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UK and Polish War Reparations

Volume 643: debated on Wednesday 20 June 2018

I beg to move,

That this House has considered UK and Polish war reparations from Germany.

Last year, I visited Warsaw to receive an award on behalf of my family for the brother of my grandfather Jan Kawczynski. He was acutely aware that in Poland there was the death penalty for hiding Jewish friends and neighbours. Nevertheless, he took the risk and hid many of his Jewish friends and neighbours on his estate. As a result of doing that, the Germans killed him and his entire family. When he returned to his estate, the Germans instructed him to take off his officer’s boots. They made him watch as they shot his 12-year-old daughter in front of him. Then, they shot his wife. Jan Kawczynski was my age at the time he was shot by the Germans. His 12-year-old daughter who was shot in front of him was almost the same age as my daughter Alexis.

It was a very moving moment for me and the Kawczynskis to pick up this award for him and his family. It brought back to me the emotional issue of just how much Poland suffered during the second world war at the hands of the German invaders. The attitude of the Germans to war reparations can be summed up very eloquently in three Polish words that were sent to me by my friends in the Polish Parliament: przemilczenie, przedawnienie and zapomnienie. That basically means that they want to silence the debate. They want to show that the debate is outdated and from a bygone era that is no longer relevant to today. They want to forget it.

There has been no resolution to this issue; no formal treaty has been signed between Germany and Poland since the second world war. Bearing in mind the huge loss of life, the buildings that were destroyed and the works of art that were stolen from Poland, this issue simply will not go away. I pay tribute to our friends in the Polish Parliament, in particular my friend Arkadiusz Mularczyk, who has been tasked by the Polish Government with compiling a major dossier to look at the practicality of Poland being able to take Germany to a tribunal to seek war reparations. Of course, the Minister will know that article 3 of the Hague convention of 1907, a copy of which I have before me, clearly states the responsibility of an aggressor nation such as Germany in ensuring that there is proper compensation for all aspects of an invasion of this kind.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this matter to the Chamber. If there are going to be any reparations, which quite clearly the hon. Gentleman requests and which I support, let us start with an apology to Polish people from Germany for its actions. Has that ever been done?

Was there an apology from the Germany to the Polish people for its actions during the second world war? If there are to be any reparations, that starts with an apology from the German nation to the Polish nation.

That is a very good point and I do not believe there has actually been a formal apology to the Polish nation and people. Germany has not publicly stated to Poland the importance of apologising for what happened and of granting compensation. I have spoken to many Germans this week. They say, “Look, this is an issue that we have already dealt with. We reached an agreement with the Polish Government.” I say, “Which Polish Government?” They say, “The Polish communist Government.” They claimed that they reached an agreement with the Polish communist Governments in 1970 and thereafter. Of course, as the hon. Gentleman will know, those Polish Governments were completely illegitimate. Poland, trapped behind the iron curtain as a result of the Yalta agreement, had no legitimate Government.

Is it not a matter of historical fact that the Soviet Union leaned on its puppet Polish Government to stop any reparations? That is the basis of what stands now, and that cannot be right.

Absolutely. I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for that. The Soviet Union wanted some form of peace in the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance and the Soviet bloc—bear in the mind the importance of getting along with East Germany—so Poland was forced by the Soviet Union to keep quiet and not ask for any compensation. These Communist dictators, whose names are indelibly imprinted on my mind—Bierut, Gomulka, Gierek, Kania and Jaruzelski—were Soviet puppets, imposed on us, who had no right to sign any documentation. Anything signed with the Germans is non-valid and illegal.

The only thing I consider to be valid is the agreement of 1990, where a free Poland, alongside Britain, France and the Soviet Union, signed an agreement with the new Germany—Germany was being reunified—guaranteeing Polish western borders. Exchange of territory in that treaty, whether former east Prussia or Silesia—all those lands—is legitimate. All the previous agreements simply do not hold water because of the illegality of the communist regime.

The Minister will have to correct me if I am wrong, but my understanding from the Library and other sources is that the Germans have paid a total of €75 billion in compensation to other countries for war damage. I find that figure breathtakingly small. When we bear in mind that we are being told to stump up €40 billion for having the temerity to leave the European Union, it is amazing that the Germans have paid only €75 billion for the complete destruction of our continent and the murder of millions of people. Apparently, only 2% of that €75 billion has so far trickled down to Poland. The country worst affected by the second world war has received less than €1 billion in compensation.

I will send the Minister a letter on all the different agreements reached between Germany and other affected countries on the continent of Europe. There are extensive treaties and agreements with the Czech Republic, France, Belgium and many others—even Sweden, bizarrely, which I do not think was a participant in the war. All those countries have received compensation—apart from the country most affected. Of course, Israel and others have received compensation.

