Daniel Kawczynki is MP for Shrewsbury and Atcham and Chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Poland.
By the end of the German occupation in 1945, six million Poles had lost their lives, including at least three million Polish Jews, representing an incredible 91 per cent of the Jewish Pole population. Tens of millions of Poles had also been forced into slave-like labour conditions.
Buried in these harrowing statistics, of course, are a wealth of personal narratives. I recall with great sadness the story of Jan Kawczynski – my grandfather’s brother – who witnessed the death of his wife and thirteen-year-old daughter before himself perishing at the hands of the Nazis for the ‘crime’ of hiding Jewish families.
Last month I travelled to an awards ceremony where American, British, Jewish, and Polish elected representatives paid tribute to the humanity and solidarity shown by my family and numerous others to their friends and compatriots in those dark times.
Germany has rightly paid compensation to Israel, and to survivors and descendants of many who perished in the Holocaust. However, it has ignored the calls to pay for other atrocities committed on Polish territories.
Warsaw was literally flattened because of Hitler’s decision to punish Poland’s capital after a failed uprising. Poland lost the largest proportion of population of any country in the war (20 per cent) as well as losing 30 per cent of its buildings, 32 per cent of its mines, electrical power and industry, and up to 35 per cent of its agricultural production. Poland received nothing from Germany.
The German state, despite many calls over the years, has evaded its responsibility and indeed its opportunity to make things right. Although the ultimate cost cannot be measured in euros and cents, it is right that the German state at least acknowledges its part in the destruction of Poland and supports its future development against this challenging backdrop.
It is often said, that the past must not dictate the present. To move beyond the past, however, wounds must be healed, and the issue of reparations gives Germany the opportunity symbolically to bring an end to this harrowing chapter.
There are of course well-known claims that the Polish government waived any right to reparations in 1953. This is based on a flawed assumption that the Polish people had any control over their own fate in 1953. In reality, deprived of their right to self-determination by communist rule and the overarching influence of Stalin, the Polish people had no control over their own destiny and could in no sense have been said to have meaningfully consented to this Soviet-era agreement.
Like the people of East Germany, they were denied the right to self-determination, and any agreement to waive reparations should be seen as unconstitutional and invalid.
As a British citizen and elected Member of Parliament, I believe that the UK should support Poland in its quest for justice on this issue. We must remember that the Yalta agreement, which saw Poland fall on the “wrong” side of the Iron Curtain and saw its political system inferior to the Soviet Union’s “security” concerns, was conducted with the consent of the Allied governments.
It is time to join forces with the sizeable Polish community in the UK and make the case to Germany, and to the EU. Whilst it is Germany from whom the reparations are sought, it is the EU who must give its support and genuine meaning to its declarations of solidarity and equality amongst member states. The EU must make its vision of eradicating the notion of a ‘Second Class Europe’ – itself a result of Nazi and Soviet occupations – a reality.
Polish-German relations, and in fact, Germany’s relations with the rest of the world, must be based on mutual respect and understanding. Taking full responsibility for the unspeakable crimes of Nazi Germany is not enough, unless this responsibility is underpinned by actions as well as words.
The Polish people must not remain quiet for the sake of satisfying the European Union, which fails to protect their rights, or its neighbour who chooses to perpetuate a historical injustice for its own material benefit. If Germany wants to put it behind the horrors of its past with Poland and look to the future, it must address this injustice, and Britain must play our part in supporting Poland to close this chapter.