As war rages in Ukraine, German-Polish schism deepens
While German politics remained relatively stable under former Chancellor Angela Merkel and some continuity can be observed under her successor, Olaf Scholz, Polish politics have undergone a profound change since 2015, when the United Right (Law and Justice) took the reins. This change has considerably influenced German-Polish relations which, despite strong economic ties, are currently going through a deep political crisis. This severance of relations came to a head on October 3, when Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau sent a diplomatic note to Berlin regarding war reparations.
German-Polish relations are complex, multidimensional and full of contradictions. Each country is one of the main trading partners of the other; however, the partnership is not equal as Poland is Germany’s sixth largest trading partner, accounting for around 5% of total balanced import and export shares, while Germany remains Poland’s largest trading partner, responsible for 21% of imports and 27% of imports. exports (Wits.worldbank.org, October 26). Economic ties go beyond mere trade in goods and services and include numerous investments, for which Berlin is Warsaw’s second partner, responsible for 17.5% of foreign direct investment in Poland (Nbp.pl, consulted on October 25). Even so, especially recently, the bilateral relationship has been hampered by a lack of mutual trust.
The split began shortly after Law and Justice (PiS) took power in 2015. Unlike its predecessors who “feared German power less than German inaction”, as the former Polish minister put it of Foreign Affairs Radosław Sikorski (Dgap.org, November 28, 2011), the PiS has distanced itself from Germany and France. The decline in trade at the Weimar triangle and the subsequent abolition of this platform, as well as Poland’s cancellation of the famous Caracal agreement, illustrate this change.
Overall, Polish-German relations are influenced by two major vectors: the policy of the European Union and the official policy vis-à-vis Russia. The divergent visions of European integration, namely the German ambition to follow the federal model and the Polish call to stick to the intergovernmental model, are mutually exclusive and further hamper bilateral relations. Moreover, the Polish authorities regularly accuse the Franco-German tandem of hegemonic tendencies. Due to historical grievances, the specter of German repression remains vital. Moreover, Polish public opinion regarding Germany’s EU policy has deteriorated year-on-year since 2015 (Barometr Polska-Niemcy, accessed 25 October). Importantly, the same trend is observed among German respondents regarding Polish policies (Barometr Polska-Niemcy, accessed 25 October). This will certainly continue, as the war against Ukraine has highlighted significant differences between German and Polish approaches. With this in mind, the Polish government has actively revitalized the narrative of the country’s current security dilemma due to its isolation between Germany and Russia.
Berlin’s ambiguity over Ukraine and the ultimate failure of its energy policy allowed Poland to openly question German leadership in the EU. And the issue gained new credibility after Russia’s aggression against Ukraine on February 24. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, in an article for The spectator, said: “If Europe had sent weapons to Ukraine on the same scale and at the same rate as Germany, the war would have ended long ago: with absolute victory for Russia. Moreover, the Polish Prime Minister suggestedly called for “defeating imperialism” within the EU (The Spectator, August 8). Furthermore, Poland had its reasons to doubt German intentions even before full-scale war broke out. Unlike Poland’s eastern policy, which pays special attention to the so-called “intermediate” states, Germany Ostpolitik traditionally made Russia its focal point. After the first phase of Russian aggression in 2014, Germany remained restrained regarding NATO’s military deployment along its eastern flank. This coincided with Berlin’s refusal to allow US troops through its territory and its veto of ally status for the Anakonda-16 maneuvers. More importantly, Germany has continued to develop energy infrastructure projects with Russia, despite Moscow’s activities in Ukraine.
The split has only deepened due to Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine. German reluctance to help Kyiv with offensive military equipment and intense international pressure prompted Berlin to adopt the policy of exchange agreements; namely, Germany agreed to fill gaps in European allies’ capabilities after delivering arms to Ukraine. Indeed, such an offer was submitted after Poland equipped Ukraine with more than 200 modernized post-Soviet T-72 tanks. Yet Germany’s offer to deliver 20 replacement Leopard 2A4s was ostensibly refused by Poland. Polish Defense Minister Mariusz Błaszczak explained that after some misleading communications, Berlin finally agreed to deliver a limited number of “unserviceable” tanks (wPolityce.pl, July 23).
In her reaction to Błaszczak’s statements, German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht sent a letter to Warsaw in which she explained that the Bundeswehr has significant shortages and has offered joint production of a modern variant of the Leopard 2 MBT as well as high priority deliveries if Poland decides to buy tanks from Germany (Defence24.com, August 1). Undoubtedly, recent large-scale Polish-Korean arms deals worth billions, which included K2 battle tanks, have caused some anger in Berlin. Germany remains the fifth largest military exporter in the world (Sipri.org, March 2022) and certainly expects to benefit from Poland’s massive military modernization program (Die Welt, September 26).
In addition, the energy crisis in the EU has had a negative impact on German-Polish relations. This is due to different approaches on how to solve the problem at EU level (DW, 25 October). For example, more recently, Morawiecki strongly criticized Germany for its voluntary plan to freeze gas prices, which could have a negative impact on competitiveness in the European single market (PolskieRadio.pl, October 7).
Bilateral relations were further fractured after September 1, when Polish authorities released a 1,300-page report on Poland’s losses due to German aggression and occupation during World War II ( Straty-Wojenne.pl, accessed October 25). Damage was estimated at $1.3 trillion, and the claim was formalized on October 3, when Rau issued the diplomatic note to Germany. Nevertheless, the request was immediately rejected by German defense officials, who only admitted “historical responsibility”, as German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said during her visit to Warsaw on October 4. (Notes from Poland, October 4).
Overall, the claim is widely supported by Polish society. More than 60% of Poles believe that Germany should pay reparations, according to a poll published shortly after Warsaw submitted its diplomatic note (Polskie Radio.pl, September 4). Even so, regardless of the legal status, it will be extremely difficult for the Polish government to receive reparations. Thus, in the short term, the demand will serve as an effective “political whip” for Berlin.
Unquestionably, German-Polish relations are going through a deep crisis. In the end, the current PiS government and Berlin’s self-interested European policies were the main factors behind this collapse. However, the divide does not stem exclusively from the ideological or “anti-German” profile of the Polish government. It was also clearly caused – perhaps primarily – by diverging geopolitical interests and Warsaw’s lack of trust in Berlin. In recent months, Poland has taken advantage of the opportunity created by the war in Ukraine to position itself as an emerging geopolitical pole on the continent, a difficult scenario for Germany to accept.