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Blossoming friendships

A personal look back at 30 years of neighbourly relations between Poland and the reunified Germany by foreign correspondent Ulrich Krökel.

Ulrich Krökel, 28.09.2020
Shake on it: Ulrich Krökel with Lech Wałęsa
Shake on it: Ulrich Krökel with Lech Wałęsa © Marek Kaczmar

On 3 October 1990, I remember that sunny early autumn day well, I was visiting a friend in Kiel. Her mother, an Englishwoman, congratulated me warmly on Germany’s reunification, exclaiming what an important day it was in terms of global history! 22 years old at the time, I did not really understand what she meant, and I certainly wasn’t in much of a celebratory mood. And yet I grew up in Lower Saxony, in an area close to the border between East and West Germany, with the Wall essentially on my doorstep. I was a “Wessi” who had always been interested in the East because the Iron Curtain itself made one curious about what might be behind it.

Lech Wałęsa, Václav Havel and Mikhail Gorbachev were heroes in my youth.
Ulrich Krökel, a historian specialising in Eastern Europe, a Slavic studies expert and a Polish correspondent for Germany daily newspapers

Lech Wałęsa, Václav Havel and Mikhail Gorbachev were heroes in my youth. I followed the peaceful revolutions in Gdansk, Leipzig und Prague with bated breath, and indeed the progress made by the reformers in Moscow. Their courageous efforts to change the status quo were the reason why I began studying Eastern European history and Slavic languages. And when the Iron Curtain finally collapsed, I immediately headed east. Rostock and Dresden were the first stops on my journey, then Wroclaw, Prague and Bratislava, and later Warsaw and Saint Petersburg. I was so excited and enthusiastic. And yet I remained suspicious for quite some time about the idea of a reunified Germany at the heart of Europe.

I find the new Federal Republic of Germany much more open to the world than the old one.
Ulrich Krökel

Of course, with today’s knowledge it would be easy to explain away my scepticism of the time. Actually I fully embraced German unity a long time ago. My reservations, which were that a united Germany might focus too much on itself and become isolated from the rest of the world, proved unfounded. I find the new Federal Republic of Germany much more open to the world than the old one. I have no wish to pass judgement here on the GDR, which I only came to know when visiting relatives there. What is certain, however, is that we reunited Germans are now more open. And a crucial part in this has been played by the way Europe has grown closer together, thanks in particular to the eastern enlargement of the EU in 2004, and first and foremost thanks to Poland, our direct neighbour.

Blossoming friendships between East and West

This opening up to the East has been one of the most wonderful experiences of my life. And I firmly believe that this opening is not merely one wanted for political reasons, but is a genuine opening that the people themselves desired. Irrespective of all the problems that remain to this day. However, the relationship between Germany and Poland in particular shows that not only “blossoming landscapes” (to cite Helmut Kohl’s famous phrase from 1990) have emerged at the heart of Europe. More importantly, many friendships have blossomed between East and West. One need only recall the spontaneous embrace between René Wilke and Mariusz Olejniczak, the mayors of Frankfurt an der Oder and Słubice, when borders reopened after corona restrictions were lifted in June. It was wrong of them to ignore the social distancing rule – but it is testimony to the warmth of their friendship.

Getting to know one another fundamentally changed the way people viewed each other.
Ulrich Krökel

As people on both sides got to know one another after 1990, the way in which they viewed each other also changed fundamentally. This is especially true of Germany’s view of Poland, as has been revealed by studies such as the German-Polish barometer. Personally, however, my sense is that these changes go far deeper than any figures could express. I have all too vivid memories of the time I spent as a German lector at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan. That was in the second half of the 1990s. At that time in Germany it was not only the TV entertainer Harald Schmidt who regularly scraped the bottom of the barrel – which was chock full of prejudices – for his jokes about Poland.

The clichés – and the reality

“Stolen one minute, in Poland the next”, Germans used to say about car thieves from the neighbouring country. And even the old stereotype of the “Polish economy” was briefly revived. Probably very few Germans were aware that the expression was more than 200 years old. Badly organised, ineffective, lazy: these were the clichés summarised in the phrase. I found it painful to talk with my students of German in Poznan about such stereotypes. What made it even worse was the fact that more than enough examples of them could be found in the German media at the time.

The reality was an increasingly glaring contradiction of the clichés.
Ulrich Krökel

However, this changed rapidly after the turn of the millennium, simply because the reality increasingly came to be a glaring contradiction of the clichés. With enormous commitment and great effectiveness, the people in Poland brought about an economic miracle that is unparalleled in Europe. And because EU enlargement meant that more and more Germans were crossing the Oder and Neisse rivers into Poland, their view of the neighbouring country also changed. The jokes about Poland and the stories of stolen cars disappeared from everyday German life and the media.

Instead, Federal President Joachim Gauck even caused a minor sensation when he remarked in 2012 that the people in Poland were more industrious than his own countrymen. Eight years on, my impression is that such comparisons have become entirely redundant. Admittedly, people in Poland do still have some sense of being “second-class Europeans”. But personally I predict that this will no longer be an issue in ten or at the latest in 20 years’ time. The past 30 years have simply demonstrated too unequivocally that people at the heart of Europe are growing ever closer together – as indeed they should, given that they belong together – and that this is happening even across national borders.