AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Berman
Last August, the Polish government published a three-volume report documenting, in extensive detail, the destruction inflicted upon Poland during the Second World War, alongside a demand for reparations. Today, the world is witnessing a similarly brutal invasion and occupation by Russia in Ukraine. As the bodies in that conflict pile up, Poland’s analysis of the cost of war for its people may prove a useful if harrowing preview of what the Ukrainian people are now enduring.
The Polish report makes for chilling reading. It documents no less than 5,219,053 Polish citizens killed, 196,000 children kidnapped, and estimates that Poland’s long term population losses as a result of the occupation amounted to 11.4 million. Total economic losses are estimated at more than $1.5 trillion.
The release of the report was followed by a demand for $1.32 trillion from Germany in reparations, which Germany rejected. “The federal government’s position is unchanged,” a spokesperson for the German foreign ministry declared in September. “In the view of the government this matter is closed.”
The U.S. has echoed the German position, despite having insisted as recently as July that it does not consider the matter of Polish compensation to victims of a Holocaust carried out by Germans on Polish soil to be “closed.”
The Polish government admits in the report that it does not expect to receive anything approaching that sum, nor does it wish to ruin relations with Germany. But in turn, relations with Germany must be established on an honest basis, which includes the acknowledgment of the Second World War.
The relevance of the reference to establishing relations on an “honest basis” is not, as it has been portrayed by elements of the media (which have been too quick to buy the spin of the German government), an attempt to shakedown Berlin for cash. While the Poles point out that Germany did pay Greece and Israel monetary compensation, this is more to highlight the hypocrisy of German arguments. Nor is Poland’s legal case against Germany entirely persuasive. The Poles acknowledge that they forfeited their rights to reparations in 1945 at Potsdam, in 1970, and again in 1990, most recently when both German and Polish governments were elected. Furthermore, 20% of pre-1937 Germany was ceded to Poland in 1945.
Nonetheless, the point of the report is not to engage in, much less win a legal argument with the Germans, but rather to highlight the internal dishonesty in the current German-Polish relationship. Germany wields its supposed contrition for the Second World War in moral terms, often conveying the impression that its earnest repentance now provides it the contemporary moral authority to cast judgement on Ukrainians and Poles for defending themselves against Russia, other countries for pursuing nuclear energy, or even Poles for attempting to defend their own economy against German corporate power.
Yet when it comes to reparations, Berlin falls back on a shield of legalisms, insisting that they were absolved not by contrite actions, but by coerced contractual agreements, with a good deal of “you also did bad stuff” thrown in.
One of the great myths in contemporary history is that of “de-Nazification.” The narrative goes that after the Second World War, the German people, in contrast to their behavior after the First World War, accepted the guilt for the actions of the Nazi regime, internalizing a determination to never allow it to happen again. This myth, exemplified by the belief that the Nuremberg Trials set down a standard for universal norms in which “just following orders” was no longer an excuse for crimes, is still with us today.
In the case of Germany, the myth can even be utilized to defend inaction. It is said that Germans are so affected by their guilt over the Second World War that it excuses their inaction today. Germans hate war, which is why they wished to appease Russia for the last twenty-years, and the refusal to send Ukraine more weapons or even more economic aid is not selfish, self-serving, or cowardly, but rather understandable evidence of moral principle.
The self-serving nature of this narrative has not been lost on others. While German “guilt” is ever-present when it comes to justifying why Germany cannot do things for others – why it cannot loan money to Greece (traumatic memories of Weimar-era hyperinflation), why it cannot aid Ukraine (refusal to fight Russia again) – it seems oddly absent whenever the victims of the Second World War come calling.
The Poles were forced to accept German apologies at face value by the Soviets, much as less coercive but nevertheless forceful American pressure made clear to Western Europeans that revisiting old wrongs could only aid communism. After all, hadn’t disputes over “war guilt” and “reparations” poisoned European politics after the Treaty of Versailles in 1919? Better to move on.
The problem, of course, is that the Germans have not really moved on either. As I have described, “Nazi Guilt” is being weaponized by the Germans against their neighbors. Whether it is pressuring the Polish and Hungarian governments over internal affairs, Greece on economics, Britain on Brexit, or on Ukraine, Germany continues to use the memory of the Second World to justify everything, while insisting everyone else move-on.
The Nuremberg Judgements may have been harsh on Hitler’s personal inner circle, but they were far less so on those who were complicit. Hans Globke, the lawyer who helped draft the antisemitic Nuremberg Laws, was let off with a slap on the wrist and went on to be Chief of Staff to the West German Chancellor from 1953-63. An SS General who oversaw the massacre of U.S. prisoners during the battle of the Bulge was let out after eleven years.
