After the end of the Merkel era, Germany’s new progressive coalition heralds a wave of change in German politics. But the new government will face old challenges, unresolved by the outgoing cabinet. One of them remains the chaotic relationship with Germany’s eastern neighbor, Poland.
The Polish-German relationship has not been easy. The reconciliation process initiated by Willy Brandt and Egon Bahr in the 1970s was slow and arduous, ultimately resulting in a historic good neighbor treaty. Germany was a strong supporter of Poland’s NATO and EU membership, which took Polish-German relations to another level. The German labor market opened up completely to Poles in 2011; economic exchanges flourish. The project of bringing the two nations together was also progressing steadily. Over the past two decades, the two neighbors have developed positive mutual perceptions and the majority are convinced that bilateral relations are quite good.
It seemed that, once and for all, the historical animosities were overcome. The reconciliation was so successful that some even wondered if Warsaw could replace Paris in German European politics, or at least if the Franco-German tandem should not expand into a trio of leadership. But not only the Weimar triangle of France, Germany and Poland seems to be a withered format from a bygone era. Much has changed in Poland since 2016, when the Law and Justice Party (PiS) took over.
The militarization of collective memory
The history of Polish-German relations is turbulent and dates back to beyond WWII. Prussia played an important role in the fall of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth at the end of the 18th century. The Medieval Great War with the Teutonic Knights has become a living symbol in modern Polish culture, metaphorically describing the eternal threat coming from the German neighbor. This topos, even if it is latent, is deeply anchored in the Polish collective memory. Acknowledging this is crucial to understanding how easy it is to activate it, without rational premises or legitimate reasons.
This anti-German sentiment has been repeatedly militarized by the PiS Spin Doctors. In 2005, then-presidential candidate Donald Tusk was accused of being a Wehrmacht soldier. This weighed heavily on his campaign, in favor of Tusk’s rival, Lech Kaczyński. At the time, the architect of this claim was fired from Kaczyński’s campaign in disgrace.
Kaczyński even went so far as to use the metaphor of the German Fourth Reich.
A decade later, under the leadership of twin brother Jarosław, he was appointed chairman of Polish public television TVP. Today, not a day goes by that the public media scolding Germany. “Germany envies Polish economic success”; “Brussels, Berlin and the opposition plotting against Poland”; “Opposition and Germany want to punish Poland” – these are just a few examples of headlines demonizing the Berlin government.
Crude as it may sound, this witch hunt illustrates the current government’s need for enemies to consolidate its support as well as to justify potential failures, especially on the international stage. This strategy seems to work well with certain segments of voters.
An anti-German coalition in Europe?
At the same time, Jarosław Kaczyński develops a different rhetoric for a more informed audience. At the Warsaw summit, a meeting of the European far right in early December, he presented his geopolitical framework, a great story for the future of the European Union. He warned not only against a Europe weakened by “political correctness” and European institutions based on the illusion of a European demos and therefore devoid of democratic legitimacy.
He also warned against contemporary Germany “to undo the historical memory of the twentieth century” which had once forced it to restrict its ambitions and open up space for Berlin’s supposedly hegemonic aspirations to subjugate the European Union by institutional means, in particular through federalization. Kaczyński even went so far as to use the metaphor of the German Fourth Reich. Symptomatically, the AfD was not invited to this meeting. Is Kaczynski plotting to build a coalition that is not only illiberal but also anti-German in Europe? In any case, reserve and mistrust are the conditions that Chancellor Olaf Scholz and the new Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock will have to face.
For the current Polish government, there is neither understanding nor willingness to respond to calls for the reestablishment of the rule of law.
At the same time, the official visits to Poland took place in a superficially courteous atmosphere. During her first visit, on December 10, Annalena Baerbock was greeted by President Andrzej Duda and then welcomed by her Polish counterpart, Zbigniew Rau. Even polite, the latter’s attitude has been described by some commentators as “condescending”. As a young woman representing an almost exotic party on the Polish political scene, it will always be twice as difficult for Baerbock to be heard and taken seriously in conservative circles.
Still, she showed courage and appeased her host by pointing out passages about the deep Polish-German friendship in the coalition deal and underlining her skepticism towards Putin’s Russia. Two days later, Chancellor Olaf Scholz met Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki. This time it was a conversation on equal terms, without condescension. Yet this exchange echoed, or further accentuated, the divides between Berlin and Warsaw.
Disputes between Berlin and Warsaw
Both meetings have shown that there are some points of contention that weigh heavily on bilateral relations. The first is the future of Nord Stream 2. Poland has long viewed it not only as a strategic threat to European energy security, but it has also brought historic flashbacks of Germany and Russia making deals to the United States. above heads of state sandwiched between the two.
Today, the pipeline is all the more controversial as the pressure exerted by Vladimir Putin on Ukraine increases. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy openly called it a “dangerous geopolitical weapon”. The new German government will have to work quickly to find a long-term sustainable consensus on this project within the coalition and reassure its eastern neighbors.
Second, managing expectations from the EU. For the current Polish government, there is neither understanding nor willingness to respond to calls for the reestablishment of the rule of law. Moreover, the further federalization of the EU is the exact opposite of what the current Polish government wants.
Let’s hope that the current stalemate will not affect people’s hearts and that the work invested in reconciliation for decades will continue.
At the same time, Poland has recently emerged in a new role, protecting the EU’s external border from the ruthless militarization of migratory flows by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. Even if there is an opportunity for constructive cooperation in this area, it is obvious that Berlin and Warsaw will pull Brussels in opposite directions.
The third is the history card game by the Polish government. 76 years after the end of World War II, he wanted to create an Institute for War Losses to pursue “the [financial] balance of German and Soviet occupation ”. Such an institution is not only a tool for the instrumentalization of history for political ends, but also a manifestation of the geopolitical imagination of Polish national conservatives. “Raise the country off its knees” is the guiding principle in shaping their foreign policy. As theatrical as it may sound, these assertions will taint Polish-German relations for a long time.
There are certainly other issues in the background which show the growing level of estrangement between Warsaw and Berlin, such as the quarrel over the status of Poles and the teaching of the Polish language in Germany. Or divergent views on climate and energy policy, with the exit from coal and plans for new nuclear power plants at the heart. It is to be expected that at the diplomatic level, the Polish-German dialogue will remain calm and reserved. Neither the mundane stories about personal ties to Poland nor the new landmarks will ever soften the PiS ‘hard line on Germany.
But despite all this, trade and economic exchanges between two countries remain unscathed. Hopefully the current stalemate will not affect people’s hearts in the same way and that the work invested in reconciliation for decades will continue. It will be necessary to rekindle this relationship with positive energy when the roles one day turn around in the future.