The Warsaw Uprising and Faltering Polish-German Rapprochement

You might not have heard about this; after all, it has nothing to do with Boston or John Kerry’s nomination, or his speech, or the Republican reaction. But other parts of the world do continue to have their own concerns. Believe it or not, in some cases these still involve the Second World War, for which 2004 contains the sixtieth anniversary of various of its events. In particular, Sunday was the sixtieth anniversary of the beginning of the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 against the Nazi occupation, and German Bundeskanzler Gerhard Schröder paid a visit to Warsaw to participate in the ceremonies.

Yes, that’s right: for the very first time these yearly ceremonies experienced the presence of the head of government of the state (or rather, of course, the successor to the state) that was responsible for making the Uprising “necessary” in the first place and the bloody tragedy that it was. (18,000 Polish soldiers and 250,000 civilians killed – although, necessarily, the distinction between these two categories was often quite indistinct – and 17,000 German soldiers killed, Warsaw 85% destroyed during the fighting and the retribution afterwards.) For those who follow this sort of thing at all, the mind immediately associates this with another German “first” of earlier this year, namely Schröder’s presence at the 60th anniversary of the D-Day landings. Given a second thought, however, it’s clear how that was rather different; the Germans in France were also occupiers, but of a somewhat different nature than they were in Poland. As Slavs, Poles were in the Nazi race hierarchy rather more “sub-human,” and thus Poland as a land could be raped more thoroughly during its occupation. (Its far-removed location from any Western European observers also made it a handy location for the extermination camps.) That in turn accounts for the desperation and viciousness of the Uprising and its suppression by German forces. Something that bloody and nasty you just don’t get over very easily, at least not as long as people who experience it directly still survive.


But we’ll get more into comparative-historical considerations below. There are first more pedestrian elements to note from that ceremony last Sunday. We take as our reporting text the account in the German business newspaper Handelsblatt (Schröder Acknowledges German Guilt – free registration required). And Schröder did indeed acknowledge German guilt: “We bow today in shame for the crimes of the Nazi troops. In this place of Polish pride and German shame we hope for reconciliation and peace.” At 5:00 PM sirens sounded all over Warsaw to commemorate the exact time the Polish Home Army had set for launching the uprising, and shortly afterwards Schröder laid a wreath at the monument to the Uprising, standing silently for minutes with head bowed. Then he headed off for a walking-tour of Warsaw’s Old City with Polish president Kwasniewski – the true Old City was completely destroyed, of course, and has had to be rebuilt according to old blueprints – where he was warmly applauded by spectators.

Those who are really into the history of Polish-German relations might also be spurred by last Sunday’s ceremony to recall the visit to Warsaw 34 years ago, in 1970, by then-German Chancellor Willy Brandt, preparatory to the signing of a treaty between West Germany and Poland easing the relations between those two states, an element of Brandt’s famous Ostpolitik. That was the first post-war visit ever to Poland by the West German Bundeskanzler; naturally, Brandt also visited the memorial to the Warsaw Uprising, where he famously fell to his knees in contrition. That was a touching moment, but Brandt was certainly not there to participate in any commemoration of the event with his Polish hosts.

(No, having the “head German” present at any such ceremonies as near to the actual occasion of the Uprising as a mere 26 years later would have been obscene in the eyes of all Poles. But it’s also true that the Uprising’s anniversary was not such a big occasion in Communist Poland, mainly because the event also reflected badly on the Soviet Union, whose armies were merely on the other side of the Vistula river during the entire uprising but refused to undertake parallel offensive operations in its support. That is really why this event occupies such a central place in Polish historiography, as it is a glaring instance of how the Polish nation was abused not only by the Germans – but fought back against them – but also by the Russians. And it also shows why the first-time presence at the yearly ceremony of the German Bundeskanzler is so very significant.)


Schröder also could make concessions of a practical nature that Brandt was unable to make back in 1970. And this touches on earlier EuroSavant coverage, in which we noted that the German government’s renunciation of any claim to land taken from Germany in the wake of WWII did not apply to private attempts by Germans to reclaim lost properties on the other side of the Oder river, and that, indeed, foundations had sprung up in Germany (notably the Preußische Treuhand) ready to go to court for German citizens to try to press these claims. In return, Polish figures like Lech Kaczynski, mayor of Warsaw, were ready to present the German government the bill for the destruction of Warsaw.

