At a Crossroads? German-Polish Reconciliation in Light of the Recent Changes in the Polish Government

Urszula Pekala

Urszula Pękala

Dr. Urszula Pekala is a Catholic theologian and a researcher at the Leibniz Institute of European History in Mainz. Her current research focuses on German-French and German-Polish reconciliation after WWII.

June 17, 2016 will mark the 25th anniversary of the German-Polish “Treaty of Good Neighborhood and Friendly Cooperation,”[1] in which both parties expressed the will to close a painful chapter of their history and to contribute to peace in Europe through bilateral reconciliation efforts. In the autumn of 2015, celebrations took place on the both sides of the German-Polish border on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the correspondence between Polish and German bishops in 1965, which is regarded as a milestone on the path of reconciliation between both nations after World War II.[2]

Actually, Germans and Poles have a reason to be proud of the positive developments in their relationship—developments that are remarkable when we consider the burden of WWII and its long-term consequences. However, the mood in both countries is currently not very optimistic in this matter. Ever since the Law and Justice Party (Polish: Prawo i Sprawiedliwość; hereafter: PiS) started governing Poland in 2015, many people in Germany and Poland have been concerned about the future of the German-Polish relationship. This concern is clearly visible in both countries’ media, which since autumn 2015 has attempted to estimate the potential damage PiS could cause in this area.[3] The comments on the current situation keep repeating several elements: regarding tensions between Berlin and Warsaw as temporary; distinguishing between PiS’ attitude toward Germany and the one of the Polish society; considering European context of German-Polish relations; and—also among German commentators—regarding Germany as sharing part of the responsibility for the tensions.

In these comments “reconciliation” is mentioned only sporadically. Does this mean that German-Polish reconciliation is already finished or that the recent changes in the Polish government have stopped the process? Neither seems to apply. Positive developments in German-Polish relations over recent decades were only possible thanks to the reconciliation efforts. Reconciliation is still in demand, but it currently has a much broader sense than solely of confronting the past (which still remains a crucial aspect of the German-Polish reconciliation process). This argument consists of three theses showing that German-Polish reconciliation depends on many factors, of which the current Polish government is not the most important one.

Thesis 1: German-Polish reconciliation is not only about the bilateral relationship, but about Europe

The bilateral reconciliation process is never limited only to the bilateral relationship; it is always embedded in a broader context. In the case of German-Polish reconciliation, this context is Europe, which remains relevant to German-Polish reconciliation in three respects.

First, the political situation in Europe determines German-Polish reconciliation. From 1945 to 1989, the Iron Curtain cut Europe into two opposite political camps. Poland belonged to the Eastern bloc. The Germans—divided into German Democratic Republic and German Federal Republic—were represented in both camps. The different political systems on both sides of the Iron Curtain unfolded into different conceptions of recent history (with remarkable divergences especially between the two German states) and ideological stereotypes about the other nation. For decades, confronting and revising these conceptions and stereotypes in the way of mutual exchange was hardly possible due to limited contact opportunities across the Iron Curtain. Additionally, Germans and Poles living on the same side of the Iron Curtain were bound by a highly ideological “friendship” between the GDR and the People’s Republic of Poland. It excluded any confrontation with the past, which would go beyond the official communist propaganda. But in 1989, the political circumstances changed radically. The political turn in Eastern Europe and the fall of Iron Curtain opened new prospects for German-Polish reconciliation.

