If you’d visited Warsaw in 1945, you might not have recognized it as a city at all. Destroyed by the Nazis in retribution for a 1944 uprising, the city was pocked by craters and reduced to miles and miles of rubble. It wasn’t just the capital: Much of Poland was rubble by the end of the war.
In the decades since, Poland has rebuilt and regrown. But the memory of its six-year Nazi occupation still stings—and for years, a spat over whether Germany owes reparations for its actions toward Poland during World War II has threatened diplomatic relations between the two countries. In March 2018 the issue boiled over again when Arkadiusz Mularczyk, a Polish lawmaker, asserted that Germany owed reparations that could be worth as much as $850 billion.
The claim rests on the breadth of destruction and suffering the country withstood between its invasion by Nazis in 1939 and the conclusion of the war, in 1945. Eighteen percent of Poland’s population perished during World War II: The Nazis murdered 3 million Polish Jews and killed another 3 million Poles, including civilians and military members. In addition, cultural objects were looted by the Nazis, industrial sites were razed, and cities were destroyed.
But Poland itself thinks it may have a claim for additional compensation from Germany for World War II. Lately, some right-wing politicians have contended that the land and resources seized as reparations by the USSR, which assisted Poland after the war, and restitution paid by reunified Germany to Polish victims of the Nazis, was hardly sufficient for the country’s wartime suffering.
“There’s a sense of victimhood,” says Anna Grzymala-Busse, a professor at Stanford who studies the country’s post-Communist policies and political parties. She says right-wing politicians like Mularczyk use Poland’s victimization during World War II as a way to appeal to their political base. By arguing that Poland’s sovereignty can be reclaimed through reparations, she says, the country’s Law and Justice party can curry favor among Poles who long for their country to be taken more seriously on the European stage.
As of yet, Poland hasn’t made an official demand for the reparations from its most important trading partner, Germany. However, the issue hasn’t made relations between the two countries, which are already strained, any easier.
The questions of reparations stretches back to the negotiations that decided Poland’s fate at the end of World War II. In 1945, Allied officials gathered in Potsdam for a conference that ended up irrevocably shaping postwar Europe. The Potsdam Conference determined how Germany would become denazified and how it would pay for its destruction of Europe—with both money and public acknowledgments of its guilt.
Reparations were of particular interest there, especially because the issue had arisen just a few decades before at the end of World War I. Then, the Treaty of Versailles had forced Germany to pay hefty reparations—and its economy all but collapsed as a result. Germany’s indignation over the Treaty of Versailles also helped engender a growing sense of nationalism that, in turn, helped Adolf Hitler rise to power.
American officials at the conference worried that the same thing might happen again if harsh reparations were imposed on Germany, but reluctantly agreed to allow the USSR—which disagreed with this stance—to take reparations in the form of natural and other resources from East Germany. These goods were largely used to finance rebuilding inside Russia. Meanwhile, West Germany paid other reparations in the form of intellectual property, territory, and cash, most notably to Holocaust victims, Greece, and the state of Israel.
As a Communist country, Poland fell under the umbrella of the Iron Curtain countries aligned with the USSR, and in 1953, it waived its right to additional compensation for World War II from the German Democratic Republic, along with the USSR. In 1970, when Communist Poland signed on to the Warsaw Pact, it confirmed that it had no claims against West Germany, either. And when Germany reunited in 1990, Poland failed to bring any claims against the newly reunited country. (In 1992 Germany paid 500 million marks—roughly $320 million at the time—to Polish victims of the Nazis through the Foundation for Polish-German Reconciliation.)
It might seem the reparations issue had been settled, if not at the end of World War II then by the end of the Cold War. But for some Poles who feel the suffering of non-Jewish citizens has not been adequately recognized, it’s still a topic of burning debate.
In 2017, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, head of the country’s far-right Law and Justice Party, gave a speech in which he called the issue of reparations a matter of Polish honor. “The French were paid, Jews were paid, many other nations were paid for the losses they suffered during World War II,” Kaczynski said. “It is about our status, our honor. This is not theater.”
Indeed, Kaczynski’s calls for reparations were accompanied by very real actions within the Polish government. That month, a group of parliamentary experts ruled that Poland had the right to demand reparations. Meanwhile, a group of German parliamentary experts ruled that Poland had no right to demand them.
No amount of money could ever blot out Poland’s memory of destroyed cities, unmarked graves and German occupation. But for a country that continues to grapple with its wartime history and its role in modern Europe, reparations carry significant symbolic weight. Poland’s government never officially surrendered to the Nazis during World War II—and it may not back down over the thorny issue of reparations now.
“Everybody knows it’s not going to happen,” Grzymala-Busse says of reparations. “This is very much a move by this government to further build up the idea that Poland is being made great again. ”