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A gap in Polish-German relations

Over 30 years have passed since Germany reunified and signed a pivotal agreement on bilateral affairs with Poland. Meant to signal the start of a new age of co-operation, the treaty’s spirit has nonetheless been challenged by numerous issues both old and new. A renewed agreement is now needed to build a shared future free from the ghosts of the past.

September 29, 2022 - Kinga Gajda - Issue 5 2022MagazinerEUnify

Photo: Mateusz War. (CC)/ Wikimedia Commons

The 1991 reunification of Germany was not met with indifference in any of the European states. Among the countries which expressed the greatest concern regarding this change was Poland. For this reason, when in 1991 both states signed the Treaty of Good Neighbourship and Friendly Co-operation, it was seen as a breakthrough moment. Both states started on the path towards reconciliation. Unfortunately, today we can see that not enough effort has been put into reaching this goal and much work still remains to be done.

A hole in the bridge

In the early 1990s three legal acts were signed between Poland and Germany with an aim to improve inter-state and people-to-people relations. They included the treaty confirming the existing Polish-German border signed in 1990; the Polish-German Treaty of Good Neighbourship and Friendly Co-operation; and the agreement on the establishment of the Foundation for Polish-German Reconciliation, signed in 1991. These acts initiated a series of cross-border initiatives, cultural, academic and educational exchange programmes, and co-operation between local governments. As a result, economic co-operation has developed and flourished.

The implementation of these agreements was not free from the influence of various external changes. These included the NATO and EU enlargements (1999, 2004), the global financial and Eurozone crisis (2008), Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas (2014), the migration crisis (2015), the COVID-19 pandemic (2020-21) and finally Russia’s current invasion of Ukraine (2022). These events have had an effect not only on the countries’ internal and external policies, but also on bilateral relations. For example, the different policies of the Polish and German governments during the 2015 migration crisis led to unprecedented tensions in relations. In the same way, different policies towards relations with Eastern Europe and Russia have led to many misunderstandings in bilateral affairs throughout the 2010s and 2020s.

For these reasons, the consequences of the changes that have taken place since German reunification in Polish-German relations should neither be treated as static nor permanent. What seems to continuously affect them is the difficult shared history that has not yet been adequately addressed or overcome. Symbolically, one of the first warnings about this threat came from the German caricature artist, Walter Hanel, who drew a cartoon in which two architects of Polish-German reconciliation, Polish Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, find themselves on two opposite sides of a bridge. They try to reach each other and shake hands but cannot due to a hole in the middle of the bridge. This hole symbolises the past that hinders full reconciliation and unfortunately remains until today. Perhaps there was a time when both nations seemed close to this metaphorical handshake. Yet things changed for the worse in 2015 when the Law and Justice party won elections in Poland and began to instrumentalise old historical sentiments, using them for their own political purposes. Since then, the hole in the bridge has only expanded.

Lack of trust

It can also be said that the last 30 years of Polish-German relations resemble a sine wave, with positive and negative moments. Looking back to their beginning, that is around the time of the reunification, we can notice that in Poland, despite the country’s official support for the process, many people were afraid of its consequences. The fear of a strong united Germany and the role it could play in Europe was even shared by Mazowiecki himself, who publicly admitted that he too worried that such a large state could affect the European balance of power. In a way, Mazowiecki spoke on behalf of a large part of Polish society. Opinion polls carried out in March 1990 showed that only seven per cent of Poles supported the reunification of Germany, while 40 per cent were against it. This negative outlook was a result of both wartime memories and over 50 years of communist propaganda, which presented Germany as Poland’s enemy. Paying attention to these factors, Michael Ludwig, then a correspondent for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in Poland, warned that a lack of trust between Poles and Germans could one day be used by politicians to negatively affect bilateral relations. It turns out that he was right.

Polish political scientist, Aleksandra Trzcielińska-Polus, divided the first 25 years of relations between Poland and united Germany into three periods. The first period, between 1990 and 1998, was a time of reconciliation. Both states aimed to build new quality relations and focused on their common European future. At that time, Germany even became known as “Poland’s advocate in Europe”. The foundation for Polish-German reconciliation was established during this time and the legal situation of the German minority in Poland was agreed upon.

The second period (1998-2007) was the time of greater distance. It started with a Bundestag resolution passed in May 1998, which addressed the situation of historically expelled and displaced persons as well as the German minorities. The resolution described them as a bridge between Germany and its neighbours in the region. The resolution was not well received in Poland. In response, the Polish parliament issued a public announcement stating the need for “the inviolability of the Polish border and the Polish title to the ownership of property on Poland’s western and northern territories”. This period overlapped with Poland’s preparations to join the European Union, which entailed signing various necessary agreements. Among them were those that regulated issues such as the opening of the German labour market to Polish workers.

