Across central Europe, millions of victims reclaim their property
NO MAN'S LAND
Across central Europe, millions of victims reclaim their property
Once a month, regardless of the weather, 86-year-old Charlotte Hildebrandt stands, propped up on her two canes, in a vacant lot in what used to be East Berlin. “The Wall is gone, but the victims remain,” reads her worn protest banner. Hildebrandt’s late husband bought the parking-lot-sized piece of land in 1936, intending to build housing on it. More than a half century later, she is still trying to get possession of the property, thwarted first by Hitler, then Stalin—and most recently by German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. The Hildebrandt family fled Berlin in 1945 to avoid Allied bombing raids. After the war, their property became part of the Soviet occupation zone. Then, in 1961, the East German government seized it to build the notorious Berlin Wall, one of the best-known symbols of Communist injustice. Now, Bonn is refusing to return the land— choice real estate in the heart of one of Europe’s most vibrant cities— saying the confiscations were legal under East German law. That angers Hildebrandt and 700 other families who lost land to the Berlin death strip. They believed that the arrival of capitalism would restore the sanctity of private property. “It was stolen from us,” says Hildebrandt’s son, Joachim, a sales agent. “It’s our only property. It’s the only thing left to us.”
The Hildebrandts are among millions around the world who are claiming their right to property seized either by the Communists or Nazis in central Europe. Five years after German reunification and Bonn’s promise to return or pay compensation for illegally seized land, the process is still mired in controversy and complex rules that often pit eastern German against western German and Gentile against Jew. With only a third of the 2.7 million applications settled, the backlog could take another decade to clear. The process is even slower in Poland and other countries, which have yet to devise mechanisms for many of the victims of totalitarianism to file claims.
In Germany, the right of property return was enshrined in the Unification Treaty signed five years ago with the approval of the four former Allied Powers. A key exception—made to satisfy Moscow— was land taken by Soviet troops between 1945 and the 1949 founding of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Those owners can get money, but not land. Since applications to reclaim property began to stream in from as far away as Canada and Australia, sensational stories have grabbed the local headlines. A Jewish woman from New York City held up work on an office complex at the former Checkpoint Charlie border crossing in Berlin for months. She eventually agreed to a cash settlement and the promise of a plaque on the site dedicated to her family’s memory. The chemical company IG
Farben, which supplied Zyklon B gas to Nazi death camps, put in a claim for its 60 square miles of property, seized after 1945 by the Soviets, rather than settle for monetary compensation. Last spring, Germany’s constitutional court ruled against IG Farben and other industrialists that challenged the Unification Treaty.
But smaller repossession dramas have played out across the former East Germany, sparking complaints that innocent citizens are being forced out of their homes to pay for an earlier generation’s crimes. There was nothing, for example, to stop a Mercedes-driving speculator from evicting an apartment dweller in Leipzig in order to profit from a dead aunt’s forgotten real estate. The law was quickly reformed to protect tenants and to favor investors with job-creating schemes over heirs who might hold on to a dormant property for years.
Now that the last Soviet troops have left eastern Germany, the issue of property loss
between 1945 and 1949 has reared its head. The Soviets left 172 vacant military compounds, 54 airfields and 27 exercise fields—land equal in area to half of Prince Edward Island. Under a law that came into effect this year, those dispossessed between 1945 and 1949 can buy their property back at the current market value or receive a portion of its worth in compensation. “Basically, the more you had, the less you get,” says Alexander Riesenkampff, a Frankfurt lawyer who has spoken out on behalf of the land claimants. “The law is wrong. It works against the acceptance of one of the basic columns on which our society rests: respect for property rights.” Riesenkampff accuses the government of wanting to hang on to the contested property for financial reasons. “The Bonn government thought the costs of reunification could be partially covered by selling off these lands.” About a third of the land was owned by German aristocrats—many of whom were expelled by Soviet or German Communists. Now, hundreds of their castles and manor houses are up for sale, many of
them marketed by the government itself in a glossy catalogue.
Adolf-Heinrich Graf von Arnim, 70, is among those who feel aggrieved by Bonn’s handling of property expropriated by the Soviets. The von Arnim family had huge holdings northeast of Berlin, including Boitzenburg Castle, now being offered for sale for $10.6 million by the government. Of that, the von Arnims stand to pocket only about $900,000. “My family never had a chance to get our land back. We could only buy it, like anyone else,” von Arnim says. The government responds that it would be impractical to restore every piece of property in eastern Germany to its original owners, or compensate them at today’s market values. “We simply can’t pay the full amounts,” says Hansjürgen Schäfer, president of the federal office for property claims. ‘We can’t undo everything done by the GDR, but we are trying to correct the gross injustices.”
In the myriad of complex formulas and legal precedents that now determine who is entitled to what, one principle is clear: Jews and others persecuted by the Nazis have priority over others who may have later owned or occupied the same property. Jewish applicants account for nearly 50,000 of the 2.7 million claims in Germany. But correcting history’s gross injustices is not always easy. In the Berlin suburb of Schulzendorf, half of the village’s 6,000 residents face an uncertain future now that the heirs of a former property developer, Richard Israel, have come forward to claim 3,764 plots of land, one of which is now the site of a Protestant church. Israel, who died in Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1943, was forced to sell off much of his holdings in the 1930s, often at below-market prices. “I merely want to get back what legally belongs to us,” says family spokesman Wilfried Patricio Israel-Kraft. But local residents—some whom have spent their entire lives in houses their parents purchased from Israel—fear they will lose everything. “You can’t right a wrong with another wrong,” says Schulzendorf native Wolfgang Mularski.
Politics inevitably creep into restitution efforts as neighboring countries grapple with competing moral claims. Many of the three million Sudeten Germans who were expelled from Czech border regions at the end of the Second World War, for example, are barred from reclaiming their property by a 1945 Czech decree. The Czech government refuses to rescind the decree, and has pressed Germany in turn to compensate Czech victims of the Nazis. Meanwhile, in the Czech Republic and Hungary, privatization laws that have been passed since the fall of communism allow individuals to reclaim property seized since the war. But lawmakers are still wrangling over amendments to extend the right to Jewish survivors of Nazism, now dispersed around the world.
In Poland, officials are debating a law that would cover confiscations during the Communist period. Instead of land, original owners would receive coupons that they can use to buy new property or stocks. The government has also been negotiating with the Catholic church and the Jewish community of Poland over the return of prop¡j erty owned by religious groups. The country’s prewar Jewish commu| nity of three million owned more than 4,500 communal properties, g including 200 synagogues. But the issue of compensation for the mils lions of people forced out during the Nazi years has, until now, been publicly ignored—although it is the subject of sensitive private negotiations with the World Jewish Congress. “Jewish claims are non-existent,” says Wlodzimierz Susid, a Warsaw journalist. Susid adds that allowing Jewish property claims would open a Pandora’s box: “It’s a question not only of Jews but of Ukrainians and Lithuanians.”
Balancing all those claims is a Herculean task for any post-communist government. But the Hildebrandts are not giving up. They and other Berlin Wall property owners are taking their case to the International Court in the Hague. Meanwhile, the Kohl government recently offered the owners a chance to buy their property back at half its current value. “That’s a mafioso-style offer,” says Joachim Hildebrandt, whose east Berlin lot is worth about $7 million. Even former East German leader Erich Honecker flippantly remarked in 1982 that nationalized real estate would be returned once the Berlin Wall came down. Of course, Honecker never believed that day would come. Now, the Wall is gone and Honecker is dead. The aging Charlotte Hildebrandt is still waiting for her land, in the hope she can leave her children a legacy that history took away from them. □
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