Daniel Kawczynki is MP for Shrewsbury and Atcham.
The British Government says that the case is closed on Poland’s right to war reparations from Germany. This fails to acknowledge the true legal position and fails to do justice to our relationship with Poland.
It is my strong belief that the UK’s departure from the European Union presents the perfect opportunity for Global Britain to show its strength of support for Poland in bringing some respite to this harrowing chapter of its history..
As a British Member of Parliament of Polish decent, the extent to which Poland suffered during the Second World War is a matter close to my heart. Last month, I secured a parliamentary debate in the House of Commons on Poland’s right to war reparations from Germany. Sir Alan Duncan, the Minister for Europe and the Americas, attended this debate and gave an answer on behalf of the British Government – that essentially, as far as they were concerned, the case is closed.
This is, in my view, simply not good enough. The suffering of Poland in the Second World War remains unimaginable. Poland was the country the worst affected by German actions: six million people were slaughtered, over a fifth of the population. Imagine that amongst your 200 friends on Facebook, 40 of them would be dead and many more unaccounted for, presumed dead.
Just under 2.5 million people were exploited in labour camps and a further 2.5 million were displaced. Polish children were the subject of experiments, and survivors to this day remain mentally ill, physically disfigured or both. In Warsaw, 72 per cent of buildings, and 90 per cent of the cultural history, was destroyed. In 1939 alone, 38 per cent of all Poland’s wealth was stolen.
Article Three of the Hague Convention of 1907 is clear that it is the responsibility of a belligerent nation to pay appropriate compensation for the actions of its armed forces. Analysis suggests Germany has paid a mere €75 billion overall for Second World War damage, of which a humiliating figure of a mere two per cent has trickled down to Poland. To put this into context, Poland has received less than €1 billion in compensation
There are extensive agreements between Germany and other affected countries on the continent of Europe. There are treaties and agreements with Czechia, France, Belgium, and many others – including Sweden, which was neutral in the Second World War. All of these countries have received compensation, but from Poland, the country most affected. Why is this, and how can this be fair?
Britain and Poland have a strong and historic partnership. It is built on cooperation and mutual support, ongoing trade and a common vision for defence and security. Poland is the second-most spoken language on our island after English, and one million Poles live in the UK.
We should not forget what we owe to Poland too: the contribution of Polish pilots to the Battle of Britain was a valuable, maybe even vital, addition to the Royal Air Force, and victory in the skies was a crucial turning point in the Second World War. It is hard to even imagine how Britain, and the wider continent of Europe, might look today without that Allied victory in the Second World War.
The argument is made that Poland signed away any rights to compensation. That is simply not a valid claim. Poland, trapped behind the Iron Curtain under an imposed Communist dictatorship, and under significant pressure from the Soviet Union, had no legitimate government to sign away such rights.
Sir Alan asserts that while the UK must never forget the lessons of history, it must not dwell on the past. That may be easy for the UK executive to say, but it is quite clear that this outstanding debt is preventing Poles from moving on from the past.
Germany must fulfil its legal obligations and we, as one of Poland’s key allies, must support Poland in this, support the Polish-German commission jointly agreed between the Foreign Ministers of those two governments to investigate this issue, and ensure that this outstanding debt is settled.
The opportunity is at hand for Germany to heal wounds and symbolically bring an end to this harrowing chapter. However painful for Germany this may be, it is more painful for the people, of Poland
There is never a better time for the UK, as we leave the European Union, to reassert our sovereignty and independent foreign policy, and to show the world that Global Britain promotes and protects the causes of those in need. I call upon Theresa May’s Government to support Poland, and work with our European counterparts to secure the compensation the Polish people deserve – just as those brave Polish pilots supported us in securing our own future in 1940.