Warsaw demands reparations: This is how Poland justifies the claims against Germany

Warsaw demands reparations: This is how Poland justifies the claims against Germany

As soon as the refugees are there, they are gone again. Registration at the Warsaw East Railway Station follows this principle. There is a tent there that serves as the first port of call for refugees from Ukraine in the Polish capital. A 15-year-old has just arrived by train from Kyiv with her mother and two grandparents. “We’re staying in this town for two days, then we’re going to Scotland,” she says.

Stanislaw Ajewski stands a few meters away and describes how bravuraly Poland dealt with the refugees immediately after the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. “Almost 4,000 people a week arrived here back then,” he recalls. Now only 400 people are registered each week. But Ajewski thinks it’s very likely that the numbers will start to pick up again soon.

Because the coming winter means two things: in the transit tent at Warsaw’s East Train Station, the night-time outside temperatures of six degrees are not a problem thanks to the heating. But in Mariupol, which is occupied by Russian troops, a winter without heating can be deadly. That is why most of the people from Ukraine who are stranded in Warsaw currently come from either the city on the Black Sea or from eastern Ukraine.

Escape from Ukraine. Scores of people disembark the train from Kyiv at the Przemysl train station near the Ukraine-Polish border.
© dpa/Kay Nietfeld

Stanislaw Ajewski works for the Polish medical group PCPM, which is one of the organizations that have helped millions of refugees from Ukraine. Since the beginning of the war, Polish private households have borne the main burden of accommodating people. However, in view of the rising prices, especially in Warsaw, it is becoming increasingly difficult for many average Poles to find affordable housing themselves. “The prices are outrageous and that will remain a problem for years to come,” says Ajewski.

Nevertheless, it is now part of the Polish raison d’état that the aid for the refugees from the Ukraine will probably continue in the coming winter. A survey by the Center for East European and International Studies recently showed that the willingness to accept young Poles in particular is still high.

So while solidarity with Ukraine seems unbroken in Poland, the national-conservative government led by the Law and Justice party (PiS) has to be careful not to lose the backing of the population. This is due to the peculiarities of Polish energy policy: 3.8 million households in Poland continue to heat with coal. But the raw material has become scarce since the government imposed an import ban on Russian coal, even before the EU decided to do so. Imports from South Africa, Colombia and Indonesia should now close the gap.

A rude awakening threatens the poorest households

Despite the hectic organization of imports, the poorest households, which still have coal stoves, are threatened with a rude awakening. Because there is no cheap Russian coal, the affected families have to expect prices to double or even triple. The government has announced compensation payments, and Adam Guibourge-Czetwertynski, State Secretary in the Ministry of Climate Protection, also assures: “We cannot leave people without heating.”

According to him, Poland is well prepared to get through the coming winter. The country, which, unlike Germany, looked for alternatives to Russian gas at an early stage, built LNG terminals and opened up new sources in the USA and Qatar. But what about coal, which still accounted for 70 percent of electricity generation last year? Guibourge-Czetwertynski refers to the plan that by 2030 at least a third of the electricity supply should come from renewable energies. However, this is a goal in the medium-distant future.

The world's largest lignite-fired power plant is in Belchatow, Poland.
The world’s largest lignite-fired power plant is in Belchatow, Poland.
© Reuters/Kacper Pempel

While the PiS government even assumes that there will be an energy surplus in Poland in winter, such optimistic forecasts are met with skepticism away from the headquarters in Warsaw. “A lot of propaganda is being spread at the national level,” says Patryk Bialas. “But there are statistics from mining cooperatives that indicate that there will be a shortage of four to five million tons of hard coal in winter.”

Bialas’ family biography is closely linked to coal. His grandfather was a climber, his father oversaw the sale of the fossil fuel. Bialas himself is now working to ensure that the Katowice region in the south of the country can really say goodbye to coal. His goal is that the expansion of renewable energies does not get lost despite the hesitant attitude in Warsaw. He is involved in the energy transition at the Euro-Centrum science and technology park, which the EU has funded with around 35 million euros since 2005. And in the city council, the non-partisan has “sided with green energy,” as he says.

I’ve sided with green energy

Patryk Bialas, Katowice City Councilor

The once-large coalfield of Katowice, where the number of people employed in the coal and steel industries has fallen from 300,000 to 70,000 over the past 30 years, has managed structural change fairly well. In terms of culture, the city still doesn’t shine as brightly as neighboring Kraków. But a low unemployment rate of 1.6 percent serves as proof to those responsible on the city council that they haven’t done too much wrong in recent years.

However, as everywhere in Poland, there is currently one topic in Katowice that is bothering people: high inflation. In August, the rate was 16 percent. People like Kinga Piatek feel that directly. The young woman, who walks her stroller around Wolnosci Square in central Katowice, says that four years ago she and her husband spent 100 zlotys (21 euros) a week on supermarket purchases. It is now 400 zlotys (84 euros), which represents an enormous price increase despite the additional expenses for diapers and baby food. She and her husband are also concerned that inflation could eat away at their savings. “It scares us,” says the 25-year-old.

Inflation threatens to deplete the savings of many Poles.
Inflation threatens to deplete the savings of many Poles.
© Kitty Kleist-Heinrich TSP

If inflation wipes out small fortunes like those of Kinga Piatek and her family across the board, the PiS can lose sight of the chances of re-election next year. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki knows that broad sections of the electorate could turn against him and his party if runaway inflation and rising heating costs for coal stove owners should combine in the coming months to create a dangerous mix.

A year before the parliamentary elections, the PiS launched a diversionary maneuver that is not new, but is part of the party’s standard repertoire: stirring up resentment against the allegedly overpowering Germany. On the anniversary of Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland earlier this month, a parliamentary commission in Warsaw presented a report quantifying the damage in Poland caused by the Nazis during World War II at more than 1.3 trillion euros. At the same time, PiS chairman Jaroslaw Kaczynski renewed the demand for German reparations payments.

We have suffered tremendous civilian losses

A senior government official in Warsaw

“We suffered enormous losses in terms of population, infrastructure, industry and cultural life during the war,” said a high-ranking government representative in Warsaw, confirming the demands for reparations. The Nazi atrocities resulted in the loss of an entire generation of engineers, scientists and artists, he says.

Even if the federal government rejects the demands in view of the Two Plus Four Treaty of 1990 on the foreign policy consequences of German unity, the government representative leaves no doubt that the government in Berlin will soon be approached with a diplomatic note. It is not a question of opening a “Pandora’s box”; on the contrary, the aim is to achieve “long-term reconciliation and an end to all tensions between Poland and Germany”.

In German-Polish business circles, such an assessment of the relationship between the two neighbors is met with astonishment. In Katowice, 300 kilometers from the border with Germany, working with companies from the neighboring country has been part of everyday life for decades. Marcin Baron from the Katowice University of Economics reminds that no country absorbs more exports from Poland than Germany. His analysis is that what the governments in Warsaw and Berlin are doing is one thing. “But from the perspective of Upper Silesia, I’m not at all worried about German-Polish relations.”

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