The ruins of Warsaw's ghetto (Photo by Bettmann)
Artillery Row

War wounds of Polish history

Overcoming suffering can be a source of pride

On 1 September, the 83rd anniversary of the 1939 Nazi Invasion of Poland, the Polish Jan Karski Institute of War Losses published its Report on Second World War Reparations, citing a figure of EUR 1.3 trillion owed to Poland for losses incurred during the War. 

Law and Justice Party Leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski spoke at the Royal Castle in Warsaw about the need to rebuild “normality in the functioning of the Polish State”, highlighting that other countries had received reparations from Germany, whilst Poland had not. Kaczynski equated Poland’s tacit acceptance of this with a national “inferiority complex”. He argued this could never be a solid foundation for national policy, but would only constitute a road to new losses and national weakness, stating also that to be seen as a “serious” nation on the international stage Poland must now seek to rectify the consequences of the aggression of 1939. 

Poland is often perceived as unable to move on from the past

The publication of the Report coincides with a geopolitical environment where Germany has shown a comparatively passive stance on Ukraine, and where the security of national borders is once again a central question in European politics. On the domestic front, Poland is approaching Parliamentary Elections in 2023. The renewed interest in national security is likely to bolster the popularity of the ruling Law and Justice Party. One of the chief Law and Justice foreign policy goals has long been to build a strong Central European power bloc led by Poland, and it is possible that the reparations claim is designed to underline the distinct nature of this bloc. 

Using reparations as a tactical measure to support geopolitical realignment further reinforces the concept of a “third Europe” in the middle, drawn along a north-south axis between the Baltic and the Black Sea, breaking down the Cold War era division of Europe between East and West, which has never served Poland’s strategic priorities or reflected the country’s cultural identity. 

In this context, escalating rhetoric against Germany at a time when Russia is already chief antagonist could be a signal that Poland is ready to outgrow the position of having to choose alignment with one or other of her neighbours. Germany has responded to Poland’s claim, stating that the question of reparations was settled at the 2+4 Conference in 1990 following German reunification, in a way which reaffirmed the commitment made by the Moscow-influenced Polish communist government in 1953 to waive Reparations in exchange for the border being moved to the Oder-Neisse River. Nonetheless, realpolitik allows for nations to act in their best interests — and the current geopolitical climate is uniquely conducive to the pursuit of a high-value financial and political claim for Poland. Is it any surprise that such a claim is being pursued? 

The question of reparations has practical dimensions, but also centres on Poland’s ideological desire to “correct” the course of history. Poland is, in this context, often perceived as unable to move on from the past. This is because it is healing from three distinct wounds — the initial loss of independent nationhood during the romantic nationalist period, followed by brutality and aggression against the fledgling independent nation of 1918, and the assumption of the false reality of communist double-think after 1945. 

Reparations will not undo these tragedies

The loss, the aggression and the gaslighting of an illusion of independence which could not be questioned were never properly processed by Polish society. Instead they were layered over one another, producing a societal wound which politicians have repeatedly tried and failed to heal with practical measures. Poland saw its history stifled by German invasion a mere 21 years after independence in 1918. The subsequent decision to waive reparations is now regarded by many on the Polish Right as illegitimate — a strategic pact between East Germany and a nominally-independent Polish government, influenced heavily by Moscow. 

Reparations, recognition of suffering or apologies from prior aggressors will not undo these tragedies. Poland is caught in a trap between being unable to forget the wrongs of the past — as this would be insupportable — and unable to repair them — as this is now impossible. The only middle ground is to grieve, and honour, and learn lessons from these experiences. It must also recognise that far from making the nation somehow “unserious” on the international stage, Poland’s history renders it uniquely valuable to the international community.

The deeper truth which risks being lost amidst political squabbling is that Poland today is so much more than the fantasy of the country it might have been post-1918, post-1945 or even post-1990. The reality of a nation which survived the buffeting of fate to emerge as an independent force in Central European politics, a safe harbour for Ukrainian refugees and a model of post-communist economic growth, is a better and stronger creation of history, of infinitely greater value to the world than the romantic ideal of a country that never was. Even EUR 1.3 trillion cannot rival the value of that. 

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