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.

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.

Who gets how many votes in the EU?

Who gets how many votes in the EU?

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.

Poland's economy has been booming since EU accession.

Poland's economy has been booming since EU accession.

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.)


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