Photo Gallery: Poland, Germany and the "Resettlement" Issue

Foto: Michael Probst/ AP

Krzysztof Ruchniewicz on Polish-German Ties Relations 'Shouldn't Be a One-Way Street'

More than 65 years after the end of World War II, tensions can still flare up between Germany and Poland. In a SPIEGEL interview, Polish historian Krzysztof Ruchniewicz discusses the postwar "resettlement" of ethnic Germans, improving relations between Germans and Poles and changing attitudes toward the German past of many Polish towns and cities.

SPIEGEL: Professor Ruchniewicz, although international law now recognizes the border between Germany and Poland, it is open because both countries are members of the open-borders Schengen area . Are Germans and Poles now just normal neighbors?

Krzysztof Ruchniewicz: Yes, we are completely normal neighbors in Europe. For decades, we were separated by the Cold War and by this border that practically doesn't exist anymore. Cross-border exchanges are on the rise, and divided towns -- such as Görlitz and Zgorzelec -- are growing together again.

SPIEGEL: The exodus of ethnic Germans from areas east of the Oder-Neisse Line from 1945 onwards is viewed as expulsion in Germany but as more of a resettlement in Poland. How would you describe it?

Ruchniewicz: In Poland, the term "expulsion" is rarely used in this context. Rather, people distinguish between three different migratory processes that are lumped together under a single banner -- "expulsion" -- in Germany. These three processes are: the flight of a large proportion of the population ahead of the advancing Soviet army in the spring of 1945; the expulsions that took place between the end of the war in May (1945) and the Potsdam Conference held by the Allies in August 1945; and the resettlement that was decided upon at that conference. For a long time, Poles weren't particularly interested in the way ethnic Germans were resettled.

SPIEGEL: Still, ethnic Germans were only given a few hours to leave their homes, and they weren't allowed to take more than 20 kilograms (44 pounds) of luggage with them.

Ruchniewicz: Although the resettlement is viewed as having been necessary, most Poles now criticize the way it was handled. At the time, Poland had to absorb about 1.5 million people from the eastern part of the country, which the Soviet Union had annexed. Apart from that, given the way they had been treated during the occupation of Poland and World War II itself, most Poles were no longer willing to work alongside ethnic Germans.

SPIEGEL: The "de-Germanization," as it was officially known, of what is now western Poland after 1945 had a significant impact on the region. How familiar are today's Poles with the German history of their own towns and cities?

Ruchniewicz: In the years immediately following the War, "Polonization" was pursued very deliberately. It even got to the point where, in the early 1950s, post offices were instructed to send back mail addressed to "Breslau" because the city no longer existed after having been renamed Wroclaw. Those days are over. The municipal authorities have done a great deal over the last two decades to recognize this great city's past. The authorities now want to foster an image of Wroclaw as an open, multicultural city. A number of academic books, as well as ones aimed at a more general audience, have been published on the city's history. There are very active efforts to establish contact with people who once lived in the city. The local media also do a lot to popularize the past, and the many websites devoted to Wroclaw's history testify to just how popular the city's history has become. Likewise, many monuments and commemorative plaques remind people of the past, and a new exhibit on the city's history has been extremely popular.

SPIEGEL: Just how present are the Nazi atrocities in the minds of today's Poles?

Ruchniewicz: About 20 percent of today's Polish population has conscious memories of World War II. Poland lost almost 6 million people in the war, and many of the survivors still bear the physical and emotional scars of the war and their country's occupation. However, people also remember that Poland was pushed westward, that there was a second occupation, by Russia, between 1939 and 1941, and that the country became a Soviet satellite state after 1945.

SPIEGEL: How do you rate the way Germany deals with its Nazi past?

Ruchniewicz: Postwar Germany has taken a very critical view of the Nazi regime. You can see that to this day, for example, in the debate over the (wartime activities of) Germany's Foreign Ministry  . Likewise, we mustn't forget that the debate has only been conducted in both halves of Germany since the country was reunified 20 years ago.

"German is no longer considered alien"

SPIEGEL: How important for German-Polish relations was Chancellor Willy Brandt's Ostpolitik strategy of rapprochement  and his visit to Poland in 1970  , when he famously fell to his knees in front of the memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising?

Ruchniewicz: Brandt was the first German chancellor to go to Poland, which was an important step in itself. But his kneeling-down struck a moral cord and signaled a desire for atonement. Brandt set the standards in terms of Polish-German relations. His predecessors (as chancellor) -- Konrad Adenauer, Ludwig Erhard and Kurt Georg Kiesinger -- didn't have any relationship with Poland. Since Brandt, every German chancellor has included Poland as a partner in his or her deliberations.