The goal of the recent Polish report, then, is to call out German hypocrisy. This is not an act of spite, nor is it payback for Germany’s behavior. Rather, it is a calculated step to address something which has moved from a moral outrage to a source of geopolitical instability. Just as the German refusal to accept “war guilt” after the First World War promoted instability which contributed to the Second World War, the German weaponization of their self-righteousness in accepting their “war guilt” the second time around is now posing a mortal threat to European and American interests. It has produced a culture of power and moralizing without responsibility. Germany’s refusal to rearm, refusal to build nuclear power, refusal to act itself, or to allow anyone else to do anything all comes from Germany’s refusal to be a normal country pursuing its national interests.
It is not only Poland’s interests which are threatened by the refusal of Germans to accept that they have interests rather than lofty principles. U.S. policy in Ukraine is of course undermined by Germany’s self-righteous, passive aggressive inaction. One reason U.K.-E.U. relations have deteriorated so far since Brexit is because Berlin has insisted on treating negotiations with London over Brexit in general and Northern Ireland in particular as an opportunity to teach London moral lessons, rather than as an effort to resolve real problems for real people. The European energy crisis, which will threaten America’s geopolitical interests even as it threatens the livelihood of hundreds of millions in Europe, is a product of the Germans refusing to make hard choices about nuclear power, instead wrapping it in an extremely self-indulgent refusal to compromise their “morals” again.
Should the U.S. back Polish demands for $1.3 trillion in reparations? Perhaps not. But the U.S. absolutely should back the Polish demands on moral grounds, and demand that Germany accept responsibility for its own actions, not just in World War II, but today as well. That is the only way to demand accountability on Nord Stream, energy, or Ukraine.
Instead, Biden’s Special Envoy on Anti-Semitism has done something worse. Deborah Lipstadt not only called the Polish demand “worrying,” but bizarrely implied that someone other than the Germans was to blame for the Holocaust. “I think it’s quite disturbing to say that the Germans should have stopped what happened,” she told reporters. “Part of the greatness of a country is its willingness to look at where it succeeded and where it failed,” the ambassador argued. “America has to do that. And I think Poland has to do that.”
There is true irony here. As noted, the U.S. took a different position in July when Poland amended the laws for restituting the property of descendants of Holocaust victims. According to Cherrie Daniels, the U.S. Special Envoy for Holocaust issues, the proposed law “would cause irreparable harm to both Jews and non-Jews by effectively extinguishing claims for restitution and compensation of property taken during the Holocaust that was subsequently nationalized during the communist period.” Yet apparently the same was not true of treaties waiving any obligations by the Germans, who actually took the property, to compensate the victims.
This is part of a wider policy line from the Biden administration which sees the Polish government of the Law and Justice Party as a perpetrator of “democratic backsliding,” whether in media or abortion rights, while also perceiving appeasement as the best way of getting Germany to do what it wants, whether on Nord Stream 2, Ukraine, or China. Both of these policies are based on misunderstandings of the actual “facts on the ground.” The Polish “democratic disputes” have more to do with German efforts to centralize the E.U. than with any genuine threats to democracy, while catering to German myth-making about their own history has been a contributing factor to encouraging the worst impulses in German politics over the last century.
Beyond the sheer hypocrisy, Lipstadt and Daniels are contributing to the same moral mythologizing that did so much to allow Hitler to come to power by promoting a “stab in the back” version of events where Germans were victims, not perpetrators of the First World War. By bizarrely suggesting the United States and Poland both have to look at their “failures” also, Lipstadt is creating a moral equivalency between what Germany did under the Nazis, and Poland and the United States.
There are two ways of reading this. The worst, and in fairness to Lipstadt’s background the least likely, is as suggesting the Nazis were no worse than Poles or Americans when it came to racism. The best is that she has fully bought into the narrative myth that British historian AJP Taylor already had called out by 1960 in his Origins of the Second World War: that Hitler through his death allowed the German people to transfer all of their guilt onto him and thereby absolve themselves.
This was bad history when Taylor called it out. More importantly, it was dangerous history. It shifted the guilt for Hitler’s crimes from those who carried them out, to his victims. It is the same moral worldview in which the Greeks and Poles are responsible for the consequences of German economic policies, the British and Belgians for German energy ones, and the Ukrainians for short-sighted policy toward Russia.
“If we forget the past, we are doomed to repeat it.” So goes the famous adage. The Poles would like the Germans to remember the past and pay for it. But for their interests, and our own, the Germans need to stop hiding from it. Donald Trump was absolutely correct when he called out Merkel’s energy policies for undermining NATO and the E.U., and his critics, including those currently running American foreign policy, were wrong. Now they are doubling down on the same mistake of indulging Berlin’s worst impulses. It needs to stop.
The U.S. and the world may soon face a similar scenario with regard to Russia and Ukraine. But if leaders cannot even make the right decisions in healing 80-year-old scars, there is little hope they can begin mending wounds that are much more fresh.
Daniel Berman is a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He also writes as Daniel Roman.