Interview: Minister of State Cornelia Pieper with the Rzeczpospolita daily
Minister of State Cornelia Pieper, Coordinator of German-Polish Intersocietal and Cross-Border Cooperation, in an interview with the Rzeczpospolita daily (published on 12 January 2010)
You know Poland exceptionally well. In fact, you even studied Polish language and literature in Warsaw for a time. How did you come to be so interested in our country?
I just loved Poland. I got to know the country during a holiday when I was living in the German Democratic Republic. That is why I decided to read Slavic studies in Leipzig. I spent 1980 in the University of Warsaw. Solidarność was just emerging and I can remember the debates at the university and the sit-in I joined. For me, it was the first breath of freedom. Had I not experienced this first-hand in Warsaw, I wouldn’t have gone into politics and I wouldn’t be sitting here now. I owe all of this to Solidarność which launched the process which led to Germany’s reunification.
You stayed in Warsaw after you were finished at the university.
Yes, I had a boyfriend, a geology student. It was in Warsaw that I first fell in love.
Did you not consider staying in Poland for ever?
That could have happened. But I needed to go back to Leipzig to finish my studies. Then came martial law and the Iron Curtain cut me off from Poland. We kept writing to and phoning one another but at the end of the day I lost touch with my boyfriend. Sadly.
In what way does your experience of GDR times influence your approach to Poland and the Poles?
As a citizen of the GDR, it was easier for me to understand Poland. The GDR wasn’t all that different from the Polish People’s Republic. In Poland, the people had more freedom and I remember envying my Polish fellow students who were able to travel to the grape harvest in France during the holidays. That wasn’t possible in the GDR but the Communist regimes in the two countries were very similar. I know that German politicians from East Germany continue to use their knowledge stemming from contacts from back then for their work to promote understanding and partnership with Poland. Nurturing private friendships, as in my case, also helps here. This is incredibly important when it comes to understanding the situation in Poland and with our other eastern neighbours.
What is Poland like today?
I haven’t been to Poland for more than a year which makes me look forward to my forthcoming visit, all the more my first as Coordinator of German-Polish Intersocietal and Cross-Border Cooperation. Generally I really look forward to the tasks that await me. For me, Poland is a modern and liberal country. Particularly under Donald Tusk’s leadership, the country has changed a lot and become a state which works to further European integration. That was not always the case.
You are travelling to Warsaw from the Baltic states. Guido Westerwelle, the German Foreign Minister, did it the other way round and chose Poland as his first port of call as minister.
Myitinerary has no hidden symbolism. I wanted to start by visiting Warsaw but had to change things around due to plain logistics. I have to be in Berlin on Friday and, flight timetables being as they are, it is easier for me to get back from Warsaw. Guido Westerwelle’s visit was an important indicator of our foreign policy plans in connection with our partners in the east, but especially with Poland, our largest neighbour. We want to shape contacts based on partnership following the same principles as for our relations with our western neighbours. I think much remains to be done here. That is why we fully support Donald Tusk’s proposal to revive Polish-French-German cooperation within the Weimar Triangle. That is also a way of consolidating contacts with Poland. I have the job of extending trilateral cooperation to include the cultural dimension.
The FDP’s coalition agreement with the CDU/CSU talks of attaching the same importance to Polish-German relations as to relations between Berlin and Paris. A very ambitious goal.
But a manageable one. We are heading in the right direction – just think of the German-Polish Youth Office – which was set up following the model of a similar Franco-German project. We also want to launch an exchange of officials from the foreign ministries, just like the scheme we operate with France. During my visit to Warsaw, the relevant agreement will be signed and a diplomat from Poland will be sitting in the Federal Foreign Office in Berlin before the year is out which is just great.
For years, German-Polish relations were certainly not the best. Take, for example, the Baltic Sea pipeline or the dispute about the activities of German expellee organizations. A new issue emerged not all that long ago concerning the demands made by Polonia organizations about granting the people of Polish origin in Germany the status of a minority as enjoyed by the German minority in Poland. Can this turn into a bone of contention?
We are happy to talk to Polonia representatives in Germany and are open to all suggestions. I don’t see a potential conflict here. There is of course the question of Polonia’s representation. As we know, the two million people who make up the Polish community in Germany are not homogenous.
Would it be possible to grant part of the Polonia the status of a national minority? They had such a status before the war and as was recently declared, Hermann Göring’s decree of 1940 abolishing this status was unlawful and not binding. That is why the Polish minority in Germany continues to exist.
The rights of the German minority in Poland and the Polish group in Germany are regulated in the German-Polish Treaty on Good-Neighbourliness, Friendship and Cooperation of 1991. Germany committed to respect the rights of Polonia and implement the provisions of the Treaty. We are doing everything to insure Poles in Germany do not suffer injustice. There are of course differences in the legal status of the German minority in Poland and Polonia in Germany. But I don’t see a need to change anything here. The Treaty is good and has proven its worth. Next year, we will celebrate the 20th anniversary of its entry into force which is an opportunity to take stock together. This will be a task for the proposed German-Polish experts group with representatives of both governments. I do not believe there is a need to renegotiate.
