Law and Justice (PiS) leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski speaks at a press conference on Brexit referendum in Warsaw, Poland, 24 June 2016.
© EPA/JAKUB KAMINSKI   |   Law and Justice (PiS) leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski speaks at a press conference on Brexit referendum in Warsaw, Poland, 24 June 2016.

Polish-German relations: how historical myths shape the contemporary policy of the Polish government

Daruieste Viata

Poland's conservative government is increasingly critical to Germany, by virtue of a "historical" conflict that is largely imaginary. Anti-German sentiments are sometimes mixed with anti-EU ones, and even Russia, Poland's traditional enemy, is viewed more leniently. Could this be a first sign that a Polexit is being prepared?

Poland is asking for its “rights”: fifteen hundred billion Euros

In 1991 Poland and Germany signed a historic treaty on good neighborhood and friendly cooperation. However, today's relations of the Polish government with its western neighbor bear nothing of this description. One gets the impression that the times of "friendly cooperation" are a thing of the past not only in relations with Germany, but also, more frankly, with Europe. Anti-EU and anti-German voices in Polish politics are not new (especially since the Law and Justice Party took power in 2015), and the closer to the parliamentary elections, the greater their intensity in the ruling camp, which also translates into real government policy. On October 2, at a meeting with voters in Starogard, leader of the Law and Justice (PiS) Jarosław Kaczyński said that Germany had been "milking" Poland for decades ("The euro zone is particularly beneficial for the German economy," complained Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki in an interview with the German press at the end of October) and that their goal was to dominate Poland through the EU (PiS politicians like tu use the phrase "Brussels occupation” to describe Polish relations with UE).

The right-wing government in Warsaw is not stupid, they say, and will not allow Poland to be used any longer, and will even reach for its own - Poles are demanding EUR 1.3 trillion from Germany as compensation for the war damages of 1939-1945. Although Germany made it clear that the case was closed legally and politically a long time ago, the Polish government escalates the tension and uses the Russian-Ukrainian conflict in its arguments: "If Germany does not take the side of responsibility, Russia will never answer for the crimes which Putin's troops are now committing in Ukraine. So I ask the Germans: do you want Russia to get away with today's war, so that it would not have to pay for the crimes? " (Mateusz Morawiecki in an interview for „Fakt").

This dispute may strain relations between the two countries for many years, but apparently PiS leaders see it as a benefit in domestic politics: anti-German rhetoric is supposed to attract voters. And perhaps this will prove to be an effective tactic: communist propaganda has for years fueled and perpetuated the hatred of Poles towards the Germans (at the same time placing Russia in the position of an older brother, guardian and helpful companion). The narrative of Kaczyński, who grew up in communist Poland, largely coincides with that message: Russia is too powerful to irritate her, and eventually Germany is guilty of all evil. Does the strengthening of anti-German and anti-EU moods ("I don't know anyone who would deny that Germany determines the fate of the EU" - Morawiecki for "Fakt") bring Poland closer to the decision on Polexit?

400 years of peace and the myth of the age-old Polish-German conflict

It is true that a key event and a constant point of reference for the way Poles perceive Germans is World War II and the German occupation, but earlier history – and especially the historical commemoration of the Polish-German neighborhood relations – had a significant impact too. When writing about "commemoration" I mean not only historical events, but also the way in which they were stored in the collective memory and were interpreted.

After graduating from primary school (this was the case when I went to school in the 1980s and it probably is the same today), each student had several dates from the history of Poland flawlessly remembered – each of my colleagues, even if he would be awakened in the middle of the night, would be able to tell when the World War II started, in which year The First Partition of Poland (1772) and two more (1793 and 1975) happened, and when The Battle of Grunwald took place (also called the First Battle of Tannenberg) – 1410, July 15th. All these events are connected with Germany and suppose to testify to its ruthless and aggressive nature.

The Battle of Grunwald was one of the largest in medieval Europe - the alliance of the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania decisively defeated the German Teutonic Order (The Order of Brothers of the German House of Saint Mary in Jerusalem), led by Grand Master Ulrich von Jungingen (oh yes, I also knew this name when I was a kid – no one wanted to play this character when we played war, just like no one ever wanted to be an SS-Mann in this type of games). It was only many years later that I realized that I identified the Teutonic Knights with the Germans and not with the Order or the State of the Teutonic Order, in my opinion they were simply Germans – that’s what we were taught in school. The three partitions of Poland, which took place in the second half of the 18th century, were carried out by three of Poland's neighbors: Austria, Russia and Prussia. But in the minds of Poles – I am also talking about myself – they were, above all, evidence of the aggressive nature of Germany.