Second, for both Germans and Poles, Europe constitutes an important framework of reference as the community of shared values and culture. However, even twenty-five years after the events of 1989, the East-West division has not disappeared completely from the minds of Europeans. In the face of today’s challenges—refugees or the Ukraine crisis, for example—the East-West divergences seem to have been revived. While Western Europe stands for democracy, tolerance, and progress, Eastern Europe is still associated with nationalism, populism, racism, and tendencies to totalitarianism, as well as with a general backwardness.[4] At the same time, public opinion in the West often reduces the events of 1989 and the EU accession of the Eastern European countries to economic motivations, such as the free market and EU funding—regardless of European aspirations based on longing for democracy, human rights, and religious freedom, which led the nations of Eastern Europe to the revolution of 1989. According to Western public opinion, PiS’ policy matches this depiction. However, with its national and populist thinking, PiS is not a characteristically Polish or Eastern European phenomenon, but a part of a course of events we can observe throughout Europe: France, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, and Germany all have similar political movements afoot.[5] The Western European rhetoric about the East is also represented in German rhetoric about Poland,[6] with the East-West divergences zeroing in along the Oder-Neisse border. Thus, Martin Schulz’s comparison of PiS’ policies with Vladimir Putin’s dictatorship[7] is not only a German-Polish issue, but also a European one. The paternalism we can observe in the Western European discourse about Eastern Europe only helps to support the PiS party’s rhetoric aimed at defending Poland’s dignity as a European nation. Comments made by Germans on the political situation in Poland are perceived as proof of the allegedly typical German arrogance toward Poles.

Third, for Germans and Poles, Europe is an area of cooperation, a reality they have to build together. Their reconciliation is part of it and can be regarded as a contribution to peace and understanding in all of Europe.[8] In this context, it is not only the state of German-Polish debates about history that serve as a criterion of the quality of the mutual relationship. Rather is it the coexistence of Germans and Poles within the structures of the EU, and especially the challenges Europe has to face currently, which verify how far German-Polish reconciliation has really progressed and how dependable it is. Many Poles regard Germany’s policy toward Poland as a test for the honesty of the reconciliation efforts undertaken by Germans: does Germany respect the interests of Poland or does it push through its own national interests at the expense of Poland, where the latter would be contradictory to reconciliation? Over the past several years we saw certain disappointment in this matter among Poles, generated by such German efforts as the contract between Germany and Russia on the Nord-Stream Pipeline, German enterprises squeezing out Polish companies from the Polish market, and Germany’s reluctant attitude toward increased protection of the Polish eastern border by NATO forces in the face of the Ukrainian crisis. In the latter issue, Polish (as well as that of the Baltic States) anxiety about national security were played down in Germany for months, and attributed to anti-Russian resentment. PiS has made its political capital out of this disappointment and now uses it to strengthen its narrative of mistrust toward Germany.

Thesis 2: The current tensions in German-Polish relationship did not come up with the PiS government; they indicate existing long-term problems

German-Polish reconciliation—as with every reconciliation process—consists of moments of progress and of setbacks. That happens regardless of the current government. Germans and Poles have progressed remarkably on the way from hostility to partnership. However, two interwoven long-term issues keep challenging the mutual relationship. First, there are different memories of WWII on the both sides of the German-Polish border. The activities of German expellee organizations, including the controversial idea of building the Centre Against Expulsions (German: Zentrum gegen Vertreibungen) in Berlin, raised suspicions in Poland that Germany would revise the history of WWII. Many people in Poland showed concern about the future of German-Polish reconciliation. In 2013, the mini-series “Generation War” (original German title: “Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter”), produced by German public television station ZDF, aroused indignation in Poland: it was read as an attempt to relativize German responsibility for war crimes and to shift the blame for these crimes—especially for the Shoah—onto Nazi-occupied nations.[9] To this day, many Germans are unaware of the extent of Nazi terror in Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe. In Poland, the memory of WWII is much more present than in Germany, probably because the crimes committed there by the Third Reich belong to the memory transmitted in Polish families—in contrast to the remembrance in Germany.[10] How Poles deal with the past—including their collaboration and crimes committed by Poles against Jews—encompasses varied forms. However, today’s Germans know only a little about the complexity of this issue in Poland. Therefore, it happens that Germans criticize the Polish ways of dealing with the past, assuming Poles pose exclusively as innocent victims. Polish people also fail to know the complex narratives about the past in Germany.

