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  • Reparations for Nazi Victims in Postwar Europe by Regula Ludi
  • Lora Wildenthal (bio)
Regula Ludi , Reparations for Nazi Victims in Postwar Europe (Cambridge University Press 2012), 270 pages, ISBN No. 978 1 1070 2397 0.

Regula Ludi's new book is a historical contribution to the literature on restitution and reparations. That literature is substantial, as the topic is important not only for the human rights field (especially transitional justice), but also for historians of twentieth-century Central Europe. Ludi adds a clear, careful conceptual analysis woven into the very history she is tracing and a valuable comparison of reparations rhetoric and practice in three countries: France, an occupied collaborator country; Germany, the perpetrator country; and Switzerland, a non-occupied neutral country.

The comparison shows us surprising similarities among these countries. Each displayed a public rhetoric that served to insulate it from painful discussions of how its citizens had participated in victimization on such an unprecedented scale. For France, it was the rhetoric of the Resistance; for Germany it was the rhetoric of suffering borne by Germans not targeted by the Nazis due to bombing and expulsions; and for Switzerland it was its treasured neutrality. Demands for individual or collective redress from Jewish victims' organizations drove innovation by insistently showing that such redress could not be defined by nation-state categories. Ludi documents some shocking examples of official actors in each of these countries who neglected and doubted victims of the Nazis, but her main focus is elsewhere: she shows how the very practice of granting reparations, in however flawed forms, altered the definition of reparations over time, the perception of past wrongs, and the understanding of what a victim was.

The policy and practice of granting reparations to individuals was truly innovative. However, both were also startlingly narrow in the 1940s and 1950s, with years passing between initial claims and paltry payouts for those claims that were approved. The campaigns for the "forgotten victims"—e.g. homosexuals, Roma, Sinti, the forcibly sterilized, and forced laborers—in the 1980s and 1990s have highlighted that stinginess. Ludi makes a counterintuitive argument here. Speaking of the German case, she writes: "As paradoxical as this might sound, initial limitation of redress to a core group of victims permitted the Germans to develop a sense of wrongdoing that might have been impossible if all victims—including those stigmatized by lasting cultural prejudice—had been eligible from the start."1 Her material suggests that this pattern was [End Page 799] true of the other two countries as well. In general, "reparations were expected to meet various objectives—satisfaction of individual claims, alleviation of victims' economic misery, the broader political goal of correcting legal culture, and illuminating the general public about the nature of past wrongs—objectives that in reality were difficult to harmonize, if compatible at all."2

The book opens with an introduction and first chapter on reparations concepts and the legal and political context up to 1945. Before the Nazi years, "reparations" referred to what a defeated aggressor state owed to a victorious enemy state after a war. Today, the term almost always means some kind of compensation and recognition, usually money, given to individuals, not states, who suffered harm. These individuals may be of various citizenships or no citizenship (such as displaced persons, "DPs"). In the current understanding of reparations, these individuals comprise a group on the basis of their experience of injustice, not their citizenship. This innovation in international law did not happen overnight. The reality that Nazi harms were spread across so many countries in so many forms and the statelessness of many DPs were stubborn facts that promoted a new understanding of the victim deserving of reparations outside of a state context.3 This, in turn, led to a new role for victims' transnational organizations and for collective and individual reparations legislation that took account of the complex situation. The United States (with its high numbers of Jewish and other DPs in its zone of occupation) and France were the most receptive to the arguments of these victims' organizations. The existence of heirless assets, created on a mass scale by Nazi genocide, also helped bring about the...


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