Dealing with a Violent Past and Reconciliation as a Challenge for Policymakers and Civil Society Actions Experience from the Church’s Reconciliation Work between Germans and Poles

Twenty-five years after the Kohl-Mazowiecki meetings and joint mass that inaugurated “official” German-Polish reconciliation after 1989, German-Polish reconciliation is viewed as an instructive example both in Europe (Polish-Ukrainian relations) and East Asia (Japanese-Korean relations).

We can say that addressing a violent past against the horizon of reconciliation is at the heart of the European project. This issue has become a major component of our identities as societies. Within German-Polish relations, the experiences of the Maximilian Kolbe Foundation[1] suggest some lessons in dealing with a violence-ridden past and with reconciliation, and provide a major impetus for facing up to other challenges, for example in the reconciliation processes in Bosnia-Herzegovina, as well as for Polish-Ukrainian relations.

One of the central experiences in the German-Polish reconciliation process is that, particularly at the beginning, a considerable effort was needed—both from within and without—to bring about any form of dialogue deserving the name. The German-Polish dialogue is something that we can conduct in a largely relaxed way today, sometimes with a certain self-irony; and it is becoming increasingly routine in nature. This must not, however, allow us to forget the tense and extremely fragile beginnings. As we have repeatedly seen, this German-Polish experience is encouraging for those who are only now embarking on the path toward reconciliation today, such as in Bosnia-Herzegovina. If it was possible to launch a reconciliation process between Germans and Poles despite the immense hurdles, which were discouraging at first sight (and frequently no less so at second sight), this offers hope for other contexts. Without wishing to disregard the contextual details of the German-Polish case, it does furnish quite a lot of generally relevant understanding when it comes to dealing with the problem of peace-building.

The beginnings are always difficult, and they entail certain risks. Following a period of massive accusations, latently aggressive silence, and a lack of encounter—all of which were further exacerbated by the special characteristics of the confrontation between the Blocs—promising initial attempts to make contact were made at the start of the 1960s. These first encounters were characterized by an atmosphere of guardedness and a certain awkwardness. The mere wish to meet was in itself a sign of potential change. It comes as no surprise that the factors that kept us apart—mostly in the form of what remained unexpressed—were a major component of the meetings. It is symptomatic of the shaping effect of an experience of violence that it penetrates deeply into the identity of those concerned, regardless of whether they come from a “victim context” or from a “perpetrator context.” There can only be a genuine encounter between those concerned if these identities are understood in a constructive manner. This includes listening and speaking carefully, but also respectfully remaining silent, as well as requiring a willingness to bear the tension that comes with not being reconciled, but without becoming resigned to it.

Recognition of Guilt and Suffering in Open Fora: The Special Role of Civil Society

The starting point for engaging in a real debate and for holding encounters aiming to bring about reconciliation is tangible respect for the dialogue partner’s differentness and identity, whether reconciliation is actually discussed in these fora or not. This sounds simple, but it is a major challenge for individuals and groups who find themselves in situations of profound irreconciliation. The specific differentness of the dialogue partner simultaneously personifies the lack of reconciliation arising from the violent experience. Accepting a dialogue partner who, in symbolic terms and to varying degrees, stands for the causes of one’s own suffering, personal fears, and existential unease, means accepting the very fact of their existence and their personal entanglement in the violence that has occurred. To avoid dwindling into grim realism, and to exploit the potential to overcome the prevailing circumstances, a fundamental openness is necessary to believe and hope that all those concerned can change for the better. This practical longing to overcome the situation, to re-start relations, is in fact an expression of a lack of reconciliation and of a profound existential unredeemedness. At the same time, however, it is a first step in the process of overcoming the burden of the past. As soon as it starts to guide the action, this longing is exposed to considerable suspicion and will suffer many disappointments. An actual feature of its effective power is its ability to attract the resistance lodged in the societal circumstances that characterize the experiencing of violence, hurt, loss, guilt, shame, fear of renewed hurt, etc. The practical and highly personal, indeed spiritual, challenge consists of standing firm without growing numb, defending and taking up the opportunity to change without making the real circumstances appear harmless. There is a fine line between the reality of resignation and the need for patience.

One of the central challenges of this process is regaining the ability to talk. This requires spaces and fora in which people can encounter one another without fear of overpowering one another. Civil society in particular takes on an indispensable role here. While policymakers must unavoidably operate in the mode of exercising power and representing interests, civil society players can frequently speak up for the hermeneutics of empathy and self-criticism in more credible ways, and hence are much better at creating fora built more firmly on trust. This kind of trust is an indispensable resource enabling people to enter fully into the process of mutual transformation.

