Why has the Polish government raised the German war reparations issue?

by Aleks Szczerbiak

Poland’s right-wing ruling party is using the war reparations issue to undermine Germany’s moral narrative that it has come to terms with its Nazi past, and attack the liberal-centrist opposition for allegedly colluding with foreign powers to undermine the Polish government ahead of next year’s parliamentary election. The opposition appears to have defused the issue for now by offering the government critical support, but it could still provide an effective means of mobilising the ruling party’s core electorate.

Poland’s moral and legal case

On September 1st, the eighty-third anniversary of Nazi Germany’s 1939 invasion of Poland, the Polish government, led since 2015 by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, officially launched a campaign to seek war reparations from Berlin for the devastation caused by the country’s 1939-45 occupation. The announcement was accompanied by the publication of a report completed in 2019 and prepared by experts for a Law and Justice parliamentary commission which presented detailed analysis supporting the Polish claim from a political and legal, as well as moral and historical, perspective. The report calculated that the war losses suffered by Poland as a result of the occupation amounted to a colossal 6.2 trillion złoties (as of 2021), three times Germany’s annual state budget. Poland as a state never received significant financial compensation for the destruction caused by Germany; only individuals, such as victims of forced slave labour and pseudo-medical experiments in concentration camps, were awarded small symbolic sums by Polish-German foundations.

However, despite Poland’s renewed efforts Germany responded by reiterating its long-standing position that the issue of reparations had been settled conclusively in 1953. The then-communist Polish government renounced its claim in exchange for East Germany accepting Warsaw’s takeover of former German territories. Germany argues that, until now, no Polish government has raised the issue, even after the collapse of communism in 1989. Law and Justice rejects this interpretation arguing that reparations are still due. Supporters of the Polish case argue that: the two countries never concluded any legally binding bilateral peace treaty or liquidation agreement on the effects of the Second World War; the 1953 renunciation was never officially ratified nor even published; and, as it was part of the Soviet bloc, communist Poland did not have international sovereignty at that time. At the beginning of October, Warsaw issued an official ‘diplomatic note’ to Berlin formally making its claim for compensation.

Undermining Germany’s moral narrative

However, while Law and Justice certainly hopes that Poland will receive reparations at some point there is broad agreement that Germany is extremely unlikely to agree to its demands, not least because of the precedent-setting consequences. Any campaign for financial compensation is only likely to bear fruit in the very long-term, if at all. So what is Law and Justice hoping to achieve by raising the issue at this time? In the foreign policy sphere, the party wants to undermine the German government’s moral narrative that it has fully come to terms with, and settled accounts for, its Nazi past. By ensuring that other countries understand the full scale of the tragedy wrought upon Poland during the Second World War, for which Germany has never undertaken a proper financial reckoning, the Polish government hopes to undermine Berlin’s claim to be an international ‘moral superpower’.

Law and Justice also hopes that, by putting Germany under pressure on this question, it can create its own moral narrative that could be used to strengthen Poland’s bargaining position in the international diplomatic arena on various other issues, notably in its ongoing ‘rule-of-law’ dispute with the EU political establishment. The European Commission has blocked 35 billion Euros of payments due to Warsaw from the EU’s coronavirus recovery fund. Law and Justice argues the EU political establishment is, in effect, synonymous with Germany which, it says, sees a strong and assertive Poland as an obstacle to its project of turning the Union into a federal bloc under its dominance.

Law and Justice believes that this is an opportune moment to raise the reparations issue because Germany and the other main EU powers have lost a great deal of political and diplomatic authority through their perceived weak response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Law and Justice has long criticised Germany for disregarding the interests of the former communist states of central and Eastern Europe through its over-conciliatory approach to Moscow, over-reliance on Russian energy (exemplified by the controversial ‘Nord Stream’ gas pipeline, which runs directly from Russia to Germany across the bed of the Baltic Sea by-passing Poland and Ukraine), and, following the outbreak of the war, slowness in providing Ukraine with military aid. Poland, on the other hand, has, for a long time, warned about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s expansionist designs on the region. Indeed, Warsaw has been one of Ukraine’s staunchest allies, at the forefront of efforts to persuade the Western international community to develop a common, robust response to the Russian invasion and ensure that sanctions are maintained and extended.

Is the opposition colluding with foreign powers?

In terms of domestic politics, raising the German war reparations issue was expected to help Law and Justice regain the political initiative by putting pressure on its political opponents – especially the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO), Poland’s ruling party between 2007-15 and currently the main opposition grouping, led by former prime minister Donald Tusk. Although Law and Justice is still ahead in most opinion polls its edge over Civic Platform has narrowed in recent months. According to the ‘Pooling the Poles’ micro-blog that aggregates voting intention surveys, Law and Justice is currently averaging 35% support compared with 29% for Civic Platform. Moving the war reparations issue up the political agenda puts the government’s opponents in a difficult position because it resonates strongly with the Polish public. The opposition either has to back a Law and Justice administration, that it despises and harshly criticises at every turn, on this issue, or distance itself from the government’s restitution claims and risk being accused of kowtowing to Berlin and failing to defend the Polish national interest. Indeed, Law and Justice argues that Mr Tusk personifies the opposition’s pro-Berlin orientation and has, on numerous occasions, drawn attention to his strong ties to the German political establishment. Polish state TV, which is strongly supportive of the ruling party, frequently shows clips of Mr Tusk saying ‘Für Deutschland’ (‘For Germany’).

