Berlin gives gentle warning to mark 30 years of modern relations with Warsaw

Fears that Poland is drifting from the principles of human rights, democracy and law were left unsaid by the German president

German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier walking to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier during a wreath-laying ceremony in Warsaw, Poland, on June 17th, 2021. Photograph: Wojtek Radwanski/AFP via Getty Images

German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier walking to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier during a wreath-laying ceremony in Warsaw, Poland, on June 17th, 2021. Photograph: Wojtek Radwanski/AFP via Getty Images

 

When German politicians travel to Poland, a crucial part of their diplomatic luggage are the kid gloves.

Nazi Germany left an indelible mark on its eastern neighbour with brutal occupation, devastated cities and six million dead – a fifth of the pre-war population – all part of a historical trauma that lingers in the present.

The battered bilateral relationship never had a chance to recover in the post-war years: cold war ties between East Berlin and Warsaw were chilly enough, while Bonn, far away on the Rhine, looked westward.

It took until June 1991 for a united Germany and a democratic Poland to make a fresh start and, on Thursday, German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier headed to Warsaw for the 30th birthday party.

Steinmeier accentuated the positive, pointing out that Poland is Germany’s fifth largest trade partner, countless people commute across the Oder-Neisse border each day, and 50,000 students annually participate in exchange programmes.

All of this, along with close regional co-operation among politicians and border communities, is possible thanks to the doors opened – mentally and politically – through Poland’s EU accession in 2004.

Efforts at closer historical understanding are also visible in plans for a new memorial in Berlin to commemorate the unique suffering of the Polish people under the Nazi occupation. “History weighs heavy,” said Steinmeier. “When we remember it together, we do it also to strengthen our determination for a better future, a better neighbourhood.”

Alert neighbours

After the compliments and the kid gloves, Germany’s head of state and former foreign minister unpacked something else for his hosts: gentle words of warning.

He reminded his Warsaw audience, including Polish president Andrzej Duda, of the principles in the so-called “good neighbourhood treaty”.

“Good neighbourhoods need alert neighbours with an alert gaze and an open ear for each other,” he said, reminding how the 1991 agreement underlined their joint interest and responsibility in building “a united and free Europe on the basis of human rights, democracy and the rule of law”.

Fears in Berlin and other EU capitals that Poland is drifting away from these three principles was left unsaid by the German visitor, but his intention was clear.

Since 2015 Poland’s national conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party has pushed through an ambitious reform of public media, the public prosecutor office and the judiciary – raising red flags all over the continent.

Last month, Europe’s highest human rights court described Poland’s reformed constitutional court as an illegal tribunal, while another key, and possibly critical, ruling is looming from the Court of Justice of the European Union.

With its equally energetic dismissal of critics in the European courts and European Commission, however, Warsaw has left open whether it accepts them as the keepers of the European treaties and accepts the primacy of EU law.

On human rights, the Warsaw government has stoked a long-term campaign against “LGBT ideology” that has triggered violence at Pride parades and arrests of protestors.

New history syllabus

The government has in effect outlawed abortion, while its education minister has announced plans for a new history syllabus framing the EU as an “unlawful entity”.

On Wednesday Jacek Kurski, head of the pro-government public broadcaster TVP, described its mission to fight off a “neo-Bolshevik onslaught” to corrupt Polish morality.

A century ago Poland achieved independence from Russia and “a Bolshevik onslaught that wanted to enslave people all over Europe”, he said. “Today we have a different version of the neo-Bolshevik onslaught that tries to question values.”

He was echoing the words of Archbishop Marek Jedraszewski of Krakow who last year warned of attempts by liberal forces in Berlin and Brussels to impose a “neo-Marxist vision of a new order” on Poland.

Analysts of the Polish-German relationship say economic ties are thriving despite such alarms and bilateral tensions.

Dr Agnieszka Lada, director of the German-Poland institute, said it was striking how, despite their shared history, many Poles today say they would have no problems working for a German company or having a German son-in-law.

“The economic ties are really good too, “ she said, “but one week the Polish government praises German investment and the next week they criticise German capital”.

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