The second long-term problem is closely connected to the first one. Since reconciliation is a relational phenomenon, it depends on the attitudes of each party toward the other. These attitudes result from knowledge (or lack thereof) about the other party and from stereotypes.[11] Even though the German image of Poles has improved in recent years, stereotypes about Poles being disorganised, criminal, alcoholic, and anti-Semitic are still alive. These negative stereotypes are (deliberately or subconsciously) transferred onto Polish war victims, who are discredited, so that their status as victims is made relative. It may be one of the reasons for the fact that in the German collective memory, Polish people have no established status as victims of a Nazi extermination war and terror.[12] On the Polish side, Germans are perceived as arrogant and overconfident. Certain mistrust toward Germany, anxiety that Germany would strive for dominance over Europe, and suspicion of latent German historical revisionism still persist in parts of Polish society. This mistrust toward Germans is an important part of PiS’ rhetoric. However, this rhetoric seems not to be solely a result of anti-German resentments of PiS members, but also a reaction to the aspects of German foreign policy and ways of dealing with the past mentioned above.

The issues of memory and stereotypes were apparent not only during the Kaczyńskis’ era in 2005-2007, but also when Polish governments were friendly toward Germany. As reconciliation depends always on both involved parties, the most important question in the face of current German-Polish tensions is: what have both Germans and Poles learned from the progress they made together in the past decades, and what have they neglected? What chances have they let slip by? Germans and Poles have been focused on confronting the past, which is an indispensable part of reconciliation; however, it seems that they were focused too much on the past itself.

As a consequence there was, first, too little reflection about how this past influences the attitudes toward each other. For instance, the question of how the—still remembered in Poland—rule of the German “master race” (Herrenvolk) over Polish “subhuman” (Untermenschen) during WWII influences today’s stereotypes has not yet been tackled. Unlike in the German-French reconciliation after WWII, in the German-Polish case a systematic confrontation with stereotypes is still missing. In the joint declaration published in 2009 on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of WWII, German and Polish bishops called for “giving up the stereotypes, which impede a true understanding and can undermine the trust arduously raised between Poles and Germans.”[13] The voice of the bishops, however, failed to resound among the German and Polish public. It seems that Germans and Poles have taken too little advantage of the current favorable conditions for communication—including open borders and free media—in the German-Polish neighborhood. Thus, in the face of difficulties on the bilateral level or of the wider European crisis, the old stereotypes are revived.

Second, focusing on the past atrocities seems to have drawn Germans’ and Poles’ attention away from what has already been achieved in the German-Polish reconciliation process: Germany and Poland are members of NATO and EU; the border on the Oder and Neisse rivers is confirmed by international treaties; and there is a cultural, economic, and scientific exchange between both countries. Despite prevailing controversies regarding historical issues, there are no more taboos about WWII that need to be broken, like there were in the 1950s or 1960s, when the memory of war crimes against Poles was suppressed in West Germany and talking about the expulsions of Germans was prohibited in communist Poland.

 Third, focusing on WWII, Germans and Poles so far have not created a common narrative on recent European history. It applies especially to the turn of events in 1989. In the German public, the fall of the Berlin Wall seems to be remembered as the actual moment of the collapse of communism, with almost no reference to the preceding developments in Poland and other Eastern European countries. The question is how Germans understand year 1989: as a contribution of Eastern European societies to a peaceful and integrated Europe and—last, but not least—to the unification of Germany, or as the moment when the East slowly began to make up for its backwardness.

Thesis 3: Reconciliation is more than a policy of a particular governing party

 Reconciliation involves many more various actors than only politicians and far more initiatives than official contacts on the governmental level. It is true that political structures can contribute to reconciliation. Yet at the same time, German-Polish reconciliation has been built upon long-term efforts first and foremost by civil society and not (only) politicians. It was not politicians who started to rebuild the damaged German-Polish relationship in the late 1950s. In its beginnings this process developed against the communist propaganda in Poland and the GDR on the one hand, and against the revisionist tendencies at the time—especially regarding the issue of the Oder-Neisse border—in the West German politics on the other hand. Today German-Polish reconciliation efforts engage state-financed institutions, NGOs, and Church organizations.[14] Their actions cover the areas of political education as well as scholarly and cultural exchange; direct encounters between German and Polish individuals who seek dialogue and mutual understanding also play an important role. This basis of the German-Polish reconciliation in the civil society seems to be firm and not susceptible to the policy of PiS.


