The Unloved Neighbors A History of Hostility between Poland and Germany

Under the Kaczynski twins, ties between Germany and Poland have deteriorated to a level of animosity not seen since prior to the fall of the Iron Curtain. This week, the mutual enmity is the main event on the European Union stage.

The political world view of Poland's Kaczynski twins is one that often appears to be limited to a very small spectrum that includes only the most basic of shades -- good and bad, black and white, all or nothing. Indeed, today's Poland appears to be a world filled of enemies: homosexuals and liberals, post-communists and people who have profited from the fall of the Iron Curtain, evolution theorists, hedonists, critics of the Pope, journalists, spooks. And, of course, the Russians.

Showdown in Brussels: Polish President Lech Kaczynski and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are at odds over Berlin's proposed compromise on the stalled EU constitution.

Showdown in Brussels: Polish President Lech Kaczynski and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are at odds over Berlin's proposed compromise on the stalled EU constitution.

Foto: DPA

The greatest enemy in the eyes of the Warsaw government, though, appears to be Germany.

When asked in September 2005 in a discussion about who he perceived to be his country's greatest threats, Polish President Lech Kaczynski responded: "Threats? Those are our neighbors -- Russia and Germany."

Once again, Poland seems consumed by the perceived "German threat." And it is manifesting itself on the European Union stage. Poland is currently the only EU member state threatening to veto German Chancellor Angela Merkel's proposed plan for a treaty to replace the EU draft constitution -- a process stalled since French and Dutch voters rejected its ratification in referenda in 2005. Merkel's plan, however -- a watered-down treaty that would strip the former draft of any symbols that might suggest a state or constitution -- would still provide the reforms needed for the the EU to function properly after the first European Parliament elections in 2008 to include the 12 new EU members that have joined since 2004.

Poland is demanding greater voting rights in the EU than provided in the currently proposed "double majority" provision, which requires that decisions be made in the European Council with 55 percent of all EU member states representing 65 percent of the bloc's total population. Poland is instead calling for a system based on the square root of its population. Warsaw's beef is that the existing and planned voting systems would give larger EU members -- including Germany, France, Great Britain and Italy -- too much influence. Twenty-five EU member states already support the double majority provision, and support for Poland's position by its single ally on the issue, the Czech Republic, is said to be wavering.

"Square Root or Death"

Only on Tuesday did Warsaw indicate that it may back down. Still, Poland wants its square-root formula added to the summit agenda. President Kaczynski has even declared his readiness to "die for the square root." The Polish media has been quick to offer its backing, too: We have to "protect the interests of Poland together," wrote the daily Rzeczpospolita.

It's a Polish position that has deeply irritated the rest of the EU member states. The Kaczynski twins have even threatened to allow this week's EU summit in Brussels to collapse. "I'd like this to be a success," Lech Kaczynski told the Times of London last week, "but not a success where some come out as winners and others as losers."

Hectic last-minute shuttle diplomacy to try to sway the Poles in recent days also appears to have made little headway. Presidential advisor Marek Cichocki, Poland's leading negotiator on the treaty, warned: "Poland won't allow itself to be backed up against a wall." If Germany is "prepared for the summit to become a fiasco, there's nothing anyone can do about that," he said. "That will be the burden of Chancellor Angela Merkel's government."

Merkel met with President Kaczynski on Saturday, but she later conceded that no progress had been made toward a compromise. Previously, she had asked Austrian Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer and French President Nicolas Sarkozy to travel to Warsaw to lobby on behalf of a deal. Though Sarkozy held out some hope that a compromise could be reached, Austrian leader Gusenbauer returned disillusioned, telling the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper: "One gets the impression that Poland's leadership under the Kaczynski twins doesn't want to grant the Germans the success of injecting momentum into the reforms. They have harshly criticized the German (EU) presidency."

Indeed, efforts to establish harmonious relations seemed to have been swept away when President Lech Kaczynski commented that Poland is not "fighting alone for the first time" and that "Poland is not scared."

The reference was to epic battles from the centuries of struggle his people have gone through. But this time there's a big difference: The struggle is no longer against Russian czars or Prussian dragoons and not for the nation's survival. It's not a struggle over liberty or death. Instead, it is a struggle against friends -- namely, Poland's neighbors in the European Union. "Kaczynski Rules out Capitulation," read a recent headline in Gazeta Wyborcza, a Polish daily not generally noted for having any nationalist tendencies.

