Earlier this week, Poland claimed that Germany could owe the country as much as $850 billion in war reparations due to the physical, economic and social damage brought in World War II by the Nazis. Poland claims that the presence of extermination camps were a result of German occupation alone, which thus separates them from complicity with the atrocities of Nazi rule. Though critics — especially those from the United States and Israel— accuse Poland of attempting to rewrite history in favor of their country, the bolder claim for physical compensation raises questions about the possibility of reconciling moral, historical and monetary obligations to countries affected by genocide or slavery.
Situations of human atrocity in our history — war, genocide, slavery — have left groups, especially those of marginalized ethnicities, demanding for both physical reparation and verbal acknowledgement. It’s retrograde recognition that seeks to atone for the inhumanity of the past and its effects on the present.
Morally speaking, the question of whether to provide reparations or not is rather simple. Reparations are not limited to physical payments, and often the first step in recognizing the past is in actually admitting to the incidents of the past. Acknowledging the millions of lives lost in the Holocaust is the bare minimum verbal reparation that Germany could have offered; recognizing the genocide of hundreds of indigenous Namibian people would be crucial in even understanding their culture in present-day southern Africa; surely, apology is necessary for slavery in America, as is being cognizant of the structural vestiges of the institution present in race relations to this day. Verbal retributions are so morally obvious that people then feel compelled to support physical reparations.
And yet, government administrations worldwide have habitually denied the need for these verbal apologies for race-related genocides, let alone considered the possibility of monetary reparations. Germany refused to admit that the early 1900s Herero and Namaqua genocide in Namibia even existed, and would not refer to it as a genocide until a year ago. Despite ongoing negotiations and a relatively firm stance by chancellor Angela Merkel on repaying Namibian debts, reparations have still not been made. With the Armenian genocide during World War I, it was not until almost a century later that the deaths of 1,500,000 people were recognized by any country; by 2017, approximately 29 countries have deemed the Armenian incident an actual, historical genocide, but the United States, Israel and the United Kingdom still refuse to call it an actual genocide.
We often conceptualize reparations as physical money given back to groups of people, but verbal acknowledgments are a crucial form of reparation. The inhumanity of genocide and slavery is so morally reprehensible that refusing to offer even slight recognition is a refusal of accountability and ultimately a more offensive refusal of the millions of lives killed in these atrocities.
Though the case for reparations may seem straightforward on moral grounds, the cause of practicality and ambiguity of such reparations bring this cause to a grey area … for when do countries need to make reparations? To whom are they given? How can they be implemented?
And should they be?
In considering the role of reparations, we should go out of our way to acknowledge the atrocities of the past, but be wary of the implications monetary reparations can have on both the responsible and the recipients. Arguing for a sweeping “yes” or “no” to personal reparations is simply impossible, given the diversity of each country and their relationship with genocide or slavery. But, there are certain avenues for reparation that can be taken in order to reconcile moral and physical debts.
Of course, this isn’t to say reparations have not been made in the past. Germany is in its 66th year of paying duties to Holocaust victims, having paid more than $89 billion in compensation since its inception in 1952. In 1988, our country agreed to pay $20,000 per victim to more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans sent to internment camps during World War II. Precedent proves that it has been made possible, but the present makes it seem like such repayments are physical and even moral impossibilities.
In making the case for reparations, critics wonder who should and could receive such compensation, and if such guidelines can even be made by separate parties. Germany created a structured system of qualifications that deemed which persons would receive payments, but even that system has been placed under modification in response to political and social changes in Europe. And that further raises the question of where parties affected secondhand play into the picture of reparations — do families of Holocaust victims, both dead and alive, deserve reparations? Genocide inherently makes it difficult to ascertain reparation recipients simply because the survivors tend to be few (especially by the time reparations are even considered) and the grieving families of the millions killed are many (especially in the generations after the genocide when reparations are even considered).
In the case of slavery in America, determining reparation receivers is even more difficult given the temporal separation of actual slavery from today, but also the lasting impacts it has on certain racial structures that continued to disadvantage African Americans from emancipation through to present day: Jim Crow laws, “separate but equal” or redlining, to name a few. Reparations for the black population in America would thus span further than just descendants of slavery— it would have potentiality to include every person in the black community who has faced structural racism that arose from slavery.
And at this point, it demands asking whether certain groups could “qualify” to higher levels of reparations than others. Would degree of connection to genocide or slavery constitute a hierarchy of compensations? It could quantify grief on a monetary scale and simultaneously reduce the shadowed history of genocide in the bright, coined apologies of present day — something certain groups have pushed back against profusely. President of Senegal Abdoulaye Wade, for example, has repeatedly stated that the idea of reparations is “insulting” in that it implies an erasure of history through compensation for slavery — no amount of money would ever and should ever truly overshadow the weight of history.
With the validity of reparations up for debate, the actual implementation of such policies would be similarly as tricky to pinpoint. The argument for country governments paying for reparations is risky; it could potentially implicate an entire diverse population — both those actively and not actively involved with slavery or genocide — as financially responsible for reparations. If paid through taxes, this could imply that reparation money would come out of funds from taxpayers — all members of society, even those who may be direct descendants of slaves, who would essentially be paying their own reparations.
So where exactly do we go from here?
Reparations are tricky, both to propose and implement. Perhaps the best way to approach making physical amends for the past is acknowledging that not every reparation case is the same, nor should any be considered under blanket terms. Though direct monetary reparations could and have been made in cases of the Holocaust or Namibia, where living survivors still bear the emotional and economic burdens of their recent history, direct monetary reparations cannot be made for all groups or situations on temporal and structural grounds.
With our country’s history of slavery, compensation could be proposed in support of institutions that promote ethnic communities, rather than individuals, since the widespread effects of slavery (through inherently racist structures like redlining and unequal education systems) span across entire ethnicities and generations, and are still in effect to this day. Eric J. Miller, Professor at the Loyola Law School, claims that though the case of individual payouts could maximize economic autonomy of those affected by slavery, much of the money given out would go back to the white-dominated economy and would have only a generational effect rather than a long-term, deeper effect for the community.
Moving forward, we must recognize the diversity in reparation cases, but also in the reparations themselves, when considering if physical compensations can or should be made — it can and never will be a simple, moral “right” or “wrong.” Though placing a monetary value on suffering is a near impossible task, providing essential verbal and possible physical compensations to groups affected by human atrocity are moral obligations that need to be considered in the context of still-present vestiges of the past. And though reparations may be seen as Band-Aid fixes on larger social issues, compensation should not mean historical amnesia, nor will reparation ever equate to equality paid at face value — but they can still be a crucial step toward recognizing moral dues.
You can contact Elizabeth Lindqwister at elindqw ‘at’ stanford.edu.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that 6789 people died in the Armenian genocide, that figure has been corrected to 1,500,000