Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 13th July 1996

Europe is poorer without Poland

by Konrad Weiß

The House in which I was born stood in a little Silesian town that is today part of Poland. My forefathers were poor peddlers, linen weavers, day labourers, manual workers, and peasants whom the existing records show to have lived in Lower Silesia and the Glatzer Bergland for over two centuries. I do not remember my father. He was an official, a believing Catholic an not a Nazi, and because he was physically handicapped he was spared service in the Wehrmacht. Not a member of the Resistance but a kind man who helped many people in difficult times. He died in early 1945 as a result of the exertions of flight.

This flight and the pain that afflicted my mother as a result of losing both, husband and homeland, shaped my childhood. The House my parents has built trough greatly depriving themselves was destroyed in war. The front line moved backwards and forewards across my home town several times. A Film shows Hitler on the destroyed market place in the reconquered town with children in steel helmets as all that was left to the Wehrmacht. For me my birthplace is an unfamiliar town. I have not trouble me. Home became other towns for me, towns where I lived an loved, thought and experienced. Towns in Poland are thus also home for me, but not my Silesian birthplace.

For my mother of course things were very different. Until the day of her death she suffered from loss of her homeland. To the end Lauban remained her home town. But no matter how great her pain was, she knew that her loss was the outcome of a lost war, the criminal war that the Germans began and waged with terrible cruelty. I never heard my mother speak a word of hate against the Poles who now live in Lauban. She was not free of prejudices about Poles, certainly not. That generation had internalised prejudices too deeply. But she wanted everyone living in Silesia today to feel at home there and secure.

This simple woman, my mother, was great enough to accept the injustice done to her as an expiation for the crimes committed in the name of the German people. She led a life of simple, vital piety where the experience of guilt an forgiveness, remorse and repentance, only became possible through reconciliation. I encountered the same spirit in Poland in 1965 on a pilgrimage from Goerlitz to Auschwitz with the Action Reconciliation, and many times after that. We had conversations with such members of the Clubs of the Catholic Intelligentsia (KIK) as Anna Morawska, Stanislaw Stomma, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, Jacek Susul, Jozefa Hennelowa, Jerzy Turowicz and Mieczyslaw Pszon. I was fascinated at the time by the intellectual debates, by the bold an far-reaching political ideas. Today I believe that it was mainly the naturally lived faith, the unconditional readiness for reconciliation, that made trust and solidarity possible again. We forgive an we ask for forgiveness. - With that sentence peace began between Poles and Germans.

We came from the GDR. What we wanted - reconciliation - was superfluous in the eyes of the communist authorities. After the war the GDR had joined the victors and declared itself to be a stronghold of anti-fascism. There was no room in the Marxist doctrine of salvation for guilt an repentance, for forgiveness and reconciliation. It was not comprehended that after a war in which Poles and Germans were terrible enemies state decrees and treaties might be a precondition but could not bring about reconciliation between people. That was left to the churches, groups like the Action Reconciliation, and many committed people of good will, certainly including a number of party members. The fact that these efforts were obstructed wherever possible by state and ruling party was painful and sobering.

In 1965, when I first came to Poland, it was by no means a matter of course that Germans were welcomed. The war and the suffering Germans had inflicted on Poles and their national soil were still too close. The wounds were still far from healing. Among the courageous pioneers of reconciliation were Lothar Kreyssig and Guenter Saerchen from Germany, and in Poland it was mainly the woman and men from the Clubs of the Catholic Intelligentsia. They assisted the work of the first group of Action Reconciliation at Auschwitz and Majdanek, and remained our most important partners until the downfall of the communist GDR. It should not be forgotten that the work of expiation in Poland was launched from the GDR in difficult circumstances, against the authorities' wishes, and almost conspiratorially.

However, the Action Reconciliation was only a small group, an insignificant minority in the GDR. Public effectiveness within the GDR itself was limited at that time to the church. The state Media did not report on the pilgrimages to Poland, and the West German public also paid little attention. Things were different in Poland. There even the state Media took note of the little groups from the GDR. Decisive though was the fact that polish church newspapers, in particular Tygodnik Powszechny and ZNAK, took up this modest sign of reconciliation from East Germany, assisting and supporting the venture across the years.

This openness, and the magnanimous readiness for forgiveness and reconciliation encountered be we youngsters at that time, shamed us and at same time challenged us in human and intellectual terms. Almost all those who in the initial years came to Poland through the Action Reconciliation remained faithful to Poland. The dialogue with Poland encouraged us and helped us see injustice in the communist GDR more clearly. It is not just chance that many of those involved became civic rights activists in the GDR's peaceful revolution, and thus prepared the way for German reunification, which was also the precondition for peace between Poland and Germany.

