Restitution is most often associated with large landed estates, palaces, manor houses and factories. Yet post-war nationalization struck not only at the upper classes of pre-war Poland, but above all at the middle class – owners of small and medium-sized apartment buildings, workshops, pharmacies and so forth.
Essentially, nationalization was an element of planned Soviet-style social engineering, brutally imposed on Poland. Its main purpose was to turn the pre-war social order upside down.
Nowadays many of us shrug our shoulders when looking back at this specific type of crime, forgetting that real people always ended up as its victims. Behind every expropriation was a terrible drama suffered by particular individuals. Imagine that your family has been living in the same place for generations. Your home survived the partitions of Poland, World War I, the Bolshevik invasion and somehow emerged intact from World War II. Suddenly someone orders you to leave. You have no real way to appeal the decision, no one wants to hear your questions or arguments. You have a couple hours to pack up everything your family has accumulated over several generations and in effect flee from the place that was yours until an hour ago. Put yourself in the shoes of a man who had taken over a small but prospering artisan shop from his forebears that was known and highly regarded on the local market. His ancestors had built a real family business through their hard work over many decades, just like the family businesses that exist today in Western Europe. Then it’s suddenly taken away, the efforts of generations no longer count for anything in the new regime. Even if some such businesses were not explicitly nationalized, they often faced new, arbitrary taxes that destroyed any prospects for their survival.
Thus, the discussion about restitution should not be limited solely to the economic effects of the decree on agrarian reform, but extend to a broad range of claims stemming from that era. If we seek social justice, we should also discuss the effects of the special surtaxes that functioned as a form of forced nationalization, or “liquidational nationalization”. From an axiological standpoint, particular attention should be paid to the nationalization of Jewish assets. Often Polish Jews were deprived of their property twice – first during the Nazi occupation, then de facto after the war, even if the state formally expropriated “German property”. This was exceptionally inhuman, as it partially legitimized actions that had been taken by the German occupation authorities, who had originally seized the assets because it deemed Jewish people unworthy of owning property.
Rule of law
Building a modern and democratic state requires respect for property, which entails settling accounts with the ghosts of the past – former owners and their heirs not only of large estates, but also of shoemakers’ shops in provincial towns. Otherwise none of us can be certain the apartments we’ve worked years to pay off won’t be subject to forced nationalization at some time in the future. Sounds far-fetched? No more so than the Communist decrees of the late 1940s would have sounded to the residents of flourishing Warsaw in 1937.