Prussia and Russia cooperated with each other by signing, inter alia, a secret treaty in which they undertook to jointly act against the Republic of Poland when the parties consider that their interests in that country are at risk. These are historical facts, but it is their interpretations that make the collective consciousness of Poles believe that there was an age-old Polish-German conflict. And yet it is also a historical fact that from the 14th to the 18th century, the western border of Poland was the most peaceful border of Europe, "in which neither Rysy (a mountain lying on the border between Poland and Slovakia) nor the English Channel were an obstacle to aggression" - we read in the book by a journalist and opposition activist from the times of the People's Republic of Poland, Jan Józef Lipski, called „Powiedzieć sobie wszystko… (To tell ourselves everything…) / Wir mussen uns alles sagen ...". Polish literature is silent about this fact, and no one is teaching it at school either (in 1997, when I graduated from high school, the well-known punk-rock band Homo Twist released an album in which the song "Twist Again" includes the following words: „Polish-German friendship is not for me / I hate Germans since I was a child / So pass the „pipe” in a positive relationship / No unnecessary German deviations").

For some reason it was (and still is) more convenient to live under the conviction that we have an unpredictable, hostile neighbor just beyond the western border. Perhaps the simple explanation is that it was the only nation in the vicinity of Poland with which it was impossible to communicate in the Slavic language. To this day, the name Poles use to describe their western neighbors is "Niemiec". "Niemy" means a person who cannot speak. "Niemcy" means "mute people", that is precisely those with whom it is impossible to communicate in the Slavic language. It is an archaic form, but still understandable by Poles today; it is enough to consider the etymological meaning of the word for a moment.

So they are strangers, more strangers than those our ancestors had contact with before the German conquest reached the Oder river (…) And it has remained that way for centuries. Germany is the strangest in the neighborhood. Strangers do not mean "enemies" yet, but the feeling of alienation to xenophobia is only a step away, which is taken when it comes to the first conflicts”, I read in the book by Jan Józef Lipski. And yet each of us knows perfectly well that a conflict with a neighbor will come sooner or later, it is inevitable. However, a dispute with a neighbor who speaks our language (read: his views and values are similar to ours) is something completely different than a fight with "Niemy" (read: it is difficult to talk about values important for both sides, so they probably differ).

The Germans wanted to annihilate the Poles, the Russians - "only" to enslave them

The anti-EU attitude of the Polish right-wing government is rooted in the Polish trained aversion to the Germans. A year before the parliamentary elections scheduled in 2023, Konrad Szymański, who had the most experience in the PiS team in European affairs, left the government; a man who tried to compromise with Brussels to unlock funds from the EU's reconstruction fund. If we add to this the recent entry into the anti-EU and anti-German government of Janusz Kowalski from Solidarna Polska (an extreme group in the alliance of right-wing parties), we can clearly see the direction PiS is taking. Poland is going into full confrontation with the European Union. Thus, Kaczyński fulfills the promise he made during his summer tour around Poland, when he said his famous words to the European Commission: "Enough of this!”. He then stated that Poland made far-reaching concessions to the Union, which, however, did not bring results, and announced that he would take steps in response to hostile movements by the Union. He assessed that although Warsaw had complied with the agreement on the National Reconstruction Plan, it is the Commission which is blocking the funds, "wanting to break Poland and force it to fully submit to Germany."

In 2018 (a year before his death), the father of the Polish prime minister and the leader of the "Wolni i Solidarni” (Free and Solidary) parliamentary group, Kornel Morawiecki, said in an interview for the right-wing weekly "Do Rzeczy”: "The Red Army saved us from biological extermination. The Germans wanted to annihilate the Poles, the Russians - "only" to enslave them. However, this is a fundamental difference. After all, we did not defeat Hitler ourselves - the Soviets liberated us from German occupation.” This sums up quite well the attitude of the Polish conservatives to Germany, but also to Russia before Putin's invasion of Ukraine (but is this Polish-Russian „understanding of souls” really changing so much lately?).

Maybe Kaczyński is irritated when someone accuses him of talking like Putin, but this does not change the fact that he says exactly what Putin does and in the same way.
At the end of the 20th century, Putin scared Russians against the terrorism of Islamic separatists in Chechnya and asked: who will save our nation from Muslims? The answer was obvious: you know who. Only a strong man from the secret service world. Putin won the elections. In 2015, when there were many indications that a change of power is going to happen in Poland, Kaczyński, just in case, scared people with refugees from Syria: they carry cholera, protozoa, and parasites with them! And terror – the media related to PiS reported. Kaczyński won the elections. Putin crushed Chechnya and installed his men there – Akhmad Kadyrov, succeeded by his son Ramzan, who spreads his own terror in the country – Islamic but pro-Putin. So another enemy was needed. Aleksandr Czuyev, a member of the Duma, called on Russian cities, municipalities and oblasts: Declare yourself zones free from propaganda of homosexuality! Gays can deprave your children!” In 2013, Putin introduced a ban on public display of homosexual orientation. Justification: children's welfare. Effect? A staggering increase in aggression against gays and lesbians. Poland, 2019-2021. MP Kazimierz Smoliński calls on Polish municipalities and cities to declare themselves zones free from "LGBT ideology promotion". In 2020, Andrzej Duda, chosen by Kaczyński to run in the presidential election, told his voters about the LGBT community: We are being told that they are people. And that's just an ideology!”

