The Polish-German split: A storm in a teacup?

Commentary

The crisis in Ukraine tested relations between Poland and Germany – but how serious are the divisions?

Those who view Polish-German relations through the prism of differences in collective memories were given a gift in 2014. Last year was truly a “year of anniversaries”, with the 100th and 75th anniversaries of the outbreak of the First and Second World Wars respectively, being assigned a special place on the political agenda. On this occasion, Polish President Bronisław Komorowski delivered an important speech at the German Bundestag in which he redefined the interests of the Polish-German community as a “community of shared responsibility”. However, in the context of the war in Ukraine the speeches and celebrations were not as interesting as was the perception – both in Poland and in Germany – of the emerging, new geopolitical order in Europe. Historical analogies are an interesting gauge of political sensitivity and moods among the elite.

In Germany, Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers has become one of the hottest books in recent months, providing a pre-First World War memento that seems very vivid. Back then, Europe entered a disastrous conflict, “a catastrophe of the century”, somehow accidentally, by sleepwalking under the influence of false assumptions, projections and calculations. But Europe – including Germany, pictured in earlier historiography as the unquestioned aggressor – did not make a conscious decision that such a large-scale conflict was necessary. This is, at least, what Clark claims in The Sleepwalkers. His theses were met in Germany with great interest and appreciation.

1914 or 1938?

If the Europe of 1914 was to give us a lesson one hundred years later, it would be that a conflict needs to be kept under control and not allowed to further escalate throughout the whole continent. We should keep calm no matter what – this is the motto today for those who are aware that history tends to repeat itself. But what if the proper analogy lays in a completely different time? Instead of 1914, what if 1938 is the year that we should rather be focusing on?

There is an awareness that the policy of appeasement – a policy of making concessions to an aggressive state in order to avoid conflict – is the first step to ruin.

In Poland, Clark’s book has not yet been released. Hence, it is rather the classical work by Henryk Batowski which described two German attacks (on Austria and Czechoslovakia) which has a stronger impact on our national imagination. The First World War does not have much room in our school curricula and not many have concrete knowledge on the topic. There is, however, an awareness that the policy of appeasement – a policy of making concessions to an aggressive state in order to avoid conflict – is the first step to ruin. Not surprisingly, this historical cliché has become the most popular in analyses of Russia’s current intentions and future developments of the situation in the East.

These differences in historical sensitiveness are a fascinating problem for researchers of memory; and they explain, to a large extent, why the Polish and German debates on the Ukrainian-Russian conflict vary. But differences in this regard are not only rooted in history, but also come from the more recent past. In Germany, the perspective of the latest break in relations between Russia and the West woke up battalions of – usually quite aged –Russlandversteher (those who “understand” Russia) who are willing to loudly call for respect of Russia’s interests and dignity, despite the fact that it is the Kremlin that is actually doing the most harm.

Poles and Germans were living in two different realities and the conflict in the East has created, not for the first time, a deep gap between Berlin and Warsaw.

In Poland, on the other hand, the feeling of a specific Schadenfreude (“We told you so!”) that Russia is not a teddy bear but rather a dangerous polar bear against which we have been always warning about has forced many to exploit some of “our” own historical analogies, even if rarely furnished with adequately drawn conclusions. The somewhat chaotic discord of German discussions, which included warnings about “the guns of August” (in reference to the outbreak of the First World War) mixed with appeals by self-proclaimed defenders of Russian interests, German businessmen regularly travelling to Moscow, and an increasingly harsh tone against Vladimir Putin from the media and the Bundestag, became very confusing for the Poles. It led to the belief that Poles and Germans were living in two different realities and that the conflict in the East has created, not for the first time, a deep gap between Berlin and Warsaw.