I want to read out some of the horrifying statistics, which are indelibly imprinted on my mind. I thank my Polish teacher, Mrs Wątrobska, for helping me to translate some of this information. Six million Poles were slaughtered during the second world war by the German invaders, and—hon. Members should remember this—for every 1,000 citizens, Poland lost 220: a fifth. Think about that for a moment. Out of a thousand people in a community, wherever you go, 220 are killed. By comparison, the United Kingdom lost eight, Belgium 7, Holland 22 and France 15. Poland lost 220 of every thousand citizens.

More than 200,000 children—the ones who looked Germanic—were kidnapped by the Germans and taken to Germany for the process of Germanisation. Some 590,000 people were left forever disabled. More than 1 million people fell ill as a result of tuberculosis, and many of them died, because so many people were kept in such horrific conditions, particularly in forced labour camps. Just under 2.5 million people were exploited in labour camps, and a further 2.5 million were displaced. In 1939 alone, 38% of all Poland’s wealth was stolen.

The hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) is present, and he represents one of our cities that was worst affected by Luftwaffe bombing. In Warsaw, the city of my birth, 90% of factories, 72% of buildings and 90% of the cultural heritage were destroyed and 700,000 people were killed. Of the country’s cultural heritage as a whole, 43% was destroyed or stolen in 1939. I am in discussions with Sotheby’s and many other important British auction houses to try to track down the huge amount of Polish art and literature that was stolen and taken away by the Germans as they plundered Poland and then escaped.

My Polish teacher, Mrs Wątrobska, gave me another point. During the war, a large number of people were experimented on. No one mentions the children who suffered those experiments and who forever remain mentally ill or physically disfigured.

A senior Conservative MP—I will not say who—said to me, “Do not raise this issue now, old boy, we do not want to upset the Germans when we are negotiating Brexit.” Needless to say, I have ignored his advice, because a time of major change on the European continent, as we pull out of the European Union and regain our sovereignty, independence and foreign policy, is exactly the time to raise the issue and to help our Polish allies to get the compensation that they deserve.

This is a timely debate. Quite frankly, these issues should have been raised many years ago, and that is not the hon. Gentleman’s fault. We owe it to the Polish people to do what we can to get back some of the treasures that he has described. Coventry was badly bombed, so people there understand. I am sure that he knows we have a fair-sized Polish contingent in Coventry who would be very interested in the debate.

We have had huge support. Let us not forget that there are now 1 million Poles living in our country. Poland is the second-most spoken language on our island after English. I am very proud of the contribution that those 1 million Poles make to our country. As I tour the United Kingdom and meet Polish organisations, they repeatedly raise this issue with me. It is such an issue of honour for them and their families. What message would it send if we chose to forget the suffering of those who were killed or tortured during the second world war?

The proudest moment of my parliamentary career was going to the RAF club with Lord Tebbit. In front of an Anglo-Polish dinner, he said something that will resonate with me for ever—of course, I have told my daughter about it and I will tell as many children as I can. He said that the Luftwaffe and the Royal Air Force were so evenly matched in 1940 that the arrival of the Polish pilots that summer tipped the balance in our favour. Lord Tebbit and others say that we may well have lost the battle of Britain if it had not been for those Polish pilots. Of course it is possible to replace planes relatively quickly, but it takes a long time to train up pilots, and it was the bravery of those pilots—those Polish pilots—that secured freedom for us.

Let us not forget that the Polish 303 Squadron got the highest number of kills during the battle of Britain and was the single largest foreign contingent in the RAF. Let us not forget that General Anders brought the Polish Free Army out of Poland, through the Soviet Union and Iran, to meet up with the British 8th Army. The Poles trained in Palestine; they joined the British 8th Army; they fought at El Alamein and at Tobruk; they went through the whole of north Africa; and as the hon. Member for Coventry South will remember, they took Monte Cassino. The most difficult part of the Gustav line was won and secured by those brave Poles at Monte Cassino. And let us not forget that the Poles were there at the Arnhem landings.

Let us also not forget, however, what happened when we secured victory in 1945. Guess who was prevented from joining us in the victory parade—the Poles. After everything that they had contributed during the second world war to help us, the Poles were banned by the Government at the time from joining the victory parade, for fear of upsetting Stalin.

We have a duty, a blood duty, a duty of honour to the Poles to ensure that we use our position as a permanent member of the UN Security Council and as a major European power to make sure that we help Poland to get this compensation.

The hon. Gentleman has covered the point I was going to make, which was about Monte Cassino, where the Poles suffered terrible casualties. He has already covered that point, so I am just reinforcing what he has said.

