Poland and Germany: The weight of history

8th September 2007, Comments 0 comments

The past weighs on German-Polish links ahead of elections.

 German-Polish relations are more fraught than at any time since the collapse of communism almost 20 years ago, and Berlin will take care to avoid domestic Polish politics in the weeks ahead, as its prickly eastern neighbour moves towards elections.

In the view of Kai-Olaf Lang, who observes Eastern Europe for the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, the German government will be hoping for a victory by Donald Tusk's liberal-conservative Civic Platform (PO).

If Tusk can form a new government independently of current Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski's Law and Justice (PiS), that would be a bonus.

"The German government would want a government in Poland interested in setting up a constructive German-Polish agenda within the European Union, a government not focused on historical questions," Lang said.

He notes the difficulties facing German government officials. "The official position will have to be very cautious in the weeks ahead, because every comment could be used as ammunition in the campaign," he added.

Plagued by issues

German-Polish relations have been bedeviled by issues like relative weight in EU voting, by plans to build a gas pipeline under the Baltic from Russia directly to Germany, thus circumventing Poland, and by the activities of ethnic Germans expelled from eastern Europe at the end of World War II.

These concerns run across Polish society, but Lang believes there will nevertheless be an important change once the PiS ceases to dominate Polish politics.

"The difference with the PO will be in rhetoric," he said. "There will not be the kind of verbal attacks."

'Indifferent' to Poland

The latest came in a scornful article penned by the Polish Foreign Ministry official in charge of relations with Germany and published in the German press earlier this month.

Germany was "indifferent to Polish interests," Mariusz Muszynski, said, suggesting that the Poles preferred dealing with the late 19th century Prussian leader Otto von Bismarck, who was notorious for his repression of Poles.

A German Foreign Ministry spokeswoman expressed "incomprehension" at Muszynski's comments. She added emphatically that the German government would not be drawn into the looming Polish election campaign.

That was in line with what Lang calls Germany's "teflon policy" vis-a-vis Poland.

"After the 2005 elections in Poland, the Germans responded to provocation from Warsaw by saying repeatedly they were ready to cooperate with the Polish government," even though there was increasing frustration, he says.

A different picture

Despite the sour atmosphere between the politicians, Lang sees a different picture in wider society.

"The perception among ordinary Poles of Germany is quite positive," he said. "Germany is the most important economic partner, and the most important political partner in Europe. It is even seen as a military partner after the United States and Britain."

He notes that there are now more German-Polish couples marrying than there are German-French.

But problems of mutual perception remain. Here there is what Lang calls an "asymmetry."

Poles are much better informed about Germany than Germans are about Poland but they see certain aspects of their powerful neighbour through a distorting magnifying glass.

A good example is the association of expellees (BvD) led by Erica Steinbach, who is pushing for a centre to mark the suffering of the millions of ethnic Germans thrown out of Poland, the Czech Republic and other parts of Eastern Europe as World War II drew to a close.

There is a fear that Germany is trying to rewrite history, casting Germans as victims as much as oppressors during the war.


That fear was exemplified by Jaroslaw Kaczynski's comment earlier this year, when backing Poland's case for grea

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