Recent attempts at reparations show that World War II is not over

Next year marks the 75th anniversary of World War II.

The war ended in 1945. But the world has never stopped debating its legacy and how to make restitution for the damage done to the war’s victims. Consider some recent events.

In February, the Holocaust Deportation Claims Program, which compensates Jewish survivors of Nazi death camps transported on French trains, doubled its compensation payments, from US$200,000 to nearly $400,000. This makes it the most generous of any of the recent compensatory programs worked out by U.S. and European governments. This one is paid for by the French government, but administered by the U.S. State Department.

In March, a South Korean trial court ordered the seizure of property owned by the Mitsubishi Corporation in South Korea. Such efforts are apparently needed to enforce a November judgment by the South Korean Supreme Court, ordering Mitsubishi to pay $100,000 to each of five Koreans who performed forced labor during the war.

Whether the Koreans will ever see that money, or die before the forfeiture action is completed, remains up in the air.

These are among the latest manifestations of global efforts to review, revise, repair and remember the war – akin to the Nuremberg or Tokyo War Crimes Trials – but for the 21st century.

Restoring human dignity

In the 1990s, a renewed interest in human rights, greater access to historical materials and a less polarized international political environment converged to spur reflection on World War II.

In the United States, civil lawsuits emerged as one tool, among many, to probe wartime human rights violations.

Federal courts in New Jersey, New York and California presided over cases against Swiss banks, French insurers, German corporations and even the Austrian government.

Plaintiffs sought wages for unpaid labor, return of looted art, restitution of bank accounts and other assets, and the restoration of their human dignity.

Two cases ended up in the United States Supreme Court. One, in which an elderly refugee mounted a lawsuit to recover family artwork seized by the Nazis, got a Hollywood ending. In “Woman in Gold,” Ryan Reynolds helps Helen Mirren sue Austria to recover a painting by Gustav Klimt.

Most cases did not follow the Hollywood script. Plaintiffs generally lost, either because the claims were too old or already resolved by postwar treaties.

Jews await deportation from French internment camp Rivesaltes to Nazi concentration camps in Poland, 1942. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Friedel Bohny-Reiter

Selective leadership

But that did not dispel the pressure from Jewish organizations or human rights activists to provide reparations.

During President Bill Clinton’s second term (1996-2000), the U.S. government, led by Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat, worked with European allies to craft international agreements and reparations mechanisms.

Germany set up a $5 billion fund to compensate wartime forced laborers and slave laborers, and to support projects on history and human rights.

Later, the State Department set up additional programs, including the 2016 Holocaust Deportation Claims Program. The French government still runs the Commission for Reparations of Victims of Spoliation, established in 1999 to process claims about seized property and art.

In East Asia, survivors of World War II human rights abuses have had their day (decades, actually) in court.