Do we need another world war?

Analysis: What do we need Germany for? Some observations on the changes in the position of Poland on the map

Kazimierz Wóycicki

To person

Dr. Kazimierz Wóycicki, journalist, publicist, political scientist, philosopher, co-initiator and co-moderator of the German-Polish discussion group Copernicus Group, lecturer at the Institute for Eastern European Studies at the University of Warsaw (Studium Europy Wschodniej, Uniwesytet Warszawski).

The turbulent political events of the 19th and 20th centuries left a trauma in Poland that brought the Intermarium concept back to life. What exactly is this idea about and what role does it play in Polish foreign policy?

Relations with Germany play an important role in Poland's European policy. (& copy picture-alliance / dpa, dpa-Zentralbild)


In order to develop a conception of Poland's role in Europe, the concept of relations with neighboring countries must be clarified. A Polish vision of Europe must therefore also deal with Germany. At the moment, however, the foreign policy intermarium concept (Międzymorze) with recourse to the actually failed conception of the interwar period, which the author describes as retrogressive. In this concept, Poland is practically assigned a dominant position in the space "between the seas" (Baltic Sea - Adriatic Sea - Black Sea) in East Central Europe. Germany hardly appears in this conception. With this - according to the author - an answer to the centuries-long oppression by the two hostile powers Germany and Russia should be found - as if the "fatalism of enmity" between Germany and Poland did not exist and the European Union did not exist NATO. The author argues that instead of reviving retrogressive myths in its European political plans, Poland should shape its European policy and especially its Ukraine policy together with Germany within the framework of the EU.

Every state in Europe should have its own vision of Europe, which it puts up for discussion not only internally but also internationally. Such an own vision of Europe includes the answer to the question of what role is ascribed to other states in realizing their own interests, especially their neighbors. So there can be no Polish concept of Europe if there is no Polish vision of Germany in Europe. In other words, if there is no answer to the question "What do we need Germany for?"

Most of the 20th century was marked by the German-Polish antagonism that had lasted since the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries. What has been called the curse of Polish geopolitics was defined by the location between Germany and Russia. The partitions of the former republic (pol. rzeczpospolita) and the loss of one's own state at a time when modern nations were emerging, had a decisive influence on Polish political ideas and thinking. In these ideas Germany became a hostile power. The situation "between Russia and Germany" also constantly raised the question of which of the two powers should be regarded as the more dangerous.

If someone chose Russia, complexities and a certain feeling of inferiority towards Germany were the reason. Germany made a leap in civilization in the 19th century, thanks to which it overtook most Polish countries in economic terms. The Germans caught up with the West (the term West was coined in the 18th century and finally in the 19th century) and the Poles could look jealously at the industrial and urban development of Germany, which took place more slowly in the Polish areas. They could also look jealously at the effectiveness of the German empire founded in 1871 with the Bismarck or Wilhelmine character, whose functioning constitutional state alleviated to a certain extent the sad consequences for the Poles in the Prussian partition. The Poles did not have such complexes with Russia. A part of the Russian partition (the so-called Congress Poland) belonged to the most developed areas in the Tsarist Empire and the Polish elites had a feeling of cultural superiority compared to the Russians, among other things with a view to the juxtaposition of the Polish feeling of freedom and the Russian "spirit of submission." Russian autocracy with its repressive policies made Russia a much more threatening enemy.

The First World War did not change the assessment of Germany and Russia. German policy during the First World War made it easier for Poland to achieve its independence in a certain sense, even if the Weimar Republic later did not recognize the new German-Polish border. With (Bolshevik) Russia, on the other hand, Poland was forced to fight a war in defense of its independence, and the Bolsheviks quickly drew up the map of the territorial and imperial expansion of the Tsarist era. The utterance "Bastard of the Versailles Treaty" came from the mouth of a Russian and not a German politician. So the Germans were still threatening, but the Russians were even more threatening.

A consequence of the Second World War was initially a shift in emphasis. The Third Reich had committed immeasurable crimes on Polish territory. The long occupation of central Polish territories meant that the image of the bad German outweighed the image of the bad Russian. The verse "I expect you, red plague, that you may save us from the black death", written at the end of the Warsaw Uprising, reflected the tragedy of the situation. Immediately after the war, there was also anti-German propaganda, which lasted a long time and aimed to legitimize the system of communist rulers in Poland.

