Monday, 15 April 2013

How (Not) to Pay Reparations

How (Not) to Pay Reparations

A few weeks ago I was having a conversation with an acquaintance about reparations from Germany for the Holocaust. Miriam (not her real name) was still recovering from the death of her husband Jake (not his real name either) a few months earlier. Jake, who was Jewish, had been a child spy. At the age of nine, he saw his father shot dead in the street. Then his mother and sister fled and he was taken to live in the forest, where he stayed for 18 months, sometimes visiting his Polish home town during the day to gather information about the German occupiers. Later, Jake was taken in by a Czech officer in the Red Army and continued his career as both a child spy and a child soldier. When the SS captured him and tortured him to give up the location of his Red Army unit, he instead led 120 Germans into an ambush.
Jake received reparations from the German government. A few weeks ago, out of the blue, Miriam received a letter from German authorities telling her that Jake’s estate owed taxes on the reparations, going back to 2005, when apparently a law had been passed that recipients of reparations now had to pay taxes on them. Miriam received a lot of paperwork, all of it in German except one piece of paper in English describing how to pay the taxes. A friend of Miriam’s received the same notification of back taxes.
Needless to say, Miriam was outraged. She reacted the way every Jewish person who received this notification probably reacted, “He’s already paid!”  Every surviving victim of the Holocaust receiving reparations could cite family members killed, starvation and torture endured, property lost, and so on. I doubt that anyone ever expected to be taxed by the Germany government on money it owed to victims of the Nazis.
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin Wikimedia Commons

Incensed, Miriam telephoned Germany twice: both times the people on the other end refused to speak English to her. Perhaps they didn’t know English. But that doesn’t explain the employee of the German Embassy in Ottawa who also told Miriam she should speak German, since she was “taking” money from the German government. Miriam pointed out that the Embassy was in Canada, where the official languages are English and French.
What does this tell us about how not to pay reparations? Despite all the talk these days in the human rights community about transitional justice and reconciliation, it takes an awfully long time to “reconcile,” to build up trust between the former perpetrators and the former victims of genocide. Time may pass, but to the victims it’s as if everything happened yesterday.
Apologies by perpetrators to victims of mass atrocities are an important part of reconciliation. I’ve published an on-line, open-access article called “Official Apologies” in Transitional Justice Review, (vol.1, no. 1, 2012) which you can find here In it, I argue that the chief function of an apology is “the restoration of civil relationships between the apologizer and recipients.” This is a thin form of reconciliation: the former perpetrators and the former victims can get along in the public sphere, in work, in the marketplace, in schools, and so forth.  But even to get along on this thin level, certain steps must be undertaken.
An important part of reconciliation is acknowledgement of the crime that was committed: the perpetrators must acknowledge their actions. The Embassy employee who told Miriam that she was “taking” money from Germany “de-acknowledged” the Holocaust. As a representative of the German government, she should have known about the Nazi crimes and she should have been trained to treat every Jewish person who contacted her about reparations with respect.  Perhaps she was young, and considered the Nazi period ancient history.
If reconciliation is to last, it’s also important that the former victims be able to trust the representatives of the former perpetrators. All German governments since 1945 have been successor governments to the Nazis. The people who work for these successor governments are responsible to try to rectify the Nazi crimes as best they can. I don’t know if Miriam or the other people who received letters about back taxes trusted the German government before they received them, but my guess is that it’s hard for them to trust it now. The Germans have broken an implicit apology and promise: we know we harmed you, we are sorry, we want to make amends and we will do so in part by paying you reparations for all that you have lost. A real apology contains remorse, but the German bureaucrats—and especially the Embassy employee--who refused to respond to Miriam in English were not at all remorseful.
My guess is that it is not only Miriam who has lost trust in the German government; every Jewish person she told this story to has also lost trust. Survivors of the Holocaust have already paid the Germans, a thousand times over. Reparations are supposed to repair damaged relationships: The German expression is “wiedergutmachung,” making things good again. For Miriam, her friend, and other Jewish people who received the tax letter, the German government is making things bad again; it’s turning pain and suffering into a taxable financial transaction.
So this is an example of how not to reconcile and how not to pay reparations.

After I posted the entry above, I sent it to a German colleague and scholar of human rights, Dr. Anja Mihr, . She very kindly did some research and sent me the following information:
“[T] German parliament has changed laws for all people receiving money from German pensions funds, regardless whether they live in Germany or abroad. Pensions are taxed nowadays for everybody. Thus all people receive these letters in German and since Holocaust victims get their compensations out of the German pension funds…these letters were sent in German. Victims of the Holocaust and forced labor, survivors of concentration camps and others are exempted from this tax but need to write an exemption clause to the embassy. A quick look at the website explains, in English and French. 

Dr. Anja Mihr,
Thus, the good news, as Anja explains, is that people receiving reparations for the Holocaust or forced labour don’t have to pay taxes on them after all. I will certainly tell Miriam this and explain to her how to get an exemption. But this still doesn’t explain the insensitivity of the whole affair. Why did the German pension administrators send these letters to survivors in the first place? Surely they have a master list of survivors who receive reparations. Instead of frightening survivors with correspondence in German which seemed to suggest they had to pay taxes, they could just have consulted this master list and not send letters to these people. (Anja also told me that normally, the German foundations that administer reparations communicate with recipients in their own languages, whatever they may be.) And why weren’t all employees at the Ottawa Embassy instructed to assist survivors or family members who telephoned about these tax letters?  I’ve just tried to access the website Anja pointed me to, without success: most survivors are much older than I am and would probably find accessing a website more difficult than I do (if they know how to do this at all.)
Miriam’s reaction to the letter she received was “He’s already paid.” She was extremely angry and hurt because—she thought—the German government was taxing the reparations Jake had received. Perhaps it would be a good idea for the German Government to remedy this affair by being pro-active. It could simply delete the names of all recipients of reparations from the list of pensioners obliged to pay taxes, instead of expecting these elderly people to figure out the correspondence they received. Then the Embassy in Ottawa could send letters to all survivors who’ve received these letters explaining in languages they understand—presumably English or French for most in Canada—that they do not have to pay taxes after all. And the German government could apologize for putting the survivors and their families through this upsetting procedure.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with you. In my experience the front line consular employees of some nations are rude and very keen to not have to help...!
    Even German seniors living overseas received these letters demanding the payment of back taxes. Many were indignant or, if they were very elderly, felt overwhelmed by the paperwork. And no, not everybody has the disposable income to pay for international tax consultants (or even has access to them!).
    Yes, under certain circumstances one could apply for exemption.
    W can directly thank corporate greed for this aspect of enforced austerity measures causing the German gov't to "claw back" pension monies by taxation...
    German workers had already paid taxes while earning an income, and the German gov't was previously not permitted (not needing to) to tax its citizens twice over.
    Burocracies are never perfect nor do its employees get forced to be patient or polite.