The Poison in Polish-German Relations


Warsaw and Berlin should be basking in the winter sun.

Just look at the recent trade figures from Germany’s Statistics office. In 2021, Poland ranked number five—yes, five—in Germany’s foreign trade league. Ahead of it was China (number one), followed by the United States, the Netherlands, the United States and France.

Last year, total bilateral trade between Warsaw and Berlin was a whopping €146.7 billion ($151.9 billion). Not only that. Cross-border traffic, the number of Polish companies working in Germany, and the number of young Poles studying in the country continue to rise.

Yet for all these positive developments, relations between both countries are close to poison. The main reason is the policies of Jarosław Kaczyński, de facto leader of Poland’s governing conservative Law and Justice party (PiS). For several years Kaczyński has been leading an anti-German campaign, which is intensifying before next year’s parliamentary election.

“Over the past six months there has been an emerging domestic consensus of blaming Germany that increasingly cuts across political parties,” said Félix Krawatzek, researcher at the Center for East European and International Studies (ZOiS) in Berlin.

Since Poland became independent in 1989, it has had many run-ins with Germany. One of the biggest was Berlin’s unswerving support of the controversial Nord Stream pipeline that allowed Russia to send gas under the Baltic Sea directly to Germany, thus denying Poland lucrative transit fees.

The project was viewed with deep suspicion by Warsaw that amounted to an insidious relationship between Berlin and Moscow. This perceived “axis” was about doing business behind the backs of the Central Europeans, ganging up on the region, and making Europe dependent on Russian energy.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine nine months ago changed all that. Chancellor Olaf Scholz finally ditched Nord Stream, taking away a major bone of contention for most Central European countries.

At least that’s what the move should have achieved.

Instead, even though Poland and Germany have been united in solidarity for Ukraine and given refuge to millions fleeing the war, Kaczyński has railed against Berlin. PiS has adopted the high moral ground when it comes to supporting Ukraine, especially militarily. At the same time, it has accused the Scholz government of holding back when it comes to defending Ukraine. There is a sense in Warsaw that Germany still hankers after its old and cozy relationship with the Kremlin, which Polish officials suggest is the reason for Germany’s reluctance to play a much bigger military role in Ukraine.

“It’s about Poland’s moral superiority in relation with Germany and the whole of Western Europe; that Poland was right on Russia unlike Germany,” said Piotr Buras, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations’ Warsaw office.

This view of Germany coincides with an escalation of anti-German rhetoric—about the past in general and about reparations in particular.

In October, Poland’s Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau signed a diplomatic note setting out Warsaw’s demands for reparations from Germany for World War II. The amount mentioned was almost $1.3 trillion.

“[The note] expresses the position of the Polish minister of foreign affairs that the parties should take immediate steps to permanently and effectively… settle the issue of the consequences of aggression and German occupation,” Rau said at a news conference in Warsaw ahead of a visit by his German counterpart, Annalena Baerbock.

Poland was invaded by Germany from the west on September 1, 1939, and by the Soviet Union from the east sixteen days later, as part of a secret deal between Hitler and Stalin. Six million Poles, including three million Polish Jews, were killed during the war. Warsaw was razed to the ground following a 1944 uprising in which about 200,000 civilians died.

Berlin’s position is that all financial claims related to World War II were settled by the Two-plus-Four Treaty of 1990 which paved the way for the reunification of Germany. Earlier, in 1953, when Poland was under the communist regime and under pressure from the Soviet Union, it relinquished all claims to war reparations. The Kremlin did not want communist East Germany to face any liabilities.

Berlin has been extremely careful in its reactions to Warsaw’s claims. The last thing it wants is such anti-German rhetoric to be exploited by the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. Indeed, back in the early 2000s, there were attempts by some German groups to demand the return of property Germans were forced to leave toward the end and after World War II.

Former chancellor Gerhard Schröder unambiguously rejected such calls. “Property issues related to World War II are no longer a subject of controversy between our two government,” he said. “Neither the German government nor any other serious political force supports any restitution claims still being voiced. This is our position, and we won’t hesitate to make this position clear before international courts, if need be,” he stated during a 2004 visit to Warsaw.

Opening this chapter would set a dangerous precedent that could spill over to other countries in the region from which Germans were expelled or forced to leave after 1945.

Berlin has tried to improve its standing with Warsaw, especially after two Poles were killed by a stray Ukrainian defense missile. German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht recently offered Warsaw Eurofighter planes and Patriot air defense missile batteries to boost its security. Poland’s Defense Minister Mariusz Błaszczak said he would accept them with “satisfaction.” He changed his mind after Kaczyński said the Patriots should be sent to Ukraine.

“Kaczyński does not want Germany to look good,” Buras said.

German politicians, privately of course, hope that PiS will lose the elections. Yet the main opposition party, Civic Platform, is also being dragged into the anti-German rhetoric. “PiS has managed to frame the entire issue of reparations [in such a way] that it is almost impossible to oppose it,” said Krawatzek.

So much for a thriving trade relationship that would foster close ties. These are especially needed in the face of Russian aggression.

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