German soldiers lifting the Polish-German border crossing on 1st September 1939.
Sometimes reality is stranger than fiction but with all the internal and external pressures facing the European Union, the Polish parliament’s unanimous vote followed by its 2017 research bureau’s ‘legitimate claims against the Federal Republic of Germany’ for war reparations have to be among the most surreal. No one could have envisaged at the inauguration of what became E.U. with the treaty of Rome in 1958 that member states would be reviving border conflicts and war reparation demands in 2018, within an institution that was established to make all such claims and conflicts a thing of the past. But then should we be surprised that the leader of Poland ‘s ruling political party and the Polish Parliament are asking for ever more absurd amounts of ‘reparations’ from a war that ended 73 years ago, when there are groups asking Britain for compensation for slavery from over a century before that. No doubt we’ll then ask the French for reparations for the Napoleonic wars, whilst the Spanish reach back even further to ask for Gibraltar which they lost to Britain at the treaty of Utrecht in 1713.
Let’s start by taking a look at this famous propaganda photo of German soldiers lifting the border crossing with Poland on 1st September 1939. It’s a classic image of ‘You started it! ‘Then take a look at the two maps – one of Germany and Poland today and the other of Germany’s territorial losses to Poland since 1919. Notice how much the borders have changed? How much of Germany ended up in Poland? A lot, over a third; an area larger than England. In that entire area the total Polish population amounted to less than 2.5 million before the borders moved. Over 12 million Germans were ethnically cleansed to make way for a historically and geographically unrecognisable Poland whose borders move between 200 – 600km West. If that was not compensation, then I don’t know what is. Churchill for one was vehemently opposed this level of territorial annexation of German territory joking that if it were to happen the Polish goose would surely choke to death on so much German meat. But it did happen, and Poland didn’t choke, instead its leaders got a taste for squeezing Germany for every penny at every opportunity and literally capitalising on German guilt for the war and the holocaust.
German territorial losses following World War I & II.
Inconvenient truths? Perhaps, but then history is littered with these and there are after all no shortage of people in Britain who think the Germans have nothing to say because they lost and because their crimes were singular. These views are all the easier to adhere to when we’ve become so good a painting out our own colonial & historical horror stories, but then who other than the Germans doesn’t teach history through a patriotic prism, or have a capital city brimming with shiny new monuments to all its crimes? The key question that the E.U. should address is whether there is any justification in the 21st century E.U. for all and sundry, from Greece to Poland, to continually attempt to exploit German guilt for yet another pay out and or act of contrition?
Jaroslaw Kaczynski, leader of Poland’s ruling ‘Law & Justice’ Party (PiS), has argued that to free Poland from the feeling that they have been the doormat of Europe (that every army has wiped its feet on, on the way to somewhere else) they need money; to enhance their feelings of self-worth.
“It’s not only about the material funds, it’s about our status, our honour…And it’s not theatre. This is our demand. A totally serious demand!” What a statement! His brother, Lech Kaczynski, died in a plane crash (conspiracy theories abound) to commemorate what the Russians did to the Polish intelligentsia at Katyn. In that sense the two twins are absolutely a reincarnation of Poland’s pre and interwar political disasters, which left them friendless and occupied by both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. Partitioned out of existence for the fifth time in little over a century. But just to illustrate the sheer cynicism of the PiS party, when a German journalist asked why the same attitude is not taken towards asking for reparation payments form the Russians, Arkadiusz Mularcyck of the Sejm (Polish parliament) said reparation demands of and from the Russians were simply ‘not realistic. ‘ Most Poles know they’ll probably get invaded again just for asking Moscow for cash, let alone an apology. The Germans are far better at both, tested and reliable just like their cars – also very popular In Poland!
The Poles paranoia about their past and their deep certainty that their neighbours are out to get them does not appear to have dissipated one little bit since they joined the E.U. in 2004. The old joke that Poles need to kill Russians for sport and Germans out of a sense of duty may have been forgotten in Berlin but not certainly not by Vladimir Putin in Moscow. But comments from a former Polish foreign minister to the effect that ‘Germany has not changed but is just resting’ and that she must pay again for the crimes she committed against Mother Poland are becoming ever shriller and much harder to ignore in Berlin.