In the German-Polish case, these discussion fora in particular had to take account of the massive asymmetry of guilt and responsibility for the complex violent acts. From a German point of view, one of the core experiences, which took considerable time before it penetrated the midst of society, is the critical and at the same time honest question of one’s own guilt and responsibility, this being a prerequisite for setting the stage for an encounter or for a discussion. At the same time, the question of guilt, as virtually no other, very profoundly touches on people’s identity. This is certainly also the decisive reason why dealing with guilt as a rule triggers powerful defense and resistance mechanisms. Dealing with guilt entails much more debate than is implied by the term “transitional justice” that is in international usage today. There is a need to engage in a differentiated debate that can reveal the complex structures, dynamics, and decisions made in the violent acts. The nature of debate changes as the generations pass, initially being driven by the issue of personal guilt and hurt, but later turning to the question of responsibility for the consequences of historical events. Thus, the discourse also changes, from one marked by a “perpetrator-victim” perspective to one between partners who have different historical starting points and characteristics. Having said that, this partnership cannot come into being without first analyzing the context in which the violence took place, and hence the question of perpetrators and victims. The dark, multilayered soil of history must be trodden. Anyone wanting to build houses together on this foundation needs to take this requirement into consideration.

The constructive beginning of rapprochement with Poland by the Germans was marked by the recognition of German guilt and Polish suffering, as well as by the acceptance—however symbolic—of the resulting responsibility. The reconciliatory pilgrimages to Oświęcim/Auschwitz that were undertaken in the mid-1960s by Pax Christi, by the Association of German Catholic Youth, as well as by the Action for Reconciliation and Peace, were as much an expression of this fundamental stance as was the fact of Federal Chancellor Willy Brandt’s kneeling before the Ghetto Fighters’ Monument in Warsaw. All these deeply-felt symbolic acts were the subject of considerable controversy and debate in Germany. This is not surprising since these symbols fundamentally challenged the self-perception that had prevailed in the Federal Republic up to that time. It becomes clear in hindsight that these debates constituted indispensable steps on the path toward re-defining our relationship with ourselves as well as with our neighbors. For religious people, these debates, which importantly addressed the concrete existential meaning of guilt, forgiveness, and reconciliation, also entailed prospects for re-establishing their own faith.

This stance, which was both political and highly personal, also formed the foundation for the rightly famous exchange of letters between the Polish and German bishops, as well as for the bishops’ joint efforts to have Maximilian Kolbe beatified and later canonized. This is certainly not the right place to assess this exchange of letters in detail. It is worth noting, however, that it was a defining milestone in the German-Polish relationship. Let us therefore recall a few central aspects which also appear to be relevant for further acts of reconciliation.

A Difficult Dialogue Continued

Inspired by the experience of the Second Vatican Council, to which the practical and personal encounters between the Polish and German Council participants certainly contributed by building trust, the Polish bishops opened up a new horizon through their ground-breaking statement “We forgive and ask for forgiveness.” This challenged the status quo of relations between Germans and Poles, and between the Communist camp and the West, in the most subversive manner possible. The response by the German bishops gladly took up the offer to engage in a discourse. However, for reasons of political pragmatism, such as the potential to cause a split within the Church in view of the considerable hurt felt by expellees and the desire not to act prematurely prior to an arrangement with international legal implications, they failed to pronounce the words recognizing the existing borders longed-for by the Polish side.

Under the massive pressure of the discussions that were underway within society, and of Communist propaganda, many contemporaries hence considered the step which the Polish bishops had taken a failure, if not actually a major error. In truth, however, the bishops managed to open up a horizon in which their own involvement in history and possibilities for a new realism appeared, both of which aimed to bring about a profound political and cultural transformation in all the societies involved. The fact that this effective gesture did not wait for the German side, but that the Polish side took the first step, regardless of the asymmetry of guilt and responsibility for past violence, was a major (undeserved) gift, and at the same time both an exemplary and a painfully salutary step out of being trapped by one’s own wounds.

Even if some aspects were subsequently placed in perspective because of the political pressure to which the Polish bishops were subjected, the new approach had been initiated, and was able to develop its inspiring strength. The response of the German bishops did not meet Polish expectations. It was, however, much more important that the thread of dialogue could be taken up seriously and it could now be spun on by many different initiatives within the Church. The spiritual framework had been created. With the Treaty of Warsaw, which de facto recognized Poland’s existing national boundaries, the requisite clarification of the political framework followed in 1970, at least as far as this was possible in the conditions that prevailed in the East-West confrontation.

Practical Solidarity and Continuous Dialogue

The time of great gestures had of necessity to be followed by one of concrete deeds in which this political and spiritual framework was filled in and refined. While at the beginning there were only small, barely representative groups which set off on the journey, they nonetheless exerted an impact far beyond their institutional weight. The transformation in society and culture that they aimed to bring about was particularly manifest in the comprehensive solidarity shown by society in the Federal Republic in the Solidarność era and during martial law. It was shown that tenacity and patience were just as important as courage, practical solidarity, and creativity. The actual gift of these processes ultimately consisted in these societal initiatives being accepted by our Polish counterparts and it being possible to enter into genuine relations, even if these were marked by many tensions.

