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Will Gestures be followed by Actions?

The Royal Castle in Warsaw, located at the entrance to the Warsaw Old Town, was the seat of Polish ruling elites for centuries. This grand architectural monument, built in Mannerist early baroque style, was where the Poles drafted Europe’s second-oldest, but first modern codified national constitution, in May 1791. In its long history, the Royal Castle has been repeatedly ravaged and plundered by Swedish, German and Russian armies.

 
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Polish Baroque Jewel - Zamek Królewski w Warszawie
 
On December 7, 2010, the Great Assembly Hall of the Royal Castle staged an important event. Surrounded by the statues of Apollo and Minerva, embodying the allegories of Justice and Peace, under the gigantic painting on the ceiling that depicts the Disentanglement of Chaos, the crème de la crème of international figures from the fields of politics and science gathered to celebrate an historical event that took place forty years ago. This time Egon Bahr, former Federal Minister, Sigmar Gabriel, leader of the German Social Democrats, Bronisław Komorowski, Polish President, political activists and other guests got together to analyze the past and discuss the perspectives for the future. To hold such an event in Warsaw was considered unthinkable forty years ago but over the decades it has become a commonplace.
 

40 years after - Panel discussions at Great Assembly Hall

 

From 1939 to 1945, during the Nazi occupation of Poland, close to six million Poles were killed and the country fell into ruins. After the war, in retaliation, Poland responded by expelling Germans from the country, which additionally strained bilateral relations. During the time of the Cold War, the Soviet Union installed Communist government in East Germany, and Poland became politically connected through the membership in the Warsaw Pact. Polish Communist propaganda was therefore quite positive towards the reconciliation with the East German allies and, intrinsically, utterly negative towards Germans from the West.

 
German Wehrmacht troops during the Warsaw Uprising, 1944
 

The relations between Western Germany and Poland in the mid-1960s were strained in every meaning of the word. Nevertheless, gestures that followed triggered the avalanche of change. Everyone knew the reconciliation would be a long and fragile process. On November 18, 1965, Polish bishops, led by Bolesław Kominek, sent a pastoral letter to their Catholic and Protestant German fellows. The letter was an invitation to the 1000 Year Anniversary Celebrations of Poland's Christianization. This groundbreaking act marked the beginning of a new era in relations between Germany and Poland. The letter caused a strong reaction by the Communist authorities, which infringed any further attempts by a severe, state-organized anti-church campaign from 1965, but the process of reconciliation could no longer be stopped. Several years later, on December 7, 1970, in an effort to ease tensions, German Chancellor Willy Brandt laid a wreath at the foot of a memorial honoring the Jewish people killed during the failed Warsaw Uprising of 1944. Unexpectedly and spontaneously, Brandt fell to his knees in silence. Brandt’s gesture was a striking symbol of reconciliation between the two countries. The Treaty of Warsaw signed that day gave this event a political foundation and initiated political cooperation between the two countries on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain.

 
Willy Brandt’s monumental Kniefall von Warschau
 

Willy Brandt succeeded to surprise everyone. Polish Communists were astonished, Polish intellectuals honored, yet the Polish media dominated by the regime did not publish the photographs of the kneeling German Chancellor. He was widely praised in the West and was awarded the Man of the Year by the Time magazine. But back home, in Germany, the Chancellor became an object of hatred to part of the population. Brandt received many anonymous letters saying that he should be hanged or pinned against wall because of the gesture he made. According to the opinion polls in Germany at the time, the majority felt that his humility was exaggerated. At the same time, Bonn recognized the Western Polish post-Second World War border, the line along the rivers Oder and Neisse. Brandt’s political opponents and considerable part of the population understood this as a gesture of treason and a direct slap in the face to millions of displaced Germans who had left the former Eastern Regions. Yet Willy Brandt saw it as “a symbol for politics and action… that created a new image of Germans. This is the only normal thing I can think of doing in Poland.” In 1971 Willy Brandt received the Nobel Peace Prize, becoming the only German that received the award in the post-war period. During the panel discussion celebrating 40th anniversary of the German-Polish reconciliation, former German Foreign Minister Prof. Dr. Adam Daniel Rotfeld said: “Willy Brandt was a very special person. I keep meeting politicians, and nowadays they think politics are all about cynicism. This is not the main thing; you have to show human side.”

Since then, the two countries signed treaties, created economic partnerships and cultural and educational exchanges in the coming decades. It is important to note that the tempo of their socio-economic cooperation significantly increased after the fall of Communism in 1989 and reached its peak when Poland became NATO and the EU member state. December 1991 marked a milestone in Polish-German relations when the parliaments of both countries ratified a treaty of friendship and cooperation. Warsaw saw Germany as Poland's key to integration into the West. In turn, Berlin considered Poland the gateway to vast economic opportunities in the East.

Yet the process has not been as smooth. Despite many positive signs of a lasting reconciliation between Germany and Poland many Poles in 1990’s remained suspicious of their powerful western neighbor. Reconciliation is time consuming process and in the case of Germany and Poland primarily has required a consistent exchange of top-down gestures which in return produced fertile ground for rapprochement among general populations.

 
 

The results of the 2010 polling among Poles on the German – Polish bilateral relations are in favor of the progress achieved: almost 70 % of Poles have nothing against a German living permanently in Poland, obtaining Polish citizenship, holding a high office or even having German daughter and/or son in law. The perception about Poles also changed in Germany in the last several years, and Polish people are increasingly associated with diligence and tolerance.

And the process is still ongoing…

Although the scale of atrocities and political background of the Polish Second Word War experience and the 1990s Yugoslav wars differentiate significantly, they still share the universal notion of human suffering. Destruction, killings, rape, hatred, and sorrow were present on the streets of the Warsaw Ghetto, woods around Srebrenica, stables in the village of Križančevo and in Osijek homes.

 
Serb paramilitary troops in Bijeljina, 1992
 

The reconciliation process among the states of former Yugoslavia is in its infancy stages and we can see by comparison that reconciliation between the populations of Germany and Poland also took time, efforts, good politics and wise people. Reconciliation is time consuming, politically heavy, socially controversial process of everlasting dilemmas. It takes political dynamics to reconcile and look into the future, but also economic, educational, and cultural partnerships that now exist between Germany and Poland. Today there are 6,000 mixed German-Polish marriages, 650 cities from both countries signed cooperative agreements, Germans are listed in top three countries when it comes to foreign direct investment in Poland and 50,000 German and Polish students are taking part in academic exchange programs. This is the result of forty years of hard work which has not ceased but is constantly progressing and being upgraded.

 
 

Year 2010 and 40th anniversary of Brant’s “knee fall” was marked by the series of very significant political gestures in the Balkans. Can the countries of the former Yugoslavia learn from the Polish-German reconciliation experience after the Second World War? Public apologies by high officials do make a difference and send a positive signal to all others, but they must be followed by concrete actions, economic cooperation, cultural interaction and other incentives that harmonized Germans and Poles at the time.

We certainly believe that the region should move into this direction, showing that political stability is improving.

See also other publications of Think Tank Populari at www.populari.org

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04/05/2011 11:46