Speech by Foreign Minister Heiko Maas at the International Conference “A century of Germany’s Poland policy: Tradition –the betrayal of all civilised values – understanding – partnership”

15.11.2018 - Speech

Welcome to the Federal Foreign Office, serdecznie witamy!

A few years ago, Henry Kissinger was asked by a student in Harvard what someone hoping for a career in diplomacy should study. “History and philosophy” was the response.

Anyone who knows Kissinger knows that this was more than just career advice.

For history and diplomacy are two sides of the same coin. Only those – such as historians – who know the causes of the successes and failures of the past can draw the right conclusions for the future.

And anyone working in the world of diplomacy is a kind of “historian of the present” – for ultimately they are trying to interpret and put into context the developments of today in order to ensure a better “tomorrow”.

Here at the Federal Foreign Office today and tomorrow, while discussing relations between Germans and Poles during the last hundred years, you will be talking about the past and looking to the future.

What’s important is a readiness to also see the world and its history through the eyes of others. That’s especially true when it comes to relations between Germans and Poles.

One thing is striking here: the historical milestones of the last hundred years have often been judged very differently from the German and Polish vantage-points.

In November 1918, unfortunately, there was no trace in Germany of any joy over Poland’s newly won independence, a joy which we share today with our Polish friends. On the contrary, at that time 1918 symbolised the humiliation of defeat.

Minority-related issues and the demarcation of borders placed a strain on relations. And it was not only reactionary forces in the Weimar Republic who shared the aim of erasing Poland – supposedly a “Saisonstaat”, a state for a season – from the political map.

It took twenty years until Hitler attempted to realise this goal in September 1939 with the brutal invasion of Poland, perfidiously enabled by the Hitler-Stalin Pact. The unspeakable crimes which Germans committed against and in Poland during the following six years are to this day a source of shame for us. We also have to admit that even now we do not pay enough attention in Germany to the crimes against Poles.

  • We haven’t done nearly enough to keep alive the memory of the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, which resulted in the almost complete destruction of the city.
  • We don’t know enough about the despicable attempts to take Polish children away from their parents and integrate them into German families.
  • And we don’t think enough about the almost complete destruction of entire Polish villages in order to create “Lebensraum” for German settlers.

We have set ourselves the goal of changing this and working together to create a fitting culture of remembrance. With the aid of the programme “Europe 1918-2018”, we want to preserve memories and shape the future, and to this end we’ve already funded 20 German-Polish remembrance projects.

Looking to the commemorative year 2019, we now want to launch a further programme in which German and Polish pupils will work together to trace the fates of victims of German war crimes in Poland and of Holocaust victims. This can create a common understanding of the past, but also of each other’s sensibilities in the present.

For example, even today Germans and Poles have a very different view of May 1945. Thanks to the outstretched hand of the West, for West Germans it meant liberation, the birth of a new, free and democratic Germany.

For the people in Poland and East Germany, on the other hand, it by no means stood for a fresh start in freedom. Rather, it marked the beginning of another totalitarian system based on another ideology.

It’s partly due to these different realities that the road to reconciliation was difficult after 1945. On top of this came the long suppression of German guilt. It wasn’t until the end of the 1960s that a new generation set about exposing lies such as the supposedly “clean” Wehrmacht and asking about the perpetrators’ responsibility.

Here, too, remembrance in Germany and Poland focuses on different events. The first major attempt at reconciliation came from Poland. In a letter to their German colleagues in November 1965, the Polish bishops wrote the courageous sentence: “We forgive, and we ask for forgiveness.”

Even though this gesture of reconciliation never found the resonance in Germany which it deserved, at the height of the Cold War it made it clear to many West Germans that over there, on the other side of the Iron Curtain, were people of good will and not alien enemies.

Willy Brandt going down on his knees at the Warsaw Ghetto Heroes Monument in December 1970 led to a broader, but also controversial discussion in Germany about Germans’ responsibility for the suffering of millions of people.

Willy Brandt’s gesture of humility in the face of immense guilt was, as Timothy Garton Ash once wrote, the most important image in West Germany’s history. Willy Brandt himself said, “At the abyss of German history and burdened by millions of murdered humans, I acted in the way of those whom language fails.”

It’s the humanity of this gesture which marks a watershed in the history of Germans and Poles.