In view of the Communist regimes that were in place until 1989 and of the dynamics of the confrontation between the Blocs which this entailed, the process of reconciliation was restricted in political terms. There were, therefore, limited ways in which the whole truth of the violent events of World War II could be heard. (As we know, truthfulness was a strength neither of the Communists nor of the Cold Warriors in the West.) It became increasingly clear that in particular the efforts across the boundaries of the Bloc confrontation demanded compromises which were sometimes painful and which in some cases remain controversial to the present day. Regardless of these restrictions, the active willingness to enter into a process of mutual change was a moment that was subversive in the best possible way and which helped to dissolve the existing entrenchments and create trust. The trust gained in these processes was one of the main resources when it came to realigning the German-Polish relationship after 1989.

Without the practical and at the same time highly spiritual work of the 1970s and 1980s, it would have been virtually unthinkable to immediately make sensible use of the opportunities for the German-Polish relationship which arose out of the demise of the Communist regimes. This experience is all the more valuable given that it helps withstand the temptation that is repeatedly encountered to avoid the painful process of dealing with the past in a truthful manner, referring to incomplete situations and difficult compromises, by putting it off to a later date.

The End of the Cold War and Its Aftermath: An Uneasy Path

The reality of the spiritual, emotional, and mental decontamination of German-Polish relations representing a long-term challenge became obvious after the transformation that took place in global politics in 1989/1990, which decisively improved the political framework of our efforts. After a period of euphoria, the wounds in society revealed themselves to be much more tenacious than the propagandists of “normalization” would have us believe. On the one hand, the German-Polish relationship made massive progress, particularly also on the historically difficult issues. The traditional reconciliation pathos appeared to have become out of date, not least because of the replacement of generations that had taken place. It was, on the other hand, soon revealed that experiences rooted in the collective memories have a highly-sensitive potential, which will by no means automatically sort themselves out. The mix of questions that society has failed to adequately resolve (such as how to deal with flight and expulsion), and the challenges for the identity of German and Polish societies emerging from the transformation processes and from Europeanization and globalization, constituted a particular cause of potential trouble. Not everyone was able to resist the temptation to take advantage of such potential for political manipulation. The projective function of such manipulations is easy to see through. The outrage that they caused and amplified was real, however, and it created considerable (European) problems, in particular under the Kaczyński government.

One of the conclusions that can be drawn from the experience of these years is that one cannot neglect with impunity the societal and personal shocks which have been engraved in the collective memory, simply breathe a sigh of relief at the sweeping political changes, and just return to business as usual. It is not enough to conjure up the precarious presence of history in reconciliation rituals without looking for ways to deal with it in a constructive manner. The (cultural) characteristics resulting from the different experiences of violence are a societal reality with which we will still have to live for quite some time.

The Current Debate and Experience

The question, however, arises of how the debate on these patterns of violence and the resulting lack of reconciliation is to proceed today. To this end, we need a realistic idea of what form reconciliation can take under the contingent conditions of societal development. Mistaken ideas of the socio-technical feasibility of reconciliation are just as detrimental as a superficial romantic image. If we are to have a sensible debate on reconciliation, the very reluctance to be reconciled, which may be present in our attitudes, must also be debated. We need to learn to accept these characteristics (including our own), and to gain an understanding of them ourselves, as well as making them comprehensible to others.

Such an acceptance is contingent on an ability to adopt a multiplicity of perspectives, as well as to enter into conflicts with empathy. That requires a dialogue-oriented development of the cultural ability for a specific understanding of history’s influence on the present, so that history does not assume more power over the future than is due. The credibility of this dialogue is essentially measured by its relationship with the victims of the violent acts, as well as by the practical conclusions which we draw from it concerning how to deal with violence and its consequences. This ability, which we can only develop together, will become more significant in view of our intensifying co-existence in Europe that will continue to include conflicts.

The German-Polish experience, too, takes on new dimensions against this background. It constitutes an encouraging starting point for extended discussions at the international level, as is shown by the example of the German-Polish Maximilian Kolbe Foundation, among others, which organizes an annual European workshop on dealing with the violence-ridden past of Auschwitz in Oświęcim. These debates aim to understand the contexts of the different experiences, to understand the multifaceted nature of the perspectives, and to gain a feeling for the sensitive points of one’s dialogue partner. It is a practical exercise in multiperspectivity, as well as in mutual respect, attended in each case by representatives from around twelve very different countries. That we—both Germans and Poles—are able to jointly issue invitations to these discussions is a sign in itself which our European partners appreciate. It is no coincidence that these debates again and again provide specific impetus for our activities in, for instance, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Albania, or Ukraine, This development is an expression of the constructive, formative, and powerful effect of the practical experience of dealing with the violent past and with reconciliation.


Dr. Jörg Lüer is Head of the Berlin Office of the German Justice and Peace Commission and Vice-Chairman of the board of the Maximilian-Kolbe-Foundation. 

[1] The Maximilian Kolbe Foundation is a German-Polish Foundation established in 2007 with the support of the German and Polish Bishops’ Conferences to make contributions toward further developing and promoting reconciliation work in Europe, including that of the Church. The Europe-orientated Foundation uses its considerable past experience in the Church’s reconciliation work in order to tackle today’s challenges. The Foundation is operating in this context in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Albania, Ukraine, and Auschwitz, among other places.


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