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German report
by Euro Reporter
2014-03-23 11:21:59
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Ghetto workers to get pensions at last

Many workers from the ghettos in Nazi-occupied Europe have fought for their entitlement to full pension payments for years. The German government has now promised a quick and uncomplicated solution. Conditions in Poland's capital Warsaw were gruesome in 1940, where the Nazi German occupiers had herded over 300,000 Jews into a tiny suburb. "The streets were so over-populated, it was difficult to push one's way through," remembered Ludwik Hirszfeld, a Jewish doctor who lived in the ghetto. "Everyone was ragged, in tatters. Often they no longer even possessed a shirt. Everywhere there was noise and uproar. The thin piteous voices of children could be heard above the din." Like those in the hundreds of other ghettos the Nazis set up across Europe, many Warsaw ghetto residents tried to improve their living conditions by working, earning either money or food as payment.

As small as the sums were, they entitled these ghetto workers to pension payments from the German state. "It's a pension for people who worked in the ghetto," explained Berlin-based lawyer Simona Reppenhagen, who represents some 3,000 former ghetto workers. "It took as long as the 1990s to establish that ghetto work was eligible for social security contributions and that indeed the authorities at the time did make such contributions for the workers." But that didn't mean that the former ghetto workers received their pensions from the German state straight away. The ghetto pension law was only passed in 2002, by the Social Democrat/Green coalition of Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, which made former ghetto workers entitled to pension payments from 1997 onwards. The law followed a ruling by Germany's Federal Social Court about the Lodz ghetto. But the ghetto workers still didn't receive the payment. "The German pension insurance fund interpreted the ghetto pension law extremely restrictively," said Reppenhagen. "Until 2009, they simply didn't believe the applicants."

This claim is supported by the figures: close to 95 percent of pension applications by former ghetto workers were turned down. Many took their cases to social courts, and lost. They were faced with high bureaucratic hurdles. The courts would often turn down the applications on the grounds that ‘voluntary' ghetto work was the same as forced labour. "What ghetto workers did was regular work under irregular circumstances," said Reppenhagen. "Irregular because they were forced to live in a ghetto, for example. But it is not the same as forced labour, as happened later in concentration camps or labour camps." The Federal Social Court eventually adjusted its ruling in 2009, a revision meant that many former ghetto workers managed to get their pension payments at last, but their claims were only valid from 2005, not 1997, as originally foreseen. According to German daily Die Welt, that means some 38,000 of the total 50,000 ghetto pension recipients aren't receiving enough money.

Now Chancellor Angela Merkel's third government is making moves to change that. "With her draft law, Social Affairs Minister Andrea Nahles is attempting to remove the hurdles she deems unacceptable: the problematic four-year-rule and the issue of the due date by which an application has to have been filed," was how a ministry spokeswoman described the government's reform plans. Nahles intends to present the draft law to the cabinet before the Jewish Pessach festival, which falls between April 15 and 22 this year. Reppenhagen is optimistic that a satisfactory solution can now be found, but she insists "there's no time to lose. These people are old; some pass away every day. Many of them live in impoverished conditions because of their disrupted lives." The ministry has raised expectations. "The result will be a good solution benefiting the very old people concerned," the statement said, before adding that the former ghetto workers had declared their demands. "In a hearing most of them made clear that they were not asking for the kind of compensation due to victims. They want a proper pension - in recognition of the work they did." The former ghetto workers are merely demanding what they're owed - though it will come too late for many.


Russia sanctions could put Germany Inc. on the front lines of trade war

German Chancellor Angela Merkel hasn’t minced words. Unless Vladimir Putin steps back from Ukraine, she’s prepared to back European sanctions that would cause “massive economic and political harm” to Russia. What about the harm Germany would suffer if the showdown escalates into economic warfare? Among European Union nations, Germany is by far Russia’s most active trading partner. It’s well-known that Germany depends heavily on Russian oil and gas, which accounts for the bulk of the €39.8 billion ($55.4 billion) it imported from the giant to the east in 2012. What may be more surprising is that Germany sells Russia almost as much as it buys, with exports totalling €37.9 billion in 2012—accounting for 31 percent of all European exports to Russia. Some 6,000 German companies are active in Russia, selling everything from pharmaceuticals to cars and machine tools. German companies also have invested heavily in Russian manufacturing, according to a report today in the magazine Spiegel. Knauf, a German building-materials maker, employs more than 5,000 people in its Russian plants, the article says. Such businesses would be on the front lines of a trade war with Russia.

germany_400For Germany Inc., the greatest fear may not be what Europe might do, but how Moscow might retaliate, says Roland Freudenstein, deputy director of the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies, a Brussels-based think tank. A key worry is that Russia might approve legislation, already under discussion in the parliament, to nationalize foreign assets in the country. “German business people are extremely afraid of this,” Freudenstein says. “Some people have postponed investments and business trips.” Germany’s state-owned KfW development bank last week abruptly postponed the signing of a deal with Russia’s Vnesheconombank in which the Germans were to have invested €200 million with the aim of expanding opportunities in Russia for Germany’s midsized companies. A KfW spokeswoman contacted by Bloomberg Businessweek said she was unable to comment on the situation. So far, German business leaders are standing firm with Merkel. Ulrich Grillo, president of the powerful BDI industry federation, said on March 14 that he “fully” supports the chancellor in the Ukraine crisis. “Sanctions would certainly impact these relationships” with Russia, he said. “But international law, for me, stands above all.”

