After the First Year of Law and Justice in Power No Game Changer on the Horizon in Poland

2015 brought significant political changes to Poland. It proved to be a great election comeback by the Law and Justice Party (PiS) which was founded by the Kaczyński brothers, one of whom died in the Smoleńsk air crash in 2010. On the other side, Civic Platform (PO), founded by Donald Tusk, which ruled the country for 8 years, suffered a bitter defeat. Their junior coalition partner barely made it to the parliament. The Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) in turn failed completely, and are left for the first time without any parliamentary representation. Meanwhile, three new political players entered the fray, offering voters a new liberal alternative (Nowoczesna), a nationalist-populist coalition (Kukiz 15) and a social left wing party much inspired by Syriza and Podemos (RAZEM). As a result, new faces have appeared as nearly half of the 460 Members of the Parliament (MPs) are new. Nevertheless, this refreshing change did not prevent the monopolisation of political power: after 10 years in opposition, PiS won the most seats in both chambers of the Polish parliament. Given the party-affiliated president and authoritarian party structure, this gives leader Jarosław Kaczyński – a regular MP with immense behind-the-scenes influence – extensive power.

PiS immediately brought into effect its long promised program. The newly introduced media laws gave the government power to appoint heads of public TV and radio. Changing the rules of the Constitutional Tribunal resulted in its paralysis, which persists today. The office of attorney general was merged with the ministry of justice, politicizing the former. Planned amendments in appointing judges were met with abrupt protest against dismantling the tripartite division of powers. In the public sector not only systemic, but also significant, personnel changes were introduced. Drawing from the Hungarian experience, Jarosław Kaczyński is currently sounding out a possible electoral reform to safeguard the allocation of votes favourable to his party. PiS also solemnly fulfilled its generous social promises by introducing child benefits, lowering the retirement age, and increasing the income-tax-free threshold. Educational reform followed, shifting the compulsory school age back to 7 years and re-introducing the late selection model (long primary education). A conservative backlash to these measures became evident when lawmakers tried to push ahead with a near-total ban on abortion, and put the Convention on preventing and combating violence against women into question. A new approach is also noticeable in the country’s foreign policy. Poland found itself openly challenging the European Union, first when confronting charges about the rule of law violations, then by dreaming of a Visegrad Group consolidation, if not restoring the legendary Intermarium. Poland also poorly invested resources by seeking a Western ally in the United Kingdom just before Brexit. Faith in the new US president, Donald Trump, fades when confronted with his alleged close ties to Vladimir Putin. Short-sightedly, Poland also distanced itself from Germany, the only country in Western Europe that still seems to trust in dialogue with its neighbour.

The victory and prompt actions of the PiS party mobilised opposition. A Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD) was formed immediately – a movement with country-wide structures, supported by public figures, prominent politicians and opposition party leaders, led by a charismatic but formerly unknown leader, Mateusz Kijowski. KOD moved people onto the streets by taking a stand anytime the government passed controversial reforms. As time went by, more and more conflicts grew inside KOD. These escalated when it was revealed that the leader commissioned IT services to his own company, leaving many KOD adherents in denial. Another strong resistance arose around the issue of reproductive rights. So called ‘Black Protests’ against the abortion ban gathered crowds of an estimated 150,000 protesting in the streets. Celebrating massive mobilisation, little did the organisers know that the movement would soon be challenged by internal divisions as protesting against a complete ban on abortion was not synonymous with advocating unlimited access to it. Nevertheless, the women’s march remained not only the biggest, but also the most effective initiative. Other single cause movements failed, like the teachers’ objection to the education reform or the fight of the ecologists against loggings in primeval forests. So too did the occupation of Sejm, organized by the opposition MPs after limiting access of the media to the plenary. Spectacular as it was, the strike proved futile, providing PiS with even more arguments about alleged sabotage intentions of the opposition.

Meanwhile, alongside human rights pro-choice circles, the far right scene is rising, triggered by the “refugee crisis” and tolerated by the authorities. PiS also enjoys public support as manifested during monthly commemorations of the Smoleńsk catastrophe. The indirect but clear endorsement by the Polish Catholic church lends further support. The governing party continuously leads in the polls leaving all rivals behind, president Andrzej Duda and Prime Minister Beata Szydło being the most trusted politicians. At the present time there is no one capable of posing a threat to Jarosław Kaczyński. He can always count on the exotic national-populists formation in Sejm to deliver the votes necessary to pass controversial laws. The opposition is weak and fragmented. New (neo)liberals under Ryszard Petru cannibalised the old formation of Donald Tusk. The progressive camp is in pieces. The Social Democratic Alliance, a party once in power, lost its impetus and recognizable members. In the presidential election in May 2015 it seriously undermined its credibility by choosing a candidate politically unexperienced and unknown to the public. Few months later, for the purpose of parliamentary elections, SLD built up a centre-left coalition, trying to win the votes with a dull prophecy of Parliament without progressives, instead of any coherent programme. The new left, RAZEM, dynamically builds its structures but it remains under the electoral threshold, being unlikely to play a major role in country politics. The third player, feminist leader Barbara Nowacka, attracted media attention as a rising hope for Poland but her association, Inicjatywa Polska, lacks local structures and a coherent agenda.

