holocaust Speech Law, which makes it illegal for Polish people and foreigners to speak about Poland’s role in the Holocaust. 

“For a long time, Poland had understood itself to be just a pure victim of the Second World War,” Slaby explained. “Historians have found over time that there was some collaboration, and not every Polish hand was clean.” 

This idea is upsetting to some in Poland; Haynes compared it to “the South and the Confederacy.” He explained that similar issues can be found in every country “from Nazi Germany to Communist Soviet Union,” but said that Poland is currently experiencing this issue at a higher level.

Slaby also said that the Law and Justice party has taken advantage of the fear of facing reality in Poland and used their demands to Germany to “restate their victimhood.” 

The uncomfortable history behind Poland’s role in the Holocaust, and Polish hesitation to face it, have made way for tensions between those who recognize this tainted victimhood and those who see Poland as only an innocent victim. Both Slaby and Haynes pointed to the rearranging of Polish history to make it more comfortable for some Polish people. Haynes called this “revisionist history.”

While the demands for reparations were likely intended to remind the world that Poland is a victim, they seem to have only shed light on Poland’s unresolved history and complicity in the Holocaust.

As Haynes put it, Poland is stuck with the question of: “We have this history, what do we do with it?”