The trillion-euro question: Poland wants WWII damages from Germany

By Krzysztof Bastian and Michael Fischer, dpa

As Poland prepares to commemorate 80 years since the start of World War II, which brought vast levels of death and destruction to the country, the government wants to talk reparations with Germany. But can you put a price on the suffering of a nation?

When the drone of German bombers woke up 11-year-old Zofia Burchacinska before dawn on September 1, 1939, she thought it was the cows. Her mother did not expect the war to start that day, and thought it was a pre-planned exercise.

“You better get up,” her mother said, not long before a part of the ceiling collapsed, forcing both of them to escape the building barefoot and still in their nightgowns.

Wielun was the first city to be bombarded in World War II. At that time located just 21 kilometres from the German border, the city had no troops, no air defence and no industry. Some 1,200 inhabitants perished.

Burchacinska returned to the city only in 1945, when it was no longer recognizable to her.

“My father had to show me the way to school. It was a completely different city,” she says. “Where there used to be houses, there was only rubble.”

The survivor, now 91 years old, is one of many Poles who believe that Germany should pay reparations to Poland.

According to a May survey by the daily Rzeczpospolita, nearly half of respondents in Poland support the idea of demanding reparations from Germany, while nearly a quarter oppose it.

“The war, started by the Germans, made our country a lot poorer,” Burchacinska says. “A lot of works of art were taken away or destroyed.”

The issue of war reparations from Germany has been back on the agenda since Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) party came to power in 2015. A parliamentary committee chaired by PiS lawmaker Arkadiusz Mularczyk is currently working to assess the damage Poland suffered during the war.

An unofficial figure, based on a post-war report adjusted for inflation, puts the cost of the damage at over 880 billion dollars.

German historians Karl Heinz Roth and Hartmut Ruebner, who are set to publish a book on reparations in October, estimate that the war damage caused by Germany in a total of 21 countries amounts to 7.5 trillion euros (8.3 trillion dollars).

Even considering the nearly 1 trillion euros the country has paid out to date, the outstanding bill would amount to nearly double Germany’s annual gross domestic product, Roth noted. Such an amount cannot be claimed back, even from an economic superpower like Germany, he says.

According to Roth, an additional 1 trillion euros, divided among up to 15 countries, though still huge, would be a realistic demand.

The historian frames it as a substantial transfer to the “European periphery” and says it would support the European integration process.

Poland has no immediate plans to push for wartime reparations, but “it is rather difficult to say that this chapter is closed,” the country’s Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz recently told dpa.

“Compare the losses other countries suffered to those Poland suffered,” he said. “There are countries that lost many times less, but got more compensation.”

During the war, Poland suffered immense human and material losses. Some 6 million Polish citizens died, including nearly 3 million Polish Jews. Many cities and villages were destroyed.

The end of the war, however, did not bring a full victory for the country, as German occupation was replaced by unwanted Soviet rule which lasted nearly half a century.

Under the provisions of the 1945 Potsdam Conference, Poland was to receive a portion of the reparations allocated to the Soviet Union. However, in exchange the country was forced by Stalin to provide coal to the Soviet Union at a fraction of the market price.

For the German government, the issue of reparations is no longer up for discussion, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said in Warsaw in early August. According to a July report from the German parliament, Poland had expressly declined the opportunity to ask for reparations in 1953 and 1970.

Still, from Poland’s point of view, the morality and fairness of the process should be taken into account, not just the legality, Czaputowicz said.

For the mayor of present-day Wielun, the reparations seem to be of secondary importance.

“We are building good relations with our partner cities in Germany and we want them to stay that way,” Mayor Pawel Okrasa told dpa. “We wouldn’t like reparations to cause them to deteriorate.”

Burchacinska also believes that good Polish-German relations should be maintained.

“For me it is hard to forgive… but I believe that the generation of my sons, my grandchildren or my great-grandchildren should not have this hate towards Germans as it does not lead anywhere.”