More than a million East Europeans, Ukrainians, Russians, and others forced to work for the Nazis during World War II are expected to benefit from this week's compensation agreement between the German government and negotiators for the former forced laborers. The German government hopes the first payments can be made before the end of the year but, as RFE/RL correspondent Roland Eggleston reports, there are still hurdles to be overcome.
Munich, 24 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- A compensation agreement reached yesterday (Thursday) after months of bitter negotiations provides for the payment of more than $4 billion to the forced and slave laborers employed by the Nazis. Most of the recipients are non-Jews from central and eastern Europe who were forced to work in factories and camps.
The chief negotiators -- Otto Lambsdorf for Germany and U.S. Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Stuart Eizenstat -- told German television today (Friday) that most of the money will be divided among some 1 million people forced to work in German factories and farms, and about a quarter of a million others, mostly Jews, who were slave laborers in Nazi concentration camps. Most are expected to receive around $2,500 each, but some of those forced to work under especially inhuman conditions in concentration camps will receive up to $8,000.
The new agreement fills a long-ignored hole in German reparations for crimes committed by the Nazi regime. Germany has already paid out more than $50 billion in reparations since the war -- including special payments to Israel -- but has generally avoided compensation for those forced to work in concentration camps or in factories or fields. Only in the past few years have their demands been well-publicized and defended by teams of lawyers.
The agreement allocates about $900 million to Poland and the same amount to the main Jewish partner in the negotiations -- the Jewish Claims Conference. In addition, some $860 million will go Ukraine, $418 million to Russia, $347 million to Belarus and $211 million to the Czech Republic. Another $400 million will be divided among other countries, and $25 million has been set aside for those who suffered particular health damage from Nazi medical experiments. Still other sums cover possible claims against German insurance companies for the seizure of Jewish assets and for what are described as "humanitarian claims."
Israel Singer, the Viennese-born representative of the Jewish Claims Conference, called the settlement "too little and far too late." Singer's parents fled to the United States after the Nazi takeover of Austria in 1938, a year before the war began. Singer said he wants the accord supplemented with a German statement asking forgiveness for what Germans did -- something, he said, similar to the formal apology delivered by German President Johannes Rau to the Israeli parliament last month. He said such a statement would underline "the moral dimension of this agreement."
There are still several practical hurdles to overcome before payments start. One is simply collecting the money. The agreement provides for part of the compensation to come from the German government and part from German companies. More than 620 companies agreed to participate -- some of them only after strong political pressure -- but the amount of money so far pledged is less than half the sum required from German industry.
Finding the funds is the task of Manfred Gentz, finance director of the U.S.-German automobile giant DaimlerChrysler. A spokesman for Gentz said today that he believes the agreement will now make it easier to collect the money. This is because one of the provisions of the agreement makes clear that German insurance companies -- particularly the giant Allianz firm -- are protected by the accord. Previously, some of the victims' negotiators wanted to make separate claims for compensation against the insurance companies.
There is some anger among the victims that their claims will not be settled in full in a single payment by Germany, which says it needs to be careful with the money to ensure that it has enough to settle claims which arrive later. A lawyer who represented some of the central and east European states, Gerhart Baum, said in an interview today: "Many of these people are 80 years old and more. It is sheer arrogance and totally unreasonable for them to be told by Germany that they must wait to get their money after all these years."
Baum said the old and the sick should be given their share of the money in full and immediately. Some east European countries argued during the final rounds of the negotiations this week that more money should be allocated for direct payments to the old and the sick and the victims of Nazi experiments.