Europe after Merkel 06 - 2021 - Item 5 from 8
Merkel failed to tackle grievances in German-Polish affairs
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Merkel failed to tackle grievances in German-Polish affairs

25 Aug 2021 - 13:33
Photo : Skateboarders in front of the slogan "For your freedom and ours" at the Memorial to Polish Soldiers and German Anti-Fascists in Berlin. © ProhibitOnions - English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Chancellor Angela Merkel will leave active politics after the German federal elections on 26 September 2021. As Merkel’s departure after sixteen years will resonate across Europe, the Clingendael Spectator invited several international experts to offer their personal reflections on her legacy. In this fifth episode of the series ‘Europe after Merkel’, Szymon Bachrynowski (Warsaw Institute) argues that historical grievances (complicated by strategic differences and the Nord Stream pipeline) and the questions about rule of law have remained unsolved.

In the public debate ahead of the upcoming German Bundestag elections, foreign policy does not take centre stage. It therefore comes as no surprise that the question of how Germany should deal with Poland is hardly discussed.

On the foreign policy front, interestingly, there is a remarkable consensus among German political parties. Apart from the Left Party (Die Linke; which proposes the dissolution of NATO and sticks to the dream of general disarmament) and the party Alternative for Germany (Alternative für Deutschland (AfD); which questions the current course of EU integration), all other parties support further European unity and solid transatlantic relations with a key role for NATO and the United States as security providers.

One could argue that today, Germany and Poland share these key political and strategic interests, which dates to the end of the Cold War. Ever since possible quarrels such as the recognition of the border on the Oder and Lusatian Neisse rivers were dodged (way back in 1970), most problems that could spoil German-Polish relations were either solved or carefully sidestepped.

Bachrynowski-Marking the new Polish-German Border in 1945. Wikimediacommons
Marking the new Polish-German Border in 1945. © Wikimediacommons

Few in Warsaw will forget that Germany played a central role in Poland's integration in Western structures, especially in the process of joining the EU. Still, in today’s Poland, Chancellor Merkel’s image is mixed: the political right pictures her as a driving force for the further federalisation of the EU (under German leadership) while the political liberal-left frames her as a kind-hearted person who, despite inevitable disputes and misunderstandings, always strives towards consensus.

During Merkel’s sixteen-year reign, German-Polish ties have solidified, which is reflected in booming bilateral trade relations. Today, Poland is Germany’s sixth largest trade partner (third in the EU, after France and the Netherlands). German-Polish trade is growing steadily, from a mere 8 billion euros in 1991 to a total trade turnover of 180 billion euros in 2020.1

Anti-German sentiment and historical grievances
These flourishing economic ties, however, conceal numerous political tensions between both countries that have not been solved during the Merkel era. For example, anti-German sentiment is on the rise in Poland and is regularly and clearly noticeable in public statements by major Polish politicians. The Polish member of parliament Arkadiusz Mularczyk (Prawo I Sprawiedliwość (PiS), Law and Justice Party) argued in 2020 that “Germany has no moral right to judge us. They pushed their own crimes out of their consciousness.”2

In Berlin it became clear that history had not healed all political wounds in Poland

Anti-German speeches could also be heard during the election campaign for president of the Republic of Poland in the summer of 2020. The United Poland (Solidarna Polska) party (which has joined the government coalition) and the Confederation (Konfederacja) party have been notably anti-German, and regularly call for Germany to pay war reparations to Poland.

In July 2020, controversy flared up over the appointment of Germany’s new ambassador Arndt Freytag von Loringhoven, who was portrayed in the Polish (right-wing) press as a suspicious figure due to his father’s links to Adolf Hitler. After a three-month delay, the appointment was finally approved, but not without further straining already sensitive German-Polish ties. In Berlin it became clear that history had not healed all political wounds in Poland.

Bach - Memorial to the heroes of the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 showing resistance fighters defending a barricade. Terence Faircloth - Flickr
Memorial to the heroes of the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 showing resistance fighters defending a barricade. © Terence Faircloth / Flickr

The continued controversy over war reparations is another case in point. There is a near legal consensus – in Germany as well as Poland – that the case for Germany paying reparations to Poland for the destruction of property and the killing of people during World War II is weak and uncertain.3

The anti-Polish statements of AfD politicians and activists are particularly problematic

Still, the Polish ruling Law and Justice Party revived the issue of war reparations in 2018, claiming that the German bill could run as high as 850 billion US dollars. The Polish government has never substantiated and formally made this claim to Germany, but the issue has certainly further strained bilateral ties. German parliamentary legal experts have argued that Warsaw has no right to demand reparations, a claim that is often linked with sidenotes that today, Germany is Poland’s largest trade partner and that Warsaw is the biggest recipient of EU aid.