Reconciliation is a long-term process. It does not necessarily develop in a linear way; rather, it tends to include both progress and setbacks. It is never a state achieved once and for all. Furthermore, reconciliation involves many different actors (representing different groups of society and generations). All of these factors constitute a particular dynamic of reconciliation. Because of this dynamic, the outcome of reconciliation efforts cannot be completely destroyed by temporary changes of political circumstances. Were reconciliation a linear development, every obstacle could be disastrous to it. Since reconciliation is a dynamic process, obstacles or even setbacks do not interrupt it, but rather expose areas where there are still tasks to do. Thus, German-Polish reconciliation is stable, because it is dynamic. This applies to the current political situation in Poland and in Europe.


Dr. Urszula Pekala is a Catholic theologian and a researcher at the Leibniz Institute of European History in Mainz. Her current research focuses on German-French and German-Polish reconciliation after WWII.


[1] Full text of the Treaty in German and Polish is accessible on: (accessed on 05/15/2016).

[2] Documentation of this celebrations as well as the correspondence from 1965 can be found on the website of the German Episcopate: (accessed 05/15/2016).

[3]  For comments see e.g. in German: Kai-Olaf Lang, Misstrauen und Zusammenarbeit. Warschaus Blick auf Deutschland und Folgen für die deutsch-polnischen Beziehungen, in: „SWP-Aktuell“ 2016/A, 13. März 2016, (accessed on 05/15/2016); Jan Pallokat, Polen braucht die Europäische Union, comment on the website of the television NDR on 02/12/2016,,polen372.html (accessed on 05/15/2016); Florian Kellermann, Die drohende Abkühlung, comment on the webpage of the radio Deutschlandfunk on 12/17/2016, (accesed on 05/15/2016); Gesine Schwan, Polen ist nur ein Symptom, in: “Internationale Politik und Gesellschaft” on 02/08/2016, (accessed on 05/15/2016). In Polish: Jakub Majmurek, Berlińska klęska, comment on the internet portal Wirtualna Polska on 02/15/2016,,1027191,title,Berlinska-kleska-Jakub-Majmurek-pogorszenie-stosunkow-miedzy-Polska-i-Niemcami-jest-powodem-do-niepokoju,wid,18162410,wiadomosc.html?ticaid=11704e (accessed on 05/15/2016); Stosunki polsko-niemieckie są dobre, tylko atmosfera jest zła, interview with Waldemar Czachur and Agnieszka Łada, on the website of the Polskie Radio on 02/12/2016,,Stosunki-polskoniemieckie-sa-dobre-tylko-atmosfera-jest-zla (accessed on 05/15/2016); Andrzej Kotula, Zmienił się rząd w Warszawie, nie ludzie. Felieton polsko-niemiecki, in: „ – Magazyn Szczeciński”, 04/01/2016,,150424,19848291,zmienil-sie-rzad-w-warszawie-nie-ludzie-felieton-polsko-niemiecki.html (accessed on 05/15/2016).

[4] An interesting example of this view on Eastern Europe is the letter of German Episcopate, which was read on Sunday, May 8, 2016, in all Catholic parishes in Germany. The letter calls for annual offertory for Renovabis, a charity organization supporting Christians in Eastern Europe. The opening passage of this letter reads as follows: „Many young people in the East of Europe are worried about their future. They live under difficult circumstances and often see no prospects. Poverty, unemployment and corruption coin their environment.” [English translation – U.P.], Aufruf der deutschen Bischöfe zur Pfingstaktion Renovabis 2016, (accessed on 05/15/2016). The call is well-intentioned, but it has a side effect: it strengthens the gloomy image of Eastern Europe and neglects completely both the positive developments in this part of Europe and differences between particular countries.

