Monday, August 9, 2004

GENEVA — In what might seem an act of monumental nerve, a group of Germans is seeking compensation from Poland for property lost at the end of World War II.

The war began with Germany’s invasion of Poland, which it ruled in brutal fashion and made home to its most infamous concentration camps.

But at the end of the war about 12 million Germans were ousted from regions ceded to Poland under Soviet pressure, mainly in East Prussia and eastern Germany, and the former owners are now seeking restitution or financial compensation.

The idea has not gone down well in Poland, where the government has hinted that it may lodge its own demand for about $30 billion representing the cost of rebuilding the Polish capital after the German forces put down the 63-day Warsaw uprising in 1944.

The question surfaced after a visit last week to Warsaw by German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to mark the 60th anniversary of the uprising. Before a large Polish audience, Mr. Schroeder admitted Germany’s “shame” and asked for Polish forgiveness for acts in which an estimated 200,000 Poles died and 80 percent of Warsaw was reduced to rubble.

The unprecedented statement received polite but tepid thanks from the Polish government, which thinks the apology was not sufficient. It also inspired the latest demands from the Federation of German Expellees.

German Finance Minister Hans Eichel described the statement by the expelled Germans as “totally inappropriate” and indicated that it could damage Germany’s relations with Poland after years of efforts to ease the lingering bitterness of World War II.

But Rudi Pawelka, head of Preussische Treuhand — an association representing the interests of the former inhabitants of East Prussia — has promised legal action before German courts and the European Court of Justice.

Germany has spent an estimated $85 billion since the war to smooth the re-integration of the expellees. But with Poland now part of the European Union, their organizations feel it is time for the compensation issue to be put on the official agenda.

The Polish counterclaim is based on the fact that much of Warsaw was destroyed by the systematic burning and blowing up of streets after the surrender of the insurgents and in violation of the capitulation agreement.

(When this reporter was in a makeshift Warsaw hospital awaiting transport to a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany in 1944, teams of the “Verbrennungu and Vernichtungkommando” or Burning and Destruction Detachment, already were dynamiting abandoned houses or attacking them with flamethrowers.

(Article 10 of the capitulation agreement specified that “the German command will undertake to protect the public and private property remaining in the city.”)

A year later, the Germans suffered the changing tide of the war. The expulsion of Germans from the areas awarded to Poland often was carried out brutally and was reminiscent of similar treatment suffered by many Poles under Nazi occupation.

After communism’s collapse in the 1990s, both Poland and Germany tried to play down the war and its aftermath. Germany has become a major investor in Poland, and many Poles have found employment in the prosperous Germany.

Some German refugee leaders want to keep the friction to a minimum, saying, “We should not reduce our destiny to the question of money.”

But others are less accommodating. “Part of the expulsion crime would be attenuated by compensation,” Mr. Pawelka said.

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