The Germans Are Coming – Back!

As everyone knows very well, Polish membership in the EU is now a full month old. So it would seem to be an idle exercise in frustration to go back and review the various crazies who were agitating against that up till the very end: the small-time farmers afraid of being displaced in the market by Western European producers who are both more efficient and more generously supported by funds from the EU’s Common Agriculture Policy; those die-hard anti-German paranoiacs who were convinced that, right after the fireworks had died down, the descendants and representatives of those who had been driven out of what were once German but are now Polish lands would be back demanding their property back.

Except that these “crazies” won’t go away, and may even be proven right! It is support from the countryside that is the main pillar behind the surging Samoobrona, or “Self-Defense,” party headed by Andrzej Lepper, which €S covered here back during our “When Good Post-Communist Regimes Go Bad” series back in April. What’s more, it seems that the old Germans from what was once Prussia, Pomerania, Silesia, etc. are getting ready to demand their land back, a tale told in this excellent, long article on-line on the Die Zeit website.


Myself, when it comes to the topic of the German Vertriebene, or “Expellees” from former German lands in what is now Poland, the Czech Republic, and elsewhere, I take my text from Saint Willy Brandt, speaking long ago about the 1970 treaty with Poland that recognized that country’s post-World War II borders and so renounced Germany territorial claims: “nothing was lost . . . that was not gambled away long ago.” Expanded a bit, that means: yes, great cruelties were committed in driving away German populations in the East at the end of the War and confiscating their property, but maybe all this would not have happened had not the greatest conflagration in world history been launched on September 1, 1939, in the name of the German nation. So the trauma you suffered you’ll just have to bear; the properties you lost you’ll just have to forget about. Unfortunately, as we’ll see, present German government policy does not heed this expanded view, but instead a rather more narrower one instead of just what it is that the German government has given up to the East.

The focus of all the new trouble is a German organization, founded three years ago and with its main office in Düsseldorf (appropriately enough, in the “House of the East Prussian Association [Landmannschaft]): the Preußische Treuhand. The word Treuhand (“trusty hand,” i.e. trust) itself gained its fame in the nineties because that was the name of the German governmental organization (actually TreuhandanstaltAnstalt simply means “institution”) tasked with selling off the economic assets of the former DDR, in such as way as to get as much money as it could for them and somehow to set the groundwork for an economic renaissance there in East Germany. But this other Treuhand is rather different, taking as its task the gaining-back of what it calls the “confiscated property” in “the Prussian provinces on the other side of the Oder and Neiße,” i.e. in present-day Poland. It’s a private organization, financed by contributions but also by the issuance of shares (at €50/share thousands have been sold already).

Basically, the Preußische Treuhand exists to consolidate and then pursue the many cases of Germans with former property now in Poland who now want it back and/or want reparations. The German Union of the Expelled (Bund der Vertriebenen, or BdV), well aware of the incendiary reactions the existence of the Treuhand is already causing among Poles, claims to have nothing to do with it, even supposedly threatening it with legal action should it give any impression to the contrary. Strangely though, Die Zeit author Roland Kirbach notes, there is plenty of overlap between BvD and Treuhand personnel at the highest levels. This includes one Rudi Pawelka, the very chief of the Treuhand and at the same time chairman of the Silesian Association, i.e. the organization of expellees from what was once German Silesia, which itself is a component organization making up the BvD. And it is that Silesian Association together with East Prussian Association which hold over 50% of the ownership shares of the Preußische Treuhand. In another instance of what Poles see as infuriating chicanery, the Treuhand likes to call itself in English the “Prussian Claims Society,” thus supposedly putting itself on an equal level with the Jewish Claims Conference which has recently successfully pursued Jewish World War II-related claims against Germany – as if the cases of Jewish victims of the Holocaust and the German expellees are comparable.

Here at EuroSavant we already became acquainted with the Bund der Vertriebenen some time ago in a weblog entry dealing with the proposed “Center Against Expulsions” (Zentrum gegen Vertreibungen) for Berlin. (Let me jog your memory: remember that image I included then of the cover-picture of the Polish magazine Wprost, with BvD leader Erika Steinbach in that cute SS officer’s uniform?) There I also discussed – as Kirbach briefly discusses here – the new attitude in German society that it’s now OK to consider the idea of Germans as victims and sufferers during the War. (I also discussed my attitude towards all this, but back then did not resort to using scripture from Saint Willy Brandt.) It’s probably more-or-less natural that this idea would eventually lead to pressure for some sort of memorial to what German expellees had to suffer at the end of the War; the problem with this Zentrum gegen Vertreibungen was mainly to what degree it could generalize itself to not deal so much exclusively with German suffering but rather the suffering of all World War II expellees (because many still are not inclined to be too sympathetic to what German expellees had to undergo). But that things have come to a pass where the lawyers are being trotted out to make demands concerning lost property in Poland is something else entirely.