It took 15 years for Poland to become a member of the EU, and the time during which the Eastern European country dreamt of achieving membership was much longer. But now Warsaw perceives the EU as an instrument of German domination. And if Warsaw exercises its veto power, it could paralyze the EU for years.

But it's not just in recent weeks that the Kaczynski twins have made it clear just how unhappy they are with the situtation within the EU. Already last summer, Lech was claiming that, while Germany may be a member of the EU, "in its current relationship, it is also a fully self-contained subject which is practically independent of the EU." He also accused Germany of "dictating" the direction of the EU. Why should the Polish "strengthen that position?" he asked. His prime minister brother Jaroslaw followed suit by saying: "We will no longer allow people to try to tell us that there are no national policies in the EU because our partners are obviously pursuing such policies."

Poland's Gambit

So what's driving the Kaczynskis? Why are they willing to risk isolating themselves from the rest of Europe in order to push for greater power?

During the past millennium, Poland has never fared better than now. The country is expected to clock 6 percent economic growth this year. And its business ties with its western neighbors are tight. Between 2007 and 2013, the country will receive close to €49 billion in EU subsidies. Poland is a member of NATO and its soldiers are working alongside their German comrades in Afghanistan. The Oder-Neisse Line marking the border between Germany and Poland has been guaranteed since 1990 and German expellees who once populated large parts of Poland, but were largely driven out after World War II, are a dying breed. Polish and German historians also agree when it comes to the historical facts: Over hundreds of years, the Germans caused their Polish neighbors immeasurable suffering.

Despite these facts, 16 years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, the Poles elected two politicians who see little more in Germany than a threat -- two leaders who feel Poland has chummed up to Germany for too long. Poland must pay great attention, they claim, because much is at stake. "Sovereignty is our greatest value," Lech Kaczynski has said, as if Germany were once more threatening the right of self-determination of the close to 40 million people living in his country.

The public polemics from Poland's leaders in recent months have been correspondingly alarmist -- and they almost invariably play the Nazi card. ( Click here for a round-up of salvos .)

Fomenting Emotions

It is this fomenting of emotions that now replaces political debate under the government of the Kaczynski twins, says historian Peter Oliver Loew of the German Poland Institute in Darmstadt. He attributes a dichotomous worldview to the two politicians, arguing that, since Polish society is still torn 18 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and numerous emotional deficits persist, such black-and-white logic serves as a convenient valve. An enemy is constructed, usually a shapeless (or "vaguely defined") one, thereby setting in motion a "rhetorical re-ordering of the nation" that appeals only to the emotions of Polish citizens.

Politically speaking, the Kaczynskis aren't right-wing radicals -- they are nationalist conservatives and masters of political marketing. Indeed, it wasn't the losers of the fall of communism who elected them into office in autumn 2005. Instead it was small craftsmen, employees, shop owners and even students who cast their votes for the Kaczynskis' Law and Justice party -- people whose lives have improved since the Iron Curtain disintegrated.

Still, they are deeply concerned about the future and see their own opportunities threatened by the onslaught of foreign investment and massive foreign-owned department stores and shopping malls that are popping up all over the country. They suspect that the culprits of the wave of globalization are sinister Old Boy networks of former communists and dissidents who have since become rich. They are afraid of homosexuals who no longer hide and now hold an annual parade on the streets of Warsaw. And they believe the Germans have little respect for them.

The Kaczynskis have tapped directly into this psyche, and they seem to have exactly the right prescription to heal the oppressed Polish soul: they want to treat their ailing compatriots with a big doses of nationalism.

It's a therapy for a Poland that, in the eyes of the Kaczynskis, sees itself as a society of historical victims and heroes. More than 200 years ago, Poland was divided three times between Russia, Prussia and Austria. The country only truly gained its independence after World War I in 1918, only to be attacked by the Nazis in 1938 and later betrayed to Stalin in Yalta in 1945. For hundreds of years, the Polish were stripped of their right to self-determination -- by Prussians, Austrians, Russians, Nazis and communists. But with the Solidarity movement in 1980, the Polish themselves started a process that would lead to the end of Communism and the first chance to rebuild a truly independent state after the almost inexpressibly deep trauma of World War II and decades of Soviet control. It's a bitter history that EU member Poland is still digesting. ( Click here for a detailed look at the bitter history of Polish-German relations.)

