Polish-German relations: New challenges and old strategies

The new government in Poland and its attitude towards Germany and the European Union, the refugee crisis and the related decisions taken by the EU and Angela Merkel as well as the construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline between Germany and Russia  are the current challenges for Polish-German relations.

The relationship between the two countries has so deteriorated just 50 years after one of the most important events in the process of Polish-German reconciliation. At that time, Polish bishops sent a letter, written by the Wroclaw cardinal Boleslaw Kominek, to their German counterparts. The letter expressed Polish forgiveness towards Germany for all war crimes committed on Polish soil during World War II and called on ordinary Poles to do the same. Karol Wojtyla (future Pope John-Paul II) was among the forty signatories to the letter.

From the start, West Germany had trouble recognizing the new borders of Poland to the west, but this changed in 1970 when the German Chancellor Willy Brandt visited Warsaw – he apologized for the German aggression in Poland, knelt before the monument to those who died in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and recognized (for the first time, even before East Germany) the new western borders of Poland.

Roughly from this moment on Polish-German relations started improving and the wounds of World War II have almost healed up to this day. In this sense, this reconciliation has become even more valuable when one compares it to the Polish-Russian relations, which now over 70 years later are still under the influence of hatred stemming from the war and the dictates of the Soviets in Poland.

Today, Poland and Germany are trading partners and cooperate in many areas. Poland provides low-cost manufacturing opportunities for Germany, while German companies invest a lot in Poland’s industry, services, high-tech, and IT. Thanks to these massive investments from Germany, Poland has managed to develop well, so it is important for the Poles today to ensure that these investments will not eventually leave the country.

The new right-wing Polish government (although rather leftist when taking into account their economic policies) and that part of Polish society, which supports it, consider the German investments in Poland as proper economic colonialism and imperialism. In their view, Germany benefits from Polish workers and low wages as a way to syphon a lot of money from Poland to Germany.

Those who take this viewpoint argue that this phenomenon also occurs in many other international companies operating in Poland, which is why the previous government (both those who ruled and their supporters) allowed it and granted these companies a lot of freedom and tax breaks.

Therefore, the new government of the Law and Justice party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość , PiS) plans to “punish” foreign firms in Poland by imposing new taxes thus equalizing treatment of Polish and foreign companies. This strategy, according to leading economists, may jeopardize Polish economic growth and labor market. Poland needs the creation and development of more and larger domestic companies, but this is not necessarily incompatible with the need to attract and retain foreign investment.

Poland’s non-liberal right-wing (PiS) party believes the previous government of the Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska, PO) allowed itself to be subjected by Angela Merkel and Germany and did not defend Polish interests domestically and in Europe. Allowing for a pinch of truth in all this, one must at the same time stress that namely during PO’s term and thanks to close cooperation between Donald Tusk and Angela Merkel, Poland enjoyed the best period of economic progress in its recent history and had a substantial impact on European affairs to an extent hard to recall by Poles from recent memory.

Poland cannot really afford bad relations with Germany if it wants to ensure its long-term progress. This does not mean that Poland must comply with Germany in all policy areas, but pragmatism seems to be the most sensible foreign policy choice towards Germany.

On the other hand, the German government did not criticize too sharply the policies of the new Polish government with respect to the Constitutional Court and the new media laws, at least not as much as some individual German politicians, the European Commission and a number of members of the European Parliament. The Germans have long used pragmatism in foreign policy, notwithstanding Poland’s important role for their own economy.

The words of Jozef Pilsudski increasingly make sense today. He once said Poland cannot have bad relations with both its neighbors – Germany and Russia. Instead of forging an alliance with Germany, the Polish president Andrzej Duda and the PiS government will focus on the “Intermarium” strategy, namely the creation of an alliance spread between the countries of the Baltic Sea, the Adriatic Sea and the Black Sea as bulwark against Russia, and as a strong basis for common influence in the EU. This project was introduced by Pilsudski himself during the interwar period with the aim to protect these countries from the Soviet Union, however, it did not come to bear fruit back then. Today, conditions, contexts (NATO) and policies are different and the “Intermarium” project may seem easier to achieve. It could become a huge success for the foreign policy of the new Polish government, but PiS should not forget Pilsudski’s stance vis-à-vis Germany.

Germany has betrayed Poland with the Nord Stream project and several German politicians have tried to give their Polish counterparts a lesson on democracy without much justification. However, Poland cannot afford to have strained relations with Germany because of the economic interdependence between the two. Equally, it is not a good idea for the Poles to remind the Germans about the events around the Second World War as a political argument today.

 

Angel López Peiró is working on a PhD in Modern History at the Pedagogical University of Krakow. His thesis focuses on the reactions the Polish case during World Word II generated in Spain. In his academic career he intends to specialize on the History of International Relations, Diplomacy, Ethnic Conflicts and Armed Conflicts in Central and Eastern Europe. In addition, he writes and researches independently on Poland’s history, culture, society and politics, and also on the other countries from the Central and Eastern European region. Angel speaks Spanish, Catalan, English and Polish.

The article was originally published on his personal blog in Polish. The author’s permission has been obtained before translating and republishing his work at Vox Orientalis.