17 June is one of those days in German history that conjures up mixed feelings. On the one hand, we remember the violent crushing of the 1953 Uprising in the GDR and thus the division of Germany and Europe. On the other hand, this day, 17 June, saw a major step being taken to overcome this very division. Just as the process of reconciliation with France laid the foundation stone for European integration after the Second World War, so the Treaty on Good Neighbourliness signed with Poland on 17 June 1991 is a crucial building block to help Europe’s East and West grow closer together. After German crimes during the Second World War and the division of the Cold War, the Treaty became a symbol of Poland’s readiness to engage in reconciliation. Over the last three decades, this has enabled us to look to the future together without bracketing out the past.
There are three reasons why this is still relevant today. Firstly, just as it was back then, Europe today is facing a geopolitical watershed moment. Powers such as China and Russia are challenging our democracies and the international order in ever more blatant fashion. Our continent is surrounded by crisis and conflict. Europe needs to react. Secondly, the experience of the 1990s shows us how to deal with such turmoil, namely by strengthening Europe’s unity. And thirdly, Germany and Poland, countries at the heart of Europe, are called upon to serve as bridge-builders in times of upheaval. Only if we keep East and West together will we be able to make Europe strong for a new era.
Our relations have been revolutionised since the Treaty on Good Neighbourliness. Those observers who tend to focus above all on differences of opinion in the daily grind of politics may well disagree. However, I believe that the day‑to‑day reality of Germans and Poles is first and foremost the more than 850,000 Poles living and working in Germany. It is the tens of thousands of commuters crossing the border every day, a border now free of barriers and fences. It is the thousands of companies which have built the tightest of networks between our economic areas. And it is political partners working together as a matter of course in the EU and NATO.
One reason for this is perhaps that our view of the past has become more closely aligned in recent years. We have become more aware of the suffering of the civilian population of Poland in the Second World War – suffering which for many years was largely overlooked in Germany’s collective memory. Last year’s decision in the Bundestag to set up a forum in Berlin for remembrance and exchange focussing on the Polish victims of the Second World War and the National Socialist occupation of Poland played a major role here. We are working hard now to make this a reality.
And I firmly believe that this process of shared remembrance will enable mutual understanding to grow in areas where we are to this day divided. In the decades following occupation by Nazi Germany, Poland was not free to decide its own fate. Terms such as ‘nation’ and ‘sovereignty’ bear special weight as a result. And some Polish scepticism regarding a further deepening of European integration is rooted in this time. We Germans above all should not lose sight of this perspective of our neighbour. This holds true for those who would prefer to write Poland off due to shortfalls in fields such as the rule of law or freedom of the press. However, it also holds true for champions of that flag-waving European federalism which would in the foreseeable future divide Europe once more into East and West.
Neither position is tenable for Germany. Rather, what we want to do is use this anniversary to look to the future together with Poland. When we do this, we see that Polish and German interests are often much closer together than we think. We want a strong, capable Europe that does its bit for the transatlantic partnership. But then we must not reduce Europe’s foreign policy to the smallest common denominator. We want Europe to take a credible stance for its values in the world, but then we must not undermine them at home. We do not want a “two-speed” Europe which would pretty soon downgrade Poland and other countries of Central and Eastern Europe to second-class members. But then we need together to present proposals on how we want to further develop and strengthen the European Union.
In short, we need today– just as 30 years ago – to build new bridges between Germany and Poland, between West and East in Europe.