  • A history which includes German aid packages during the Solidarność era – that unique protest movement which brought about the liberation of the Eastern Bloc from communism.
  • It also includes the people-to-people contacts among members of the opposition in the GDR and Poland,
  • the embrace between Federal Chancellor Kohl and Prime Minister Mazowiecki in Krzyżowa in that historic month November 1989,
  • the rapprochement after 1989 and Germany’s support for Poland’s return to the heart of Europe with its accession to the European Union and NATO.

Ladies and gentlemen,

“The symbols of today enable the reality of tomorrow” – this quote from the American historian Timothy Snyder describes very aptly the fortunate turn in Polish-German history. Gestures such as the letter from the Polish bishops and Willy Brandt falling to his knees paved the way for the forgiveness of German guilt and for reconciliation between Poles and Germans. Thus arose the trust which allows us to build our future together today.

Above all, this shared future lies in Europe. I’ve visited Poland three times since taking up office. The talks with Foreign Minister Czaputowicz and many other interlocutors have made one thing very clear to me: what connects us is far greater than what separates us. We’re united in the pursuit of the same goal: we want to keep the European Union of the 27 together. For our two countries have experienced for quite different reasons what division means and how cruelly the Iron Curtain split our continent down the middle.

So who if not we Germans and Poles can keep the European Union together and overcome new divides?

During the last few months, we’ve therefore had closer exchanges than ever before with the Polish Government, Polish think tanks and civil society. During the German-Polish intergovernmental consultations on 2 November we agreed on a further intensification of our relations – in almost all areas of state action. From transport projects to security issues and closer coordination of our foreign policy, for instance when we sit together on the UN Security Council next year.

On 13 December, Poland’s Foreign Minister will visit me here in Berlin. And next year we will discuss the future of Europe together with Polish and German citizens.

We don’t circumvent difficult issues. The necessary openness, the normality in dealing with each other – this is the happy state in which Polish-German relations can flourish.

Paul Ricœur, the philosopher admired in equal measure in both Germany and Poland, once spoke of normality as the “incognito of forgiveness”. I think that hits the nail on the head.

This normality, which grows out of understanding and reconciliation, enables us also to discuss differing views. For example, what our understanding of sovereignty is.

My Polish colleague recently dedicated a whole book to this. He takes a critical view of the surrender of national sovereignty to the European Union. His scepticism is partly rooted in Polish history, the trauma of division, border violations and the constant interference of foreign powers in Poland’s destiny.

I think we Germans in particular should understand such sentiments. The history of people in the east and south-east of the European Union became a part of our history with EU accession.

Heinrich August Winkler therefore rightly demands that this be finally recognised. Just as my Polish colleague recognises in his book that ideas on sovereignty can change with time.

If we can manage to bring together our different historical memories and experiences and ensure that our actions are guided by them, we will overcome the divisions we’re currently witnessing in Europe. Shared memories will then create a shared European identity.

That will change our view of the things which supposedly divide us, such as the concept of sovereignty. In the face of an international order which is in disarray, the same applies to all of us in Europe: we will only preserve national sovereignty if we adopt a united European approach.

For who seriously believes that Germans, Poles, French, Danes or Spaniards can defend their values and interests in this world if they act alone?

The impending end of the INF Treaty on ground-based intermediate-range missiles has brought home to us Europeans the heightened threat scenario we currently face. It’s crucial that we in Europe and in NATO do not allow ourselves to be divided and that we stand united in defence of our security interests, of peace.

For that we need a European foreign and security policy worthy of the name. I discussed this, too, with my Polish colleague on 2 November.

A new European Ostpolitik must be a key element in this policy. Its goals should be similar to the goals of the policy of détente:

  • Firstly, stability and security in Europe based on the principle of inviolable borders.
  • Secondly, closer economic integration between East and West.
  • And thirdly, the strengthening of democracy, the rule of law and human rights through closer exchange, in particular among our civil societies.

However, the framework of our actions, Europe’s political geography, has changed completely since the 1970s. Back then, Willy Brandt had to go via Moscow to talk to Warsaw. Luckily, that has changed.

Today, Warsaw is one of the most important capitals in the European Union. We’re equal members of the European Union and NATO. Poland’s word carries weight. An Ostpolitik can therefore only be shaped in collaboration with Poland and the other partners in Central and Eastern Europe.

