The news was dismally familiar. Last week the Prussian Claims Society, a nationalist organization of Germans whose prewar estates were annexed by Poland in 1945, announced it would sue the Polish government in the EU courts to get back its members' land. Polish papers and politicians erupted in predictable outrage. There was talk of countersuing Germany for 1 trillion euro in wartime reparations. More controversy centered on Erika Steinbach, the feisty head of the Federation of Expellees, who wants to build a memorial in Berlin to the 11 million Germans driven from the country's former east after World War II--which Poles see as a bald and inexcusable attempt to paint Germans as victims in a global conflagration that they themselves ignited. Former foreign minister Wladyslaw Bartoszewski denounced Steinbach's plans as "fatal for Polish-German reconciliation."
It's been only three months since Poland joined the European Union, opening a new chapter in Europe's history. Yet suddenly, all the talk is of the past. Two days before the flap over Prussian estates, Poland's elite gathered in Warsaw to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the failed 1944 uprising against the German Wehrmacht, which left 200,000 Poles dead and the Polish capital a wasteland. They are painful memories, on both sides. But painful as the old wounds may be--and obviously they are not yet fully healed--the context in which they've been reopened could not be more different. A decade ago, when Poland began its long trek to join the EU, these old grievances dominated the uneasy and mutually suspicious relationship with Germany. Today they come between neighbors who are increasingly linked by trade, tourism and political ties. Germany and Poland are now partnered in an EU where their future fights (and alliances) will be over Brussels posts and policies, ranging from joint budgets to farm subsidies--not old borders or Prussian land.
That's partly why German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder went to Warsaw last week. It was the first time a chancellor was invited to attend the ceremonies marking the anniversary of the uprising, and the--notes he struck went far in reassuring Poles. "Today we bow in shame," Schroeder told his listeners, adding that Germans "know very well who started the war and who its first victims were." Then he categorically ruled out any restitution claims "that would stand history on its head." No less symbolically, the new German president, Horst Kohler, last month picked Warsaw, rather than traditional Paris, for his first official visit abroad. Even a few months ago that clarity would have been welcomed--but not hailed as big news. It's a measure of the moment that both Poles and Germans must be reminded of how important it is not to hold their future hostage to the past.
The trajectory of that future is plain, if not always clearly seen. Just three months into the EU, and truck traffic across the newly open Polish-German border has doubled, according to German highway authorities. That will mean another surge in the two nations' rapidly rising trade, already 32 billion euro in 2003. More than 8,000 German companies have operations in Poland, but now investment is starting to flow the other way. Last year Warsaw-based energy conglomerate PKN Orlen made corporate Poland's biggest acquisition abroad to date, buying 500 German gas stations for 101 million euro. Says Orlen Deutschland director Michal Jonczynski, "This is only the start."
Less quantifiable ties have also grown. German and Polish border guards share duty on the EU's new eastern frontier; soldiers train together in a joint military corps. Without help from an army of Polish masons, fruit pickers, nannies and maids--most working illegally until labor restrictions phase out in a few years--the German service sector would grind to a halt. These immigrants, in turn, fuel Polish growth with the checks they send back home. True, talk to ordinary Germans, and Poland remains a blank spot on their map. Two thirds have never visited Poland, and indeed wouldn't dream of doing so. A survey by Geo magazine last week showed Poland, among Germany's nine neighbors, to be the place they disliked most. That said, German tourism is showing signs of picking up. For every German expellee hoping to recover his lost estates, there are a dozen going back to help the new (Polish) owners fix them up.
Flaps over the past will no doubt make headlines for years to come, rattling nationalistic chains and raising old ghosts. Still, it's a new era for both Germans and Poles. History will always be baggage that the two nations will carry along their common road. But the good news is that, slowly, it will grow lighter.