These two elements come together in one of Law and Justice’s main attack lines against the opposition: that it is colluding with Berlin and Brussels who are undermining Poland’s sovereignty and independence by interfering in the country’s domestic politics. The withholding of coronavirus funds by an allegedly German-dominated EU political establishment is thereby portrayed as being part of a politically motivated effort to help its opposition allies oust Law and Justice in the upcoming parliamentary election, scheduled for autumn 2023, and ensure the installation of a more co-operative pro-Berlin government. Germany is an easier target for Law and Justice than the EU in general because it evokes less instinctive sympathy among Poles. While Poles support their country’s continued EU membership overwhelmingly, a September survey conducted by the Ipsos polling agency for the liberal-left OKO.press portal found that 47% of respondents agreed that Germany was using the Union to subordinate Poland (49% disagreed). According to a February survey for the Institute of Public Affairs (ISP) think tank, since 2020 the number of Poles who evaluated Polish-German relations positively had fallen from 72% to 48% while those who viewed them negatively increased from 14% to 35%.

Has Civic Platform defused the issue?

All of this explains why the opposition, especially Civic Platform, reacted so nervously to the government’s moves and found it difficult to develop a clear line on the issue. Initially, Civic Platform simply argued that the government’s demands were not really about war reparations at all but part of a concerted anti-German campaign to shore up support for Law and Justice ahead of next year’s election. The fact that Law and Justice had waited more than three years to publish the parliamentary commission report and raise the issue with Germany in a significant way, in spite of the fact that it had been talking about war reparations since it came to office in 2015, showed, they said, that the government was instrumentalising the memory of Polish war victims as a political manouvre. It was an effort to distract the public from its other problems, such as: the economic slowdown, high energy prices and potential winter fuel shortages, and mounting criticisms of the government’s handling of surging inflation (now more than 17%). The opposition also warned that raising the issue in this way threatened to further undermine Poland’s relationship with Germany in the midst of the worst international crisis since the fall of communism in 1989. Indeed, one Civic Platform politician, ex-party leader Grzegorz Schetyna, actually appeared to echo the German narrative when he said that the question of war reparations was ‘closed’.

However, realising the risks of appearing insensitive to the traumatic history of Polish-German relations – and concerned that, by rubbishing the call for reparations, it had fallen into Law and Justice’s trap – Civic Platform very quickly undertook something of a course correction, particularly as polling showed that most Poles supported the government’s approach. For example, a survey conducted by the IBRiS agency for the ‘Rzeczpospolita’ newspaper found that, by a margin of 51% to 42%, respondents agreed that Poland had the right to seek financial compensation from Germany. As a consequence – while still accusing Law and Justice of raising the issue primarily for electoral purposes, and criticising the ruling party for not having a schedule of diplomatic activities to take it forward – Civic Platform began to stress that it felt that the government’s call for reparations was justified. In the event, virtually all of the party’s deputies voted in favour of a parliamentary resolution supporting the government’s efforts. Indeed, Civic Platform even tried to outflank Law and Justice by saying that the government should also pursue financial compensation from Russia as the successor to the Soviet Union which invaded Poland along with Nazi Germany in 1939 (the ruling party responded that linking these two issues risked diluting the more clear-cut case for German reparations).  

Mobilising Law and Justice’s core electorate

By announcing its intention to seek war reparations, Law and Justice looks set to make Polish-German relations central to its bid for re-election next year. One of its main lines of attack is that the opposition is colluding with Berlin and the EU political establishment to undermine the Polish government ahead of the forthcoming parliamentary poll. However, Civic Platform’s pivot on this issue has under-cut Law and Justice’s electoral strategy and defused German war reparations as a question of domestic political contestation sharply dividing the Polish political scene.

In fact, although the issue is likely to return to the political agenda with greater or lesser intensity between now and the election, it was never going to be a dominant one or a political game-changer. While most Poles may agree with Law and Justice’s stance on war reparations, they care more about, and their voting preferences are likely to be determined by, issues such as rising prices, falling living standards, and possible energy shortages. Nonetheless, some commentators argue that Law and Justice has lost ground in opinion polls mainly because its supporters are demoralised and, if an election were held today, rather than switching to other parties they would simply not turnout to vote. So the ruling party is likely to continue raising the reparations issue because, apart from continually setting a trap for the opposition to portray themselves up as the defenders of German interests, it is a highly emotive one and seen by Law and Justice primarily as an effective way of solidifying and mobilising its own, currently rather demotivated, electoral base.

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