The Polish Sejm (Parliament’s) repeated calls, supported by the ruling Party, its leader, the Foreign and Defence Ministers, that Germany must pay E685 billion in war reparations for the losses Poland incurred during the Second World War is no joke, not in Poland, with surveys showing the PiS party’s media campaign in support of its war reparations claims has garnered as much as 63% of support among the Polish electorate. In the same vain Kaczynski has previously demanded parity of voting rights with Germany based on what Poland’s population statistics might have been had there not been a Second World War. PiS have been in trouble with the E.U for a host of issues from threatening to suspend the Polish judiciary’s independence to attempting to ban abortion in all its forms (even after rape and near certain death in childbirth) along with all modern forms of contraception – Kaczynski’s and his party’s default position appears to be to act as if they are at war not only with Germany but with modern Europe.
The only time Kaczynski zips it is when Brussels has enough of his Panto-Novella and threatens to turn the money off. As Poland is the largest single receipt of EU funding that normally works in the short term. Therefore, some simply see the PiS party’s asking for more war reparations from Germany as being a cynical political attempt to deflect the Brussels wagging its finger at the politicians in Warsaw and their defying the rules and values Poland signed up to when it joined the Council of Europe and the European Union.
The legal facts of the reparation issue are that both post Potsdam Conference and at the 1990 Two Plus Four talks and the subsequent agreement (the two German states and the four main Allied powers), Poland (along with a host of other states) were compensated with German territory rather than post World War I style reparations. The aim being to avoid the domino effect of bankruptcies and political extremism that ensued after the First World War, which most historians see as leading to the rise of both Communism and Fascism. There are a host of agreements and treaties beyond that that settled this issue both between the former German Democratic Republic and what was West Germany and Poland.
The elephant in the room however remains, that most German politicians are, as yet, to squeamish or ‘polite’ to mention that Stalin’s Polish annexations (in which all the Allied powers acquiesced) has cost Germany in excess of 13 Trillion Euros and counting. Why and counting? Simply because the border ‘revisions’ in favour of Poland are gift that keeps on giving. The lands produce harvests, the mines keep churning out ore, businesses established before the new comers arrived keep turning out products of an unfathomable variety (even if much of what was has disappeared or lies in ruins) and land and properties keep being bought and sold at ever higher values. And that doesn’t even begin to count the cultural value of all the cities and regions transferred to Poland including Eastern Brandenburg, most of Pomerania, virtually all of Europe’s second richest industrial region Silesia along with West and East Prussia. Nor does it begin to measure or recount the human cost of the annexation of these regions.
2018 is the year which marks the 100th anniversary of a time when there was no Poland and had not been a country called Poland you could find on any European map for 123 years. In a World where Putin boasts he could dispatch the Russian army to take control of half of Europe in a weekend, where Donald Trump states NATO is obsolete and where the EU is rocked by one existential crisis after the other, what on Earth would inspire Polish politicians, in any way mindful of their nation’s past, to incite their neighbours to the point of such sheer stupidity and on such a regular basis?!
It is obvious to any and all who have considered the ramifications of these calls from Warsaw that they put into question the entire Post War settlement. If they continue to ignore the compensation made in territory and demand additional financial reparations on top, then those border revisions will no longer be viewed as compensation and questions will be reopened that Europe cannot afford to yet again reopen. Not only along Poland’s modern Western border but along her eastern frontier and beyond as well, inviting attention from countries not reformed, not modern, democratic or forward looking at all and whose attitudes to territory is positively 19th century; namely acquire it at all cost - whether you can effectively administer it or not.