Israelische Jugendgruppe beim Besuch in Auschwitz-Birkenau © Konrad Weiß
  Leise gegen den Strom
(Quietly against the tide)
Documentary by Thomas Kycia und Robert Żurek

In the seventies it seemed as if relationship between the East German and the Polish "People's Republics" and their inhabitants would be normalised. The fact that visas were not necessary, a luxury for the incarcerated GDR population, made Poland into a favoured country for journeys and holidays. East-West differences in standards of living also made the GDR attractive to Poles for a while. Personal contacts were increasingly established, and links sought between communities and firms. However, it soon became apparent that the foundation for that was not sufficient. Dislike of Poles who came to do their shopping in the GDR grew among the German population, particularly in the eastern frontier region and in Berlin. Old prejudices revived. Marxist belief that what they called friendship between peoples was possible without reconciliation and human understanding, without acceptance of guilt, repentance, and forgiveness, was shown to be false. It had been claimed that changed circumstances would produce the new man, and that state agreements could make people friends. A pathetic concept. The Marxists mainly came to grief because they understood nothing about human beings.

When Solidarnosc was founded, relations between the GDR and Poland broke down. For the German Real Socialists Poland once again became an enemy country. Honecker did not shrink from yet against offering the Russians the services of German soldiers for crushing Polish freedom. On the 30th of October 1908 the frontiers were hermetically sealed and for years it was impossible to travel from the GDR to Poland. The SED propaganda machine set to work flat out, disseminating lies about Poland and furthering anti-Polish resentment. Even the inhuman language of National Socialism was revived in this ideological warfare. Mobrule and subversion, chaos and anarchy, terror, provocation and counter-revolution were the kind of words SED propaganda applied to Solidarnosc. The communist Newspaper Neues Deutschland warned against the "Polish sickness". The communists' fear must have bin mighty.

Of course that did not lack an impact. There were many in the GDR who succumbed to SED propaganda - probably even the majority. However, the exaggerated propaganda sparked of resistance among a minority. People who had previously been isolated now knew themselves to be linked by their sympathy for Solidarnosc. That became particularly clear after declaration of the state of emergency. Solidarnosc marked a parting of the ways, even in the GDR. Just like the Prague Spring a decade earlier, but to an incomparable greater extent, the courageous struggle in Poland also awoke hope of change among Germans. Solidarnosc certainly made an essential contribution to the birth of opposition in the GDR, even though another decade was to pass before that became the civic movement which defeated Real Socialism.

A far as I have observed, that response to the Solidarnosc movement was scarcely noticed in Poland. That may partly be an outcome of the almost total sealing off from 1980, which of course also affected sympathisers in the GDR, but it also resulted from much-publicised, obvious, and incomparably more effective help from the Federal Republic of Germany.

In the year when Solidarnosc appeared the GDR almost completely withdrew economic co-operation and support. At that time individual assistance from the GDR was almost impossible. When calls for such help were made after declaration of the state of emergency, many participated in campaigns of assistance as a sign of support for the Polish reform movement - but of course after all that had previously been heard from GDR such actions must have seemed cynical to the Poles. Once again it was only well-established personal contacts that built bridges. Basically, however, the wounds the SED inflicted on Poland at that time in the name of East-German people are still unhealed. Communist anti-Polish propaganda also still exerts an impact through many East Germans' xenophobia and arrogance.

Once again it will take years before these injuries have been made good and the walls erected between East Germans and Poles have been dismantled. But this time the foundation is more secure then after the war. Poland and Germany have concluded a frontier agreement an a treaty regulating relations between two neighbouring sovereigns states. The politicians that negotiated these treaties and the parliaments which ratified them were democratically legitimated. The crucial architect of these agreements was Mieczyslaw Pszon, who was nominated by Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki in 1989 to conduct negotiations with Germany. His lively interest in Germans in the Federal Republic and the GDR, his unconditional readiness for reconciliation, and his profound knowledge of political trends and social relations in both parts of Germany very much helped shape the outcome. For me too, as a member of German Bundestag, the 17th October 1991 when I could vote in favour of these agreements was an important day.

These treaties provide a sure and secure foundation for a good relationship between Germans and Poles. They were exposed to an initial test in 1993 when the federal government put considerable pressure on the Polish government in conjunction with changes in the German law regulating asylum. I spoke vehemently in parliament against the federal government's arrogance. For me as an East German it was painful to see Poland forced into the role of helping implement this misguided German policy. Above all, this law on asylum erects new walls between Germany and Poland. However, the objective of the East German civic movement was to pull down such walls completely. There too we did not succeed.

Easing Poland's way into the European Union, into the European homeland, remains a priority objective in German politics. Western reservations about the reformed Eastern European states quickly joining are egoistic and narrow-minded. Of course there will be many economic and social problems, but political will is the decisive factor. Poland, which has made infinitely many sacrifices for freedom, has an particular claim to European's unconditional solidarity. Europe is poorer without Poland.

© Konrad Weiss 1996-2023