Justifiable Gripes

Besides the troubling history of the Germans' treatment of Poles, some Polish criticisms of contemporary Germany are also clearly justifiable. Most Germans know very little about their neighbors to the east. When they go on vacation, they fly to Mallorca in Spain, not to Eastern Europe. As recently as the late 1990s, many Germans still fostered deep-seated stereotypes of the Poles, equating them with prostitutes or car thieves. Even today, public opinion polls show that Germans either pay little attention to the Poles or treat them with deep suspicion.

On the Polish side, many still view Germans, the perpetrators of World War II, as bad neighbors, ignorant of history, arrogant and finicky. The Germans they meet are often their employers when they come west to Germany to work during the asparagus or grape harvest. And despite the fact that Poland, with its 39 million residents, became an key market after its EU accession in May 2004 and, with its far lower wages, an important site of production for Western European companies, a major cloud still hangs over bilateral relations between Berlin and Warsaw. The current ban on Polish workers freely entering the German labor market is likely to be extended until 2011 -- despite the fact that other EU countries like Britain and Ireland have opened their doors and warmly greeted the Poles. In addition, Polish farmers also receive only a quarter of the subsidies given to their German counterparts.

The Iraq Rift

Discord has also surfaced in foreign policy -- especially at the outset of the Iraq war. Poland was honored to stand at the Americans' side in the trans-Atlantic and European split during the run-up to the invasion, and when US President George W. Bush put Poland in charge of its own occupation zone in Iraq, future Polish Prime Minister Marek Belka remarked: "We're climbing into a new league." Berlin, however, saw in Poland a country that was becoming Washington's Trojan horse in Europe. It was around this time that former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld sought to drive a wedge between the "New Europe" and the "Old Europe."

In December 2003, Poland first began fighting to preserve the EU voting weight of 1999's Treaty of Nice. Under the treaty, Poland has almost as many votes on the EU Council as Germany, despite the fact that Germany has close to double the population.

Poland had been steered to the EU and NATO under the leadership of former President Aleksander Kwasniewski, whose government collapsed soon after the country achieved those goals in the wake of a corruption scandal. Then came the hour of the Kaczynskis. Lech was elected president in the autumn of 2005 and Jaroslaw became prime minister about 9 months later. Both men pledged to eliminate the social and political inconsistencies that had emerged after the fall of the Iron Curtain. The twins quickly broke with a foreign policy that had been fairly consistent. The first victim: German-Polish relations.

The first incident to spark a major rift between Warsaw and Berlin came when Erika Steinbach -- a member of parliament from Merkel's Christian Democrats, who also heads the German Federation of Expellees -- called for the payment of damages to expellees. Steinbach's organization represents the interests of Germans who were driven out of Poland and the Czech Republic after World War II. She also wants to build a Center Against Expulsion in Berlin that would document the history of people in Europe displaced  as a consequence of post-World War II policies.

The controversial proposal has raised ire in Poland that crosses all party lines. Have the Germans forgot that they were the perpetrators of World War II, Poles have asked themselves? In 2003, the Polish weekly Wprost featured Steinbach on its cover, decked out in Nazi dominatrix gear riding on the back of then-chancellor Gerhard Schröder.

It launched a series of political and media barbs between Warsaw and Berlin that continue today.

Buying American Fighter Jets and Building the Missile Defense Shield

In fall 2006, an incident on the border  along the German-Polish Baltic Sea coast near the city of Swinoujscie prompted a hysterical reaction from both the Polish and German media. Witnesses alleged that a Polish customs boat fired shots at a German tourist booze cruise. The captain fled with Polish customs agents on board to the German port of Heringsdorf. German newspapers claimed "machine guns had been fired," and Polish newspapers accused the Germans of "kidnapping" the polish customs agents.