Today it seems that the future of PiS in Poland is secure. On the one hand, so far no constructive mobilisation against the mighty national-conservatives seems possible. The Law and Justice party is not strong enough to completely dismantle Polish democracy, as it is incapable of amending the constitution, but it doesn’t give up endeavours to petrify its position by fiddling with the judiciary system, electoral laws or replacing former staff in public service. It is worth mentioning that PiS had already once been in power in 2006, however they lost it after two years of turbulent governance. Therefore, their determination is even stronger to not make that mistake again. The most possible scenario is that the government will continue to strengthen the party’s power position, both in terms of building hierarchical dependencies and introducing structural changes in order to be ready to face its rivals not only in 2019, by the next parliamentary elections, but also at the local level in 2018. One of course could imagine that the bold actions of PiS government rouse general public discontent. Yet, Poland is a country of weak civic engagement, reflected not only by relative high score of power distance: accepting hierarchical order and status inequalities, but also low voter turnout, hardly exceeding 50% of all eligible voters. This indifference is surely a big ally of PiS.

This text was originally published by The Progressive Post: https://progressivepost.eu/spotlights/first-year-law-justice-power-no-game-changer-horizon-poland

Abortion Turmoil In Poland: Trading Women’s Rights For Political Goal

In summarizing the results of last year’s parliamentary elections in Poland I briefly mentioned that “the rule of Catholic conservatives might stand in opposition to respecting the rights of women “. It took less than a year for this prophecy to come true. Thousands of women in Poland are joining Black Protests to demonstrate against the newest radical anti-abortion law proposal.

Then and now: unsatisfying “abortion compromise”

During the Communist regime, and particularly from the 1960s, abortion was available on request. After 1989, the Polish transformation embraced reproductive rights too. Despite the determination of women’s organizations and owing to the massive influence of the Catholic Church, access to legal abortion was limited.

Polish abortion law today is one of the most restrictive in Europe. Termination of pregnancy is possible when the woman’s life or health is endangered, when the pregnancy is the result of a criminal act or when the fetus is seriously malformed. In reality the situation is much more complicated. Polish doctors are granted a conscience clause that allows them not to provide certain medical services, like abortion, owing to their religion or beliefs. According to Polish law, a doctor unable to perform the procedure should refer the patient to another facility. As a result, many patients seeking help find it too late.

According to official statistics of the Ministry of Health, the number of legal abortions in 2015 was less than 2000, whereas it is estimated that abortion carried out underground together with “abortion tourism” to other countries, such as Germany or Slovakia, add up to 150,000 cases a year. This discrepancy has a very clear class dimension: limited access to legal abortion clearly excludes the poorest from safe procedures.

Reheating the abortion debate

The so-called “abortion compromise” reached in the 1990s is far from ideal: it has ever since been contested both by pro-choice organizations and the pro-life lobby allied with the Catholic Church. After the change of regime in Poland last year, the latter seem to have gathered momentum. In September 2016, two alternative civil law proposals on accessibility of abortion were voted on in the Sejm, the Polish parliament. A liberal draft submitted by Save Women initiative demanding free access to abortion, introduction of sexual education and refunding contraception was rejected. An alternative project called “Stop abortion”, submitted by Ordo Iuris foundation was referred to a relevant committee for advancing the dossier. Should this proposal pass, women will be punished with a prison sentence for having an abortion and any case of miscarriage will be investigated. The protection of pre-natal life will force women to give birth even if they were raped or they are carrying lethally damaged fetuses. As a result, some life-saving medical interventions, such as ante-natal screenings or fetal surgery, might have to be given up in practice because of potential penal consequences if they cause miscarriage. Some standard procedures, like terminating ectopic or molar pregnancies, will be performed only when life-threatening conditions finally occur. To sum up, such a law would not only become one of the most restrictive in the world, sending Polish women back in time to Ceausescu’s Romania, but it also seems defective owing to the introduction of imprecise terms that might in practice face medical staff with a dramatic choice: risking a prison sentence or saving lives.