The Poles were also blackmailed with the possibility of losing the former German territories that they had received after the Second World War and for which Stalin was the guarantor. Without these areas, Poland would have been reduced to an area roughly the size of Congress Poland. Paradoxically, Stalin's plans saved Poland from such fate, if not to do Poland a favor. Unsure how the situation in Germany would develop, he decided to assign Poland to the East German provinces (the greater part of East Prussia, Lower Silesia and Pomerania). In the eyes of the Western Allies, this should be a recompensation for the areas behind the Curzon Line lost by Poles. For Stalin, who certainly did not see the need for recompensation (because he considered the incorporation of the eastern areas of the Second Republic of Poland into the Soviet-Russian Empire as completely justified), the eastern areas of Germany ceded to Poland were supposed to build up a German-Polish antagonism on a permanent basis and Warsaw for the long term into the embrace of Moscow.

However, Stalin did not succeed in achieving this effect, except in the historically very short term. For the communist governments in Poland, the German threat was one of the main sources of legitimation, but society could not accept Soviet dominance as a permanent solution. Therefore the situation of Poland, to be dominated by the Soviet Union, but also quite effectively with the German danger of being blackmailed, was defined, at least in the circles of the opposition and the independently thinking Polish elite, as a situation between two hostile powers. This definition of the geopolitical situation seemed even more appropriate for the period after 1945 than it was for the 19th century. The Hitler-Stalin pact, the importance of which was long tried to hide, became the symbol of this situation, whereby Stalin could appear in this threatening duet as the more insidious and, to a certain extent, hostile.

The collapse of communism created a new constellation in East Central Europe. The long-term Russian-Soviet dominance and profound changes in Germany's western part gradually brought about changes in the perception of the Polish geopolitical situation. In Poland one began to define it not only with the help of geography, but above all with the help of the political constellation. Even before 1989, the feeling of real German danger in Polish society had already weakened, while resistance to Soviet dominance had grown. The aversion to the Germans, the relic of the former feeling of threat, was slowly being replaced by a feeling of envy in the face of the great economic success of the "Bonn Republic". In the eyes of the Poles, Germany became a part of the West that they wanted to join, while freeing themselves from Russian (Soviet) dominance. Poland's accession to NATO and then to the European Union fundamentally changed Poland's geopolitical situation and made it necessary to redefine our country's position in Europe and in the world, namely as the border of the West. The rapprochement with and the alliance with Germany became an essential factor in this change. The definition of Poland's geopolitical position as "between two hostile powers", on the other hand, seemed to have been completely shelved. But it wasn't quite like that.

The Intermarium concept

Poland became a border country to the west from 1989 to 2015, with states on its eastern side emerging from the dominance of the weakening Russian empire. In this situation, some alternative projects could emerge that should give direction to Polish foreign policy.

The power of historical ideas is usually enormous. It is often surprising how long it takes political communities to return to ideas and fears that have long been forgotten. Sometimes it is not about forgotten ideas, but about those that were impossible to realize for a long time, so that they were no longer noticed and are only treated as images of a closed past. Even so, ideas that are underpinned with fears are able to return in certain situations. The loss of one's own state, the partitions, the whole of the 19th century, the renewed loss of independence as a result of the Second World War were certainly decisive for the deep-seated Polish trauma. Even though 1989 and subsequent events removed its main causes, how to deal with the trauma further remained an open question.

One way to deal with trauma is to want to "go back to the past" so that the dramas of the past do not repeat themselves. The concepts related to the Intermarium idea (Polish międzymorze) associate. Behind it hides the desire to transform the whole experience of the divisions into a hero myth, as well as the desire for the return of the former Rzeczpospolita and the dreams of a Pole so great that it would be safe. Of course, reason says that this is literally impossible. That is why the groups linked to it are making a certain modification by assigning Warsaw the leading role in the concert of East Central European states that is supposed to emerge in the near future. Instead of the Republic of Both Nations (Polish. Rzeczpospolita Obojga Narodów) solutions are sought in variants of the Intermarium concept, according to which Warsaw should at least play the role of coordinator.

