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

Polish diplomat and journalist Janusz Reiter was ambassador to Germany in the early 1990s. He spoke to SPIEGEL about frictions between Warsaw and Berlin, Germany's failures in the debate over Germans displaced after World War II and his country's role within Europe.

Janusz Reiter, 55, was editor of opposition magazines for seven years during communist rule in Poland. From 1990 to 1995, he was Poland's ambassador to Germany. He was the Polish ambassador to the United States until October 2007.
DDP

Janusz Reiter, 55, was editor of opposition magazines for seven years during communist rule in Poland. From 1990 to 1995, he was Poland's ambassador to Germany. He was the Polish ambassador to the United States until October 2007.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Reiter, the border checkpoints between Poland and Germany were removed a few days ago. With both countries being members of the European Union and NATO, they could hardly be more integrated. And yet the mood east and west of the Oder and Neisse rivers (marking the border between Germany and Poland) isn't exactly rosy. What's going wrong?

Janusz Reiter: Borderless travel between Poland and the rest of Europe is one of the high points of my life. I can still remember how I fought for a passport during the communist era and collected rejection letters for years. As far as the relationship between Germany and Poland is concerned, we have to assume that trust is fragile on both sides.

SPIEGEL: Fragile is an understatement. There are still audible sounds of turmoil between the two countries.

Reiter: The climate has improved in our political arena since the parliamentary elections last October, and the results now need to be translated into concrete decisions. During my stay in the United States, I acquired a bit of distance from the German-Polish relationship and its complex psychology. When you look at it from an outside perspective, you realize that these two countries are dependent on each other and that they would be truly ill-advised not to cooperate.

SPIEGEL: Is it the fault of the governments or the media that the prevailing image is not one of cooperation?

Reiter: There is still a lot of resentment against Poland in Germany. This is something I have pointed out to my German friends again and again. But they are convinced that it's only a matter of time before things improve, just as they did in the German-French relationship. But it isn't quite that easy. A part of Polish society still has considerable prejudices against all things German. Perhaps it was necessary for the entire Polish reality to be brought to the surface in recent years. This, of course, also means that those who are afraid of Germany were allowed to have their say.

SPIEGEL: It seemed that these fears were gradually disappearing in the 1990s, at least at first.

Reiter: Perhaps we were deceiving ourselves a bit. An elite dictated the tone of the German-Polish dialogue, and this elite failed to perceive and include the voices of those who were insecure. Many Poles equate Germany with Europe as a whole. The problems with Germany reflect the problems with Europe. Most Poles are certainly enthusiastic about the European Union. But a significant minority is having trouble with the idea of living in an open space without protective borders. Such fears also exist in other European countries. In Poland -- for historic reasons -- they have a lot to do with Germany.

SPIEGEL: You and others warned early on against a routine of reconciliation, against erecting a façade of Sunday speeches and meetings between mayors while the old fears continued to fester behind it. How should things have been done differently?

German soldiers tear down the barrier at the German-Polish border on Sept. 1, 1939. The first shots of what was called "the Second Great War" were fired in Poland on that day, when Nazi forces began a blitz invasion.
AP

German soldiers tear down the barrier at the German-Polish border on Sept. 1, 1939. The first shots of what was called "the Second Great War" were fired in Poland on that day, when Nazi forces began a blitz invasion.

Reiter: I don't think that the policy of bilateral rapprochement in the 1990s was wrong. But I do believe that this policy reached its limits when we celebrated its greatest success: Poland's entry into the EU. There was hope that the EU's expansion eastward to include Poland would resolve all problems. But that was premature, as we have now seen.

SPIEGEL: Germany played an important role in Poland's entry into the EU. In fact, Germany was Warsaw's advocate within the European Union.

Reiter: Yes, it was a double illusion. I remember a German politician who told me that Germany was supporting Poland's EU candidacy because it wanted to be surrounded by friends so that it could exist in a sort of global political harmony. That's an understandable desire. But we now know that even in a united Europe, the sovereign states make their own decisions, and Germany's interests are not always the same as Poland's. We were all poorly prepared for this.

SPIEGEL: But didn't the Polish government that was recently voted out of office deliberately draw attention to these differences, for example, in connection with the Baltic Sea pipeline between Germany and Russia? There were many attempts to take the Poles' concerns seriously and accommodate them, but they remained unsuccessful.

Reiter: Yes, that was certainly the case. But there is a real problem behind all this. Of course, we could participate in the project in some way and get natural gas from Germany without being dependent on Russia. Politically speaking, however, it would mean that Germany and Russia would be laying the groundwork, while Poland would simply be allowed to take part. I even understand that Germany is serious about wanting to help Poland. Polemically speaking, however, this is a policy of charity, not partnership. We don't want to be a country that's taken care of by the Germans. Besides, the more bilateral agreements there are with Russia, the more unlikely a common European energy policy -- which we urgently need -- becomes. Of course, this criticism doesn't mean that we won't be able to find a compromise.

SPIEGEL: But the pipeline wasn't the only source of the antagonism. Government officials in Warsaw routinely invoked the dangers of a German revisionist view of history. They warned that the Germans were no longer seeing themselves as perpetrators but increasingly as victims of World War II, and that they wanted to recover their former territory in the east.

Reiter: I'm certainly not fond of this rhetoric. But we must take the underlying problems and fears seriously, even if we don't like the tone of the discussion.

SPIEGEL: Then what aspects of the accusations can be taken seriously?

Reiter: The perception of history has indeed changed in Germany. The focus shifted to displacements and to the bombing campaigns. Many of us sensed this and became anxious. I know that Poland cannot expect special moral treatment in German policy forever. That would be unrealistic. But I must confess that I am troubled by the fact that in 15 years, Berlin will have only two historic symbols of preeminent importance, the Holocaust memorial and the center for the displaced. A certain sensitivity to history is still a prerequisite to a good relationship between our nations today.

SPIEGEL: Donald Tusk, the new Polish prime minister, has proposed building a World War II museum in Gdansk as an alternative to the center for the displaced.

Reiter: This concept isn't entirely new. The idea behind it is that displacement and deportation should be viewed in the context of the crimes the Germans committed. Poland's fear has always been that future generations in Germany would not consider the displacements in the context of Germany's culpability for the war and would draw the wrong conclusions as a result. More than anything else, Tusk's proposal is a signal that we don't want to -- nor can we -- leave it entirely up to others to interpret the history of the 20th century.

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