I think that Members here in Westminster Hall would be interested to know the current Polish Government’s attitude and policy with regard to this very important but obviously difficult issue.

I will come on to that right at the end of my speech, if I may, to sum up.

Let me quickly turn now to British war reparations, because this debate, of course, is about Polish and British war reparations. We have in Westminster Hall the hon. Member for Coventry South, whose city was more affected than any other in the bombing that Britain experienced during the second world war.

In March, I asked the Minister what the British Government’s position is on our claims to war reparations, bearing in mind that the United Kingdom was completely bankrupt at the end of the second world war. We had had to borrow money to fight the war; many British cities had been destroyed; and many British lives had been lost in liberating half the continent of Europe. The answer came back that we had renounced all claims to compensation in 1990, upon the reunification of Germany. I want to know why we renounced our claims in 1990. I can understand why we would want to celebrate and wish the two countries—East Germany and West Germany—every success in coming together, but I want to know why, and how, that decision on British reparations was taken.

I then subsequently asked what consultations there had been with veterans—British war veterans—in making the decision to abandon all war reparations claims. The answer came back as follows:

“Records on this are not readily available. To find this information would incur disproportionate cost.”

Well, I am in discussions with veterans’ organisations and we have put together a team of leading British barristers who are willing, on a pro bono basis, to test this matter through the British courts. I very much hope that those veterans who are listening to or watching this debate on television around the United Kingdom will take note and get in touch with my office, to see if they would like to be part of this attempt to take Germany to court, through our own High Court, to receive compensation.

There is a huge battle ahead for us—for the United Kingdom—as we pull out of the European Union. Poland will have to decide whether she wants to join us and the United States of America in an Atlanticist organisation based on sovereign nation states co-operating on defence and working collaboratively to protect one another through NATO, thereby retaining her sovereignty, currency and independence, or whether she will go along with Germany’s project for a single European superstate, with a single currency, a single European army, a single foreign policy and the rest of it. If Germany is serious in trying to convince Poland to back her in her quest to create a genuine European Union, this issue has to be resolved. Otherwise, I believe Poland will increasingly side with the United Kingdom and America in an alternative alliance.

This has been the most emotional debate I have ever participated in. Bearing in mind how my own family were shot and imprisoned, how our estates were burned to the ground and how all those working for the Kawczynskis were murdered, I will not rest until this issue is resolved.

The issue of reparations was considered in detail at the Paris reparations conference of 1945. The final act of the conference, which came into force on 24 January 1946, set out the international agreement that had been reached. In 1953, Poland’s then communist Government recognised that Germany had fulfilled its financial obligations with regard to Poland and decided against seeking compensation.

In 1990, the treaty on the final settlement with respect to Germany was signed by West Germany, East Germany, the US, the UK, the Soviet Union and France. It allowed the recently reunited Germany to have full sovereignty over its internal and external affairs. The Government considers that that treaty definitively settled between the parties matters arising out of the second world war. The treaty was laid before the House for clearance under the Ponsonby rule. The Government have no plans to reopen any claim for reparations from Germany in respect of losses sustained during world war two, including for damage caused to UK cities.

In Poland, the issue of financial reparations from Germany came to the fore in July 2017, when it was raised by the PiS Law and Justice party leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, and again in September 2017 when it was raised by the then Polish Prime Minister, Beata Szydło. She argued, as we have heard this afternoon, that decisions made by the Polish communist authorities were subject to pressure from the Soviet Union and were therefore not necessarily valid.

In August and September 2017, the German Bundestag and Polish Parliament analysed the matter and, in separate reports, came to opposite conclusions. The German report concluded that decisions made by the communist regime were fully valid, and that Poland officially relinquished its claims in 1953. The Polish report, on the other hand, concluded that Poland’s right to reparations had not expired under international law, and that Poland had an ongoing right to claim reparations from Germany.

When Polish Foreign Minister Czaputowicz visited Berlin in 2018, he and the then German Foreign Minister Gabriel agreed to set up a joint Polish-German commission on the issue. It is not yet clear whether that proposal has been agreed by the current German Government, and if it has, when such a commission might be created. Clearly, this is a matter for Poland and Germany to decide.

The Government consider the issue of German reparations to have been settled by the treaty on the final settlement in 1990. We believe that there are risks in the Polish Government’s reopening the issue with Germany, as we have made clear to the Polish Government. However, the question of whether they choose to take the issue forward and how it is resolved is clearly a matter for Poland and Germany to decide. For our part, the UK believes that we must never forget the lessons of history, but nor should we dwell on the past.

Question put and agreed to.