It was a chilly day in Warsaw in December 1970. The West German chancellor, Willy Brandt, was in the Polish capital to sign a treaty accepting the country’s new borders on the Oder-Neisse line. Visiting the memorial on the site where the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising had erupted 27 years previously, the Social Democrat laid a wreath. Then, he fell to his knees, his greatcoat crumpling on the ground. It was a daring, theatrical act of humility that led to restored relations between the two countries. Brandt’s act became an iconic moment for the European project, a symbol of reconciliation between two countries at the heart of the continent.
Today, however, what is known in German as the Warschauer Kniefall (the knee-fall of Warsaw) stands in melancholic contrast with the present state of German-Polish relations. The two republics are utterly at odds. Polish ministers are openly and provocatively hostile to Germany in public. German ministers leave few doubts in their official pronouncements that their eastern neighbours exasperate them. The relationship between the two ought to anchor today’s Europe. But, depending on the result of Poland’s election on 15 October, its dysfunctionality may get worse.
Ever since Brandt’s act of prostration in Warsaw, the relationship has determined European reunification and progress. In the 1980s, the Solidarność protests in the dockyards of Gdansk (a city that had itself passed from Germany to Poland in 1945) inspired the Monday demonstrations of East German pro-democracy civil society groups that contributed to the fall of the Berlin Wall. In 1991 the so-called Weimar Triangle was formed – an alliance of France, Germany and Poland sealed in the capital of the prewar German republic. This meeting also started a process that would culminate in the EU expansions of 2004 and 2007. As another chancellor, Helmut Kohl, put it in the mid-1990s, if Germany did not now tether itself to its east as it had done to its west with France, it would “slide about like loose ballast on a ship”.
The story since 2004, when Poland joined the EU, has been a relatively unhappy one – but one equally representative of the wider European story. Warsaw had already been at odds with Paris and Berlin over the Iraq War, where it participated and they abstained in a split dubbed “New Europe” vs “Old Europe”. France’s then president, Jacques Chirac, may have been right about the war, but his exclamation in 2003 that countries like Poland had “missed a good opportunity to keep quiet” contributed to the sense that these would have only second-class status within the EU.
As the Bulgarian thinker Ivan Krastev and others have charted, the sense that countries such as Hungary and Poland had been invited merely to imitate and follow their western partners – Germany among them – contributed to the rise of populist authoritarianism there.
In Poland that phenomenon took some time to emerge. Between 2007 and 2014 Donald Tusk’s Civic Platform led the country, so exemplary in its pro-European liberal conservatism that he was rewarded with the presidency of the European Council. His foreign minister Radosław Sikorski gave a revealing lecture in Berlin in 2011, declaring – in a statement truly remarkable for a country with Poland’s history – that “I fear German power less than German inaction”. In 2013 Lech Wałęsa, the old Solidarność leader, even proposed that the two countries form a political union.
But relations between Warsaw and Berlin tanked from 2015, when the right-populist Law and Justice party took power.
Germany bears some responsibility. Angela Merkel’s decision to embrace Nord Stream 2, a gas pipeline and Russian foreign policy tool designed to harm Poland and Ukraine, was a betrayal of Warsaw. But greater fault lies east of the Oder-Neisse line. The Law and Justice government has stirred up and exploited anti-German feeling among a Polish public that (independent polls show) is instinctively friendly towards its western neighbour.
In this year’s election campaign, the party has tarred Tusk’s liberal opposition coalition as a German puppet and demanded €1.3trn from Germany in war reparations – despite the fact that it was made to cede much of its land to Poland in 1945, has already paid billions in reparations, and has agreed treaties in which such matters were laid to rest. The best hope for the relationship is that Tusk’s forces prevail this month, build a governing majority with the left, and reset with Germany. But that outcome looks far-fetched.
The state of German-Polish relations is a European tragedy in the same way that the Warschauer Kniefall was a moment of European reconciliation. As the continent’s centre of gravity moves eastwards, those two countries are its keystone states. Their economies are densely intertwined, so much so that Warsaw these days feels like a more prosperous city than Berlin.
With the US’s long-term support for Volodymyr Zelensky looking uncertain, Ukraine’s future resistance may also depend less on Washington than on the Berlin-Warsaw partnership. And if the EU finds a way to admit Ukraine as a member, those two cities will become the dual centres of a new European core running from Paris to Kyiv. The stakes of the Polish election could not be higher.
This article appears in the 11 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, War Without Limits