What are some misunderstandings about Poland

On the subject

In the winter of 2004/2005, German-Polish relations are by no means in a high-altitude flight - even if the two governments are tirelessly trying to smooth the waves that caused the rude disputes between the two countries in the last two years, and that community of interests too save, which despite all the setbacks and misunderstandings in the 1990s led to a seminal paradigm shift in German-Polish relations. The new foundation was not only formed by the treaties of 1990 and 1991, the final recognition of the Oder-Neisse border by sovereign and reunified Germany, not only the great friendship treaty on good neighborly cooperation, but also the - quite groundbreaking - realization that For the first time in two or three hundred years, German and Polish national interests are running parallel and not in conflict with one another.

The political, economic and spiritual consequences were striking. Poland's way to Europe leads through Germany, said Polish politicians. Germany is the best advocate of Polish interests in NATO and the EU, the German politicians echoed. Firmly supported by the seemingly inviolable transatlantic alliance, the politicians even designed an attractive playground for the rapid introduction of Poland to the Franco-German "core Europe" - it was called the "Weimar Triangle" and helped on the one hand to make Poland socially acceptable in the West, and on the other, Germany and Not to leave Poland all alone in the East to her historical nightmares.

The consequences of the turnaround seemed staggering. German and Polish historians examined the most delicate problems together, and German expellees developed joint exhibitions with their Polish successors. Herbert Hupka, vilified as THE revanchist in the Polish media for decades, was awarded honorary citizenship of his hometown Ratibor. An East German politician - Manfred Stolpe - drew up a plan to establish a zone of intensive German-Polish cooperation on both sides of the Oder-Neisse border, which a few years later the Polish President and the Polish Foreign Minister even raised to the rank of "Oderbund" wanted to.

There were always tensions at the grassroots level: in Germany people grumbled about Polish thieves who stole Silesia, sometimes cars, sometimes jobs, in Poland, on the other hand, about turned revisionists who now want to get back what is in two with the D-Mark World wars put German politicians at risk and lost the German armies and murder squads. There were also specific conflicts of interest in the course of the Polish accession negotiations. Poland had to open to German economic expansion earlier than the EU was ready to open to Polish products such as steel or food, but also to Polish workers. Nevertheless, the large supporting beam of the strategic German-Polish interest group bridged the current tensions. And that was best expressed in Copenhagen in December 2002, when the Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller was able to improve the accession conditions for Poland at the last minute thanks to his good personal relations with the German Chancellor.

And then, in January 2003, it was over with good understanding, empathy and the community of interests. Poland and Germany drifted apart: in Iraq policy, then also in the question of the EU constitution and finally in the politics of remembrance. Lots of national conflicting interests emerged. And the public in both countries was reminded of the old German-Polish mud battles in no time. The German media spoke of Poland as a "Trojan donkey of America", and the Polish of the German ingratitude towards America, which had protected the Federal Republic from communism and nurtured it economically. Even more, there was talk of creeping neo-imperial ambitions of Germany - this time in EU guise - and - after Schröder and Putin's brotherly kiss - of a new version of the old hugging strategy across Poland. Polish resistance to the EU constitution also resulted from the old distrust of Germany and a new one against France. The two had leveled their weight in the EU constitution far too high, also at the expense of Poland, which had been punished for its pro-American decision in the Iraq war with a downgrade compared to the provisions of Nice 2000. The result was the catchy, nonetheless stupid slogan of the Polish opposition: "Nice or death".

The Polish right-wing politicians by no means died for Nice, not even when the government, which was melting before the eyes, opposed the right and signed the constitutional treaty. But it blew up a cavalry attack by all of its squadrons on the field that is the easiest to inflame national emotions, that of the politics of remembrance.

The controversy over German-Polish contemporary history has been blazing for months, if not years. And - so the unanimous conviction in Poland - the torches were not thrown into the dried up bushes from the Polish side. The villain is the president of the Association of Expellees, Erika Steinbach, who has never missed an opportunity to snub Poland as an EU candidate in the most unworthy way and to insult it with ever new claims; morally, by demanding a renewed Polish apology for the expulsions, legally, by postulating a revocation of the alleged Bierut decrees, and politically, by demanding at least a symbolic reparation for the displaced. The steppe fire caught fire when she actively pursued her idea in 2002 of building a center against evictions in Berlin, which in Poland acted like a beacon. The debate about the politics of remembrance escalated for months in 2003 until it generated a veritable firestorm in the summer of 2004. The Polish Sejm responded to the claims for compensation of a group of displaced persons with an ardent appeal to the Polish government that it should rub Polish demands for reparations under the nose of the German government. In addition, the Sejm applied for a corresponding appraisal commission to be set up. Since the Polish government resisted the complete dismantling of German-Polish relations and, together with the federal government, once again conjured up and even practiced a German-Polish interest group, it came under fierce attack by the opposition.

