Good neighbours despite a complicated past

Good neighbours despite a complicated past

Martin Erdmann & Mieczyslaw Kazimierz Cieniuch
The Treaty on Good Neighbourliness, Friendship and Cooperation, the 25th anniversary of which we celebrate today, has been a turning point in the recent history of Poland and Germany, two large nations at the heart of Europe. By signing this historic document, on 17 June 1991, the then-leaders of the two countries sent a clear signal that, while not letting the difficult past sink into oblivion, Germans and Poles were opening a new chapter in their relations, embracing a broader cause of constructing a new Europe without wars, divisions and hostile rivalry.

Back in the early 1990s, the decision to make such a gesture required a great deal of political vision and civil courage. The two peoples who had been living alongside each other for centuries had, in the preceding decades, tainted their common history with enormous suffering, aggression and deep-seated mutual mistrust. The nationalist and expansionist mindsets and attitudes that prevailed in post-First World War Europe led to the most tragic conflict in the history of humankind, characterised by atrocities and huge bloodshed. Poland became its first victim and one of the worst affected countries. As a result of the subsequent Cold War and the division of Europe into two opposing systems, the two nations lived on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain.

An important attempt to dispel the isolation and mistrust was the Ostdenkschrift published by the German Protestant Church in 1965, which urged Germans to face the consequences with regard to WWII and to make reparations for the injustices committed. It was reciprocated, soon afterwards, by the hierarchy of the Polish Catholic Church, whose open letter to their German counterparts contained a breakthrough message of “we forgive and ask for your forgiveness”. These gestures may have had no immediate effect, given the domestic and international circumstances, but a seed of reconciliation was sown. The détente policy pursued by Federal Chancellor Willy Brandt culminated in the official recognition, in 1970, of the new German-Polish border on the river Oder and in the establishment of diplomatic relations between the People’s Republic of Poland and the Federal Republic of Germany. The ascent to the papal throne at the Holy See of the charismatic Karol Wojtyła, who became John Paul II, was a crucial factor in promoting the freedom cause across the satellite states of the USSR, not least in his native Poland. Solidarność, the trade union that would demand better labour conditions and more civil rights, proved to be a beacon of hope and a source of inspiration for all those throughout Eastern and Central Europe who yearned for freedom and democracy. Its role was fundamental, not only in bringing about the regime change in Poland, where the Communist era officially ended in 1989, but also in the other countries of the Soviet bloc, including the GDR, which in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall was reunited with the Federal Republic of Germany to form a single German state.

The new political context, in which Bonn and Warsaw could freely devise their policies and decide on their alliances, was conducive to the idea of bringing the two nations and peoples together. It took shape in the form of the above-mentioned Treaty on Good Neighbourliness, Friendship and Cooperation, which provided a framework for the development of relations between the reunified Germany and the free and democratic Poland.

The document has been crucial in revitalising contacts between the two societies. The institutions it called into being, such as the Foundation for German-Polish Cooperation, the Polish-German Youth Office and the Intergovernmental Commission for Regional and Cross-Border Cooperation, to name but a few, have helped to bring people together - experts, activists and citizens - especially the younger generations of Poles and Germans.

Political dialogue between the two capitals is conducted on various levels and in numerous formats. Regular intergovernmental consultations are complemented by meetings of the heads of state and government as well as of particular sectoral ministers. Our parliamentarians are frequent visitors to the respective partner country. Relations between specific regions, especially those located along the common border, are equally close. Many Polish and German towns have developed bonds in twinning projects.

Linked still further by their common membership in the European Union, Berlin and Warsaw are engaged in streamlining the development of the European family of nations. Given their geopolitical context and sensitivity towards the issue, the two capitals are natural partners when it comes to formulating the EU’s policies vis-à-vis its Eastern neighbours.

Learning from the past and looking forward to the future, today Poles and Germans rejoice in the anniversary of their mutual “rediscovery”. Let their case be an example for other peoples and nations to follow.

*Martin Erdmann is Germany’s ambassador to Turkey. 

*Mieczyslaw Kazimierz Cieniuch is Poland's ambassador to Turkey.