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Adam Krzeminski

This season, i.e. the winter of 2004/2005, German-Polish relations are not exactly at their best, even though both countries' governments are incessantly trying to pour oil on the troubled waters caused by the acrimonious disputes going on between the two countries in the past two years, and even though both governments are attempting to save the community of interests which, despite all setbacks and misunderstandings in the 1990s, led to a promising shift in paradigms where German-Polish relations were concerned.

The new basis was not only created by the treaties of 1990 and 1991, not only by the definite acceptance of the Oder-Neisse Line by a sovereign and reunited Germany, or even by the great treaty of friendship and good-neighbourly co-operation. No, one major aspect was the realization - quite a novel realization, actually - that for the first time in two or three hundred years, German and Polish national interests did not run contrary to each other but in parallel.

This realization had remarkable political, economic and intellectual consequences. Poland's path into Europe was via Germany, said Polish politicians. Germany was the best advocate of Polish interests within NATO and the EU, added German policy-makers. Firmly grounded in the seemingly inviolable transatlantic alliance, officials on both sides even devised an attractive playground for Poland's speedy convergence with the 'core Europe', i.e. Germany and France. It was called the 'Weimar Triangle' and on the one hand helped make Poland acceptable in the West and on the other hand meant that neither Germany nor Poland had to face their history-caused nightmares all alone in the East. The consequences of the turnaround seemed breathtaking. One could see German and Polish historians exploring the most delicate issues together, while German expellees developed exhibitions together with their Polish successors. One could see Herbert Hubka, who for decades had been reviled in the Polish media as the quintessential revanchist, made Citizen of Honour of Racibórz, his birthplace. One could see an East German politician - Manfred Stolpe - devise a plan to create a zone of intensive German-Polish co-operation on both sides of the Oder-Neisse Line, a plan which the Polish President and the Polish Minister of the Exterior even wanted to elevate to the status of an "Oder Alliance" a few years later.

Certainly there was some degree of grass-roots tension every once in a while - Germans grumbled about those Polish thieves who sometimes stole Silesia, sometimes stole cars and sometimes stole jobs, while Poles complained about turncoat revisionists who wanted to use the D-Mark to get back what German politicians had wagered and German armies and murder squads had lost in two World Wars. Concrete conflicts of interest also emerged within the scope of Polish accession negotiations. Poland had to open up to German economic expansion much earlier than the EU was willing to open up to Polish products such as steel, food or Polish workers. Nevertheless, the strong girder that was the German-Polish community of interests was able to alleviate all momentary tensions. This fact was illustrated best in December 2002 in Copenhagen, when Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller was able to improve accession conditions for Poland virtually at the last second, due to the good personal relations he had with the German Chancellor.

But then, in January 2003, the period of being on friendly terms with each other, of identifying with each other's feelings and of having a community of interests was over. Poland and Germany drifted apart - it began with diverging policies on Iraq and continued with the issue of the EU constitution and, eventually, remembrance policy. Suddenly, a whole lot of contrasting national interests emerged. And in no time whatsoever, both countries' publics had been reminded of the old German-Polish mud-slinging tradition. German media described Poland as America's "Trojan donkey", while the Polish press bemoaned Germany's ingratitude towards the United States, who had protected the Federal Republic from communism and nursed the country back to economic health. Even worse, the media wrote about Germany's creeping neo-imperialist ambitions, this time around, though, cloaked in EU responsibilities, and - after Chancellor Schröder's and President Putin's brotherly kiss - about a repeat of the old "embrace strategy" conducted over Poland's head.

Poland's opposition to the EU constitution also stemmed from its old distrust of Germany and its new distrust of France. Both countries had attached too much weight to their own positions when it came to the EU constitution, it was said, and at the expense of Poland, which had been punished for its pro-American decision in the war on Iraq by having been downgraded compared to the stipulations laid down in Nice in 2000. The consequence of this kind of reporting was the handy, but nonetheless stupid slogan coined by the Polish opposition: "Nice or Death".

However, right-wing Polish politicians did not die for Nice, not even when the waning government pitted itself against the right and signed the constitution treaty. However, the right sounded a cavalry charge of all its armies on the one field where national emotions can be fanned into flame most easily - the area of remembrance policy.

The dispute on German-Polish contemporary history had been smouldering, then blazing, for months, if not years. And all Poles were of the firm opinion that it was not the Polish side which was throwing firebrands into the desiccated underbrush. The person who was cast as the villain of the piece was Erika Steinbach, President of the League of Expellees, who, it was said, had not missed any opportunity to insult Poland in the most degrading manner imaginable - morally, by demanding another apology by Poland for the expulsions; legally, by demanding an annulment of the alleged Bierut Decrees; and politically, by insisting on - at least symbolic - compensation for the expellees. The prairie fire flared up when, in 2002, Steinbach actively pursued the idea of establishing a centre against expulsions in Berlin, a plan which acted as a signal in Poland. From 2003 onwards, the debate on remembrance policy escalated for months until it caused a true fire storm in the summer of 2004. When compensation claims were made by a group of expellees, the Polish Sejm, or parliament, reacted with a strongly-worded appeal to the Polish administration, demanding that the government rub the German government's nose in Polish reparation claims. In addition, the Sejm called for the establishment of a concomitant appraisal commission. Since the Polish government did not intend to bring about the complete dismantling of German-Polish relations and began speaking about and even bringing into practice another German-Polish community of interests, it came under heavy fire from the opposition.

