East Germany has reversed a longstanding position and agreed in principle to pay reparations to Jewish victims of Nazism, the World Jewish Congress said yesterday.
Elan Steinberg, executive director of the congress, which is based in New York, quoted senior East German officials as saying "they no longer have any objection in principle" to the payments.
Steinberg said this represents "a major policy shift" by the German communist regime, which had refused to consider paying such reparations.
West Germany, under an agreement reached in 1952, has paid about $37 billion to Israel, Jewish religious and cultural organizations and individual Jewish claimants, according to Steinberg.
East Germany, which had been asked to make similar payments at the time of the West German accord, had refused to do so on grounds that it did not exist as a government until 1949 and thus did not bear responsibility for Nazism.
Steinberg and State Department sources described the shifting East German posture as a sign of that regime's desire to improve its relationships and image in the non-communist world, as well as a product of somewhat reduced East-West political tensions.
A State Department official said that East German leader Erich Honecker indicated a willingness to consider Jewish reparations last summer and that his foreign minister, Oscar Fischer, took the same position in discussions with Secretary of State George P. Shultz and leaders of Jewish organizations last September at the United Nations.
Deputy Secretary of State John C. Whitehead discussed the issue with Honecker on a visit to East Berlin in early November, the State Department official said.
A World Jewish Congress official said its president, industrialist Edgar Bronfman, plans to visit East Germany in the next several months. His recent visits to Poland, Hungary and Yugoslavia have presaged advances in those countries' relationships with Israel and the world Jewish community, the official said.
A Bronfman visit would be "a signal" of major progress in the discussions with East Germany, according to the official.