Anti-Polish statements
The issue of war reparations is further complicated by the fact that the German Greens party (die Grünen) seems to come close to accepting the position of the Polish government. In June 2020, Manuel Sarrazin, a Green member of parliament and head of the German-Polish parliamentary group in the Bundestag, proposed the creation by Germany of funds that would cover the costs of medical care for victims of the Second World War who are still alive, and compensation for the previously missed victims and their children.4  As long as the issue of war reparations is not solved, this question will continue to complicate German-Polish relations.

The anti-Polish statements of AfD politicians and activists are, in turn, particularly problematic. AfD deputy head Alexander Gauland stated several times that Germany should be proud of the achievements of the Wehrmacht and that the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact (which set the stage for the Nazi occupation of Poland in 1939) was just an example of Realpolitik.

Bachrynowski-AfD deputy head Alexander Gauland in 2019. Von Olaf Kosinsky - Eigenes Werk, CC BY-SA 3.0 de,
AfD deputy head Alexander Gauland in 2019. © Olaf Kosinsky - Eigenes Werk, CC BY-SA 3.0 de,

The AfD also enjoys the official support of Erika Steinbach – the former head of the Federation of Expellees. The Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs formally protested against Gauland's statements in June 2021.5  Chancellor Merkel has thus clearly not succeeded in closing these historical wounds in German-Polish relations. Still, some positive aspects should not go unnoticed.

The decision of the Bundestag to create a memorial site in Berlin dedicated to the Polish victims of World War II and the German occupation is widely appreciated across the Polish political spectrum. After many years of political deliberations, the German parliament gave the green light to a project particularly aimed at deepening the knowledge of German citizens about the crimes committed against Poles.6  Another sign of reconciliation and good neighbourly relations is that the state of Brandenburg (which borders Poland) is set to add a declaration of friendship with Poland in its constitution.7

The relevance of these historical sensitivities becomes clear with the ongoing controversy around the construction of the Nord Stream gas pipeline between Germany and Russia, which bypasses Polish territory. Ultimately, this dispute boils down to lingering Polish suspicions regarding Germany’s positive attitude vis-à-vis Russia. To Warsaw, it has become clear that the Merkel government puts economic interests first, and does not consider Russian political and strategic objections.

Bachrynowski- Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki with German Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2020. European Council
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki with German Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2020. © European Council

The two candidates for German chancellor (and possible successors to Merkel) – Armin Laschet (Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands, CDU) and Olaf Scholz (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands, SPD) – both take an ambiguous position on the Nord Stream question, claiming that the gas pipeline should not be used if Russia turns aggressive towards Ukraine. This indicates that in the little will change in the post-Merkel era, and that Poland’s concerns will not be heard in Berlin.

European values and the rule of law
The other persistent thorn in the side of German-Polish relations is the dispute between the Polish government and the European Commission over the rule of law. Almost all German political parties (except the AfD), both in the Bundestag and in the European Parliament, have harshly criticised Poland on their alleged infringements of EU ‘rule of law’ standards.

In September 2020, Germany – then chairing the EU’s European Council – even suggested that there should be a link between the EU’s massive (approximately 750 billion euros) recovery funds and member states’ respect for the rule of law.8  This ongoing discussion on ‘European values’, which has been pushed by the German Merkel government, has contributed to the marked cooling of German-Polish relations over the last decade.

Bachrynowski - Poznań, 2014. Altoemi - Flickr
Poznań, 2014. © Altoemi / Flickr

Despite the rather long list of annoyances and disagreements between Berlin and Warsaw, we should not forget that Merkel’s departure from the Chancellery may well bring about a further deterioration in German-Polish relations.

Whereas Merkel was seemingly keen to keep Poland in the mainstream of European integration, and therefore opposed the vision of a ‘two-speed’ Europe, her successor may make different choices. Since almost all political parties in Germany favour deepening EU integration (an exception is the AfD; to a lesser extent Die Linke), it may turn out that a new chancellor will go all-out for building a European Federation, marginalising Poland and possibly several other Central European member states.

This is likely to be the case if the Greens win the upcoming election and form a coalition government. On the one hand, as long as the rule of law dispute remains unresolved, Poland’s relationship with a ‘Green government’ in Berlin will be prone to tension. On the other hand, in case the Große Koalition (‘Grand Coalition’ of CDU/CSU and SPD) is continued post-Merkel, the Nord Stream pipeline question is likely to remain the main strategic controversy between Germany and Poland.

Szymon Bachrynowski
Expert at the Warsaw Institute