June 2011 marked the twentieth anniversary of the signing of the Polish–German Treaty of Good Neighbourly Relations and Friendly Cooperation (in German, in Polish), designed to signal a new start between two states, whose relations in the twentieth century had degenerated to the point of fatal toxicity. All the more remarkable is thus the astonishing success that the treaty had in resetting German-Polish relations and bringing them to an unprecedented level of constructive and mutually beneficial engagement across all levels of government, business and society.

Today, this is widely recognised in Poland and Germany, but is hardly appreciated outside these two countries. During the course of a state visit to Germany on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the treaty’s signature, the current Polish president, Bronisław Komorowski remarked that of all the reconciliation projects in Europe, the Polish-German case was by the far the most significant and that the goals set in 1991 had largely been achieved. There is a great deal of truth in Komorowski’s words, but it has taken years of painstaking work to relieve Polish-German relations of the poison in which they were enveloped, particularly during World War Two and its aftermath. During the period of communist rule in Poland negative stereotypes of Germany and the Germans were used to buttress an unpopular regime within a society that was conscious of its own history and which was conscious of its role of victim. In light of this legacy, one cannot but acknowledge the importance of memory in shaping perceptions of Germany and the Germans in Poland. The stereotypes that resulted are still there, but they are less prevalent and less widely spread, notably because both sides have worked hard to overcome them.

Central to this process, and intrinsically linked to each other, have been the status of the German minority in Poland and the country’s endeavour to ‘Return to Europe’ as both have resulted in a re-appraisal of Poland’s historic encounters with Germany and the Germans. This can be easily illustrated by looking at the changed status of the German minority in Opole Silesia, the only region in Poland with a sizeable German community. In recent years the German minority in Poland has become successfully embedded within the politics of the Opole Voivodship. In the late 1980s the German minority in Poland was largely estranged from wider Polish society and was essentially backward–looking and nostalgic towards a past of uncertain provenance. However, as part and parcel of the wider re-appraisal within Polish society with regard to all things German, the German minority in Poland has also sought to re-visit the past and as a result has been able to confront and overcome its own stereotypes. Without the positive steps—taken by successive German and Polish governments alike and since the late 1980s in particular—to encourage, support and sustain this process this re-appraisal of historical memory could not have taken place and Poland’s endeavours to engineer the ‘Return to Europe’ would in all likelihood have been futile.

The changes that have occurred in Poland and in bilateral Polish-German relations since the signing of the Treaty of Good Neighbourly Relations in June 1991 have been momentous. However, it is important to bear in mind that the signing of treaties and international agreements can but be a framework for more fundamental changes in attitude at every level of society that has been essential to lift German-Polish relations to the level where they are today. The road there was paved with serious obstacles at times and not without setbacks, but eventually it was the individual and joint efforts of both governments that brought the success that both sides sought: Poland’s ‘Return to Europe’.

For the Polish government, this meant acknowledgement of the fact that its indigenous German minority was much larger than the claimed 3,500 of the mid-1980s. It meant recognition of the fact that that despite the atrocities visited upon Poland by the Nazis, the wholesale forcible expropriation and expulsion of ethnic Germans between 1945-49 was neither solely the work of the Soviet Union nor “an orderly and humane transfer according to the norms of the Potsdam Agreement”. And it necessitated the establishment of a minority rights regime for the German and other minorities, in accordance with EU and Council of Europe norms.

For the German government it meant according definitive recognition of Poland’s western border and combating stereotypes of ‘polnische Wirtschaft’ and of Poles as argumentative incorrigible drunks. It also meant working with the German minority in Poland and the politically vocal and not always conciliatory community of German post-1945 expellees and refugees from Poland to bring them to accept that the border was fixed, that no special territorial status would be accorded to the minority, and that claims for restitution would have to be abandoned and replaced by an approach that shifted from an obsession with a selective interpretation of the past to the articulation of a political, social and cultural programme firmly directed toward the needs of the community itself. It was only with the common realisation that the pursuit of these and other maximal aims, which themselves had been generated by the memory of past events, had to be abandoned that strategies of rapprochement could be implemented in Opole Silesia itself.

In sum, this change in attitudes has come about as a result of the exploration of memory, its re-interpretation and the application of this re-interpreted memory to the contemporary context. Problems do still remain, as is evidenced to this day by the antics of the national conservative right in Poland and the more antediluvian of some in the expellee community. Yet, the message they articulate has less and less purchase among the wider population. It is the treaty of 1991 and the message behind it that counts today. In other words, Germany and Poland have become genuine partners in Europe and have left behind them, but neither forgotten nor denied, a painful history in which they and/or outsiders decided each other’s fate: from the partitions of the eighteenth century, to the Treaty of Versailles, the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, to the agreements of Yalta and Potsdam. The changes to this pattern of relationships carry a broader lesson. Perceptions of the past govern contemporary attitudes, and in so doing can constrain opportunities for reconciliation whilst simultaneously entrenching the rule of authoritarian elites. It is necessary to challenge established negative stereotypes in order to break free of both such stereotypes and authoritarianism. The changed nature of the relationship between Poland and Germany demonstrates how transitions coupled with the re-appraisal of memory can create new opportunity structures for the re-shaping of bilateral relations that in turn can improve the position of ordinary citizens and allow them to become full members of the societies in which they reside. Above all, the success of the Polish–German Treaty of Good Neighbourly Relations and Friendly Cooperation, signed two decades ago, demonstrates that no matter how painful a common history may be, it need not be repeated over and over again.

Stefan Wolff is Professor of International Security at the University of Birmingham, England, UK.  His website is www.stefanwolff.com. Karl Cordell is Professor of Politics at the University of Plymouth, UK, and is co-editor of Ethnopolitics.

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