In recent months, German authorities have encouraged immigrants from Poland of German ancestry to sue for property they lost when they were forced to leave the country after World War II. The controversial advice has put Berlin on a political crash course with Warsaw.
The move by the Federal Office for the Sharing of Burdens has also caused problems for some of the Polish immigrants living here in Germany. When they emigrated to the West or were forced to flee, then Communist Poland often expropriated any property they left behind. The German government in turn provided them with partial compensation for their losses to help them get a fresh start. Since 1949, the government has dispursed a total of €74 billion in "burden sharing" payments.
Agency encourages suits
But now that Poland has been a democratic country for more than a decade, the same authority is now reviewing old claims and in some cases is claiming that property legally belongs to the former owners, even if it is under the control of Polish authorities. In those cases, the agency is urging former claims recipients to sue in Poland to regain their property.
Over the weekend, the German newsweekly Der Spiegel profiled the travails of an ethnic German family that emigrated from Poland in 1978. The family of Hans and Eva Ludwig, who left Gleiwitz, Poland, once received payments from the agency. Now, a little more than two decades later, the Office for the Sharing of Burdens is demanding that its money be returned. The move has forced the Ludwigs to sue the Poles. "The burden sharing office has given us no other chance," daughter Cornelia Galla told the magazine. The Ludwig family's property in Poland is currently claimed by a cooperative.
Günter Gallenkamp, who works for the federal agency, told Der Spiegel he estimated that in recent years it has sent 500 such notices to Polish immigrants living in Germany. "I also assume that number is going to increase to the thousands in the near future," he said. In many cases Gallenkamp said, families have already paid back the money -- an indication to the office that many do, in fact, have access to their old property.
The Ludwig family has paid €4,658 back to the German government, but it has also hired a lawyer in Poland and plans to sue to get the house back.
A thorn in Warsaw's side
These low-level lawsuits come at the same time a controversial lobby group is planning to launch its own suits in Polish and international courts.
The president of the Prussian Claims Society, Rudi Pawelka, told the Berliner Zeitung newspaper on Saturday that his organization planned to file about 15 lawsuits relating to settlement claims in both Polish and international courts in the coming weeks.
The string of developments has angered the Polish government, which fears a deluge of suits from the thousands of other ethnic German expellees. In total, 3.5 million ethnic Germans were forced to leave Poland in the decades following the war.
"The activities of the Prussian Claims Society are creating huge damage to Polish-German relations," Polish Foreign Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz told Der Spiegel.
Berlin shuns claims demands
Despite efforts by the German government to distance itself from such activities, the moves have deepened tensions in a country where Germany still hasn't been forgiven by many Poles for crimes committed during World War Two.
During his visit to Poland on the 60th anniversary of the Warsaw uprising against the Nazis, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder rejected the legitimacy of the suits outright.
"We Germans know very well who started the war and who were its first victims. That's why there must be no more room today for restitution claims from Germany," he said. Schröder added that Germany would oppose any move by lobbying groups to take the issue to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
In Poland, few will be happy as long as expellee lobbyists continue their work. "There's still a deep feeling in Poland that the country suffered a great injustice," Poland's Cimoszewicz said. "We are talking about millions of victims, about the destruction of our country, about the theft of a large part of our material cultural inheritance. "
When groups like the Prussian Claims Society threaten the Poles with lawsuits, he said, "then suddenly you start to hear demands in Poland that the sum of the Polish war damage should be assessed and a bill sent to Germany."
Such sentiment hasn't stopped groups like the Federation of Expellees (BdV) and the Prussian Claims Society from pushing for settlements. At an annual meeting of BdV members over the weekend, the organization's president, Erika Steinbach, accused Berlin of operating on a double standard.
On the one hand, she noted, Schröder is telling the Poles the German government will not support any future claims demands. But on the other, the finance ministry is demanding repayment from many claims recipients, effectively forcing them to sue in Polish courts.