ZOiS Spotlight 22/2021

30 Years of the German-Polish Treaty on Good-Neighbourliness: Civil Society Takes Centre Stage

by Peter Oliver Loew 09/06/2021
The German-Polish border on the Isle of Usedom. IMAGO / fossiphoto

How quickly times change: when Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Polish Prime Minister Jan Krzysztof Bielecki put their signatures to the German-Polish Treaty on Good-Neighbourliness on 17 June 1991, they opened a new chapter in relations between their countries. Today, most of the passages of the Treaty have long since been overtaken by reality: a relationship that had to be regulated at the highest political level just one generation ago now relies mainly on the extensive integration of the two countries’ societies, economies and cultural spheres. But will these relations soon have passed their peak? The fact is that these neighbours’ great interest in each other, evident at the start, has now cooled somewhat, and not just at the political level.

Anyone who studies the Treaty between the Federal Republic of Germany and the Republic of Poland on Good-Neighbourliness, Friendship and Cooperation, to give it its full title, frequently stumbles across elements that seem to hark back to a different era. As just one example, Germany undertook to “make every effort” to foster “the Republic of Poland’s closer relations with the European Community within the scope of its possibilities” (Article 8). Prior to 2004, the Federal Republic was indeed a strong advocate for Poland’s rapid accession to the EU; yet at the same time, it squandered much symbolic capital in Poland by failing to provide unrestricted access to its labour market for Poles until 2011. A treaty can scarcely anticipate developments such as these, which are the outcome of the domestic policy debate, but it can at least cushion their effects.

Missed opportunity for dealing with the past

In hindsight, the Treaty failed to utilise this opportunity, at least in relation to the politics of history: the fraught legacy of the Second World War that burdens good-neighbourly relations is alluded to in the Preamble to the Treaty, but is not mentioned by name (“in the endeavour to close the painful chapters of the past”). It reappears later in the text, but only if one reads between the lines: Article 28, for example, talks about problems “in connection with cultural artefacts and archives”. This lacuna is symbolic and very much reflects the buoyant mood of the tumultuous early 1990s, but it continues to have ramifications today. A mantra continually repeated over many years on the right of Poland’s political spectrum is that Germany is failing to honour its historical responsibility to a sufficient extent. But while the national-conservative government in Warsaw, in power since 2015, spent years crafting its demands for reparations from Germany, the Bundestag took up a civil society initiative and resolved in autumn 2020 to establish “a place of remembrance and encounter with Poland”. If this project comes to fruition in the near future, it will offer outstanding opportunities to address some of the knowledge gaps in both societies.

Nevertheless, there are also numerous success stories that stem from the Treaty itself: the German-Polish Youth Office, recognition of educational qualifications, and cooperation on disaster risk reduction, for example. The Treaty has also helped to strengthen bilateral links between the administrations. Among other things, it establishes the basis for annual intergovernmental consultations, which are intended to foster a regular exchange of experience. However, these consultations were last held in 2018; since then, partly as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic, no further talks at the highest governmental level have been agreed, nor can they be expected ahead of the Bundestag elections in autumn. This noticeable break in communication also reflects the fact that there are significant differences of opinion between Berlin and Warsaw on many issues, and given the current political configurations, there is little prospect of any genuinely future-focused discussions taking place at political level any time soon. Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s planned visit to Warsaw to mark the 30th anniversary of the Treaty on 17 June has been described in the press as a last-ditch attempt to ensure that relations do not get any worse.

Due to the focus on politics, successes are overlooked

In part, relations are in such a parlous state due to a lack of honest engagement by much of the two countries’ media, which instead continue to propagate outdated stereotypes of their neighbour. As a result, the fact that Poland is well ahead of Germany when it comes to digitalisation or dynamic economic development, or that Germany can point to notable successes with regard to social cohesion and innovation, is often overlooked. A further factor is the media’s preoccupation with political topics, which shapes public perceptions of the other country. But beyond that, far too little attention is given to the fact that outside the sphere of political dialogue, German-Polish relations run very smoothly, with a broad range of German-Polish civil society links of unprecedented intensity supported by clubs, societies and cultural initiatives. This dimension of the relationship still lacks a voice, despite its high level of dynamism and creativity. Encounters and discussions free from government tutelage would offer the opportunity for a fresh start – this, at least, is the argument presented by the German-Polish Copernicus Group in a newly published open letter. At present, small interest groups are often able to usurp the public consciousness with their clearly political agenda.

Speed is of the essence here, as both Poland and Germany appear to be losing interest in their neighbour. This is evident from German and Polish language teaching, which both countries pledged to support in the Treaty. In Poland, the number of people learning German is steadily declining, albeit from a relatively high level, and the time when there was broad cultural interest in Germany is long gone, while in Germany, initiatives to promote Polish language learning focus mainly on its role as a language of origin. Restricting opportunities to acquire Polish language and cultural skills to a demographic group with a migration background is unlikely to spark much more than a very limited and, at best, temporary increase in interest in Poland across German society. What’s more, given the emerging signs of demographic change in Poland, the country is likely to lose its significance as a labour pool for Germany very soon. For that reason, too, the civil society links between Germany and Poland may well rapidly unravel over the next few years without new initiatives to boost the appeal of bilateral dialogue. This must include a joint debate about future-focused topics – a debate which should not be conducted solely in political bubbles in the capital cities but must involve the whole of society across all geographical areas in both countries.

Professor Peter Oliver Loew is the Director of the German Institute for Polish Studies (DPI).