Compensating victims of Nazi persecution

10th March 2021

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“We were dealing with Nazi atrocities, mayhem and murder. But associated with that was the wholesale theft of people’s belongings, their lives and opportunities and it was still rankling – the residue of what people suffered had not been dealt with,” said Wadham Honorary Fellow Sir Franklin Berman.

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Speaking at Wadham Human Rights Forum Sir Frank explained that, despite post-War compensation schemes in Austria for victims of Nazi persecution, the issue refused to go away, and it was only under the impulse of litigation in the US courts that an agreement was reached, under US mediation, between claimant organizations and the Austrian Government on the terms of a new compensation scheme to cover what had not been properly dealt with in the past. This was embodied in a US-Austria Intergovernmental Agreement, and the General Settlement Fund was established in 2001, to recognize Austria’s ‘moral responsibility’ towards the victims of National Socialism, and endowed with a capital sum of US$210m.

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Claims to compensation out of the Fund were decided by an independent international Claims Committee chaired by Sir Frank. Its Final Report was delivered in 2019 and published earlier this year at the end of a compensation process lasting some 15 years.

“The financial compensation scheme covered the entire gamut of victim groups who were persecuted. The range and reach of persecution under the Nazis is astonishing to contemplate: national origin, racial origin, political views, gender, sexual orientation, trade union membership, mental or physical disability – all of these became grounds for different kinds of persecution under the Nazis, and the entire range of these groups was covered by the compensation scheme.”

“Our aim all along, was that the Fund should establish itself, not as another Austrian bureaucratic operation.…this was going to be a fund that listened to people,” he said.  

And according to Sir Frank, once the Fund began to listen, people poured out their stories, and began, one hoped, to feel their sufferings recognized.

There were a lot of victims for whom the process, in the end, proved a relief and [provided] a degree of solace - that was, at the end of the day, what we set out to achieve.

Sir Frank Berman

“I really cannot praise sufficiently the people in the Fund, mostly young people, dealing with claimants whose traumatic events were being replayed before them. There were a lot of victims for whom the process, in the end, proved a relief and [provided] a degree of solace - that was, at the end of the day, what we set out to achieve.”

Some 20,000 applications were received from an astonishing 76 countries, some from people who were themselves victims of persecution (including more than 100 from centenarians), and many from the heirs of those who were dead. But these branched out into a total of over 150,000 individual claims. The very large majority (nearly 90%) of claimants were awarded compensation under one head or another. Those rejected were either for losses that had already been dealt with under earlier schemes, or claims that had no connection with Austria. The total amount awarded, at some US$217 billion, vastly outstripped the size of the Fund, so that actual payments were no more than between 10% and 20% of the amounts awarded.

A central feature of the underlying scheme agreed between the claimant groups and Austria was that it set up a fixed fund to be shared pro rata between successful claimants. This had profound effects, probably unforeseen, on the handling of claims, in that it ruled out, for example, arranging priority payments for the oldest claimants, or applying the rules leniently in especially hard cases, because of the adverse effect that would have had on other cases.

“The question of proof was also an absolutely critical issue” said Frank.  The committee decided that the claimants should not, after so great a time, have to take on the whole burden of demonstrating entitlement to compensation; whatever documentation they could produce would be completed by staff at the Fund through standardised research in established sources.

The purpose of the Fund was “to make good – to provide some kind of moral solace to people whose sufferings could never ever be made good” he added. Giving the example of educational or professional loss which is inherently unquantifiable but for which compensation was to be awarded he commented: “The value of what we were doing was not the kind of thing which you can measure in cash terms.”

More than 120 Wadham alumni, College members and guests attended Sir Frank’s fascinating presentation, hosted by the Warden, Ken Macdonald QC. Watch the discussion on our YouTube channel here

  • Sir Frank with this audience

Sir Frank Berman, Biography

Sir Frank Berman is Visiting Professor in International Law at the University of Oxford.

During a full career in the Diplomatic Service, he served in Berlin, Bonn and at the UN in New York, conducted cases before the International Court of Justice and arbitral tribunals and took part in numerous international negotiations, culminating in leading the British Delegation to the International Conference that drew up the Statute of the International Criminal Court. From 2001 he served as Chairman of the Austrian Claims Committee for the compensation of victims of Nazi persecution until the completion of its work in 2017.

He came to Oxford to read law as a Rhodes Scholar and is an Honorary Fellow of Wadham. He practises at the Bar in public international law and international arbitration. He has sat on numerous committees in the legal field, including the Advisory Council of the Institute for European & Comparative Law, the Board of Trustees of the British Institute of International & Comparative Law, and the Editorial Board of the British Year Book of International Law.

He is a Member of the Permanent Court of Arbitration, and was appointed Legal Member of the Court of Arbitration between Pakistan and India under the Indus Waters Treaty. He has sat as Judge ad hoc in three cases before the International Court of Justice.

His research interests lie principally in the law of treaties, the use of force, settlement of disputes, international humanitarian law and the law of international organizations. He is General Editor of the Oxford Library of International Law.