How did we get here – well for a full account you could do worse than read my Book ‘Death of a Nation – a new history of Germany’ (which a German hating British colleague of mine described as ‘Such a catchy title! ‘ :-( )… Here are some extracts from the chapter ‘How Poland’s modern frontiers came into being…’
‘Allied aims were not clear or united as to what should become of post-war Germany. The Atlantic Charter signed in December 1941 simply stated that, ‘The undersigned seek no territorial enlargements. Territorial changes can only follow from the free will of the peoples.’ After three visits to the US in 1942, the Polish Prime Minister in exile, General Sikorski, finally got a provisional agreement from the Americans that Poland should receive most of East Prussia, part of Eastern Pomerania and Upper Silesia. The remaining German territory east of the Oder-Neisse (Germany’s modern day eastern border) was to become a Polish occupation zone, much as the rest of Germany was going to be divided into occupation zones by the Russians, Brits and Americans (the French were only given a zone at the very last minute and primarily for reasons of spreading the financial burden of occupation). So, although the Poles would get territorial compensation, much of Pomerania and most of Silesia, which contained the bulk of the German populations east of the Oder-Neisse, would be a Polish zone of occupation and no more. Not till the big three meeting at Yalta in February 1945 were the fundamental principles of the Atlantic Charter ‘reinterpreted’ to state that they did not encompass enemy nations.
For a while Sikorski not only went along with this agreement, but also persuaded the exiled Polish government in London that it was acceptable. To those who wanted more, he responded:
‘Those who demand the Oder-Neisse as our future Western border, are highly detrimental, in that making fantastical territorial demands, which would include the whole of Lower Silesia, with its fanatically anti-Polish population, would then put more than nine million Germans within Poland and expelling this number of people is simply not practicable... furthermore setting such unlimited territorial claims discredits the Poles in the eyes of the Anglo-Saxons as a people with an insatiable lust for conquest.’
What had been agreed upon to date in terms of the post-war occupation of Germany, that an Allied Control Council was to have administered Germany as a whole, at least to begin with, was thus thrown into disarray. The Poles were supposed to have a smaller occupation zone of their own up to the Oder-Neisse. This zone was meant to contribute its share to the feeding of Germany’s population (the Polish zone had been Germany’s grain basket before the war). Each and every Allied zone of occupation was to help supply and support the other. Prompted by Stalin, the Poles had now simply annexed most of eastern Germany, which wrecked the limited plans that existed for the administration of Germany as one cohesive unit. In addition, it also meant the Germans were going to starve, as even prior to the war they had relied on a quarter of their food imports from abroad. With their main agricultural area now annexed to Poland, food shortages soon took on the proportions of a major famine.
In response to Stalin’s claims that the region east of the Oder Neisse was free of Germans, Churchill replied, ‘We are not of the opinion that this territory is Polish land.’ Truman further stated that, ‘Poland does not have the right to claim this part of Germany as its own.’ He also offered that the American administration could be of assistance in reintroducing a German administration into the areas of Silesia and Pomerania. He later wrote, ‘Russia and Poland have gobbled up a big hunk of Germany and want Britain and us to agree. I have flatly refused.’(9) Meanwhile, in Silesia alone, 3 million of its 5 million-strong German population who remained were slowly starving to death. Churchill feared that his joke about Poland being ‘stuffed with so much German meat it might choke to death’ appeared to be becoming a potentially destabilising reality. At the round table meeting of the Big Three at Potsdam near Berlin, Churchill was unequivocal. He said:
Now Poland is claiming far more than it has had to give up in the East... When three or four million Poles east of the Curzon Line have to be resettled, so one could have resettled three or four million Germans in the West, so that they would have made room for the incoming Poles. The now proposed resettlement of over eight million Germans is a thing which I cannot support.
