Let Bygones Be Bygones And So On And So On

For the past few days I have been treated to a lot of laughing about Poland’s attempts to gain nearly $1 trillion in reparations from Germany over World War II.  To be sure, Poland did suffer a lot from both Germans and Russians during World War II, since the nation was basically carved in two between them and fought over by their armies over the next six years.  There is no question [1] that Poland’s people suffered a great deal because of World War II.  Yet the people whose wealth was most thoroughly plundered and who suffered the most were the populations of Poland, especially (but not only)  the Jews who were not particularly well-liked by the Polish population at the time and are not present in large numbers in contemporary Poland.  Can Poland profit off of the losses in World War II by a population that has been either killed or driven into exile while serving as the sovereign government who takes over those claims against an admittedly aggressive enemy?  Is that just?

There are many other situations like this where one could see nations profiting off of attempts at squeezing reparations from other nations only to find themselves being in similarly questionable ethical positions.  Let us think, for example, of the prospect of African nations who sold their own people and those of neighboring nations to Westerners only to want to demand reparations for wrongs in which they too were involved.  The many who died through the Atlantic Passage or on the way to slavery as eunuchs in the Middle East or died in slavery in the Americas and Middle East were, of course, those who were the victims to whom any such debt is owed, but they are dead and often left no descendants to claim their debts, and so it is nations who were themselves part of the problem that seek reparation from other nations who were their partners in this inhuman trade.

Let us look at the common elements between efforts at reparation for World War II offenses by nations like Poland and the similar efforts by African nations over the slave trade.  On the one hand, we have obvious historical wrongs in the Holocaust and in the slave trade, wrongs which are pretty universally viewed as abhorrent.  In addition to this, we have the case where the governments or their predecessors were complicit in the wrongs that everyone acknowledges but did not end up doing so well as those they are attempting to sue.  They are like accomplices trying to sue the masterminds for reparations, and are not properly the victims of these historical wrongs.  Notably, the historical victims themselves are largely dead and cannot sue on their own behalf, and their descendants are often doing better than those who are attempting to file lawsuits about the wrongs in the first place.  So we have a triangulation situation where A is suing B on behalf of C without representing C and while being an oppressor of C in many of these situations.

Is there a better way than this?  I find it morally problematic for regimes that are made up by collaborators in evil to sue on behalf of those they helped to exploit or kill without being genuine representatives of those they sue on the behalf of.  What are the alternatives, though?  On the one hand, we are dealing with the fact that the people who were wronged are usually dead with few surviving heirs who would be able to claim recompense for the wrongs.  Governments with dubious moral claims seek to step into this void by embracing the chance at gaining money through embarrassing and shaming wealthier nations involved in some kind of historical wrong in previous generations.  How about letting bygones be bygones, at least for now, in cases where the dead or exploited have no reasonable appeal this side of heaven.  In many situations in this life, unfortunately, there is no justice in this life and the only chance we have of seeing justice is in the world to come, not that this stops us from seeking justice whenever it is possible, or forgetting that we are not always as just as we may think ourselves.

[1] See, for example:




About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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