The embrace in Krzyzowa: An icon of German-Polish relations | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 12.11.2019
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The embrace in Krzyzowa: An icon of German-Polish relations

On November 12, 1989, the leaders of Poland and Germany met at a reconciliation mass and exchanged a symbol of peace. Their historic embrace became an icon of modern German-Polish relations.

On November 12, 1989, Bernard Gaida and his father traveled to Krzyzowa, a village in Lower Silesia they had never heard of, to welcome German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. "For the first time, we were supposed to officially show our commitment to German-ness," said Gaida, who today heads the VDG, the largest association for Poland's German minority.

Kohl was scheduled to attend a service in Krzyzowa with Tadeusz Mazowiecki, Poland's first prime minister following the end of communist rule.

Alfons Nossol, archbishop of the city of Opole, was waiting for the two leaders in Krzyzowa, along with around 3,000 Silesian-Germans. "Nossol had described the service as a 'reconciliation mass,' without defining the goal more precisely," Gregor Feind of the Leibniz Institute for European History wrote in (NOT) RECONCILED?, a book on German-Polish relations after 1945 about to hit store shelves Germany.

Read more: Poland, Germany and the shadow of World War II

Alfons Nossol speaks while holding up a book. (DW/A. M. Pędziwol )

Nossol invited Kohl and Mazowiecki to attend the reconciliation mass

Controversial St. Anne Mountain

Originally, Archbishop Nossol had hoped to welcome Helmut Kohl to Gora Swietej Anny (St. Anne Mountain), the most important Silesian pilgrimage site in Upper Silesia. He invited the German chancellor to attend a church service "where three cultures — Polish, German and Czech — unite," Nossol told DW last year. Holy masses have been held there in German since June 4, 1989. But apparently, the move was premature, as the invitation caused great unease in Warsaw. St Anne Mountain is not only an important religious place in Silesian culture, it is also where Polish and German soldiers fought during the Third Silesian uprising in 1921. A visit by a German chancellor might have triggered strong emotions among the Polish population. So at the last minute, the organizers chose to hold the meeting in Krzyzowa.

Read more: The mass murder of Polish intellectuals — and the German Nazis who got away with it

Fear and enthusiasm

Thick fog enveloped the region the evening before the mass, forcing Kohl to travel to Krzyzowa by bus, while the Polish prime minister arrived by train. Gaida and his father, meanwhile, had different concerns. They were worried that people might throw stones at their bus, but those fears ultimately proved groundless. "We went there full of fear, and returned in rapture," Gaida told DW. He only regretted he didn't have a chance to exchange a sign of peace with a Pole, as "hardly any were there."

Most Polish people were not familiar with Krzyzowa. Germans, meanwhile, knew that famous 19th century Prussian field marshal Helmuth von Moltke had lived and was buried there. Krzyzowa was not chosen for the field marshal, however, but for a small German resistance group from the Nazi era. Helmuth James von Moltke, the field marshal's great-grand-nephew, was one of its founding members. The group did not plan armed action, but discussed the reorganization of Germany and Europe after the fall of the Hitler regime. Busted in 1944, the Gestapo took to calling the group the "Kreisau Circle," using the German language name for Krzyzowa. Several of its members were sentenced to death, including Helmuth James von Moltke.

Helmuth James Graf von Moltke on trial in 1944 (Imago/ZUMA/Keystone)

Helmuth James von Moltke was executed for resisting the Nazi regime

"He was not condemned for a concrete act," as Krzysztof Ruchniewicz of the Wroclaw Willy Brandt Centre wrote in his book Reading Krzyzowa anew, rather, "thoughts and words were enough for the sentence."

Read more: When Poland was lost: The Soviet invasion 80 years ago

Krzyzowa conference

In June 1989, the the Club of Catholic Intelligentsia (KIK) in Wroclaw organized a conference to discuss the Kreisau Circle and the future of the von Moltke family estate. The participants sent a letter to Polish Foreign Ministry, proposing the establishment of a place where young people could meet and a museum of European resistance against the Hitler regime.

For Kazimierz Czaplinski, long-time president of the KIK, and his wife Wanda, the history surrounding Krzyzowa was unfamiliar at first, though they had been in touch with people in East and West Germany dating back to the 1970s. "They were not familiar with Krzyzowa, 60 kilometers from Warsaw, or the history of the Kreisau Circle," Annemarie Franke wrote in (NOT) RECONCILED? adding the couple later remembered a "visitor from Germany must have told them about it."

"I was particularly impressed by the commitment of the younger participants, including Joanna Wieczorek, Michal Czaplinski and his wife-to-be Maryna Jarodzka," recalled Krzysztof Ruchniewicz, who took part in the Krzyzowa Conference in Wroclaw in 1989 as a student. "Of course, the KIK leadership and other important personalities such as Ewa Unger, Janusz Witt and Marian Lukaszewicz set the tone."

This meeting was likely a key factor in Kohl and Mazowiecki deciding to meet in Krzyzowa later that year, instead of St. Anne Mountain. In the aftermath of their reconciliation mass, many people in Poland, lacking trust in the German Chancellor, tried to mock the two leaders' historic embrace at Krzyzowa. Thanks to civil society groups, however, the image of the November 12, 1989 has endured to become a true icon of German-Polish relations.

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