Therefore one can only understand the compensation dispute if one takes a closer look at Polish domestic policy. If one takes stock, some profound contradictions emerge. With growth rates of above 5 per cent, the economy is thriving; the WIG Warsaw Stock Exchange Index has been breaking all records since Poland's accession, and the list of the 150 largest companies of Central and Eastern Europe includes 55 Polish enterprises.

Moreover, according to the most recent OECD report, Poland is currently experiencing an unprecedented education boom. Millions of young people who have attained their A levels, 70 per cent of each year, pour into the universities. The rural areas also see a shift towards pro-European thinking, now that farmers actually get to enjoy direct payments. On the other hand, unemployment still is at close to 19 per cent, and the corruption scandals which for months were dissected in all detail before parliamentary enquiry committees have inflicted lasting damage to the left-wing government. Since 2002, Poland has had a minority government which needed to introduce profound domestic reforms. Thus it provided the opposition with a welcome target as far as domestic policy was concerned, while in terms of foreign policy it was manoeuvering rather clumsily between the EU and the U.S. during the most critical phase of transatlantic dissent.

There is, however, an excuse for these shortcomings - the EU Referendum. Too determined a foreign-policy-related dispute with the populists might have turned the referendum on EU accession into a vote on the government. In the end, the referendum turned out most decidedly pro-Europe, with approval figures even higher in the formerly German areas than in Central and East Poland. In those parts of the country which, in 1914, used to belong to Prussia and Austria, people are also more in favour of Europe than in those parts of Poland that were once under Russian rule. Therefore one can say that there is less fear of the Germans in the population than in a large part of the political class. Populist opportunism or individual phobias, however, do not suffice to explain the excesses that Poland recently experienced in its debates on domestic policy. Polish members of parliament believe the problem lies with the interpretation of history as is prevalent in Germany, namely a propensity to reinterpret war and post-war history which turns perpetrators into victims and the true victims of the German invasion of 1939 into perpetrators. Opening any Polish newspaper, readers will find long enumerations of suppression, linguistic stigmatization or historical misrepresentation in Germany's historic consciousness, as well as proof of legal pitfalls in German administrative bodies, such as the notice which the Federal Ministry of Finance sent to the German Expellees, telling them to submit their claims to Polish courts.

All this, in turn, is being exploited by Polish populists. Malicious tongues might say that Poland was not entering its populist phase five years after accession to the European Union, as Austria did, but five months afterwards. Still, there is no Polish equivalent to Jörg Haider in sight, xenophobia in the country is keeping within limits, as is fear of Germany, the "traditional enemy".

At first glance, this German-Polish prairie fire will continue to wreak havoc in 2005. In spring, Poland will be jarred by a fierce election campaign. And judging from the way in which right-wing groups have so far pursued their domestic offensive, the exploitation of history will be playing a central role in the campain. The various 60th-anniversary-dates related to the end of World War II might very well provide a welcome backdrop for clashes. The liberation of Warsaw and Auschwitz, the Conference of Jalta, the bombardment of Dresden and finally the liberation? conquest? of East German/West Polish cities such as Allenstein/Olsztyn, Breslau/Wroclaw and Stettin/Szczecin. Remembrance of the "wild expulsions", the repatriation of Poles from the areas of East Poland that had been absorbed by the Soviet Union and finally the end of World War II in May and the Potsdam Conference in July will spark off the debate: Who won World War II and how constitutive was the Potstdam conference in the first place? Admittedly, Poland will have a new parliament when those last debates are kicked off. At that point in time, however, the next election campaign - the one for the presidential elections to be held in autumn - will be just about to begin. The hope remains, though, that this election campaign might adopt a more conciliatory tone, because it will not be fought on the wings of the political class, which is fairly unstable, but at the center of Polish society. Not a rabble-rouser, but a conciliator might possibly be the one to win favour with voters. And if someone wanted to, there might be suitable occasions to acknowledge the history of German-Polish reconciliation. There actually will be quite a number of opportunities to do so next year. June will see the 40th anniversary of the publication of the Protestant Church in Germany's memorandum on the recognition of the Oder-Neisse Line. Another 40th anniversary will come up in October, namely of the letter sent by the Polish bishops to their German counterparts containing the famous words "we forgive and ask forgiveness", and in December it will have been 35 years since Willy Brandt's genuflection in Warsaw.

Just in time for the German election campaign of 2006, some peace and quiet might therefore befall the Polish side of the German-Polish front that is history policy - perhaps even earlier, because there are some indications that the right might have made a mistake when it came to the force with which it applied a retrogressive emotionalism to politics. Opinion polls show that Polish voters begin to long for more moderate tones in politics once more. And that's a good thing, because 2005 will be a German-Polish year. It offers several opportunities to make up for the trouble that was caused in 2003 and 2004...

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

Adam Krzeminski
is a journalist and editor of the
"Polityka" weekly magazine, Warsaw.


Memorial at "Westerplatte" near Gdansk/Danzig
(Photo: : Klaus Reiff)