Anyone who wants to understand the dispute over compensation must therefore, above all, take a close look at Polish domestic politics. The inventory provides a deeply contradicting picture. The economy is flourishing with growth rates of over 5 percent, the WIG share index beats all records after joining and 55 Polish companies can be found on the list of the 150 largest companies in Eastern and Central Europe. In addition, according to the latest OECD report, Poland is experiencing an unprecedented educational boom: Millions of high school graduates, 70 percent of each year, are pouring into universities. There is also a pro-European turnaround in rural areas, now that farmers actually benefit from direct payments.

On the other hand, unemployment is still just under 19 percent, and the corruption affairs that have been widely discussed in detail before parliamentary committees for months have dismantled the left-wing government camp. Since 2002, Poland has had a minority government that had to initiate far-reaching domestic political reforms and thus offered the opposition welcome targets, while in foreign policy it was rather clumsy maneuvering between the EU and the USA in the most difficult phase of the transatlantic dissent.

There is, however, an excuse for these failures: the EU referendum. An overly determined foreign policy dispute with the populists might have turned the referendum on EU accession to a vote on the government. The referendum then turned out to be clearly pro-European, although approval was even higher in the formerly German areas than in eastern and central Poland. In the 1914 Prussian and Austrian parts of the country, too, the people are more pro-European than in the formerly Russian division. The fears of the Germans are therefore less pronounced in the population than in a large part of the political class.

Populist opportunism or individual phobias, however, do not yet explain the excesses of the domestic political debate such as the one Poland recently experienced. In the perception of the MPs, this is the prevailing interpretation of history in Germany, a tendency to reinterpret war and post-war history, which turns perpetrators into victims and the real victims of the German attack of 1939 into perpetrators. You only have to open any Polish newspaper to find long lists of embezzlements, linguistic stigmatizations or distortions of history in the German historical consciousness, as well as evidence of legal pitfalls in the German administration such as the reference by the Federal Ministry of Finance to the address of the German expellees that they should be yours Submit claims to Polish courts.

The populists in Poland use this again. Malicious people could claim that Poland does not enter a populist phase five years after joining the EU, like Austria, but five months later. But a Polish Haider is not in sight, the xenophobia in the country is limited, as is the fear of the German "hereditary enemy".

At first glance, this German-Polish steppe fire will continue to wreak havoc in 2005. Poland will be rocked by a fierce election campaign this spring. And just as the right-wing groups have put on their domestic political offensive so far, the instrumentalization of history plays a central role in it. The round anniversaries of the end of the war can provide a welcome background for disputes: The liberation of Warsaw and Auschwitz, Yalta, the bombing of Dresden and then the liberation? Conquest? East German / West Polish cities such as Allenstein, Breslau and Stettin. The wild expulsions and the repatriation of Poles from the areas of Eastern Poland that are connected to the Soviet Union and finally the end of the war in May and Potsdam in June will spark the debate: Who won the Second World War and how constitutive is Potsdam?

At the last debates, Poland will already have a new parliament. But the next election campaign will just begin: before the presidential elections in the fall. However, there is hope that this election campaign could strike a more conciliatory note because it is not being fought on the wings of the unstable political class, but in the center of Polish society. Not a whip, but a conciliator will possibly win the favor of the electorate. And if someone wanted that, he could have a good reason for it and honor the history of German-Polish reconciliation accordingly. There will definitely be reasons for this in the next year. In June, the 40th anniversary of the publication of the EKD memorandum for the recognition of the Oder-Neisse border, in October - also for the 40th time - that of the message of the Polish bishops to their German colleagues with the historical sentence "we forgive and ask for forgiveness "and finally on December 7th for the 35th time Willy Brandt kneeled in Warsaw.

Just in time for the German election campaign in 2006, there can be peace on the Polish side on the German-Polish front of historical politics, possibly even earlier, because there are all kinds of indications that the right-wing camp made a false start with the force of its backward-looking emotionalization of politics. Opinion polls show that Polish voters are gradually longing for more moderate tones again. And that's a good thing, because 2005 is a German-Polish year. It offers some chances of cementing the porcelain that was smashed in 2003 and 2004 again

(Text in Polish language / Text in Polish language / Tekst w języku polskim)

Adam Krzeminski
is a publicist and contributor to the weekly "Polityka", Warsaw


Monument on the Westerplatte near Gdansk
(Photo: Klaus Reiff)