Leaders Struggle to Repair Polish-German Ties

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, October 31, 2006

BERLIN, Oct. 30 -- It had already been a bad year for German-Polish relations, but things really soured this month when naval warfare between the two countries nearly broke out on the Baltic Sea.

On Oct. 17, the Polish Coast Guard fired warning shots at a German tourist ship after it tried to evade inspection in the Polish port of Swinoujscie and made a run for the German border with three Polish customs officers on board. Polish officials accused the vessel, the Adler Dania, of hiding a cargo of tax-free cigarettes and booze; the German captain accused the Poles of overreacting. "Are Our Neighbors Insane?" blared Bild, Germany's largest newspaper.

No one was wounded or killed, but the incident only added to a string of diplomatic slights, political insults and other indignities that have left Germany and Poland feeling more raw about each other than perhaps at any time since the end of World War II.

Poles have been smarting for more than a year over Germany's decision to bypass their energy-dependent country by routing a major gas pipeline to Russia under the Baltic. The Polish defense minister, drawing on a painful history that is never far from the surface, compared the move to the secret agreement between Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin to carve up Poland in 1939.

Poles are also sore about efforts by some Germans to sue for monetary compensation for property their families were forced to abandon after the defeat of the Third Reich, when borders were redrawn and Germany ceded some of its eastern territory to Poland.

At times, Poland's leaders have made matters worse by displaying thin skins. In July, Polish President Lech Kaczynski canceled an official visit to Germany after a Berlin newspaper mocked him as "a little potato" who thirsted to rule the world. Polish officials demanded, unsuccessfully, that the German government take legal action against the journalists.

On Monday, Kaczynski's twin brother, Jaroslaw, Poland's prime minister, came to Berlin -- for the first time -- to meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in an attempt to repair some of the diplomatic damage. While the pair tried to put on a good face and held a joint news conference, they didn't report any breakthroughs.

Merkel rejected Poland's demand to sign a deal forswearing any private German property claims from the war. Although she acknowledged the "unease" the issue had caused in Poland, she said government intervention "would make things more complicated than they are."

Kaczynski said he welcomed Merkel's comments but added that Poland still wasn't satisfied. "In the Polish view, this issue is not resolved," he warned.

Germany and Poland are the two biggest countries in central Europe and share a long border, but polls show a widespread lack of familiarity between the two neighbors' people.

Two of every three Germans have never set foot in Poland, according to a survey commissioned last spring by the Institute of Public Affairs in Warsaw. Public views of Poles are also not favorable. When asked what they most associated with Poland, the top answer was "car theft and crime," followed closely by "illegal workers" and "poverty, backwardness."

Many Poles harbor skeptical views of Germany as well. In a similar poll conducted by the institute last March, 49 percent of Poles questioned said they feared Germany could pose "an economic threat" to Poland in the future, even though Germany is Poland's largest trading partner.

Also ruffling feathers in Poland are recent historical exhibits in Berlin that highlighted the hardships faced by millions of German refugees after World War II. Many Poles saw the exhibits, which closed just before Kaczynski's arrival, as an attempt to portray Germans as victims of a war that they started -- and that left 6 million people dead in Poland.

Sponsors of the exhibit, titled "Forced Paths," said they took pains to include the experiences of other political refugees in Europe throughout the 20th century and questioned whether Polish leaders were seeking to score political points at home.

"I also think politicians in Poland are trying to use the issue to divert attention from massive domestic problems," said Erika Steinbach, a member of the German Parliament and head of a group called the Federation of Expellees, which has drawn the ire of the Polish government. "I am an optimist, and I think the differences can be resolved. If they are not, it certainly will not be the fault of the German expellees."

So far, Poland's government has shown little willingness to forgive and forget.

When the Forced Paths exhibit opened in August, the mayor of Warsaw canceled a visit to Berlin in protest. Kaczynski, the prime minister, trashed the event and responded with a historical lesson of his own: a visit to a former Nazi concentration camp in northern Poland.

Special correspondent Shannon Smiley contributed to this report.

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