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Good Neighbors

Dennis Stute interviewed Adam Krzeminski (win)November 15, 2006

Polish journalist Adam Krzeminski on Thursday will be honored for his efforts to improve German-Polish relations. In a DW-WORLD.DE interview, he talked about reasons for continuing problems between the two countries.

Krzeminski: "I'm hoping for a situation where it's possible to make jokes about each other"Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Born in western Galicia in 1945, Krzeminski is one of Poland's leading journalists. He has worked at the Polityka newspaper since 1973. In 1993, he received the Goethe Medal for his efforts to promote German-Polish understanding. He will receive the Viadrina Award of the European University Viadrina Frankfurt (Oder) on Thursday.

DW-WORLD.DE: German-Polish relations are tense at the moment. In Germany, the Kaczynski brothers -- the Polish president and the Polish prime minister -- are blamed for this. Is it really that simple?

Lech und Jaroslaw Kaczynski Brüder Polen
The Kaczynski twins occupy Poland's highest officesImage: AP

Adam Krzeminski: It's partly because of the tone of the Kaczynski brothers and the fall-back on historical traumas that's happening within their Party of Law and Justice. But apart from that there are substantial issues that cloud the German-Polish community of interests of the 1990s: the Baltic Sea pipeline and the controversy surrounding a center against expulsions. Still this shouldn't be exaggerated -- we have created so many institutional connections that the community of interests still works in fact. Polish surveys are the best proof for this: They are very positive for Germany and Germans.

You mentioned the 1990s, when Germany lobbied for Poland's EU membership. Now, the German behavior in connection with the Baltic Sea pipeline is feeding fears in Poland. Are Poles fixated on the negative?

Pipeline Russland Deutschland Ostsee wird verlegt
Construction of the Baltic Sea pipeline began nearly a year agoImage: AP

The Polish perception might be selective, but this is also true for the German perception of European politics and own economic interests. Regarding the pipeline, there's an economic level on the one hand: The pipeline exposes Poland to potential blackmailing from Russia, because it could be used to supply Germany with natural gas even if deliveries to Poland are shut down. And then there's a political level: One could also imagine a pipeline that's embedded in a European energy policy and that does not make the EU dependent -- and therefore exposed to potential blackmail -- on Russian energy sources. This was never discussed. Maybe that's starting now -- and possibly it will solve the dispute.

Former Polish President Alexander Kwasniewksi recently said that Germans don't take Poles seriously...

I think he wasn't just talking about the pipeline. We have a sliding scale of sympathies. The Poles are slowly losing their old aversion against their western neighbor, but this process is taking even longer in Germany, as polls show. In Germany, the traditional view of Europe is one, where only large countries count while smaller ones have to give in -- that's the way things worked in the 19th and 20th centuries. But that's a perception that would have to disappear over time as Europe unifies. From a Polish point of view, the process of accepting the eastern neighbor is taking longer than one would hope.

Is the German view of Poland big-headed?

Landwirtschaft in Polen Foto für Made in Germany
Some Germans still see Poland as a country of farmersImage: changemakers.net

There's definitely a traditional disrespect. Let me just remind you of the ideology of Frederick the Great that was influential in the 18th and 19th century. It saw Poles as "Europe's Iroquois." We're also familiar with the talk about Poland's economy, the Polish government and the Polish inability to build an enlightened state. All of these were forced arguments to justify the division of Poland. Of course some of that remains in the back of German minds. Jokes about Poles are a part of this -- the idea that Poles are thieves, who first robbed Silesia from the Germans, then stole their cars and are now taking away their jobs.

There was a so-called war of jokes, during which German and Polish newspapers -- more or less intelligently -- made fun of the citizens of the other country. Is this a sign of a relaxed relationship?

I don't think that clichés can be fought with counter-clichés. But a war of jokes is clearly better than a war of potatoes like the one that took place last summer, when President Kaczynski cancelled a meeting with Chancellor Merkel because of a satire in die tageszeitung. I'm hoping for a situation where it's possible to make jokes about each other, but at the same time lead fundamental debates -- accompanied by educational efforts that will allow people to get to know their new, old neighbors.

Expulsions in different forms have always played a role in the German-Polish relationship. Is a common remembrance possible?

Zentrum gegen Vertreibungen in Berlin Erika Steinbach
Not many Poles look fondly at Erika Steinbach, the president of the Federation of ExpelleesImage: AP

It already exists. The expulsions are dealt with at many local folk museums in the formerly German areas. Polish historians worked on the Bonn exhibition "Escape, Expulsion, Integration." The debate surrounding a center against expulsions as promoted by the Federation of Expellees, however, deals with a fundamental question: Is it possible to look at various expulsion, deportations and flight movements of the 20th century in a single museum without blurring the lines between perpetrators and victims of a war of aggression? A second level of the dispute has to do with past of the Federation of Expellees that has not been dealt with. If we disentangle the different layers, a common remembrance is possible.

Is there a danger that the present cooling of the German-Polish relationship will become permanent?

Vorbereitung 500 Jahre Universität Viadrina
Viadrina University is located in Germany and PolandImage: picture-alliance / dpa

During the past years, we have witnessed what's almost a miracle of good neighborhood. Despite the cold that's crept into German-Polish relations on the political level, normal contacts continue to exist. Along the border there are dozens of towns that have good relationships. Remember the lifting of visa requirements in 1991, when the first Polish tourists were greeted with bats or the bread roll war of the mid-1990s, when German trade unionists demonstrated against their Polish competitors. Today, very little of this negative mood has survived in the border region. We're really way ahead of the politicians.