It was all threatening to get quite messy. But Gerhard Schröder thankfully used last Sunday’s occasion to straighten things out, declaring that the German government would refuse to support any such claims. “We Germans know very well who started the war and who were its first victims. Accordingly, there should be no more room for restitution claims from Germany, which turn history on its head.” It’s just as well that he said this since, as reported today in the Polish paper Rzeczpospolita (Ten Court-Cases for the Fall), the German organizations intend to go ahead anyway, appealing their cases to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. And, as we noted in that previous coverage of the Preußische Treuhand’s activities, if German claimants can’t sue the Poles for compensation for land seized, they might try to sue the German government; apparently now the German government is willing to take that risk.


So much for reporting on this visit and the ceremony. For an examination of current Polish-German relations in general, we take as our text Gunter Hoffmann’s analysis in Die Zeit (Tense For All Eternity?), although it clearly was written in anticipation Schröder’s visit and not afterwards. Hofmann lays it all on the line in the very lead-in to his article: “Our relations with Poland are becoming more difficult. Warsaw is still searching for its place in the EU. The Germans don’t accept Poland as an equal partner.”

The list of recent annoyances in Polish-German relations is indeed long. For Polish “transgressions” there is the Polish stubborness about retaining vote-weightings for the Council of Europe from the Nice Treaty (expressed in Poland even as “Nice or Death!”) which did much to torpedo last December’s summit in Brussels that was supposed to approve the draft European Constitution. And then there is Iraq: not only did Poland’s then-premier Leszek Miller sign the infamous “Letter of Eight” back in the spring of 2003 that supported the aggressive American policy towards Iraq (and he did so without even any courtesy advance-notice to the German Chancellor), but of course Poland actually sent troops to fight in the invasion, and has been heavily involved since in the occupation, commanding its own occupation sector. On the German side there is of course the matter of those property claims sponsored by the likes of the Preußische Treuhand, as well as the activities of the German “League of the Expelled” (here’s the past EuroSavant coverage of this), which has been trying to get a “Center Against Expulsions” established in Berlin as a sort of museum to commemorate the sufferings of Germans driven out of Poland, Czechoslovakia, etc. at the end of World War II. As I explain in that previous €S coverage, the Czechs and especially the Poles are dead-set against this idea, seeing it as setting the perpetrators and the true victims of World War II Nazi aggression on an equal footing. It was that same “League of the Expelled” which actually organized its own commemoration ceremony for the Warsaw Uprising in Berlin last July 19 – a gesture that only made the Poles madder, along the lines of “Who are they to be doing any sort of commemoration of our national trauma?” Then of course there is the current intra-EU issue of comparative rates of corporate taxation within the different EU member-states, with Germany (and France) on the offensive against those with much-lower rates than theirs – mostly the new Eastern European members, including Poland – under the battle-cry “tax-dumping!” (Here’s the EuroSavant coverage of that.)


Perhaps is was fitting in 2004 for the German Chancellor finally to take part in D-Day ceremonies, but, Hofmann asks, was it still not rather too early for the German head of government to be involved in commemorating the Warsaw Uprising? French President Jacques Chirac had termed his invitation for Schröder to come to Normandy a sign that the “post-war period [was] definitively at an end,” but no one pretends that Schröder’s presence in Warsaw means the same thing. Much more patience is needed there, on the Polish side if not the German, for Hofmann notes the asymmetrical flow of history in such matters as these (i.e. massacres and the like), that is, that it always goes rather more slowly for the victims than for the perpetrators, who of course ultimately would rather get their misdeeds behind them into historical oblivion as quickly as possible.

In sum, it seems this trip by the Bundeskanzler to Warsaw was a very ticklish affair indeed, quite unlike last June’s celebrations on the Normandy beaches where it was clear that, at long last, by-gones could be by-gones. Rather, President Kwasnieski’s invitation, and Bundeskanzler Schröder’s acceptance to attend, were gestures of very heavy symbolic importance performed within a strained environment of worsening relations between two states whose heavily-freighted history you could assume doesn’t allow them to have truly bad relations anymore, especially now that they sit at the same table in the European Union and in NATO. Yet they are worsening, even in the opinion of former Polish foreign minister (and Warsaw Uprising survivor) Wladislaw Bartoszewski, who in response to the commemoration ceremony of the “League of the Expelled” declared “Either you are for rapprochement or you are for it only on occasion,” and that “We don’t need any liars or hypocrites, either in our country or in neighboring countries.”

Ultimately, in Hofmann’s estimation, the problem is not that growing list of incidents and bones-to-pick between the two countries, but essentially the Germans’ continual refusal to treat Poland as an equal country. Contrition before a Polish audience in Warsaw from the Bundeskanzler is fine for a start; but Germany still has a way to go to erase an antagonism from Poland that goes back decades, and reining in the German land-claimants even more decisively would be a good place to start.

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