Representatives of German Polonia, supported by the Polish Government, point to stark asymmetry between the Polish state’s support of the German minority in Poland and the lack of support provided by the German Government, for example concerning Polish lessons in Germany, although Germany pledged to provide such support in the Treaty.
We are open when it comes to calls to extend Polish lessons in Germany. There are currently 6500 pupils learning Polish across the country, but only 2300 are doing so in public schools. That is simply not enough. We want every Land to provide at least one school with Polish lessons. In some Länder, the situation is better, for example in North Rhine-Westphalia, in some the situation is less good, for example in Bavaria or Hesse. Where I am from, Land Saxony-Anhalt, there is not a single school providing Polish. This we want to change. We are currently setting up a joint Polish-German experts group for Polish lessons in the border regions. We will promote cultural projects and I will take the lead on this myself. I recommend the representatives of Polonia organizations to get in touch with me and outline the problems. As far as I know, the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media will be involved in preparations for the Polonia Congress planned for May. We want Polonia representatives to meet representatives of the German minority in Poland. This can help build mutual understanding.
The name Erika Steinbach, President of the Bund der Vertriebenen (League of Expellees), has been popping up for years in Polish-German relations. She is also the source of a conflict in the Government between the FDP and the CDU/CSU. What is it all about?
She heads an organization that represents its own interests. However, as Guido Westerwelle underscored, relations with Poland are being raised to a new level in the current government. This is where the excitement starts. We don’t want a discussion that focuses primarily on the past but one that looks to the future. We believe the history of the expulsions cannot be simply bracketed out of the wider historical context. That is why we attach such importance to maintaining a certain balance in the make-up of the Board of the Foundation Flight, Expulsion, Reconciliation. The presence of Erika Steinbach in this body is no guarantee of that. I regret that Professor Tomasz Szarota has withdrawn from another foundation body, namely the Scientific Advisory Board. During my visit to Poland, I want to sound out whether another Polish academic would like to take his place.
How do you assess Erika Steinbach’s most recent proposals to withdraw the Foundation from the political control of the government and release it from the structures of the German Historical Museum and increase the representation of the League of Expellees in the Board? Can this be the basis of a future compromise?
Erika Steinbach was sensible in deciding to withdraw her candidacy and at the same time to make a proposal for the negotiations. But this proposal is only a starting point. The German Bundestag will have to get involved in the whole matter because possible changes may mean amendments to the relevant Bill. So the various parliamentary groups need to look at the proposals. This will happen when the Bundestag reconvenes. I think decisions will be taken by the end of January.
How much leeway does the FDP have?
I’m not in a position right now to comment on the individual aspects of Erika Steinbach’s proposal. The FDP parliamentary group is currently examining the proposal with a view to reducing the tension that emerged with the dispute concerning the League’s President and her membership of the Board. We are also looking at the proposal to increase the number of League representatives. But you can be sure we will not support any solution which would harm our relations with Poland. For us, this is crucial and this is something our neighbours need to know.
Have you seen changes in the German culture of remembrance in recent years, particularly after Günter Grass’ Crabwalk … Do the Germans not shift the focus too much to their own suffering, as proven by the debate on the expellee museum to be set up in Berlin?
I see this a bit differently. I don’t think that the question of German war victims currently triggers more emotion than 20 or 30 years ago. The only fundamental difference is linked to the end of the GDR where a veil of silence was drawn over such things and where an entire period of German history was not the subject of public debate. This changed after Germany’s reunification. There was a need to catch up on lost time somehow with a view to the whole span of our history. But I do not see particular pressure coming from within society here.
In Poland, people followed carefully Guido Westerwelle’s recent visit to Moscow where the focus was on the strategic partnership between Germany and Russia. He used this expression that had long been forgotten in Germany and which stemmed from Gerhard Schröder’s days, the man who described Vladimir Putin as a flawless democrat. The term strategic partnership doesn’t even get a mention in the Federal Government’s coalition agreement.
That’s right, but living in Europe it is clear that you can’t do politics and bypass the Russians. I am thinking here of energy questions as well as cooperation on resolving armed conflicts on Europe’s doorstep. Dialogue is the best way of seeking solutions to these conflicts. This is a goal pursued by the strategic partnership with Russia and the EU’s common security policy. At the root of the work performed by the founding fathers of German “Ostpolitik”, Hans-Dietrich Genscher and Walter Scheel, was the conviction that permanent dialogue was needed even with the most difficult partner who has a completely different standpoint. That is the essence of a strategic partnership.
Thank you very much for talking to us.
Interview: Piotr Jendroszczyk