During this period, this shared difficult history was used again to cast doubt on the otherwise improving Polish-German relations. The most divisive topic was that of compensation for Polish forced labourers and victims of German concentration camps, as well as reparations for the damages committed by Germans in Poland during the Second World War. The controversy around this issue was sparked by the activities of a German politician named Erika Steinbach, who was also the president of the Federation of Expellees from 1998 to 2014. Steinbach went on to establish the Centre against Expulsions, an organisation which also caused controversy in Germany. This organisation only worsened Germany’s relations with both Poland and the Czech Republic. Among other things, Steinbach claimed that Poland is also responsible for the outbreak of the Second World War and that millions of Germans were subject to forced labour in Central, Eastern and Southern Europe. This rhetoric brought on a new stage in the debate about the consequences of the Second World War.

As a result, the topic of German suffering and harm also came to the surface. It also became clear that interpretations of the post-war relocation of Germans from today’s Poland differ greatly between the two states. While Poles describe it as a “resettlement”, Germans often opt for “expulsions”.

During this time, disagreement also appeared in other areas. This included more contemporary disagreements over such issues as the decision to go to war with Iraq (2003) or the voting system in the European Council. Krzysztof Ruchniewicz, a Polish historian and expert on Polish-German relations, called this “the period of unwilling indifference”, which was pursued by the governments of both states. In Poland, the right-wing conservative party Law and Justice came to power for the first time in 2005 and formed a coalition with the extreme right League of Polish Families and populist Self-Defence party. This government started to pursue a cooling down of relations with Germany. In Trzcielińska-Polus’s opinion, “The cooling down of relations and a decrease in mutual trust showed differences in interests and problems which in the previous period were silenced over and passed.” This period of Polish-German relations was also characterised by a pivotal conflict over energy policy, especially with regards to the construction of the Nord Stream pipeline. Germany’s enthusiasm for the project was seen to be disregarding Polish opinion.

The third period (2007-15) was the phase of correction and aspiration to develop better neighbourly relations. In Poland, elections took place again and the government was formed by the centre-right Civic Platform. Evidently, this phase was characterised by a notable improvement in relations between the two states. This was true in spite of some natural differences. These included Germany’s underwhelming response to the Eastern Partnership. Of course, Poland was one of the champions of this policy.

In 2008 Poland’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Radosław Sikorski promoted a concept he called the “Partnership for Europe”. It was envisioned to overcome the “stereotypical philosophy of Polish-German relations where the central point is unsolved historical problems, which are treated as obstacles impossible to overcome in allied co-operation with Germany.” The year 2011 would prove important during this period, as it marked the 20th anniversary of the Polish-German Treaty of Good Neighbourship and Friendly Co-operation. During its celebrations, both sides tried to highlight their desires to pursue good bilateral relations and the European dimension of this co-operation.

To seal this commitment, a shared statement following a special Polish-German roundtable was made available to the public. This expressed support for the German minority in Poland and Poles in Germany. As a result, a contact office for Poles in Germany was opened in Berlin alongside the Centre for the Documentation of Culture and History of Poles in Germany. Germany also announced that it would commemorate the memory of the Polish victims persecuted and murdered during the Second World War.

The most difficult period

These periods should be complemented by one more, namely the current era starting in 2015. Unfortunately, this may be the moment of greatest trouble regarding mutual relations. This is clearly the result of the activities of the Law and Justice government which came to power in 2015 and was later re-elected in 2019. This government, like no other in Poland’s democratic history, sees Germany as a challenge, if not a serious threat to Poland’s interests. As a result, it pursues a policy of distrust towards Berlin, implementing the exact scenario that Michael Ludwig had warned about. Piotr Buras, a Polish expert on European relations, notes that during this period Berlin and Warsaw have demonstrated significant differences in their handling of issues such as the pandemic, migration, ecology, energy and security policy. Yet, the main topic of dispute between the two states was Nord Stream 2 and Germany’s “change through trade” policy towards Russia. This is in spite of Moscow’s aggression in Ukraine that began in 2014. Like other countries in Central Europe, Poland vociferously criticised Nord Stream 2, which was supposed to transport Russian gas to Europe by bypassing the Central European states.

The full-scale Russian aggression in Ukraine in February 2022 again highlighted certain differences between Poland and Germany, especially with regards to military aid for Ukraine. It also exposed disagreement over the scope of EU sanctions imposed on Russia following the invasion. Here, we should yet keep in mind that Germany itself is quite divided with regards to assistance for Ukraine and support for its membership in the European Union. In former East Germany, for example, around 60 per cent of respondents to a Der Spiegel opinion poll stated that they were against future Ukrainian EU membership. At the federal level, the German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has also criticised EU sanctions on Russia. The Polish and German governments also strongly disagree over the distribution of the EU budget and, especially, the conditions in which funding should be received regarding a country’s adherence to the rule of law.

