In many East European countries, post-Communist governments enacted legislation that partially gave back property to its pre WW II owners. This blog entry will not concentrate on the legal modalities of such restitution rather it will focus on its philosophical background.
The main rationale of property restitution is that post-WW II communist regimes, through the nationalization process, deprived the rightful owners of their property in a illegal manner. Some democratic regimes, as post-WW II France for example, also introduced progressive tax against those who gained wealth between 1939 and 1944. communist regimes indiscriminately nationalized property from all those whose property exceeded certain proscribed limit.
From a strictly legal positivist-position it is difficult to argue whether such action is illegal, since one can argue that the communist regimes did not build their respective systems in continuity with the old bourgeois regimes. From a moral point of view it is difficult to firmly assert that such action is right. One can agree to the fact that forceful nationalization is not the way to achieve substantial equality (relative equality of wealth) in a society. Nevertheless, communist regimes drew legitimacy from a revolutionary morality that aspired to correct injustices of the past, from their point of view nationalization was morally right. The goal of this blog-entry is not, however, to establish whether such actions are moral or not, rather its goal is to concentrate on the morality of property restitution by the post-communist regimes.
From a practical and moral point of view it is very difficult to balance between the claims of the current owners and those of the previous owners. Take for example a piece of land or a building that previously belonged to a person A, in 1944 communists nationalized his building and allowed several families to move in, in the mean time, the inhabitants of various flats changed so that we have a situation where present owners or tenants (depending on the country) do not have anything to do with initial nationalization. How is the state to decide in this particular situation, usually utilitarian considerations prevail, the claim of 40 voters is stronger than the claim of 1 voter. Should the state go against such democratic logic and try to push forward the logic of restitution with no compromise: I believe not and this is for two reasons: first, pragmatic (democratic) reason was already expressed the other is moral.
Almost every revolutionary abrupt change of regime tries to indulge into social engineering of some sort and takes away property from some and gives it to the others, why is the democratic post-Communist regime to correct injustice inflicted to the property owners by the Communists, they could look further back into the past. Such action is however, bluntly socially damaging. The only moral merit of restitution of property is that it can potentially bring back the social equilibrium, disturbed by the violent revolutionary take over of power, the only way to establish whether such action is wanted by the great majority of the society is the democratic rationale, thus the post-Communist governments are to implement property restitution laws in the way desired by the majority of the population, if necessary through a process of referendum.