Poland Sees Legal Grounds to Demand War Damages From Germany

(Bloomberg) -- Poland took a step forward in its push for reparations from Germany, with a parliamentary body saying there’s a legal basis to pursue claims for damages sustained in World War II.

Parliament’s legal-analysis bureau said in an opinion published on Monday that wartime reparations haven’t “expired or lost validity” and that Poland was short-changed on previous German efforts to pay damages for the 1939-1945 war. The Polish government, which finds itself increasingly isolated in the European Union amid accusations it’s eroding democratic standards, hasn’t decided whether or how to pursue any claims.

“The body of international law, as well as Germany’s postwar policies in regard to reparations, including the discrimination of Poland and Polish citizens relative other countries that sustained smaller material and human losses but gained much higher damages, support Poland’s claims to gain wartime damages from Germany,” the panel said.

Calls for reparations from the war, during which about 6 million Poles -- half of them Jews -- were killed, are souring ties between the EU’s largest eastern member and Germany, the bloc’s paymaster. Material losses resulting from the conflict amount to about $1 trillion, more than twice the country’s gross domestic product, Polish Interior Minister Mariusz Blaszczak said this month.

‘Political Context’

Unlike western European nations that settled claims in the decades after World War II ended, Poland signed its postwar border treaty with Germany only in 1990, a year after the collapse of communism. As part of the Soviet bloc, Poland didn’t take part in the U.S.-funded Marshall Plan that helped rebuild western Europe.

The parliamentary legal-analysis bureau said Poland’s one-sided declaration from 1953, where it promised not to seek further reparations, was “initiated” and carried out by the communist authorities under “pressure” from the Soviet Union. The document’s ratification process was botched and it referred only to damages from East Germany, not all of Germany, it said.

With the EU’s executive in Brussels threatening unprecedented sanctions on Poland for its rule-of-law lapses following steps to give politicians more control over the judiciary, Foreign
Minister Witold Waszczykowski signaled last week that the government’s decision on whether to demand reparations from Germany needs to take into account “the current political context.” That includes the country’s alliances in Europe, he said.

German Response

Germany considers the matter closed, Steffen Seibert, the spokesman for Chancellor Angela Merkel, said on Friday. Germany has already paid in war reparations on an “enormous scale,” including Poland, and continues to do so, he said.

“In the German government’s view, there is no reason to doubt the validity under international law of the act of declining reparations 1953,” Seibert said. “Therefore this question is in our view resolved both legally and politically.”

Merkel said last month that she won’t hesitate to speak up about Polish democratic standards even if it sours good relations between the countries. France’s President Emmanuel Macron said Poland is heading toward marginalization in the EU.

Poland’s government in Warsaw may need “many months” to analyze the legal aspects and responsibilities of the potential push for wartime claims, Waszczykowski said last week.

“We are ahead of a giant undertaking, which may take months, especially as such issues haven’t been resolved in the last 70 years,” he said.

Poland is the EU’s largest recipient of development funds, having been granted at least 234 billion euros ($281 billion) in EU aid since it joined in 2004. While current financing from the EU budget is locked in until 2020, Poland’s dispute with the bloc’s main paymaster could have consequences when members begin to negotiate a new seven-year spending cycle.