Thus, probably the only unifying moment for both states was the Bundestag decision to create a memory site in Berlin that would commemorate the Polish victims of the Second World War. Despite this, the conflict over the war has not ceased, with the Polish government continuing to demand war reparations from the German state as elections approach. Berlin refuses to agree to such demands, arguing that Poland had already given up such claims in the past.

During this last period (2015-22), Poland held elections in 2019 that were once again won by the Law and Justice party. As expected, this election result was not received with much joy in Berlin. The German media pointed out how Law and Justice had been destroying Poland’s good relations with its neighbours and the European Union, expressing fear that these relations would only further worsen. Indeed, the rhetoric of Law and Justice has reactivated negative stereotypes about Germany in Polish discourse like never before. Namely, the image of Germany as Poland’s “eternal” enemy has been widely promoted by many politicians and pro-government media.

As a result, different public opinion polls started to show that today’s negative stereotypes about Germany are stronger than before. Also interestingly, they seem to be geographically correlated: the further away from Germany the respondents are, the more negative stereotypes they have. This is probably caused by a lack of direct contacts and the influence of public television. Even though the majority of Poles have no anti-German views, there has been a clear decline in positive opinions regarding Polish-German relations. These negative tendencies are confirmed by various opinion polls.

Different visions

Public opinion polls, conducted since 1987 by the Centre for Public Opinion Research (CBOS, a leading Polish opinion poll research institution), show that Polish foreign policy has an impact on the attitude of Polish society towards Germans and Germany. Specifically, the years and periods when Polish foreign policy is aimed at improving relations with Germany result in more positive attitudes regarding the country’s western neighbour. In the same way, the years and periods when the Polish authorities pursue conflict with Berlin only encourage more negative attitudes within society.

Research also shows that Polish respondents tend to repeat negative rhetoric more than Germans. Thus, we can read in a 2016 report from CBOS that the “assessment of Polish-German relations is influenced by the activities of the Polish government”. Accordingly, the most positive assessments of relations were recorded in 1991 and 2015, while the most negative in 2007 and 2017. In fact, in 2017, over half of the respondents (56 per cent) evaluated these relations as average, 18 per cent as good and 16 per cent as bad. In the last group, namely those who believed that Polish-German relations were bad, over half (59 per cent) blamed the Polish authorities for such a state of affairs.

By 2017, the share of Polish respondents who thought that Germany and Poland have different political and economic interests also increased. Available research points to a worrying tendency indicating that many people in Poland no longer believe in any possibility of building good relations between both states. Poles are overall sceptical about Germany’s growing influence in Europe and the world.

Poles and Germans not only have different views of their shared history but also different visions of handling current and future challenges. To illustrate these differences, we can say that Poles generally represent social attitudes characteristic of a more normative society, tend to be suspicious of social change and are more attached to tradition than Germans. According to cultural studies research carried out in line with the ideas of Geert Hofstede, Poles indeed show a high level of the so-called “uncertainty avoidance”. This translates into a wider acceptance of strict codes of behaviour and a lack of tolerance towards unconventional outlooks and ideas. As a result, when a situation seems unclear or unknown, people tend to feel endangered. To avoid it, they prefer situations where they understand and control everything. They believe in the existence of absolute truth.

German society, on the other hand, is culturally more pragmatic. It invests in the future and believes that truth is conditioned by the situation, context or time. Its members also have better skills when it comes to adjusting traditions to changing times. Sociological research also shows that there is a strong preference in Germany for deductive thinking and planning. This is the philosophical heritage of Kant, Hegel and Fichte. This is also reflected in the need for a sense of certainty and assurances that issues are thoroughly discussed and investigated. As a result, Germans prefer to compensate for their greater insecurity by relying on expert knowledge. Possibly for this reason, the German elite does not often comment on the changes taking place in Polish-German relations. Germans, more than Poles, are also more politically correct in public discourse. That is why, among others, they avoid categorical answers to key questions.


Different attitudes towards history explain why in the 2020 Poland-Germany Barometer, almost one-third (30 per cent) of the associations that Polish respondents made in regard to Germany were related to war. This share represents a notable increase since 2016 when such associations were made by 21 per cent of respondents. In this group, terms such as “criminals”, “occupiers”, “concentration camps”, “Hitler” and “world war” could be found. At the same time, only 14 per cent of associations made by Polish respondents indicated an image of Germany as an economically prosperous country. A mere seven per cent of respondents discussed German culture, tourism and language. The situation is quite different on the German side. Here, as many as 29 per cent of respondents point to culture, tourism and language when making associations with Poland, while history is mentioned by only seven per cent. Poles and Germans also differ in their perceptions of who is their most important neighbour. While for Poles Germany is still their strategic neighbour, for Germany such a partner is found in France.