After the conclusion of the Potsdam Conference Churchill, as opposition leader, spoke of a ‘tragedy of immeasurable nature’. The Western Allies clung to the outline agreements they made at Yalta, and to the notion that they would get their way at the final peace conference. Potsdam simply stated that, ‘The former German territories east of the Oder (not the Neisse) river should, until the final conclusion of the peace conference, ‘‘come under the administration of the Polish State’’.’ The same applied to the occupation of northern East Prussia by the Russians. There was no mention of southern East Prussia becoming part of the Polish state. The Allies also ‘agreed’ that any remaining German minorities left in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary were to be ‘transferred’ to Germany, and it has been argued that this gave the Poles and Czechs the green light to completely ethnically cleanse the territories they acquired of all Germans. However, the Potsdam ‘agreements’ had no legal standing whatsoever, as unlike the terms reached at the end of previous conflicts such as those negotiated at Westphalia, Vienna and Versailles, the Potsdam Accords did not achieve international endorsement in the form of an internationally and legally-recognised treaty. In relation to Versailles, but particularly Potsdam and the post Second World War ‘settlement,’ a dangerous precedent was set where the prosecutor also became the judge. It is a moral failing in the West that so many historians have attempted to unreservedly legitimise the worst case of vae victis in the modern age. If justice had been the point then the post-war hearings should have been held in the Hague, whose courts had created the existing laws which governed war in 1899 and 1907, with judges from neutral countries overseeing proceedings. That way more German military and political figures would have faced charges from a broader spectrum of society, as would and should have members of the Allied leadership. However, there was a key reason that the Allies did not want to hold trials in a city which had passed conventions 45-56 which limited the rights of occupying powers. These conventions included:
Article 46: Private property cannot be confiscated.
Article 47: Pillage is formally forbidden.
Article 50: No general penalty, pecuniary or otherwise, shall be inflicted upon the population on account of acts of individuals for which they cannot be regarded as jointly and severally responsible.
Article 56: The property of municipalities, that of institutions dedicated to religion, charity and education, the arts and sciences, even when state property, shall be treated as private property. All seizure of, destruction or wilful damage done to institutions of this character, historic monuments, works of art and science, is forbidden, and should be made subject of legal proceedings.
The Allies accepted no limits upon their occupation, expropriation and dismemberment of Germany. The greatest hypocrisy, however, remains that the Nuremberg trials declared mass deportations of civilian populations both a war crime and a crime against humanity, whilst at the same time presiding over the largest mass deportation of civilian populations in European history; one that would continue well after hostilities had ended and did not formally come to a close until the summer of 1951. Allied nations, having waged a bitter and all-consuming total war, were in no mood to have their crimes scrutinised then or now. They gave themselves a general amnesty and focused squarely on putting Germany front and centre. Everyone else’s crimes were to be swept under the carpet, wilfully ignored and hopefully forgotten with the passage of time. When the Potsdam Protocol mentioned Germany, it referred to the area within her borders in 1937, before the war and Hitler’s annexations began; final ‘delimitation’ on Germany’s international borders, reparations and so forth were to be left to a later Versailles-style peace conference. In practice, however, the notion of another big conference quickly receded into the background. The Cold War overtook events and after the Soviet blockade and the Anglo-American airlift of Berlin, the idea of a final conference was permanently shelved. No final decisions were taken until June 1990 after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Empire in Eastern Europe at the ‘Two Plus Four’ talks between the two post-war German satellites, and the four Allies: Russia, the United States, Great Britain and France. By then Stalin’s legacy had been embedded for over two generations and what was left to discuss were just the de facto realities, which he had willed. In his biography of the Second World War, Winston Churchill wrote, ‘For the future peace of Europe (the shift of Poland’s border as far as the western river Neisse) there was a wrong beside which Alsace-Lorraine and the Danzig Corridor were trifles. One day the Germans would want their territory back, and the Poles will not be able to stop them.’ (14) However, none of the Western Allies ever again stepped up to the plate to argue for what was agreed at Yalta, let alone for re-establishing Germany’s borders of 1937. As early as March 1946 the Allies appeared to accept de facto realities when the Allied Control Commission of Germany announced, ‘Germany consists of the existing German territory between the Oder-Neisse line and its Western borders.’ There were still American Foreign Ministers who were willing, as late as 1947, to state that the United States did not accept the Anschluß of southern East Prussia, Danzig and Lower Silesia to Poland, but they had missed their only real opportunity to affect the future of millions at Potsdam, when the Soviets were desperate for the extension of billions of dollars in credits and wanted the maximum out of the western sectors occupied by the Allies in terms of reparations. Post-Potsdam, the issue of final borders was little more than a Cold War bargaining chip; everyone knew that to enforce their will over what had been agreed to at Yalta would have meant a hot war with the Stalin’s Soviet Union, an option that went out of the window once the Soviets also became a nuclear power in 1948.
To read more on the history of Germany and its influence on modern Europe, read my latest book 'Death of a Nation', available now.