A year later, a gay man who is walking around Warsaw with his partner is stabbed in the back. The perpetrator justified his attack in Putin's language. He shouted: "Don't hold hands, not in front of the children!"

Russia, 2014-2016. Putin rebukes gays, seizes Crimea and dismantles the last relatively impartial judicial body. It is the Supreme Court of Arbitration which dealt with economic matters. Kaczyński started the war with the courts right after taking power – in 2016. He began with the Constitutional Tribunal, unlawfully removing judges and replacing them with loyal pretenders. The court adjudicates in line with Kaczyński, who thinks like Putin. In early 2022, the Tribunal announced that Poland did not have to comply with the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights and the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights. In 2015, the Russian Tribunal stated similarly: Russia recognizes only those judgments of the European Court of Human Rights that are consistent with its constitutional order.

Pro-European pragmatism Vs. anti-German crusades

It's hard not to see these analogies, but are they so hard to understand? For 45 years, Poland remained in the area of Soviet influence, where the enemy was clearly defined: Germany. Therefore, when looking at the actions of the Polish government in relations with the European Union, we primarily see a policy of retaliation: Kaczyński constantly repeats that the Union has become an instrument of the pursuit of imperial policy by Germany. Recently, he even stated that European politics has become a hostage of the extreme left, which is attacking Poland. But - as the PiS leader continued - the left is also threatening us from the east, because in his opinion the left is to blame for Russia attacking Ukraine. Kaczyński is therefore trying to prove that Russian imperialism is leftist. So how is it possible that for many years Putin was the idol of the anti-European far-right parties with whom Kaczyński is seeking an agreement in the EU?

Even in a more peaceful time, the anti-German and anti-European obsessions of the ruling party leader would carry a serious risk for Poland, but in a situation of war in the East they become extremely dangerous. The recent cadre movements in the ruling camp show that Kaczyński prefers to entrust important functions to people who share his obsessions and ideological zeal. A few months ago, there was a struggle within the PiS party - whether to choose the pro-European pragmatism of the minister for EU affairs Konrad Szymański or the anti-German and anti-European crusades of the justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro. Apparently, the Law and Justice Party leader has already decided in which direction he wants to lead the party during the election campaign.

"PiS is far from the top in the polls, and the anti-German charter is to change that," commented German politicians to Polish claims regarding war reparations. “The dispute will strain the relations between the two countries and the Polish government must be aware of thiTherefore it is primarily a national maneuver. There will be elections in Poland in a year's time, PiS is afraid that voters are running away from it”, the“ Mitteldeutsche Zeitung ” wrote. „Reutlinger General-Anzeiger” newspaper pointed out that the issue of reparations is closed and the Polish government "knows it well." The paper wrote: There is no chance of fighting for money from Germany with the usual political instruments such as diplomacy. But this is not what the PiS government is about either. Rather, he wants to send an internal political signal and present himself as defenders of Polish interests opposing the stronger Germany”.

"The fact that PiS can shamelessly raise the issue of reparations in an election campaign, and at the same time gain the support of many voters, should give the Federal Republic food for thought," wrote "Maerkische Oderzeitung". According to the newspaper, it is clear that further efforts are needed to strengthen relations between the two countries. PiS and its representatives in the government do not make it easier." The situation on the Warsaw-Brussels line is similar: the European Commission has a good substantive assessment of Polish plans and ideas for spending EU funds, but it cannot transfer them because Poland does not meet the conditions negotiated by its own government. The suspension of European funds is therefore not the malice of Brussels or Berlin, but a decision of Warsaw (as well as the fact that it prefers to use Putin's rhetoric rather than seek agreement with Germany).

In Polish politics, therefore, we are dealing with a concentration of paradoxes. Or something even worse? It seems that if Kaczyński understood the EU at least a little and had a minimum of good will, he would quickly reach an agreement with Brussels about the funds - like Orbán. Therefore, either he does not understand the EU (like Putin?) or does not want to admit his mistakes (like Putin?). So it remains for him to alternately scare/frighten everybody with Germans and ridicule them, hoping that it will give him a win in next year's elections.

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