Kirbach notes in his article that not so many Germans have yet heard of this Preußische Treuhand (I guess they have now), but the Poles certainly know about it very well. They even have their counter-attacks prepared: the Warsaw City Council assigned mayor Lech Kaczynski the task of calculating the sum of war-reparations which Warsaw would be ready to demand of the German government, for what the Nazis did to that city (merely completely destroy 90% of it during the course of the war, and kill half of its pre-war population); Kaczynski came up with the answer of $31,5 billion – which somehow seems too low, but of course pinpoint accuracy here is not the point. Other municipalities have gone through similar exercises, including the city of Poznan (formerly the German city of Posen). As the leader of the liberal Citizens’ Platform (PO in Polish) in the Sejm, Jan Rokita, recently declared on the floor of the legislature, “The Germans who found institutions to stake compensation claims on their lost property in our northern and western areas are playing with fire.” In the meantime, the whole affair is souring German-Polish relations, with recent polls showing 57% of Polish respondents naming Germany as the fellow EU-country they like the least. As one border-region Polish entrepreneur (together with his partner he invested to restore a formerly German-owned castle, which now the original family wants back) told Kirbach, “Ten years ago no Pole would have thought that in a united Europe many Germans would still think they could cash in [on their lost properties in Poland]. But they had better keep in mind the Polish mentality. They had better come with their panzers!”

Much of Kirbach’s article is composed of this and other anecdotal cases of Poles once more cast into fear of losing their homes at the hands of Germans coming to reclaim them – Germans spouting bromides as “I don’t want revenge or retaliation – just my rights!” and “But there can’t be any collective punishment!” (Even as many sport Polish family names themselves; those last two were uttered by one Herr Glowna – a very Polish word meaning “principal,” “main,” and also here in the feminine! – who nonetheless seems hell-bent to recover his family’s old house and farm just across the Polish-German border.) In the meantime, most people following this problem simply hope that the two governments can come to their senses and craft some sort of settlement before it all spirals out of control and into legal hell – the Germans bringing their suits for recovery in Polish courts (where they will be thrown out, naturally), and then resorting to international courts like the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg (or maybe American courts?), while Polish local authorities simultaneously present the German government with their bills for the Second World War. (This article, though – in Polish, in the newspaper Rzeczpospolita, and composed of an interview with the German international law expert Prof. Christian Tomuschat – indicates that the German claimants also would have no chance in any international court such as that European Court of Human Rights.)


But there’s a problem there: the two governments actually don’t see eye-to-eye, no matter what treaties they might have signed or what Willy Brandt might have remarked. For in that 1970 border-recognition treaty, the German government gave up its territorial claims on Polish territory, but did not do so for any private claims. Now, the present Polish government doesn’t want to hear about any claim for restitution or compensation, whether from any government or any private individuals. As Kirbach points out, you’d think that the natural solution would be for the German government also to forbid private claims, in an agreement with the Polish government which would bar WWII bill-presentation from their side. The problem is that then the claimant could sue the German government for compensation for those lost properties – this solution could become expensive for the Bundesregierung, which of course has anyway been struggling for some time with keeping government spending down.

Amazing: it’s almost 60 years later, the Bundeskanzler can finally be invited to join in D-Day celebrations (due to happen later this week), yet there is still this sort of wrangling over lost properties poisoning German-Polish relations, complete with inflammatory comments from both sides. Let me pose this not-so-original idea: the EEC was founded originally, among other reasons, as a vehicle to finally achieve a reconciliation in the poisoned French-German relations that had produced three destructive wars in the span from 1870 to 1945, and this has been a roaring success. With the expansion of the EU to the East – and with the countries of that new EU territory the natural area for German economic interests, particularly Poland, the largest of them all – a similar explicit effort at Polish-German reconciliation is long overdue. These rows over property – together with the dispute about the Zentrum gegen Vertreibungen – aren’t really helping.

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