SPIEGEL: Five years before Brandt's visit, Poland's bishops sent their German counterparts a letter containing the words "We grant our forgiveness and beg your forgiveness." But the Communist regime rejected this olive branch. Why was that?

Ruchniewicz: The regime was already unhappy that the Polish Catholic Church hadn't sought official approval for its move. After all, the bishops effectively distanced themselves from the Polish government's negative view of what was then still West Germany. This was a fundamentally new attitude toward the Germans. Coming just 20 years after the end of the war, it was a revolutionary act. By asking for forgiveness, they were also acknowledging what had happened to ethnic Germans after World War II.

SPIEGEL: The communist regime of the People's Republic of Poland justified the westward expansion of their country by saying that it re-established the borders of the Piast Kingdom from 1,000 years earlier. Do Poles still speak of "regained territory" like they did under socialism?

Ruchniewicz: No. Terms like those, which were mainly used in the early postwar years, were consigned to the history books decades ago. Later on, the authorities would typically speak about Poland's northern and western regions. The idea was to make clear to the Poles that, although they had lost eastern parts of the country, they had also gotten back formerly Polish territory.

SPIEGEL: What was Stalin's goal in pushing Poland westward? Did he want to force Poland to eventually ally itself with Moscow?

Ruchniewicz: It was a sly move on Stalin's part. The Soviet Union made Poland dependant on Russia, especially because it was clear that no Western country would recognize the border along the Oder River. That gave the Soviets some leverage over Poland.

SPIEGEL: You are an academic adviser of the Flight, Expulsion, Reconciliation Foundation (see chart), which was founded by Germany's federal parliament in 2008. What do you hope this project will achieve?

Ruchniewicz: The new members of the foundation's advisory board can help defuse some of the tensions over more contentious issues, such as expulsion. The foundation wants to put the issue of flight and expulsion into the context of World War II. We will continue the debates internationally in the hope of developing a shared European view of history.

SPIEGEL: But not everybody wants that. Erika Steinbach, the controversial president of the German Federation of Expellees (BdV) , recently said she couldn't "make light" of the fact that Poland had mobilized some of its forces in March 1939. That makes it sound like Poland triggered the war.

Ruchniewicz: I'll leave it to the Germans to react to those remarks. In my view, Ms. Steinbach isn't important when it comes to our understanding of our past. If certain politicians who comment on historical matters have problems keeping up with the current state of academic research, I would suggest they go to a library and read up on the matter.

SPIEGEL: The nationalist regime that governed prewar Poland until 1939 put pressure on millions of its minority non-Poles -- whether they were ethnic Lithuanians, Belarusians, Ukrainians or Germans -- in an effort to "Polonize" them. Do Poles still have difficulty viewing this regime critically simply because it represents a period of Polish independence?

Ruchniewicz: At the start of the 20th century, there were two different ideas about what Poland should become. One was the "Piast" vision that saw Poles living among Poles and minorities playing no great part. This contrasted with the multicultural "Jagiellonian" concept espoused by Marshal Józef Pilsudski, who led Poland after World War I. These two ideas clashed. The former viewpoint came to the fore in the 1930s, in part due to fears that minorities would trigger the country's breakup. In today's Poland, the enormous efforts to establish an independent state are acknowledged, though the negative aspects of the country's prewar policies aren't overlooked, either.

SPIEGEL: How does contemporary Poland deal with its minorities, including its more than 150,000 ethnic Germans?

Ruchniewicz: Although the country has very few national minorities, efforts are finally being made to connect with the traditions of minority cultures. For example, Poland now holds annual festivals celebrating Jewish, Ukrainian and German culture. The purpose is to continually show just how important these minorities have been and the influence they've had on the development of Polish culture.

SPIEGEL: As Germans and Poles have grown to view each other as fellow Europeans, there has been increased interest in formerly German areas in learning about their history. This is particularly noticeable in Wroclaw. Do people in Poland no longer believe that "even the stones speak Polish" in Wroclaw?

Ruchniewicz: Those days are definitely behind us. German is no longer considered alien here. You can even see it in the fact that the waiters in Wroclaw's restaurants will address you in German, and many places even have menus available in German. Young people, in particular, are very interested in learning German. I wish these kinds of language programs were subsidized even more. I would also welcome it if restaurants in German border towns, such as Görlitz, printed menus in Polish and if German waiters spoke to Poles in Polish. It shouldn't just be a one-way street.

SPIEGEL: Professor Ruchniewicz, thank you for speaking with us.

Interview conducted by Uwe Klußmann; translated from the German by Jan Liebelt
Die Wiedergabe wurde unterbrochen.
Speichern Sie Ihre Lieblingsartikel in der persönlichen Merkliste, um sie später zu lesen und einfach wiederzufinden.
Jetzt anmelden
Sie haben noch kein SPIEGEL-Konto? Jetzt registrieren