(CN) – Germany violated civil rights by not compensating everyone injured by a tangled property dispute stretching across the country’s Nazi and socialist eras, the European Court of Human Rights ruled.
The property in question consists of 3,000 square meters of land near Berlin that had originally belonged to Jewish owners forced to sell it under the Nazi regime in 1938. A German shopkeeper bought the land a year later, but it was expropriated in 1953 to became the “people’s property” by the German Democratic Republic, more commonly known as socialist East Germany.
Following the German reunification, the land fell under the jurisdiction of the Office for Reunification-Related Questions.
In 1980, the U.S. Foreign Claims Settlement Commission awarded the daughter of the original Jewish owners, referred to in court documents as Ms. E.F., $5,500 plus 6 percent interest backdated to September 1951.
That debt was paid in 1997 through a $102 million payment by Germany to the United States for such property claims. Property rights then transferred to the German government, which it sold to a Germany investment company.
Nine heirs of the German shopkeeper filed a claim for restitution of the property under the 1990 Property Act, which required that all property expropriated by the GDR would be returned on request if claims were filed by Dec. 31, 1992. The law provided that the party that had been “first” injured was entitled to restitution – in this case the daughter of the original Jewish owners, who were killed during Nazi persecution. But the heirs of the purchasers who bought the property during the Nazi era were also entitled to compensation.
Passage of the Property Rights Clarification Act in 1998, however, allowed the German government to retrospectively amend the 1992 deadline for restitution claims. Based on that amendment, Germany rejected the shopkeepers’ heirs claims even though it did not technically receive property rights from Mrs. E.F. before the 1997 settlement.
The 2001 decision allowed the German government to keep the proceeds from the property sale, so the shopkeeper’s nine heirs filed suit.
That case was unsuccessful for the heirs, but an eight-member panel of the European Court of Human Rights took their side Thursday.
Germany’s amendment to the Property Act violated the shopkeeper heirs’ property rights, and the government must provide compensation, according to the Strausbourg-based court.