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Love Thy Neighbor

Interview: Julie GregsonApril 20, 2008

Recent high-level meetings between Berlin and Warsaw have prompted speculation about a new European alliance. DW-WORLD.DE spoke to one of the best-known Germans in Poland about relations between the countries.

Steffen Moeller on sofa waving small Polish flag
Moeller has lived in Poland for 14 yearsImage: Martin Pudenz

Steffen Moeller first visited Poland 14 years ago on a two-week language course. He liked it so much that he decided to return for good. After seven years teaching German, he launched a career in cabaret and television. While still relatively unknown in his native Germany, the soap star and game show host has become a household name in Poland.

The German emigrant has also written a number of books, most recently "Viva Polonia" -- an account of his experiences living in Poland and a guide to his adopted homeland. In 2005, he was awarded the German Federal Order of Merit for his services to German-Polish relations.

DW-WORLD.DE: Were there many other Germans in your situation when you arrived in Poland in 1994? Has the situation changed at all since then?

Steffen Moeller: Quite a lot of Germans move to Poland with German firms. But they tend to remain within these firms as managers. I was one of the few who always had Polish employers. I do now occasionally get e-mails from Germans who have moved to Poland. But I don't think there are that many. I think that a lot more Germans go to Prague or Budapest.

Why do you think that is?

Two wedding rings
More and more Germans and Poles are getting hitchedImage: BilderBox

Poland and Romania have the worst reputation in Germany of all the European Union countries. Poland's is perhaps even worse than Romania's. I think it's linked to the fact that Poland is Germany's second biggest neighbor. The relationship to France, our largest neighbor has, as is well known, not always been good. That changed after the Second World War, because West Germany was part of the western bloc.

Relations with Poland have only been normal for the past few years. There is an awful lot of catching up to do. And, of course, there is a much bigger difference in the standard of living on the eastern German border. Many Germans have only come across Poles working in Polish markets and bazaars… and a lot of Polish car thieves. But that is becoming less and less of a problem, because the gap is closing.

The divide between the Germanic peoples and the Slavs that bisects Germany and Poland is probably a lot bigger than that between the Germanic peoples and the Romanic peoples. The reasons for that go back a very long way. The Germans were always fixated on the West. My brother lives in Paris. He tells me that the French have the same relationship to Germany as Germans have to Poland. For the French, Siberia begins at the Rhine and for us, it begins at the Oder River.

German and Polish border posts on Usedom
So near and yet so far!Image: AP

Have relations between Germans and Poles changed since you have been living in Poland?

Yes. More and more Germans and Poles are getting married. It's not about some German farmers picking Polish women from a catalogue. In 2005 alone, there were 6,000 German-Polish marriages. And more than 400 German and Polish towns are twinned with one another. There are a lot of school partnerships, too. But I'm not really sure that this is a growing trend. I think that in 2002/2003 there was a lot of interest on the German side after Poland's accession to the EU. I think that this might have waned a little.

Your book "Viva Polonia" appeared in German this year. Late last year, German publishing house Suhrkamp also published an encyclopedic guide to Polish culture. There does appear to be a market for books about Germany's eastern neighbor.

The Germans don't know a lot about Poland, and what I think is very sad is that you can't really study Polish in Germany. In all of Germany there is only one chair in Polish studies. There are people working in West Slavic Studies, but no experts purely for Poland. Berlin is only 80 kilometers (50 miles) from the Polish border, but it feels like a thousand.

Cover of Viva Polonia with Steffen Moeller holding suitcase and looking into the distance
In "Viva Polonia" Moeller describes his experiences as a German guestworkerImage: Martin Pudenz

Do the Poles know a lot about Germany?

The Poles are much more interested in other countries than other post-socialist states. Just think of the amount of emigration to England. Many Germans don't even realize that almost 2 million Poles are currently living in England.

You have become best known in Poland through your role as Stefan Mueller, a German farmer living in Poland, in one of the country's most popular soaps, "M jak Milosc" (L for Love). Why did this German figure become so popular in Poland? And the real Steffen Moeller?

I haven't actually appeared in the soap for the last six months. I am "resting." The nice thing in Poland is that soap opera characters don't have to die in plane crashes, they just get sent abroad. It's quite a legitimate means, since Poles are continually going abroad. I think that the character is popular because he's so hapless. He's unlucky in love, but he's really a nice lad whom everyone wants to help.

I also appear in an entertainment show about Europe. There I play the comedian and I display a characteristic that Poles don't expect from Germans: self-irony. It's easy to be a German abroad. You just have to play up the cliches a little and then subvert them, and presto, you're a cabaret star. There's no other country in Europe that has such a bad image as Germany, and that's a good starting point for cabaret.

So you actually profit from these stereotypes about the Germans?

Of course!

Photomontage showing a barebosomed Angela Merkel suckling the Kaczynski twins
The media debate in Poland and Germany sank to dismal depths in 2007Image: AP

When Jaroslaw Kaczynski was prime minister, relations between Berlin and Warsaw were very strained. Last year, a new government took over. Do you think this marks a new chapter in German-Polish relations?

Definitely. The new prime minister, Donald Tusk, is trying to normalize German-Polish relations. He's also been successful. You can see that by the fact that Poland has hardly been visible in the German media for the past few months. It shows that everything is normal. Maybe my book sales have profited from it, since some Germans think it means they can now go on holiday in Poland. Of course, that's nonsense. Germans who visit Poland always expect to be confronted with the German past. On one level that is true -- but indirectly, in the sense of memorials and cemeteries.

It's interesting, but Poles treat us Germans very well. One reason is that the Russians marched in after the Germans and the memory of that is much stronger. But there's another reason. Mutual mistrust is the Polish national illness. Poles can't stand each other. If you travel to Cracow and you want to rent an apartment and there are six Poles who want to rent the apartment too, you can be sure that, as a German, you'll get the apartment. Not because the landlord loves you, but because he doesn't trust his fellow countrymen to pay the rent and the telephone. As Germans, we also profit from this economically, because we're regarded as trustworthy and honest, as well as naive and humorless.

What would you miss, if you moved away from Poland?

Sign with "Halt Bundesgrenze" (Stop, state frontier) on Baltic Sea beach
The frontier is now relatively insignificant, the divide is notImage: AP

Their warmth. At Christmas I got 40 text messages from people I know -- some of whom I hadn't seen for three years. Really long ones. I got a single text message from a German acquaintance from my home town, Wuppertal. It simply said: "Happy Christmas."

They also have an absurd sense of humor -- also shared amongst strangers. When I'm asked by the Poles whether Germans have a sense of humor, I tell them: "Yes, but only in the evening when they're sitting in the cabaret and they know that they are allowed to laugh."

I have a plumber whose visiting card says "slow, expensive and unreliable." I asked him whether that was meant to be an advertisement. He told me that in Poland everyone realized it was a joke and rang up for that very reason.

What could be done to further improve the state of Polish-German relations?

I think a television station should be set up. Not for reasons of political correctness. It would be interesting to have reports from our European neighbors. That would do a lot to cement European identity. We could also build on what is there -- expand the existing partnerships.