During and after the Second World War, millions of people fled Central and Eastern Europe to escape Nazi and communist persecution. Most of them lost everything they and their families had earned and built over generations, including homes, businesses, and artwork. In addition, totalitarian regimes seized tens of thousands of communal properties from religious and ethnic communities. For more than a decade now post-communist countries in Central and Eastern Europe have grappled with the question of how to redress these wrongful confiscations of property.
Since the early 1990s, the Helsinki Commission has monitored the property restitution and compensation efforts being made by post-communist governments. I have personally raised concerns with officials from many countries regarding the need for non-discriminatory laws that are faithfully implemented. Today’s meeting is the third Helsinki Commission hearing to examine these issues.
Central and East European Governments have done much regarding property restitution that is commendable. In particular, the return of communal properties to Jewish communities which were decimated during World War II has been undertaken to some extent in every country. Catholics and some other religious congregations in the region have also been able to regain some of what they lost under atheistic communist regimes. Many countries have also passed laws to govern the return of properties to individuals—no small achievement.
Nonetheless, the Helsinki Commission continues to receive a steady stream of letters from individuals and organized groups pleading for assistance in their struggles to recover expropriated properties. The common thread in these letters is that despite the laws enacted and the positive efforts that have been made, these governments still cannot bring themselves to part with most of the loot stolen by their undemocratic predecessors.
Governments seeking membership in western institutions want to be perceived as reform governments by passing a private property restitution law or by touting their efforts to return communal properties. Upon closer examination, however, one finds lackluster the implementation of the laws, or exceptions to restitution which severely limit the properties that can be returned, or bureaucratic hurdles that governments lodge before every person who actually makes a claim.
Restitution laws are specifically undermined through discriminatory citizenship requirements which often deny restitution or compensation to individuals who left the country under previous regimes. This has been a problem in Lithuania and Croatia, but is most stark in the Czech Republic where the citizenship requirement for restitution discriminates almost exclusively against individuals who lost their Czech citizenship because they chose the United States as their refuge from communism as opposed to any other country. The bilateral treaty which led to this loss of citizenship has not been in force in the United States since the 1960s, but the Czech Republic refused to abrogate the treaty until 1997—after the final deadline for seeking restitution under the Czech law had passed.
Property restitution cases are also undermined by the serious rule of law problems in many countries. Thousands of property claimants who have brought their restitution claims to domestic courts discovered that the governmental entities which stand to lose possession of claimed properties will delay legal proceedings for years and will repeatedly appeal decisions favorable to claimants. Moreover, the courts have failed to play a constructive role in the restitution process, often allowing proceedings to drag on for years and ultimately failing to resolve cases in a manner that actually results in the return of wrongfully confiscated property. An extreme example of this occurred in Romania in the mid-1990s when hundreds of court decisions in favor of property claimants were reversed by the Supreme Court after they had become final and irrevocable judgments. The European Court of Human Rights has recently ruled that these actions violated the European Convention on Human Rights.
Art restitution cases further illustrate the reluctance to part with looted property. In the Czech Republic a law provides for the return of looted artwork. In several cases, a Czech museum or court has recognized a ownership claim to artwork seized by the Nazis. When the government becomes aware of the intention to return the artwork to the rightful owner’s heir, the government declares the artwork a national treasure that cannot be removed from the country. While the cultural patrimony excuse may indeed be a legally accurate reason for not returning the property, I would suggest that the Czech Government rethink any policy which would build the country’s collection of national treasures on property that came into the Czech Government’s possession only because of Nazi persecution and plundering.
At the end of the day, the property claims of thousands of people, including Americans citizens, remain unresolved in more than a dozen countries of Central and Eastern Europe. While we will not hear testimony today from every affected ethnic group or regarding every country that is grappling with these issues, we are dealing with basic principles that have application beyond the countries that will be highlighted by our witnesses.