Despite their geographic proximity and thirty years of co-operation, Poland and Germany are still little known to one another. However, Poles also seem to know more about Germany than Germans know about Poland.

In both countries, the main source of information about the situation in the other state is still the media. As shown in the 2011 CBOS poll, 20 years after Germany’s reunification, the majority of Poles were learning about their western neighbour from the media, especially TV, press and the internet. Only 12 per cent of surveyed Poles admitted that they know Germany from personal experiences (such as visits to the country), while nine per cent stated that they have contacts and conversations with German people. These are mostly young people who go to Germany to study. More recent research shows that the situation has not changed much over the last decade and that the majority of Poles are still getting to know Germany through the television and press.

Positive balance, nonetheless

Władysław Bartoszewski is a former Auschwitz prisoner and Poland’s former foreign minister (2000-01), who for decades had been an architect of Polish-German reconciliation. When reflecting on the 20 years of co-operation between democratic Poland and united Germany, he stated that while the documents signed in 1991 were the best that could have been produced, neither Poland nor Germany have used them in the right way. As a result, they did not solve many issues in their mutual relations. Researchers of Polish-German relations were more optimistic in their assessment during the 25th anniversary of these links. They stressed various successes, established partnerships and mutual friendship. They praised the large network of contacts between politicians, artists, academics, the private sector and NGOs. Despite this, looking at the state of these relations today it is difficult to agree with this optimism. Realistically speaking, Bartoszewski was more correct in his perceptions.

Nonetheless, when compared with other historical contexts and various confrontations, we can say that the total balance of the last 30 years of Polish-German relations has been positive. Clearly, many good initiatives have been created in culture, education, academia, local government and trans-border co-operation. Due to this, many personal contacts have been established that did not even stop during the pandemic.

These areas are where positive change is taking place on a long-term basis. The Polish scholar Jolanta Molińska has analysed the consequences of the countries’ 20 years of relations since Germany’s reunification. She pointed to 11 areas of co-operation which allowed for the breaking down of negative stereotypes between both nations. They included co-operation in the framework of the Weimar Triangle, the partner cities programme, co-operation between historians, intellectual debates organised by the Copernicus Group, Viadrina University in Frankfurt am Oder, and mutual language instruction.

Without a doubt, the economy is the area that has seen the greatest success in Polish-German relations. Specifically, since the reunification Poland has become Germany’s fifth most important trade partner. It now constitutes five per cent of Germany’s foreign trade and is positioned only slightly behind France and ahead of Italy and Great Britain.

Youth exchange programmes and education have also been quite successful. In 2021-22 almost 7,300 Polish students studied at German universities, while German is the second most popular language taught in Polish schools. Cultural institutions also play an important role in building strong mutual relations. Partnership co-operation has simultaneously developed between cities and local governments. Each larger city in Poland now has at least one partner in Germany.

A new treaty?

During the Conference of Polish Ambassadors which took place on June 15th 2020, it was agreed that the 1991 treaty contributed to breaking down hostile attitudes and starting a constructive approach to solving disagreements. It was also stressed that any challenge to earlier achievements within bilateral affairs should be stopped. According to the ambassadors who gathered at the conference, this has led to a situation in which Germany engages in consultations with France but not Poland. That is why on January 22nd 2019 Germany signed an agreement with France on mutual co-operation and integration known as the Aachen Treaty.

A similar treaty, between Poland and Germany, could prove to be a good instrument for renewing Polish-German relations. If not a full treaty, then a trilateral protocol could be added to the Aachen Treaty to include Poland. This could serve to revitalise the Weimar Triangle. This important political co-operation scheme established between Poland, Germany and France has been quite dormant in recent years.

A new treaty, as Polish political scientist Krzysztof Miszczak argues, could dismiss any doubts regarding the countries’ shared responsibility for the future of the European continent. It could encourage stable development and the integration of both states in the areas of economy and defence. It could also include commitments regarding war compensations. Most importantly, signing a new treaty would strengthen the 1991 document and allow for a new stage in building positive bilateral relations and settling difficult historical matters. In other words, such a treaty could finally serve to fill the gap, which despite the passage of time, is still present in the bridge between Poland and Germany.

Kinga Anna Gajda is an associate professor at the Institute of European Studies of the Jagiellonian University in Kraków.

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