Rep. Smith urges US Government to support Poland’s call for discussions with Germany on World War II losses
US Rep. Chris Smith, Chair of the United States congressional Global Human Rights subcommittee and the Co-Chairman of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission and of the Congressional Poland Caucus, urges the US government to support Poland’s call for discussions with Germany on Poland’s losses in World War II.
A leading voice pushing for human rights globally, Chairman Smith has long advocated on behalf of victims of human rights abuses, including that their property be restored and compensation be made for their losses. Smith was Chairman or Co-Chairman of the Helsinki Commission from 1995-2006 and frequently raised these issues with European officials, including at hearings he chaired in 1996, 1999, and 2002.
Rep. Smith stated the following:
“On September 1, we remember, with great sadness and horror, the start of World War II – it was on this date that Nazi Germany attacked Poland. This year many people in Poland, Germany, and the United States will also think about the current impasse between their countries over compensation for war losses.
Last September 1, the Polish government published a three-volume War Report, documenting its losses. The War Report also stated that Germany’s duty to make compensation has neither been performed nor expired. The Polish government formally called on Germany to enter discussions on the Polish claim. Unfortunately, the German government has refused; it said the matter is ‘closed.’
Numbers only begin to convey the enormity of what Poland lost under six years of terror-occupation. Over 5.2 million Polish citizens were killed, many in concentration camps, mass executions, ‘pacifications’ of villages. Many survivors never recovered, for example over 1 million people contracted tuberculosis due to long-term malnutrition. Over 2 million Polish citizens were forced to work on survival rations outside of Poland for an average of almost three years. Roughly 196,000 Polish children were kidnapped into the Reich to be raised as Germans.
Material destruction was on the same shocking scale. For example, 80 percent of the buildings of Warsaw were destroyed. Assets of Polish banks, credit institutions and insurance companies were looted or destroyed – the insurance claims of millions of Polish policy holders evaporated with the destruction of those companies. To date, Germany has not systematically returned or made compensation to Poland for this theft – nor has it done so for cultural objects and works of art stolen.
In this respect the War Report makes painful reading. Only token payments have been made to a small number of Poles for being subject to medical experiments, for forced labor and small other groups that met stringent criteria. Individual Polish victims of Nazism do not even have a forum in which to bring claims against Germany. The German state has made no direct reparations payment to the Polish state nor signed any bilateral compensation agreement with the Polish state – though it has signed bilateral agreements with over a dozen countries and international agreements with some victim groups.
Yet it’s not too late for Poland. For one thing, Germany’s duty to make compensation was established by the Potsdam Agreement in 1945 and accepted by the Federal Republic of Germany. It has no expiration date.
For another, the compensation process remains ongoing. Germany continues to make payments to other victims, and it negotiates annually on programs to support them. The fact that the German government does this and yet refuses even to enter discussion with Poland is inexplicable.
Since the mid-1990s Congress has passed laws and resolutions promoting compensation for groups and restitution to individuals damaged by Nazi Germany, including the payment of insurance claims and recovery of stolen art and other assets. I am proud to say I cosponsored many of them. I also chaired a series of hearings on property restitution at the Helsinki Commission, where we heard testimony from many of the heroes fighting for compensation and restitution in central Europe.
Unfortunately, in central Europe many claims for compensation, from both the Nazi and communist eras, remain unresolved. Most of the states that were caught behind Russia’s ‘Iron Curtain,’ including Poland, have imperfect records in this respect. Some claims require governments to consider difficult questions – yet that can’t be an excuse for inaction. Just solutions can always be found – and the just resolution of one claim promotes the same with others. This is particularly true of Poland’s claim against Germany, since it was Germany that invaded and occupied Poland and the other countries of central Europe, and ultimately brought the Soviet Union into the region.
In the settlements between Germany and other countries and groups since Potsdam, the US government has not taken a direct role in bilateral negotiations, nor has it supported specific valuations, amounts, or legal arguments. Yet our government has always encouraged Germany to open discussions with claimants. We have put our weight behind the principle that compensation should be made and that these questions should be resolved according to substantive justice.
I believe the US government should do the same for Poland, clearly signaling its support for a discussion of the Polish claim. It cannot stand that Poland, the country that suffered the most under Nazi Germany, should be one of the least compensated.”