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THE DEBTS OF HISTORY:

Updated: Nov 9, 2023

By Mark Young

President, Rational Games, Inc.


Recently, Rational Games was asked to attend a meeting with some “back channel” negotiators working with the renewed Polish demand for WWII reparations from Germany.  How could we apply our collaborative “win-win” approach to negotiation to this lingering and very thorny problem?


Poland has indeed publicly demanded a breathtaking EUR 1.32 trillion in reparations from its Eastern neighbour, a sum meticulously documented in thousands of pages in a formal report commissioned by 33 Polish scientists in 2017.   They further point out that, unlike the other Eastern European countries, there were never any financial reparations for Poland.  What is more, a full 66% of the Polish population demands compensation for the “German aggression”.


Poland followed up by sending diplomatic notes to every other Member State of the EU, NATO, and the Council of Europe detailing this argument.


The German response was fairly swift and uncompromising.  “The Matter is Closed” said Annalena Bärbock crisply.  According to an August 23, 1953 declaration of the Council of Ministers of the Polish People’s Republic, Germany was confirmed to have already “largely” fulfilled its reparation obligations.


To be fair, this statement was dictated by the Soviet Union to free Communist East Germany of any further financial obligations.  But more than 30 years have now passed since German reunification, and this stance was reaffirmed by several further treaties and public statements.


75% of Germans oppose further concessions.  And there is certainly no comparison of this with the situation in Ukraine.


My thoughts on all of this, especially in the context of Win-win negotiations:


1. It all seems very positional.  It is already very difficult to retreat from the categorical statements issued on both sides.  But maybe that is all that is wanted.  The Polish look strong and can make the promotion of Poland’s wartime victimhood a central plank of the PiS appeal to nationalism.  In this way, they unite the electorate to guarantee re-election. No need for actual payments afterwards. On the German side, standing firm against such precedents quiets any talk of a lack of German backbone and perhaps finally puts the Nazi past firmly behind us.


2. If either side were to take the time to explore interests instead, I think they would find it a very rich territory indeed.  There are many ways to bolster national pride on both sides without demanding money.  And the Germans could certainly think of ways to follow up on Willy Brandt’s “Kniefall” in Warsaw with proposals that move the relationship forward.


3. And in the sense of “making the pie bigger”, perhaps both sides would do well to enlarge their view of the German-Polish relationship.  The growing trade relationship, for instance, or the question of Germany’s membership in an expanded Security Council.  Not to mention the massive joint challenge of the war in Ukraine.


If anyone were to ask for our advice, we would have many further thoughts on The Debts of History and how to begin to address it.


Comments welcome.

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