For now, the sanctions put in place by the EU involve asset freezes and visa bans on 21 Russians and Crimeans. The U.S. has imposed similar penalties on 11 individuals. Those measures are the second step in a three-stage sanctions process laid out by the EU. The next step would involve unspecified measures that the EU has said would have “additional and far-reaching consequences.” Opinion polls suggest that the German public has little appetite for tough sanctions. A March 13 survey by the Forsa polling group for the German-Russian Chamber of Foreign Trade found that only 24 percent thought sanctions would help resolve the Crimea crisis. German trade with Russia, though substantial, is only a small part of Germany’s overall exports. The country posted an estimated $260 billion trade surplus last year. Even so, some 300,000 German jobs “depend on economic exchange with Russia,” Eckhard Cordes, who heads an association of companies doing business in Eastern Europe, told the newspaper Bild in a March 6 interview. “Russia needs a strong Europe and the other way around,” said Cordes, a former chief executive of the Metro retail group that has been a major investor in Russia. “I trust that this knowledge will prevail in the end, to calm things down.”


If Russia gets Crimea, should Germany get Kaliningrad?

In the tug-of-war between Russia and the West, some states are apparently more equal than others are when it comes to correcting "mistakes" of the past. In his speech to the nation on Tuesday, President Vladimir Putin said that Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's decision to hand Crimea to the Ukrainian Socialist Soviet Republic in 1954 was a "clear violation of the constitutional norms that were in place even then." Putin depicted the annexation of Crimea as correcting a "historical error," arguing that the region has played a vital role in Russia's history and culture for centuries. But Russia would almost surely look differently at attempts by a foreign power to annex part of its current territory that has clear historical ties to another nation — such as the Russian region of Kaliningrad, a historically German exclave that Germany lost to the Soviet Union in 1945 following the conclusion of World War II.

Germany does not make claims on Kaliningrad, formerly known as Konigsberg, but some consider its status as a Russian territory erroneous, just as many Russians viewed Crimea's status as part of Ukraine. Inesis Feldmanis, head of the Faculty of History and Philosophy at the University of Latvia, said he believed Kaliningrad's annexation by the Soviet Union was, similarly, "an error in history." So, what is the difference between Crimea and Kaliningrad? The German region of Konigsberg was decimated during World War II, and in 1941 Stalin ordered the deportation of 800,000 Germans from western Russia to Siberia and Kazakhstan, fearing they would be disloyal in the war against Nazi Germany. Most of the remaining Germans in Konigsburg fled or were deported after the war, while Soviet immigration and Russification quickly transformed the cultural landscape of the 15,100-square-kilometer exclave. Kaliningrad, which as Konigsburg served as the capital of Prussia in the 1500s and 1600s and was home to German philosopher Immanuel Kant, still exudes Germanic history, despite having served as a closed military area in Soviet times. But today, Germans make up a mere 0.8 percent of the Russian exclave's population of 940,000 — a far cry from Crimea's significant ethnic Russian population and majority of Russian speakers.

That may partly explain why Germany has never attempted to play the "historical error" card to make a claim on Kaliningrad, in the way Russia justified its annexation of Crimea. Worldwide sensitivity to German aggression after the horrors of the Third Reich in World War II likely also plays a role in Berlin's lack of interest in the region. "I do not think Germany would ever propose such an idea [to make a claim on Kalingrad], or that it would ever become a topic of discussion," said David Ziblatt, a professor of government at Harvard University's Minda de Gunzburg Centre for European Studies, in a telephone interview. "Historical evidence [from World War II] has shown that such behaviour causes instability." Despite certain similarities between Crimea and Kaliningrad — both annexed territories with non-freezing ports and strategic military assets — a key difference in their histories also helps explain why Germany would not make a claim to its former region. "The West agreed to Kaliningrad becoming a part of the Soviet Union at the Potsdam Conference, when Europe was divided up between allied powers" said Edgars Engizers, a historian and lecturer at the Baltic International Academy in Riga, by telephone. "The post-war circumstances were very different from the ones we are currently seeing in Crimea. Russia's annexation of Crimea will be much more difficult for the West to accept in the future."


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