The fact that Budapest alone is a potential partner for such a collective concert (and a dubious partner in addition) does not bother supporters of the Intermarium concept. Your retrogressive imagination is guided by images of an imagined past that doesn't care too much about reality. That states like Ukraine, Romania or Bulgaria inevitably have their own vision of the Black Sea and look to the north and the Baltic Sea from an understandable distance, seems to be the supporters of the Międzymorze completely disregarded. In the background of the ideas of the followers of the Międzymorze hangs the map of the former Rzeczpospolita, a nostalgic picture of a great past, which by means of colossal simplifications is equated with the history of Poland. On this map of the imagined almost imperial political entity, Poland stretches from sea to sea and it only takes a little political effort and intent to repeat a similar connection.

This presented map, which represents the idea of ​​the Międzymorze- Follower leads, has one more characteristic. It extends far to the east, but Germany does not exist on it. In this historical fantasy one does not have to deal with Germany in any way, because the "big one." Rzeczpospolita"Hadn't dealt with Germany either. Supporters of the Intermarium concept easily ignore the fact that a third of the current Polish territory is formerly German, and at the same time look with a tear in their eye at today's Ukrainian Lemberg (Polish: Lwów, ukr . Lviv) or today's Lithuanian Wilna (Polish Wilno, lit. Vilnius).

This retrogressive nostalgia, however, is rooted in the idea that Poland is still between two great powers. Its source is the traumatic fear that the threat is still lingering and needs to be addressed. This is to be done by building an independent political organism in East Central Europe that is capable of opposing both Russia and Germany and protecting Poland from them and actually also from the deceptive West that does not understand Poland.

The link to the myth of the Second Republic

This retrogressive way of thinking about the situation in Poland is linked to the suppression of the memory of the Second Republic, which actually found itself between two hostile and aggressive powers. Your most important politicians were very much aware of this.

The Second Republic was blamed (especially after World War II by the national democratic emigration and communists) that its foreign policy had ended in defeat and disaster. This accusation is unfair and unfounded in that the fate of the Second Republic was indeed tragic, but it was perhaps inevitable at the time. The ruling elites achieved at least so much that the Second Republic was not completely isolated thanks to the allies of the Western countries. At the same time, the political attempts and projects of the Second Republic to build a bloc of Central European states had no effect. Attempts at such alliances with Hungary or Romania alone made it possible to save part of the Polish elite from German and Soviet repression after September 1939, which in turn made it possible to create a relatively strong center of power in emigration.

On the other hand, what can be accused of part of the political milieus of the Second Republic is the exaggerated notion of their own greatness. These were the dreams of the "great Poland", of a Poland as a great power or the Poland "between the seas". These ideas, in turn, were also strongly different from the historical references to the former Rzeczpospolita motivated - mostly not even the republic of both nations, but only the one nation. It is not the tragedy of the Second Republic itself that can shock today's explorer of its past, but rather the failure to perceive the possibilities of the tragedy and the replacement of ideas of the real dangers with dreams of its power.

Today's supporters of the Intermarium concept like to refer to the Second Republic. The memory of them was precious at the time when the communist rulers did a lot to defame the independent Polish state that existed between the two world wars in various ways. There was no serious discussion of the history of the Second Republic after 1989. Above all, it remained in the realm of myth. It is surrounded by a similar vague nostalgia as the former Rzeczpospolita. Hardly any lessons were learned from their mistakes - just as nothing is written on the pedestal of a monument about the mistakes of the person who stands on it.

The current supporters of the Intermarium concept, on the other hand, almost unconsciously want to play the drama of the Second Republic a second time and do not even notice that it has already ended in tragedy. It seems to them that this time it will somehow succeed, because there is no more Hitler or Stalin. In their view, Poland can therefore construct an independent geopolitical space, this time between Russia and the West, and in this way best secure its interests on the stage of international politics. What the politicians of the Second Republic did not succeed in, the present supporters of the Intermarium concept will accomplish for us.