The need for change

Hence, the question is: Does this virtual dispute of historical analogies reflect the nature of the Polish and German reshuffle in eastern policy that took place in 2014? In Poland, it was realised quite late that the key element of German discourse was not about historiosophy at all but about the doctrine of foreign policy. The Ukrainian-Russian crisis has not only undermined the very foundation of the traditional German approach to Russia but it has also questioned the premises on which German foreign policy has been based for over the last 25 years. The crisis has led to a major rift between the German political elite and the society in terms of international policy issues. It is not surprising that the signals coming from Germany were ambiguous and often difficult to understand. It does not, however, change the fact that the redefinition of German foreign policy which took place in 2014 was unprecedented and it is that change that is of a key importance today.

In 2014 three of the main aims of German foreign policy were put into question. First was the principle of interdependence which traditionally was perceived by the Germans as the most effective tool of influence, stability, and the transfer of values. In relation to Russia the ideas of “change through rapprochement” (Egon Bahr, 1960s) or “change through linkage” (Frank-Walter Steinmeier, 2007) were the best expressions of this approach. As a result of the strengthening of economic ties, Russia was meant to come closer to Europe and become more predictable. The aggression in Ukraine ultimately defeated these hopes and showed that interdependence could be also used in an asymmetric way.

Germans have always believed in the triumph of geo-economics over geopolitics.

Second, Germans have always believed in the triumph of geo-economics over geopolitics. They assumed that, just like Germany and other countries, superpowers are driven by economic motivation and that the language of economics should become the language of diplomacy. The “revenge of geography”, as Robert Kaplan put it, which became most evident thanks to Russian foreign policy, has eliminated these calculations. Third, Germany had implied that Europe was made up of several strong powers and that Germany was in fact just one of them – primus inter pares. The Ukrainian crisis broke out, however, at a moment when this assumption proved to be false. The United Kingdom has voluntarily put itself on the periphery of the EU and the disproportion between the political and economic potentials of Berlin and Paris, after just a few years of crisis, has never been more serious. Hence, Germany was left alone to take responsibility for building a united European front towards Russia.

The necessity of rethinking some elements of German foreign policy was signalled even before the Ukrainian crisis. It suffices to mention the speeches given by the German president, Joachim Gauck, the minister of defence, Ursula von der Leyen, or the foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, during the Munich Security Conference. However, it was the crisis in its relations with Russia that exposed the weaknesses of this diplomacy. It is difficult to say today how far this redefinition will reach. But with the experience of 2014, we can say that while facing the most serious problem since the end of the Cold War, Berlin rose to the challenge.

The greatest merit of German policy was that it was able to shape and keep a united position towards Russia, despite the internal divisions of EU states.

The greatest merit of German policy was that it was able to shape and keep a united position towards Russia, despite the internal divisions of EU states. It is true that Germany was not first in line among the states demanding sanctions against Russia at the beginning, and the accusation, often repeated in Poland, that Germany waited too long to send a strong response to the annexation of Crimea is not unjustified. However, Germany’s foreign policy, especially in the summer of 2014, was clear. Since that time Germany has been pursuing a consistent foreign policy on four fronts: maintaining sanctions against Russia; engaging in dialogue (without any great hopes that it will be effective); building a coalition within the EU; and organising aid for Ukraine. What is more, it is also the German business community (or at least its official representatives) that supports the government’s policies and is working to convince their partners from other European states to do the same.

Crisis of trust

Why then have there been so many differences between Warsaw and Berlin? Why in the summer 2014, did many prominent Polish politicians claim that “we cannot count on Germany” and that “Germans are Putin’s greatest ally”? The impression that Germany is not a reliable partner for Poland has led to a crisis of trust between the two neighbours. This could be a paradox given the evolution of German foreign policy entails its moving in a direction that is closer to that of Poland. But the state of affairs is more complex. The loud voices of the Russlandversteher are widely cited by the Polish media and Poles naturally make a connection to the “Steinbach issue” (referring to Erika Steinbach, a German politician, and her controversial views on German expulsion from Poland after the Second World War; often seen in Poland as anti-Polish – editor’s note).

