Today marks the 83rd anniversary of the German invasion of Poland. It is estimated that more than six million Poles were murdered during the Nazi occupation. On this highly symbolic day, the neighboring country presents its long-awaited report on reparations claims. Political scientist Agnieszka Łada-Konefał from the German Poland Institute explains in an interview with ntv.de what Poland is actually about.
ntv.de: The Polish parliamentary commission is today presenting an expert opinion on the war damage suffered by Nazi Germany in the Second World War. There are Polish politicians who speak of hundreds of billions of euros. What do you expect?
Agnieszka Łada-Konefał: The Polish politicians who deal with the topic have repeatedly mentioned a wide variety of sums. It is unclear which number ultimately ends up in the report. In my opinion, these billions have so far been intended more for the Polish public. With the publication of the report it will be different - then it will be an official number.
Similar to the sums of money, the report has also been announced for years. Why is the conservative PiS government pushing this?
The parliamentary commission met for the first time in the previous legislative period. The PiS politicians use the topic again and again for domestic political propaganda. A new parliament will be elected in Poland in a year and you can tell that the election campaign has already started. The PiS government wants to signal that it cares about Polish history while conveying that the Germans owe the Poles something. This is also illustrated by this highly symbolic appointment. There are doubts as to what this report will contain and whether it will be truly scientific.
So you don't have too high expectations of what's featured?
Surely there will be many facts, places, names that have been known for a long time and that again show the truth about the tragic story. There will probably be some new information coming as well, which is always good - the story is always better to explore. The question is how you then estimated the sum that is there and, above all, how you want to proceed with this knowledge. In addition, this report does not serve to get into conversation with Germany.
The German government refuses to pay reparations. She argues with two dates in particular. In 1953 the Soviet Union waived reparations payments. The German argument is that this also applies to Poland.
At the time, Poland as a people's republic was completely dependent on the Soviet Union. The government at the time, or rather the authority appointed, did what Moscow instructed. This is where the PiS argument comes in: did this government even have the right to refuse reparations payments? And did they even do it? Allegedly, documents and legal evidence are missing. And this despite the fact that experts have repeatedly stated that it was legally correct.
The second year, 1990, refers to the Two Plus Four Treaty. From the German point of view, the reparations payments would have been settled at the latest. What is the Polish position?
The aim of the two-plus-four negotiations was the reunification of Germany as quickly as possible. The Second World War and the reparation payments were avoided as topics there. Poland was there when the border issues came up, but not as an equal participant in all negotiations. Therefore, it cannot be said that Poland confirmed anything there.
The two-plus-four treaty marks the end of post-war history. However, there was no final regulation for the reparation payments. It was about opening a new era for the reunified Germany. The PiS is again arguing from a legal point of view: nobody spoke to Poland.
It is actually the German side that is primarily arguing from a legal point of view. Do the Germans lack a moral perspective?
The Polish and German sides have very different views on the issue of reparation payments. The Germans do indeed argue in a very legal way. The Poles, regardless of party preference, do see Germany as having a moral responsibility. More and more German politicians are also admitting to this. This awareness among Germans that "We were the perpetrators" is much stronger than it was a few years ago - and is more present in the statements of German politicians. But that still doesn't mean that knowledge of what happened in Poland during the war is widespread in Germany. And that worries many in Poland.
For the Poles, of course, the topic has a different meaning: the victims have more moral responsibility in mind than the perpetrators. In Poland, the debate is much more emotional, everyone there has someone in the family who was in the war or died there. Killed civilians, burned houses: This creates the expectation that it is not just about legal regulations, but about this moral recognition. The PiS politicians play with this feeling. They are trying to use this to create anti-German sentiment in Poland.
What does the debate on reparations payments say about the German-Polish relationship?
In the German Poland Institute, together with partners in Poland, I regularly examine the moods between Germans and Poles in the "German-Polish Barometer" series. These polls show very clearly that history is not very important to the relationship. You want to look more into the future. However, we observe that something changed when the PiS party came to power: the importance of history has increased since then. For example, in 2020 every third Polish association with Germany was linked to the war. This shows that PiS rhetoric has an impact on how Poles perceive Germans. Then it's not about the interpersonal contacts: the "normal citizens" get along well, want to be friends and work together.
What is it then?
Rather, the rhetoric influences the political perspective of how Germany is viewed as a nation. Not that the Federal Republic is only perceived through its history, but for the Poles history plays an enormously important role in the relationship. However, the Germans lack an awareness of this, which is why they are puzzled. Here is the problem: on the Polish side, regardless of party preference, there is a reasonable expectation that Germans should know more about Poland and common history because they are neighboring countries and Poles have suffered so much because of Germany. But in Germany that is still not the case.
Then maybe the signal is also partly directed at Germany?
The debate over reparations payments is about much more than money. It's about recognition from Germany: Poland is an important neighboring country that suffered a lot during the Second World War. It is important to the Poles that the Germans develop an awareness that not only a large number of Jews were murdered, but also many Polish civilians - simply because they were Poles. There are now first signs that the Germans also understand this: For example, in the project supported by the German Bundestag to set up a place of remembrance and encounters with Poles in Berlin. These signals are very important for Poles.
However, a distinction should be made between the domestic political debate in Poland, which is driven by the PiS party, and the expectation of probably most Poles that Germany should be more aware of its history. Both governments have to work together here, and the PiS government is actually harming itself with the reparations demands, because they focus primarily on the issue of money. The historians and experts are much more advanced on this point.
The myth Agnieszka Łada-Konefał sprach Sebastian Schneider