The question arises, however, whether they might not repeat the old mistakes and provoke the dangers that they actually want to avert. Shouldn't these mistakes include the concept of creating security for Poland by building a somewhat independent East-Central Europe that is at the same time in opposition to both East and West? One element of this retrogressive vision of Polish foreign policy would also be to maintain the exotic alliance with London and completely ignore the importance of relations with Germany for Poland. Germany is completely unnecessary for these visionaries for their plans for the "Intermarium". Even if you don't treat it hostile, it seems easy to ignore.

Mind games about the German-Polish antagonism

In the background of these retrogressive notions of the Polish geopolitical situation stands the deeply rooted notion of the Polish past. Hardly anyone notices to what extent the dispute between the Jagiellonian and the Piastic conception, which is taken up again at certain intervals in Polish public discourse, is completely anachronistic when one takes into account the current Polish borders. Political inspiration is often sought exclusively in the second-hand bookshop and the ideas found are treated like an oracle. But you can also be inspired by the past in other, more creative ways by not only asking how it was, but also what possibilities it contained. This way of thinking can also be a prerequisite for answering the question "What do we need Germany for?" create.

Communist propaganda between 1945 and 1989, which incidentally fell back on earlier ideas, spoke of the thousand-year-old German-Polish conflict that had lasted since the beginning of the Polish statehood. The alleged acceptance of Christianity in the 10th century by the Czechs alone and not by the Germans, for example, should serve this idea; importance was also assigned to insignificant military episodes, for example the Battle of Zehden (Polish: Cedynia). The subsequent loss of Silesia was interpreted as a German expansion and it was not noticed that the piastic sexes had ruled there all the time (although culturally increasingly Germanized). The fact that the border between the Polish Crown and the Holy Roman Empire was one of the most stable and peaceful borders on the European continent from the middle of the 14th to the middle of the 18th century was also passed over. (In the late Middle Ages and in the early modern period Germany did not exist as a homogeneous state organism. Therefore, the so-called Old Reich, from the beginning of the 15th century unofficially and from the 17th century officially called the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, cannot be regarded as one consider such.)

Consistent with this way of thinking, the conflict between Poland, Lithuania and the Teutonic Order in the late Middle Ages was interpreted as a "German attack" and the Prussian homage in 1525 as a political error. It was forgotten that the emancipation of the Duchy of Prussia from the Polish crown took place as a result of the wars with Sweden and a consequence of the weakening of the Rzeczpospolita was.

For the lack of German-Polish antagonism in the early phase of modernity, among other things, the election of the Saxon Wettins to the Polish throne can stand. The western border of the Rzeczpospolita For centuries it was not perceived as a border with Germany, but with a conglomerate of different states and small states that were part of the then empire. Saxony at that time seemed to be the most economically developed in terms of its natural resources and initially competed successfully with Prussia. However, thanks to its internal organization of the state and the army, Prussia in particular proved to be clearly "modern" and made a breathtaking career on the international stage by uniting German states under its own leadership in the second half of the 19th century.

As a rule, speculations are in the field of so-called counterfactual history (if-history) educational. One can wonder how history would have developed if the political elites of the time had changed Rzeczpospolita would not have decided in favor of the alliance with the Wettins, but with the Prussian Hohenzollern. It is likely that Prussia would then have been "Polonized" because the Slavic ethnic group was still quite strong on most of the territory of the then Brandenburg-Prussian state. There could also have been a synthesis of two Enlightenment concepts that represented the culture of what was then Warsaw and what was then Berlin. The republican concept of the Enlightenment, which grew out of the aristocratic culture and placed the emphasis on civil liberties, could have been combined with the concepts of the modern state represented by the Prussian Enlightenment. Of course, it is also easy to imagine the tensions that a reform à la Frederick the Great would have created in the Sarmatian-steeped republic. Instead of the Hohenzollern, the Rzeczpospolita however, the Wettins, who were clumsy in implementing the necessary systemic reforms and were more concerned with their dynastic interests.

Of course, one can only speculate whether the marriage of the Hohenzollerns to the Polish crown would have been happier. For this one has to imagine that there is neither one of the divisions of the Rzeczpospolita the unification of Germany under the aegis of the Hohenzollern should have come in the distant future. Assuming this scenario, nobody in Poland today would say that the Prussian homage was a mistake.