One month earlier, Prime Minister Kaczynski raised the prospect of eliminating what were apparently the overly generous rights bestowed on members of the German minority still living in Poland. We must "seriously" consider curtailing these privileges -- at least as long as Poles living in Germany aren't able to enjoy the same liberties.

About 150,000 people of German ancestry still live in Poland's Silesia region today. Since 1990, they have had representation in the Polish parliament. But their representatives -- most of whom speak better Polish than German -- have never made much of a commotion.

In March, Polish Foreign Minister Anna Fotyga criticized what she described as the "assimilation policies" of German authorities in dealing with Poles living in Germany. She pointed to a few isolated incidents in which child protective authorities had ordered parents from Polish-German families that had been split by divorce not to speak Polish with their children.

In sum, these incidents have done considerable damage. In the history of post-Communist Poland, ties between Berlin and Warsaw have never been as bad as they have been under the Kaczynskis. One could describe Poland under the twins as reactionary or one could even crack jokes about it, as best-selling Polish author Dorota Maslowska has done. "How is one supposed to deal with people," the author has asked, "who have, in all seriousness, ordered the government's children's affairs commissioner to probe whether the Teletubbies are gay?"

Bilateral Disappointments

At the same time, a little more self-reflection is required of the Germans, too. All too often, they have brushed off the concerns of their neighbors. At times, Warsaw has had good reason to feel abandoned by Germany. Take the case of the ongoing dispute with Russia. Moscow has blocked meat imports from Poland since November 2005 using the specious rationale that products from the EU country do not meet Russian hygiene standards. Rotating EU president Merkel long kept mum on the issue because she wanted to press ahead with a new EU-Russia partnership agreement.

Ex-Chancellor Schröder caused even worse damage to Polish-German relations in 2005 when he secured a multibillion euro deal with Putin to build a gas pipeline  beneath the Baltic Sea directly from Russia to Germany -- the first that would bypass Eastern Europe. Theoretically, Moscow could cut off gas supplies to Poland in the future without having an effect on Western EU member states. In other words, Russia could apply the same kind of pressure on Warsaw that it did on Ukraine one and a half years ago.

More damaging yet was the pregnant pause the deal caused on both sites. Schröder didn't feel it necessary to punctually pull his Polish partners into the pipeline project. As for Warsaw, it also avoided the topic for a long time -- only to engage in another full-on rhetorical assault immediately after the signing of the agreement: Defense Minister Sikorski's comparison to the Hitler-Stalin Pact  was hard to swallow for even the most well-intentioned Germans.

For her part, Chancellor Merkel is disappointed that her personal initiative on behalf of Poland has failed to return greater dividends. Unlike German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, she has sought to take a more distant political approach to Moscow than her predecessor's government -- a nod to Polish wishes and concerns.

The fact that the initiative wouldn't be easy became clear during her first official visit to Warsaw after taking office in December 2005. Merkel had hoped that her background as an East German, the fact that she had completed part of her studies in Poland and her pro-American views would simplify her entré into the neighboring country. In March 2003, at the peak of the debate over the Iraq war, she even travelled to Poland as the leader of Germany's opposition to express her support for the Polish position. But the political bonus she had hoped to cash in never materialized.

"Yikes, what an uncomfortable talk that was," Merkel murmured after leaving Lech Kaczynski's office. Nor had the chancellor come empty handed. She had travelled to Warsaw to offer the Polish government access to the contested German-Russia gas pipeline -- an offer that was given a cool reception.

From the German government’s perspective, Berlin has shown plenty of goodwill in its dealings with its eastern neighbor. At the EU summit in December 2005, shortly after her first meeting with Kaczynski, Merkel even took domestic political risks for the sake of German-Polish ties. The negotiations for the EU budget were deadlocked at the time: Poland wanted more aid, the British and French were both vigorously defending their privileges. But Merkel eventually managed to broker a compromise -- at Germany’s expense.

Berlin agreed to forego €100 million ($134 million) in development funds for Eastern Germany and Bavaria. The Poles got the money instead.

Long-serving German officials both at the Chancellery and Foreign Ministry can by now easily rattle off the countless efforts Berlin has made to cater to the Poles -- and how Warsaw has not been the least bit impressed.

