Too Broken to Fix, Too Late to Matter

The Polish government, in its usual cack-handed matter recently passed a bill limited the time that applications could be made for the resitution of property seized by the communist governmen. Contrary to most international media coverage, this is not primarily aimed at holocaust survivors and their descendants.

The whole issue is complex but the broad outlines are….

Warsaw (the most affected city) was utterly devastated in the Warsaw Uprising in 1944 and most of the city west of the Wisła river was litterally a big pile of rubble. Then after the war was over the Soviet Union (which had cooled it’s heels on the east side of the Wisła doing nothing except preventing other allies from trying to help during the uprising) forced the country into an unwanted economic and military alliance. The communist government nationalized everything and began rebuilding. Later there were other bouts of nationalization. While Warsaw is far from the most interesting or beautiful city in Poland the fact that it exists at all is kind of a miracle.

In 1989 Poland was able to peaceful dissolve the alliance with the Soviet Union (which had reached the point of no return on its road to collapse). Soon after demands for resitution began for which the country was completely unprepared. The country had managed to peacefully negotiate itself out of communism but 45 years of that broken system had left the economy and infrastructure in a shambles. State enterprises were bleeding money, inflation ate up people’s life savings and the country was affected by a massive housing shortage that was the lingering result of the devastation of WWII and the communist government’s use of scarce housing as a method of social control. One sociological article from the late 1980s pointed out that the housing shortage affected and shaped people’s lives the way that natural disasters might in other places.

The process of former private owners trying to reclaim nationalized property was never easy. Necessary legal documents had largely been lost in the war and the claims, based on pre WWII property divisions often had little relation to cities rebuilt after 1944. Further, in the case of Warsaw, what was left in 1944 was often, again, a pile of rubble. People were demanding not financial restitution but any buildings built after 1944 (often long after).

Over the years the process became contaminated by corruption of various kinds. This article does a good job of outlining the major points. If anything the article doesn’t mention some of the worst practices. There are also cases of new ‘restituted’ owners locking the front doors so that people can’t leave their apartments (in one case neighbors and local stores made deliveries in a bucket on a rope to a woman imprisoned inside). There’s been at least one murder of a person resisting the practice of ‘cleansing’ buildings of unwanted tenants.

At this point it needs to stop. Communism has been over for 30 years, enough time for those with legitimate claims to come forth. The whole process can’t be uncorrupted or reformed without rewriting the entire Polish legal code from the ground up. It’s not a mess that can be cleaned up – it needs to be cleared out.

Some of those opposing this law aren’t even pretending they’re working for the dispossessed or their descendants and are trying to to retrieve heirless property…. for reasons.

There’s not much I agree with the current government about but this is one point where I do.

I’m not entirely against restitution but it needs to be realistic and in kind rather than physical property. Financial restitution of the market value of property in 1939 adjusted for inflation is about as far as I would go.

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