SPIEGEL Interview with Former Polish Ambassador Janusz Reiter 'Germany and Poland Are Dependent on Each Other'

Part 2: Russia Is Europe's Greatest Political Challenge

SPIEGEL: Wouldn't the time be ripe for a joint memorial to Germans and Poles, one that would take both the perpetrators and the victims into account?

Twin brothers Lech Kaczynski, president of Poland (R), and Jaroslaw Kaczynski (L), the country's former prime minister. Relations with Germany during Jaroslaw's term in office were marked by agression and recrimination.

Twin brothers Lech Kaczynski, president of Poland (R), and Jaroslaw Kaczynski (L), the country's former prime minister. Relations with Germany during Jaroslaw's term in office were marked by agression and recrimination.

Reiter: I can certainly imagine a World War II museum in Berlin, designed by Germans in close cooperation with Polish historians. I can also imagine that it would address the issue of displacement. In fact, we had already reached a point where it was completely normal for the Poles and the Germans to be discussing the issue of displacement. Then we regressed again, but it wasn't the result of a sudden obsession with history in Poland. There was a very concrete reason.

SPIEGEL: What was it?

Reiter: Precisely the attempt to portray displacement as the central historical experience and, by building a center in Berlin, to remove the issue from the context of World War II.

SPIEGEL: One can't exactly accuse the Germans of not having devoted enough attention to Nazism and to their culpability for the war.

Reiter: Yes, but we cannot ignore the fact that the historical awareness of future generations is now being shaped in a completely different global political environment.

SPIEGEL: But isn't it also true that Poland has failed, in the last two years, to promote an alternative to the "visible symbol" in Berlin, as Erika Steinbach, the president of the Federation of German Expellees, and Chancellor Angela Merkel have called upon Warsaw to do? In the past, Warsaw spoke out in favor of creating a joint "Network for Solidarity and Remembrance." But that idea has languished.

Reiter: This is criticism that I must accept. We did miss an opportunity, which is ironic, because an honest portrayal of the displacement is absolutely in Poland's interest. But the Germans also dropped the ball by turning over the debate to Ms. Steinbach and the expellee groups. The entire issue was dismissed in Germany as something secondary, as if Germans were saying: "Oh come on, nobody's really interested in this." That was a mistake, and it was perceived in Poland as arrogant and as an unwillingness to take the concerns of their neighbors seriously. As a result, the issue acquired a dimension it doesn't really deserve. I genuinely hope that we will soon reach a point at which we no longer have to argue about these kinds of issues. There are plenty of other topics we should be discussing, such as EU expansion, Turkey and Ukraine. We must remain clear-headed when it comes to these things.

SPIEGEL: And yet Poland continues to use its history as justification for demanding special moral treatment. In the long run, doesn't this stand in the way of the sort of relationship based on partnership that you envision?

Reiter: That's right. The special moral treatment can't last forever, either. It's important to me that Germany continues to adhere to its self-imposed culture of restraint. It won't be the way it was before 1989, but I do believe that this culture of restraint was very important for Germany and Europe. But we, as neighbors, must also try to understand Germany. And that's where we have made some mistakes recently, to put it mildly.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel walks with Donald Tusk, Poland's current prime minister, in front of the Warsaw Uprising monument in 2005.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel walks with Donald Tusk, Poland's current prime minister, in front of the Warsaw Uprising monument in 2005.

SPIEGEL: Doesn't Poland hurt itself by frequently arguing from the perspective of the victim and by insisting that the world owes it something? No one took the Kaczynskis seriously when they argued that Poland ought to have a stronger say within the EU because it lost so many people in the war.

Reiter: Give us a little more time. Poland's self-confidence is growing. This country doesn't fit into any of the existing categories in Europe. It isn't as big as Germany or France, but it isn't a small country, either. Poland is a medium-sized country in a geographic location that used to be considered a curse. Today it's a very important, exposed geopolitical location. We are a country that is politically ambitious and willing to take risks. Poland is searching for its place in Europe, for its identity within the European context. I hope that it won't be too modest in its efforts.

SPIEGEL: But why is it that this search for identity often moves in such a destructive direction and has led to confrontation with Germany?

Reiter: Poland is both confrontational with and measures itself against Germany. It's always been that way. This sometimes leads to gross exaggerations. As important as it is, we should pay less attention to Germany. We are too fixated on Germany.

SPIEGEL: How could this change?

Reiter: We must expand our foreign policy horizon. The United States is important in this respect. America may be weaker than it was, and it may have made some serious mistakes. It isn't an ideal partner, but we live in a real -- and not an ideal -- world. Europe needs America as a partner in global policy. Poland and Germany must play a very important role in transatlantic cooperation. Fortunately, we are no longer as divided over our relationship with the United States as we were five years ago.

SPIEGEL: You were the Polish ambassador in Washington until recently. Have the problems in German-Polish relations harmed your country's reputation in the United States?

Reiter: Let me put it diplomatically: It wasn't exactly the thing for which Poland was valued the most. From the American perspective, strong German-Polish relations are ideal. Germany has the greatest political influence in the EU, and Poland is very pro-American and has a certain level of expertise and leverage in Eastern Europe. The Americans were disappointed that things weren't quite working out between these two countries.

SPIEGEL: For historical reasons, Poland and Germany also have a special relationship with Russia. How should both countries interact with Moscow?

Reiter: The Germans have to understand that Poland's relationship with Russia is not a reflection of some aggrieved hypersensitivity. Russia, which we Europeans need both politically and economically, is Europe's greatest political challenge. Germany and Poland are two countries that play an especially important role in this context. This issue demands the greatest possible sensitivity in our countries. We in Poland must recognize that our experience with Russia isn't the only one. Many Poles don't know that the Germans also have a sense of guilt toward Russia, because the millions of Russian victims of World War II. This affects German policy, more or less deliberately. How we deal with Russia jointly in the future is the central question in the German-Polish relationship. If we can agree on this issue we can look forward to a very promising future.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Reiter, we thank you for this interview.

Interview conducted by Jan Puhl and Hans-Ulrich Stoldt in Warsaw.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.


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