Dozens of Land Claims Arise As Warsaw Joins the EU

Klaus Glowna Pays a Visit



August 12, 2004

LEKNICA, Poland -- Driving toward his childhood home, 71-year-old Klaus Glowna crosses land scarred by World War II and its aftermath. The German retiree sees himself as a victim of history, and he wants compensation.

The river Neisse evokes memories of his family's flight from the Soviet army in 1945. A few miles into Poland he reaches his family's former home, where he spent the first 12 years of his life. Here Polish soldiers woke the Glownas at gunpoint in 1945, ordering them to flee westward as part of a campaign to expel residents of once-German lands that suddenly belonged to Poland.

Now Mr. Glowna, who became a maintenance engineer in an East German aluminum smelter, imagines regaining his family's manor house, brick factory and about 75 acres of farmland. "It is my right to try to restore what belongs to me," says Mr. Glowna as he pulls up in front of his old home, a three-story gabled building that had been in the family since 1795.

For decades, such sentiments were pure fantasy. Immediately after World War II, nearly 40,000 square miles of eastern Germany were handed over to Poland. Polish authorities quickly ousted 10 million ethnic Germans, pushing them across the newly redrawn German-Polish border. New Polish settlers took their place. Soon afterward, Poland and other Eastern European countries enacted laws validating their postwar land annexation and deportations.

When Polish communism collapsed in 1989, restitution or repurchase of lost lands became theoretically possible. For a while, little changed as newly democratic Eastern European countries kept many Communist-era laws. Besides, few Eastern Europeans wanted to hear about Germans' war-related suffering. As of May 1, however, many of these countries have joined the European Union. That makes their old rules susceptible to international standards of human rights.

Many people in Eastern Europe are shocked by the result: a wave of German lawsuits by people such as Mr. Glowna. Over the past few months, lawyers have filed 79 suits at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, with hundreds more being readied by plaintiff groups. Many hope to emulate Jewish claimants' success over the years in winning restitution in various European settings.

The prospect of Germans reclaiming property or winning cash compensation is being taken seriously in Poland. Newspaper headlines in Poland feature frequent warnings of a new German "invasion." Polish politicians routinely assert that Germans have no right to restitution when it was their country that started World War II.

Before joining the EU, Poland insisted on a treaty clause barring foreigners from buying property for 12 years. That rule was aimed at Germans who might want to buy back lost homes.

Lately, Poles have enacted other measures. Warsaw and other Polish cities have established commissions to calculate war damage. If Germans win back property, some Polish officials threaten to sue Germany for offsetting damages related to World War II destruction of Polish homes by German troops.

In Szczecin, officials have created programs to allow Polish renters to buy state-owned property vulnerable to claims, for a small fraction of their market value. Once those properties are sold to individuals, some believe Germans won't have as strong a claim on them.

"The issue reawakens old fears we were trying to put away: that Germany wants Poland back," says Krzysztof Ruchniewicz, a Polish historian at the University of Wroclaw in Poland. "We were looking to the future when we joined the EU, but this is bringing us back to the past."

Hoping to soothe anxieties, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder said this month that his government firmly opposes those Germans trying to reclaim property in Poland. In a break with tradition last month, Germany's newly elected president, Horst Kohler, made his first international trip to Poland, rather than a Western country, in an effort to quiet worries about Germans' assertiveness.

New Feistiness

Nonetheless, there's a new feistiness among some ordinary Germans, who question why their country should continue its half-century tradition of keeping mum about its war-era losses. "We shouldn't have had to bear the burden of the guilt by ourselves, especially in light of our suffering," Mr. Glowna says. "My parents weren't Nazis, so I don't understand why this happened to us."

At the 1945 Potsdam conference, the U.S. and other victors in World War II agreed to shift Poland's borders more than 100 miles westward. In turn, land that had been eastern Poland was awarded to the Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union. Some areas historically part of Germany -- notably East Prussia, Silesia and Pomerania -- were given to Poland or the Soviet Union. People in the affected areas were shunted across the new borders with no compensation for lost property.

The expulsion of Germans started as a burst of violence known as the "wild transfer," says Princeton University history professor Eagle Glassheim. In Czechoslovakia, locals began in 1945 to expropriate German property, forcing Germans into camps. About 700,000 were driven across the border into Austria or Germany on forced marches that left up to 30,000 dead from disease and massacres. In Poland, the expulsions were carried out under Soviet supervision. Historians say those were even more brutal, with hundreds of thousands of Germans raped or killed.

These displaced people, known as vertriebenen in Germany, usually got some money or low-interest loans if they ended up in what became West Germany. For those who arrived in the Soviet occupation zone, which became East Germany, their loss was a taboo topic. That's because the states that expelled them and took their land were fellow Communist states.

Erich Hogn was 11 when he and his family were forced from their home in a small village in Czechoslovakia and into a makeshift camp for 10 days, before being put into a cattle car. Afterward, they were transported to camps near Frankfurt, then settled in an apartment.