Our framework for this is Europe. Only if the European Union presents a united front can it bring its influence to bear on its eastern neighbours. Ostpolitik in today’s world cannot therefore be a national policy. Modern Ostpolitik is European Ostpolitik.

What prompted us to think about this European Ostpolitik was a sober stock-taking of the current situation:

  • Russia’s stance is increasingly aggressive.
  • The situation in Eastern Partnership countries is very complicated.
  • And we all know that there are also rifts within the EU – on our policy on Russia, as well as on the issue of the prospective EU membership of our eastern partners, such as Ukraine, Moldova or Georgia.

Developing this into a European Ostpolitik and anchoring it in day-to-day politics is anything but an easy task.

First of all, within the European Union, we have to develop a culture of joint, coordinated action in our approach to our eastern neighbours – a “European reflex” in the Ostpolitik.

Only if we can mange this, will a joint policy vis-à-vis our neighbours outside the European Union be possible.

We’ve made some progress during the last few months. On the plus side, for example, we have our positive Polish-German agenda, on which we agreed at the intergovernmental consultations in Warsaw on 2 November. However, we’ve also stepped up our relations with other partners in Central and Eastern Europe.

  • I’ve agreed with the Slovak Foreign Minister on an intensified exchange between the German and Slovak Governments. We have not had one before.
  • We intend to further intensify the successful dialogue with Czechia launched in 2015. There is still room to do more here.
  • And in the Visegrád plus Germany format, too, we are coordinating European and foreign policy issues more closely.

For example, we’re working together to improve transport and energy infrastructure.

I was also especially keen to see Germany take part in the Three Seas Initiative launched by Poland and other European partners. In my view, it’s a very important building block for a Central Europe which is growing ever closer together at the heart of the European Union.

For that reason, Germany took part for the first time in a summit in this format in Bucharest in September. We will remain active – for example, by involving German business next year in Slovenia.

In the midst of all of this, close coordination with our Western partners, particularly France, remains crucial. That’s why we’re currently using the Weimar Triangle for a new dialogue on Ostpolitik issues.

Our aim is to gradually overcome the minimal consensus on our approach to our eastern neighbours which currently prevails in Brussels.

With regard to Russia, this means bringing the Russian Government to respect Europe’s peaceful order, which it has violated in the Ukraine conflict.

We have to defend principles such as the inviolability of borders and, for example, expand our capacities for preventing cyber attacks and disinformation campaigns.

But it remains equally important to step up the dialogue with Russia – especially now in times of tension. Russia is Europe’s largest neighbour. Only by engaging in exchange with one another will we prevent unwanted escalations. Let’s be honest, without a dialogue with Russia we will never be able to resolve international conflicts such as the one in Syria either.

However, it’s also important to me – and this view is shared by our Polish friends – to point out that Ostpolitik is more than our policy on Russia. A new European Ostpolitik must also focus on Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, the Southern Caucasus and Central Asia – including all the frozen conflicts in our neighbourhood.

The geopolitical landscape of these countries is now much more complex than during the East-West conflict. Independant of the influences to which they are exposed, the various states are pursuing their own interests to a much greater extent than in the past – in some cases burdened by painful conflicts, such as in Ukraine.

The Eastern Partnership was launched in 2009 at the initiative of Poland and Sweden. Next year, ten years later, will be the right time to inject fresh impetus.

The anniversary of the Eastern Partnership next spring and our EU Presidency in 2020 offer an opportunity to renew our pledge of good neighbourly relations to the countries of eastern Europe. We can do so by supporting genuine reforms and efforts to modernise their societies without asking too much of them. This would benefit the people living in these countries as well as the European Union, for peace, stability and prosperity in the EU’s immediate neighbourhood are in its interest.

Germany and Poland have a key role to play in this – as pioneers and engines of such a policy.

Ladies and gentlemen,

When we speak quite naturally today of Germany and Poland as partners jointly shaping foreign and European policy, it reflects the conviction that Poland is an irreplaceable leading player in Europe.

Europe needs Poland:

  • the commitment of Poles to Europe,
  • their drive and courage,
  • and not least their willingness, despite our history, to work together with us Germans as partners and friends.

We Germans therefore don’t want to advance Europe without Poland and certainly not against Poland. Rather we want to work with you.

Or, as the Polish proverb says: Nic o was, bez was – Nothing about you without you!

Thank you very much and, again, welcome to the Federal Foreign Office!


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