Yet the Germans assumed that after the annexation of Crimea its change of foreign policy was so obvious that they did not need to ask for Poland’s support. This is probably why Germany underestimated the disastrous reaction in Poland after Polish representatives were excluded from the so-called “Normandy format” (Russia, Germany, France, and Ukraine), the current framework of discussions aimed at resolving the crisis in Ukraine. Poland feels that it has been purposefully omitted from a political process that is so crucial to its own interests and security and which has been one of the most important issues for Polish diplomacy.

Germany was opposed to the deployment of NATO forces on its eastern flank, a strong demand coming from Poland and the Baltic states.

Another thing that led to concern in Poland has been Germany’s position during NATO negotiations prior to the summit in Wales in September 2014. Germany was then opposed to the deployment of NATO forces on its eastern flank, a strong demand coming from Poland and the Baltic states. Berlin based its position on the stipulations of the 1997 NATO agreement on mutual co-operation with Russia, which in Poland’s view has been breached by Russia on many occasions.

Germany’s cautious position towards Russia did not find a lot of sympathy in Poland. Poland feels that Germany, once the strongest advocate of NATO enlargement to the East, was now refusing Poles (as well as other societies of Central and Eastern Europe) their right to increased security. The Polish critics, however, did not notice that German policy was not only directed towards the Kremlin but also within the EU where Germany had to convince other, more reluctant, member states towards to agree on a united policy towards Russia, a near-impossible mission in and of itself.        

Mutual ground

Were the noticeable tensions between Warsaw and Berlin just a storm in a teacup and a result of superficial differences? In the end Germany agreed at the 2014 NATO Summit to resolutions which largely satisfied Polish demands. Furthermore, Angela Merkel’s speech in Sydney during the G20 Summit, in which she harshly criticised Putin, could have been authored by any major Polish politician. However, the misunderstandings that took place between these two countries also showed how interstate relations, which in recent years were praised for being so good, can easily get stuck in the mud. Paradoxically, the dialogue that is taking place between the political elite of both countries leaves much to be desired. The best example here is the very shallow nature of relations between the Polish and German parliaments. It is quite surprising that Polish fears and objections were virtually unknown in the Bundestag. Thus, the role of mutual parliamentary groups must be redefined in this regard.

A good test of the Polish-German cooperation and trust will be the quick implementation of the resolutions of the 2014 NATO Summit, such as the establishment of a rapid reaction force with its headquarters in Szczecin, on the Polish coast.

There is little doubt that Poland and Germany will continue to face more challenges in the months to come. Today, Europe’s policy towards Russia is at a point from which any return will be difficult, unless concessions are made to which neither Poland nor Germany will agree. Thus, a good test of the Polish-German cooperation and trust will be the quick implementation of the resolutions of the 2014 NATO Summit, such as the establishment of a rapid reaction force with its headquarters in Szczecin, on the Polish coast. For Poland an issue of great importance is German support for establishing an energy union. Poland and Germany should also prepare together a realistic aid plan for Ukraine which would meet the country’s needs but also be dependent on the progress of internal reforms.

Finally, the EU’s policy in its neighbourhood needs a complete overhaul. This is an issue on which Poland and Germany could easily find mutual ground and speak with one voice. In order to achieve this, Berlin needs to help Warsaw get out of the isolation in which it has found itself in the recent months, while Warsaw needs to return to its role as a pioneer and policy initiator at the EU level.

One thing is certain: the crisis in Ukraine has illustrated that Berlin’s eastern policy has no legitimacy in the long term without Warsaw’s support. At the same time Germany remains a vital partner for Poland, especially concerning its ambitious foreign policy aspirations towards Russia and Ukraine.

Translated by Bartosz Marcinkowski. This article is from the current issue of New Eastern Europe - Love Thy Neighbour: How Ukraine has become a test for German-Polish relations. The text originally appeared in Dialog 110 – A Polish-German Bilingual Magazine.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.

Read more on: Wider Europe, EaP, Ukraine, Ukraine Crisis, European Power

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