"It was cold, with very little to eat and no place to sleep," says the 70-year-old retired banker, who lives near Frankfurt. "These were bad times for us. For two years, I was hungry." Mr. Hogn is suing the Czech government for lost property. He also wants to reverse the Czech laws -- still on the books -- that permitted such seizures.

Mr. Hogn's lawyer, Thomas Gertner, says he is planning dozens more suits at the European Court in Strasbourg. The biggest German group is the German Claims Conference, which has set itself up as a shareholding organization. Roughly 1,000 people have bought shares at the equivalent of about $60 each, according to Rudi Pawelka, who heads the German organization's board of directors. The funds will be used to pay for legal action.

Lawyers don't agree on the chances of restitution claims. Some see a possible precedent in a 1996 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights, awarding a Greek-Cypriot more than $1.2 million for the loss of property after Turkey's 1974 occupation of northern Cyprus. Others are more dubious. "I doubt these cases will succeed," says Martin Nettesheim, dean of the law school at Tubingen University in Germany. "There is no legal bar for restitution in EU law, but it has generally been used in rectifying business and enterprise claims," not private residential claims.

Some Germans, however, may reclaim property because of a technicality. After the war, Poland sometimes failed to register confiscated lands, meaning that former German owners' names are still on the books. Several Germans have already won back property in this fashion.

In Poland, the official line is that the postwar Potsdam conference settled the issue of restitution. But the Polish parliament is debating a compensation law. It was spurred by a ruling in Europe's human-rights court that found the government had failed to compensate a Pole who lost land in 1945 to the Soviet Union.

"This case is a big problem for Poland because of the nondiscriminatory clause," says Stefan von Raumer, a Berlin attorney. "If they give land back to a Pole, under EU law they have to give land to a German, too."

Antoni Macierewicz, a member of the Polish parliament, says the proposed new Polish law isn't designed to award Germans lost property. "Remember, millions of Poles had no reparation for their losses in lives and property under the Germans or the Communists. Why should people living outside all this time have special rights?"

New laws or treaties may be needed to avert a flood of claims and deteriorating relations between Germany and its neighbors, some experts say. "It might sound strange for a lawyer to say this, but we should turn away from legal proceedings to find a political solution," says Mr. von Raumer. "It would be better for all sides."

'Insecure and Nervous'

Until then, Poles such as Jan Zarzycki will continue to worry about the Germans' return. He is an elderly farmer with a white mustache, who for the past 28 years has been living on part of the old Leknica estate of Mr. Glowna, the retired German smelter engineer.

"I am insecure and nervous," says Mr. Zarzycki says. "[Mr. Glowna] says he won't displace me, but I don't know if he is telling the truth. It is impossible not to think of this all the time. Laws in Poland seem to change every day."

The Zarzycki family's own claims to the estate are deep-seated, too. After the German exodus, Mr. Zarzycki's father-in-law became one of the estate's first Polish residents. Mr. Zarzycki says his wife has lived there for 55 years. It is essentially the only home she has known.

Paint is peeling on the estate's farmhouse, and the building stones are stained with age. Meanwhile, the nearby manor house has been subdivided so that several Polish families can live in separate apartments. Mr. Zarzycki says he has done whatever routine maintenance he could afford. He and his wife have kept a lively floral garden, though Mr. Glowna says it isn't as nice as it was in his boyhood.

Claimants to the same land, Messrs. Glowna and Zarzycki barely speak to each other. Mr. Glowna is most comfortable speaking German and still refers to his birthplace as Lugknitz, the prewar German name for Leknica. Mr. Zarzycki speaks only a smattering of German and isn't excited about the town's hybrid heritage.

"He hates me," Mr. Glowna says, in an off-the-cuff reference to Mr. Zarzycki.

Even if the estate's current occupants don't welcome him, Mr. Glowna keeps coming back. He says he has visited Leknica once or twice a month throughout the past decade.

After a recent trip across the Polish border, Mr. Glowna recounted what happened in 1945 after his family was driven from their home. His mother was repeatedly raped, Polish soldiers stole their remaining possessions at the border and, as they were crossing, the soldiers shot his dog, Treff, in the stomach. After arriving in eastern Germany, Mr. Glowna says, he, his parents and his older sister were treated as outcasts: "We were called the 'have-nots' and looked at as non-Germans, as worthless."

Mr. Glowna for the past 44 years has lived in a small apartment in Hoyerswerda, a town in eastern Germany about 30 miles from the Polish border. His green and tan living room has become a shrine of sorts to the Glownas' lost estate. The room is packed with faded pictures and paintings of the family home, many dating back to the 1920s.

There, Mr. Glowna picked up a sheaf of papers one recent afternoon. Tracing the text with his fingers, he smiled at the thought of the future: in his hands was his petition to the European Court of Human Rights.