ZOiS Spotlight 41/2019

30 years after the German-Polish reconciliation mass

by Gregor Feindt 06/11/2019
The Reconciliation Mass represented at the Memorial Site of the Krzyżowa Foundation Kreisau Foundation for the Mutual Understanding in Europe

It is exactly 30 years since the Berlin Wall came down, and 30 years since the gesture of peace at Krzyżowa/Kreisau. The anniversary of the reconciliation mass – which took place on 12 November 1989 – has attracted little attention in Poland and Germany, coming as it does only weeks after the Polish parliamentary elections. And yet its history clearly demonstrates the important role played by German-Polish relations during the revolutions of 1989. It also shows how civil society and politics came together at that pivotal moment.

German-Polish relations have become noticeably more acrimonious in tone in recent years, especially since the PiS government was elected for a second time in 2015. Now that it has won re-election, a shift in stance can hardly be expected. Alongside the planned North Stream 2 pipeline under the Baltic Sea and the erosion of the rule-of-law in Poland, the history of the Second World War is at the centre of contention. Since 2015, there have been repeated calls from Polish politicians for Germany to pay war reparations, and these calls undoubtedly resonate with the public. The recent debate about a memorial in Berlin to honour Polish victims of the Second World War demonstrates the continued gulf between the two countries when it comes to perceptions and representations of the war.

Reconciliation and political upheaval

In 1989, in the midst of political upheaval, German-Polish relations were dominated by the Second World War and its aftermath. Helmut Kohl’s state visit in November 1989 took place as Poland was in the throes of political and economic transformation. In Tadeusz Mazowiecki, Kohl met the first non-Communist prime minister of Poland since the war. The two had urgent matters to discuss: besides economic support, the Polish side hoped to finally secure official recognition of the Oder-Neisse line as the country’s permanent western border, while Kohl was keen to advocate for more rights for the German minority in Poland. During the first evening of Kohl’s visit on 9 November 1989, however, the situation changed dramatically. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, Kohl had no choice but to suspend his state visit and hasten back to Germany. Nevertheless, he returned to Warsaw and travelled to Krzyżowa on 12 November.

Kohl and Mazowiecki were keen to make a gesture of reconciliation by attending mass together. Ahead of the event, however, difficulties arose over where it should take place. Originally planned as a meeting with the German minority, the mass was to be held at the Annaberg in Upper Silesia. But besides being a place of pilgrimage, this was also the scene of a major battle between Germans and Poles during the Silesian Uprisings in 1921. A last-minute decision was taken in favour of Kreisau/Krzyżowa, the former von Moltke family estate in Lower Silesia. Although little-known in Poland, the village had occasionally served as a meeting place for the Kreisau Circle; in the Federal Republic of Germany, it was therefore a symbol of the German resistance to National Socialism. What’s more, for many years, civil society groups in Poland and the two German states had been calling for Kreisau, now being the Polish village Krzyżowa, to become an international meeting centre. In the political tumult of 1989, this idea was more relevant than ever.

During the mass, the Bishop of Opole, Alfons Nossol, speaking in both German and Polish, called on the congregation to recognise the importance of reconciliation and mutual forgiveness. Kohl and Mazowiecki extended their hands and embraced one another, to applause from the congregation. Their gesture of peace was part of the Holy Mass, but symbolised very much more: this was a sign of reconciliation between the two nations. However, the memorable encounter did not pass off without discordant notes. The 10,000-strong congregation included many members of the German minority, whose placards – the best-known bearing the message: “Helmut, you’re our Chancellor too” – caused some disquiet in Poland. What’s more, during his state visit, Kohl failed to adopt a clear position after the fall of the Berlin Wall, simply reiterating legal positions that had been heard before.

A symbol of reconciliation – and a civil society initiative

In this charged atmosphere, the gesture of peace at Krzyżowa was a keenly anticipated symbol of reconciliation. It built on the reconciliation efforts made by civil society and especially by the churches in previous years and forged links between civil society and politics, albeit without stating this publicly or explicitly. What’s more, it happened in 1989, at a crucial juncture in German-Polish history. There were major changes ahead for both countries, and Kreisau, with all its associations, was now the scene of a nascent political rapprochement between a free Poland and a Germany on the brink of reunification. Although it took several more years for the promise that this symbol embodied to be fulfilled, the idea of establishing a meeting place for young people and adults became reality thanks to civil society engagement and injections of government funding. In this way, and through numerous other civil society initiatives, the gesture of peace made in Krzyżowa ultimately made a lasting impact.

To sum up: 30 years after the Krzyżowa reconciliation mass, German-Polish relations cannot be viewed in terms of politics alone. Given the dissonance between Warsaw and Berlin, it is worth focusing more strongly on civil society and how it can contribute to bilateral relations.

Gregor Feindt is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Leibniz Institute of European History in Mainz. With Waldemar Czachur, he is the co-author of "Kreisau | Krzyżowa. 1945 – 1989 – 2019", which deals with the transnational history of Kreisau/Krzyżowa. The book will is published by the Federal Agency for Civic Education.