[5] Cf. eg. Populismus in Deutschland. Ähnlichkeiten zu den 20er-Jahren werden zunehmend unheimlich. Paul Nolte interviews Michael Köhler, on the webpage of the radio Deutschlandfunk on 05/07/2016, (accessed on 05/15/2016);; Wolfgang Schmale, Brexit verschoben, Exitus der EU beschleunigt, in: Wolfgang Schmale, Blog „Mein Europa“, on 02/21/2016, (accessed on 05/15/2016).

[6] Cf. e.g. Jakob Augstein, Der schlechte Polenwitz, in: „Spiegel Online“, on 01/04/2016, (accessed  on 05/15/2016).

[7]Cf. e.g. Thomas Gutschker, Martin Schulz zu Polen: „Das ist gelenkte Demokratie nach Putins Art“, in: Frankfurter Allgemeine, 01/09/2016, (accessed on 05/15/2016).

[8] Cf. e.g.: Gemeinsame Erklärung der Deutschen Bischofskonferenz und der Polnischen Bischofskonferenz aus Anlass des 30. Jahrestages des Briefwechsels von 1965 (13. Dezember 1995), in: Lange Wege – Dokumente zur Versöhnungsarbeit der Katholischen Kirche in Deutschland, Sekretariat der Deutschen Bischofskonferenz (ed.), Bonn 2009, 125-138, at 136-137; Gemeinsame Erklärung der Deutschen Bischofskonferenz und der Polnischen Bischofskonferenz aus Anlass des 40. Jahrestages des Briefwechsels von 1965 (21. September 2005), in: ibid., 139-143, at 142.

[9] The history vision presented in this drama was, however, strongly criticized also in Germany and partially in the USA. See e.g.: M. Schulze-Wessel, Falschen Vorstellungen und Begriffen energisch entgegenwirken, (accessed on 05/15/2016); A. O. Scott, A History Lesson, Airbrushed. ‘Generation War’ Adds a Glow to a German Era, (accessed on 05/15/2016).

[10] Björn Krondorfer, Abschied von (familien-)biographischer Unschuld im Land der Täter. Zur Positionierung theologischer Diskurse nach der Schoah, in: Katharina von Kellenbach, Björn Krondorfer, Norbert Reck (eds.), Von Gott reden im Land der Täter. Theologische Stimmen der dritten Generation seit der Schoah. Darmstadt 2001, 11-28, at 20, 22.

[11] Hans Henning Hahn, ‘Mit denen da kann man sich einfach nicht vertragen‘. Methodische Überlegungen zur Rolle von Stereotypen in Versöhnungsprozessen, in: „Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte“ 26 (2013), 1,  63-72, at 64-65; Anna Kochanowska-Nieborak, Zur Relation von Versöhnung, Stereotypen, Geschichtspolitik und Erinnerungskultur, in: „Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte“, 26 (2013), 1, S. 95-115.

[12] Anna Kochanowska-Nieborak, Zur Relation von Versöhnung, Stereotypen, Geschichtspolitik und Erinnerungskultur, 111.

[13] Erklärung aus Anlass des 70. Jahrestages des Beginns des Zweiten Weltkrieges am 1. September 1939 (25.08.2009), in: Akta Konferencji Episkopatu Polski 16 (2009), Biuro Prasowe Episkopatu Polski (ed.), Warszawa 2009, 16-19, at 17.

[14] E.g., Deutsch-Polnisches Jugendwerk  (, Foundation for Polish-German Cooperation (, Foundation for Polish-German Reconciliation (, Krzyzowa Foundation (, Deutsch-Polnische Wissenschaftsstiftung (, Deutsches Polen-Institut in Darmstadt (; among the Church based initatives e.g.: Centre for Dialogue and Prayer in Oświęcim (, Maximilian-Kolbe-Stiftung (, the Ecumenical Pilgrimage Magdeburg-Gniezno taking place every year.


The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.