Private property rights endow and reinforce individual freedom and dignity. The restriction or abolition of private property rights affords a regime, particularly a non-democratic one, the ability to control a people. When individuals lose the right to earn, use and dispose of property, the State becomes the sole proprietor. The Ottoman Turks, the Nazi regime in Europe and Communist dictatorships throughout the world systematically confiscated private property to exercise control over the captive populations. The takings went hand in glove with self-enrichment by the Party comrades and punishment of their ethno-religious, class and race enemies. Stripping foes of their assets deprived them of their identities and their lives. While the Ottomans carried out the first genocide of the 20th century, the Nazis conducted race war, and the Communists class struggle, all based their power on the denial of property rights to millions of individuals.


The Ottoman legacy transformed into a Turkish Republic that based its wealth on confiscated Armenian properties and denies the genocide to this day. The Bolsheviks incorporated Armenia where genocide survivors remained only to have their properties taken over by the Soviets for the next seven decades. The Second World War crushed the Nazi Utopia over half a century ago.  The Communist system has proved much more durable and intransigent. Thus, the misery it imposed upon millions in the world continues. Acting with virtual impunity, Communist regimes arrested, deported, subjected to hard labor and often executed their political enemies. They confiscated the properties of political prisoners, physically removed their families to substandard housing and denied their children access to higher education. Those who were able to escape were tried in absentia and had their property seized by the State which spuriously claimed the assets had been abandoned. Communists forcibly collectivized peasant farms and engineered famines in Cambodia, China, Ethiopia and the Soviet Union resulting in millions of deaths known in Ukrainian as holodomor – murder by hunger. They destroyed, or at least purged and infiltrated, religious groups as well as nationalized their clerical and educational structures. Party loyalists and militias looted private homes and offices of artwork, jewelry and other personal property. They took over agricultural, commercial and industrial enterprises placing unskilled but reliable revolutionaries as managers. Those who fled their homelands often brought to light the theft of their properties and other Communist abuses. Having originated at the outset in Soviet Russia, the official policy of discrediting exiles and sowing discord among them is still in force in the world’s remaining Communist countries. Much of anti-exile propaganda against “White Guard” émigrés, Miami Cubans, Orange County Vietnamese and others targeted and vilified the refugees. Some academics, journalists, entertainers and others actively and willingly contributed to the denomination of exiles as intransigent, Fascists, greedy revanchists, radical right wingers, traitors, saboteurs and irrational zealots.


State ownership of confiscated properties resulted in a lack of maintenance, deterioration and demolition. It also dictated the unnatural subdivision of residences to crowd unrelated families together and deny them privacy for reasons of totalitarian control. Communist Party and military officials, secret police agents and other elites appropriated for themselves the best properties. In an effort to consolidate and legitimize the takings, muddle property titles and ward off legitimate owners and their heirs, Communist dictatorships legalized the sale and purchase of some property under the guise of market reform. Foreigners eagerly and consciously invested in confiscated properties without regard for historical owners. Auction houses, museums, art galleries and antique shops bought and sold looted artworks and jewelry ignoring the provenance. Revolutionaries in some countries destroyed property registries and other evidence of private ownership.


The results of such actions persist into contemporary times. To reverse them is quite difficult. The claims mechanism in most post-Communist countries, particularly in Europe, has been largely an administrative process whereby former owners filed extensive paperwork within tight deadlines to please miffed Communist era judges and administrators. An arduous amount of documentation and bureaucratic hurdles inherited from the Communist past created a mad scramble for proof of ownership. Opponents of property restitution created roadblocks for domestic and foreign claimants including exiles. Those faced with well-heeled, resistant occupants such as former Communist military and regime officials turned to local courts. Some claimants sought recourse at the European Court of Human Rights. As their restitution cases lingered in the courts, directors of the so-called privatization processes quickly moved to sell the claimed properties to well-connected “post” Communists, their cronies and enablers.


This blatant injustice continues to this very day. The violation of private property rights affected owners of small shops and farms to large distilleries and mines. No property is insignificant. Despoiled former owners and heirs who do not claim their property legitimize the confiscations. Failure to be proactive in recovering lost assets establishes a negative precedent in nascent democracies whereby private property rights are neither protected nor respected. Without the restoration of property there cannot be durable freedom and democracy.

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