Such speculations, if they are not meant to be hollow fantasies, have meaning only if they help to understand what actually happened and if they illustrate at the same time that history is a field of political agency of tremendous importance, and not exclusively of determination and inevitability . Naturally we do not know and we cannot find out whether the Prussian-Polish Union, instead of the Polish-Saxon Union, would have fundamentally changed the history of Europe and averted the geopolitical fate of Poland. The conclusion from these speculations can only be one: our western neighborhood could have played a completely different role in the history of Poland than it did in the 19th century and in a significant part of the 20th century. With this observation, we return to the present.

The necessary German-Polish cooperation in European (Eastern) politics

In 2005, almost simultaneously with Poland's accession to the EU, another event took place that also had a not insignificant influence on the perception of the Polish situation. It was the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. The collapse of the Soviet Union, which took place in December 1991, seemed to be a volatile and reversible process, so Warsaw was also the first state to - instinctively, you can say - recognized the independence of Ukraine.

The same political intuition should prompt that Ukraine's independence and the question of German-Polish relations are closely related issues when viewed from the Polish point of view. In order to perceive this, any Jagiellonian or piastic conceptions must be discarded. The fact that such an essential subject has emerged on the stage of international politics as Ukraine is also creating a new context of capital importance for Poland's relations with Germany. Not being aware of this is nothing more than political blindness.

Maintaining Ukraine's independence will guarantee Poland security, which is only possible with active support from Berlin. Incidentally, Germany has become a country that supports Kiev by, among other things, advocating sanctions against Moscow in response to its aggression in Crimea and Donbass.

Poland is unable to provide adequate support to Kiev for a variety of reasons, including limited economic resources. But it has an essential cultural potential that it could use to shape the European Union's Ostpolitik. However, it must be noted that the condition for such activities to be effective is cooperation with Berlin. In Berlin, the questions of the European Union's Ostpolitik are dealt with in a way that is much closer to the Polish conception than is the case in Paris or London, let alone in Vienna or Rome.

One can superficially contradict this by referring to the pro-Russian sympathies in Germany. Basically, this can be the argument for working all the more closely with Germany in order to dissuade it from these sympathies. The fact that Berlin is a much more important partner for Kiev than Warsaw is seen as a result of the foreign policy mistakes of the previous governments and not as an understandable constellation in which one should get involved and which one should not exclusively criticize. In order to maintain the EU's support for Ukraine, Berlin must play an active role, especially since it has the appropriate resources. A competition between Warsaw and Berlin instead of close cooperation makes no sense in this regard.

With a view to an active Polish foreign policy, it must be stated that Warsaw absolutely needs Berlin.

Let us repeat the question again: "What do we need Germany for?" The shortest answer could be: "To free ourselves from the Polish fate of our geopolitical situation". Or also: "so as not to be the periphery of Europe". Or also because "so as not to fall back into Moscow's sphere of influence". One can represent the political project and the idea that Poland does not necessarily need Germany, but then one must be aware that in our part of Europe this leads to the question: If not with Germany, then with whom?

Even a structure like Western Europe cannot be completely independent in today's world. It absolutely needs an ally like the United States to maintain its independence. The idea that Poland is maintaining its independence more with the help of an East Central European alliance than thanks to the West (which for Poland would mean above all the connection with Germany) and that the United States is giving this region the kind of support it has given Western Europe (previously ) seems to be a concept that lacks any basis.

The starting point of this essay was the statement that every state in Europe should have its own concept of Europe, which it puts up for discussion not only internally but also internationally. For such a concept it is essential to determine what role is ascribed to the other states in realizing their own interests, especially their neighbors. It is therefore hardly possible to think about a Polish conception of Europe if it does not take into account a separate Polish vision of Germany's role in Europe.

So in the end the answer is: "We need the Germans to build Europe together with them."

Translation from Polish: Silke Plate
The Poland analyzes are published jointly by the Research Center for Eastern Europe at the University of Bremen, the German Society for Eastern European Studies, the German Poland Institute, the Leibniz Institute for Agricultural Development in Transition Economies, the Leibniz Institute for East and Southeast European Research and the Center for Eastern European and International Studies (ZOiS) gGmbH. The bpb publishes them as a licensed edition.