Adding Insult to Injury

In 2002, for example, at the summit that paved the way for Poland's accession to the European Union, former chancellor Gerhard Schröder reached deep into his pockets in order to raise the level of subsidies for the new members from mostly ex-communist Eastern Europe. He put €1 billion on the table, according to a diplomat. A few days later, Poland confirmed that it wasn’t quite so needy after all: Warsaw placed an order for US fighter jets totaling €3.5 billion. Adding insult to injury, the Poles rejected a competing bid for the European designed and produced Eurofighter.

By now it must be apparent in Berlin that Warsaw’s anti-German position is no longer fed by justified historical resentments  alone.

The Polish unilateral action on the US missile defense program  has also increased doubts about Warsaw’s dependability, according to sources in Berlin. The Polish government decided to negotiate with Washington over deploying US intercept missiles without even informing its EU partners.

An Non-Dependable Partner?

Even those German politicians who doggedly try to find common ground with the Poles are unsure of what to do. The German government’s coordinator for Polish relations, Gesine Schwan, appears to have been overtaken by a mood of resignation. “It’s hard to say at the moment to what extent the current Polish government is a capable of being a dependable partner with Germany,” she complains.

It’s not only the unyielding demeanor of the Kaczynskis that is damaging Poland’s image abroad. Their controversial coalition partners -- the unpredictable leftist populist Andrzej Lepper and the far-right nationalist League of Polish Families -- regularly create bad press with often offensive rhetoric.

Maciej Giertych, an MP for the League, fêted the late Spanish dictator Francisco Franco in the European Parliament for supposedly saving Europe from communism. His son Roman, who is the party’s chairman, supports a severe ban on abortion -- even in cases of rape. He rages against homosexual teachers, whom he claims are perverting Polish children with their "propaganda."

The most recent attempt undertaken by the Education Minister in the Kaczynski cabinet consisted in a call to ban texts by Goethe, Kafka and Witold Gombrowicz from schools -- a proposal that provoked an outcry even among the Poles. But as far as foreign policy is concerned, the Poles are closing ranks behind their often ridiculed twin leaders. Even though polls reveal the government of Jaroslaw Kaczynski would not even receive 30 percent of the vote if elections were to be held today, many Poles appreciate the tough course opted for by Warsaw before the EU summit this week: Forty-nine percent of those questioned favor a Polish veto if the issue of voting weight isn't reopened for negotiations at the summit, and 43 percent of the persons questioned side with the twins in the dispute over the square root model.

The Unattractive Threat of Isolation

But would they also be prepared to accept the isolation of their country that a veto would entail? That seems unlikely. By comparison to other countries on the continent, the Poles are clearly to be counted among the enthusiasts of a united Europe. Ever since Poland joined the EU, public approval for the political union has increased: 86 percent of those surveyed are in favor of their country's EU membership. Hundreds of thousands of young Poles have gone to the United Kingdom or Ireland  in search of new career opportunities there.

Only seven out of every 100 persons polled speak out as staunch opponents of the EU. And so sociologist Antoni Kaminski admonishes the country's leaders to take "responsibility for Europe."

"Poland is part of the West," he says. "And formal membership in Western organizations is just the beginning of the real integration process."

So far, though, Warsaw has failed to propose a feasible compromise in the dispute over the European constitution. Even when Polish President Lech Kaczynski now speaks of a willingness to reach an agreement on the issue, one important question remains unanswered: What concession does Warsaw expect from the EU in return for finally agreeing to the constitution compromise after all?

Presidential advisor and neogtiator Marek Cichocki also spoke of a possible compromise late last week -- with the difference being that he added the adjective "reasonable." If the summit in Brussels will result in a mandate for negotiations, then "our proposal for the voting procedure needs to be considered therein," he said. Otherwise EU members will leave the summit without a mandate, and the negotiating game will have to begin anew at some point in the future, according to Cichocki.

Is that what the search for a genuine trade-off sounds like?

Incidentally, the two political mathematicians who proposed the square root model that everyone is talking about now, call their proposal the "Jagiellon compromise." The Jagiellon dynasty held power for almost 200 years during the Middle Ages -- and under the rule of these monarchs, Poland was one of the most powerful countries in Europe.

Reported by the staff of DER SPIEGEL.

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