When the Red Army entered Warsaw in January 1945, it found a smoking ruin. Five years of Nazi German occupation and two uprisings had left more than 700,000 people dead – more than half the city’s prewar population. Hundreds of thousands more had been evacuated, deported or held in Nazi or Soviet prisons and camps. The war had also taken an epic toll on the city’s physical infrastructure, with some 10,000 buildings – over 90% of the city’s dwellings – destroyed.
Faced with rampant homelessness, and uncertain as to who might still be around to reclaim their property, in October 1945 Poland’s new communist authorities issued the so-called Bierut Decree to facilitate the city’s reconstruction. Named after communist leader Bolesław Bierut, the decree transferred ownership of all land within the city’s prewar borders to the municipal authorities. In theory, property owners could claim restitution or compensation under certain conditions. In practice, the vast majority of claims were ignored or refused.
Although the Polish People’s Republic was abolished in 1989, the Bierut Decree remains in legal force. This means that ever since the fall of communism, the Warsaw city authorities have been flooded with thousands of claims – both bogus and legitimate – for the restitution of property and plots of land throughout the city.
Warsaw’s City Hall estimates that, between 2007 and 2016, 447 properties consisting of 4,479 occupied dwellings were returned as a result of the decree. The decision of Polish courts and successive city administrations to honour these claims has had profound consequences for Warsaw’s social and physical landscape.
You can read my report for the Guardian here.