Two sides of the barricade

This threat to women’s rights has caused a massive public outcry. The non-parliamentary Razem Party launched a Black Protest that went viral, not only on the Internet but also in the streets. Many celebrities became actively engaged. Women’s general strike was called for October 3rd, inspired by the legendary action of Icelandic women in 1975. This is very symbolic, illustrating clearly the throwback happening in Poland now: a second wave feminism-style flash mob is still up-to-date there, in the 21st century.

The pro-choice protest has reached the European Parliament that is staging a debate (today) on current developments in Poland. Human rights organizations, like Amnesty International, warn against “a dangerous backward step for women and girls”. Meanwhile, the streets in Poland have been the scene of constant unrest since October 2015 when the PiS party took over again. So, the question arises: can this female wave of anger make any impression on those in power?

It is important to remember that, however loud it seems, the protest movement represents only a part of the society. Not all women feel represented: it was Joanna Banasiuk, a woman, that delivered the “Stop abortion” project to the Sejm. It was also women MPs that supported the abortion ban. The Catholic Church in Poland is officially demanding that every life is protected. So far, none of the Polish doctors’ associations has taken an official stance.

The heated debate has become vulgarized, detached from the very particular draft law in question. The disastrous quality of that debate was lately laid bare in a talk show, when seven male politicians discussed abortion as well as by the irreverent comment of Witold Waszczykowski, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, who reacted to the women’s strike by saying: “Let them play”.

Instrumentalising women’s rights for political profits

Women’s bodies have once more become battlefields. The question arises: why reheating this debate now? According to the polls, less than a third of Poles is in favour of liberalization of the current abortion law, whereas only one in ten is in favour of increasing the restrictions. Most of society backs the status quo. A conspiracy theory has it that the abortion debate coincided with the debate over CETA, a free-trade agreement between Canada and the European Union. That agreement is strongly rejected by the Polish farmers and the right-wing national camp. A more realistic view is that the current abortion dispute might be a PiS strategy to deepen divisions within Polish society in order to keep their supporters mobilized. Last but not least, the most trivial explanation is that the PiS party is paying back electoral debts to their civil society backups, pro-life and Catholic organizations being among its pillars. Meanwhile, after nearly 100 000 people went on the streets on Monday in the latest black protests, Polish PM, Beata Szydło, called for cooling down the emotions, simultaneously scolding her colleagues for sarcastic comments and distancing the party from the anti-abortion project. Some say, however, that this female revolution might the key to overcome conservative government led by a woman.

Update: The Sejm overturned the ban in a vote on October 6

This text was originally published at Social Europe: https://www.socialeurope.eu/abortion-turmoil-poland-trading-womens-rights-political-goals

How The Refugee Crisis Splits The European Social Democrats Between West And East

The refugee crisis has exposed cracks in the EU’s political foundations. Failure to agree over how to implement refugee quotas and inability to coordinate humanitarian actions has allowed Eurosceptics to vaunt their populist talents. Information chaos has wreaked havoc in Europe, radicalising public opinion. The Right joined forces, holding a hard line on immigration policy while appeals for solidarity and common action crashed against the opposition of the Visegrad countries – two of them run by ‘social democrats’. Thus, the refugee crisis has also exposed the crisis of the European left and its internal axiological incoherence.

Clear Statement Of European Social Democratic Values

As the refugee crisis struck Europe, The Party of European Socialists (PES), an umbrella organization bringing together European social democrats, took a determined stand on the role of EU to provide aid and shelter for the newcomers. In October 2015 PES adopted a Presidency Declarationentitled ‘Refugees – a Progressive and humanitarian response’, supporting refugee quotas. According to the document “(…) by relocating 160,000 people in need of international protection and many more in the future, Europe can show unity”. The essence is clear and deeply rooted in social democratic values: equality, social justice, collectivism and respect for human rights. It then came as no surprise that the opposition of the eastern European countries towards these proposed measures brought about an immediate counter-reaction within progressive Europe. In early January 2016 Gianni Pittella, President of the Socialists and Democrats Group in the European Parliament, warned against Europe falling apart because of “the narrow-minded selfishness of some national governments and the illusion that restoring borders will solve the global challenge of migration”.

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Western Social Democrats

Social democratic governments in western European countries proved supportive of the open borders policy. In September 2015 a meeting was held in Brussels to discuss possible solutions, hosting French Minister of State for European Affairs, Harlem Desir, German Minister of State for Europe, Michael Roth, and Italian State Secretary for European Affairs, Sandro Gozi. Their message was clear: The European Union is a community based on solidarity and humanity where the right to asylum cannot be questioned. From the perspective of the European Left the key words came from Gozi: “As socialists and democrats, but first and foremost as European citizens, we are committed to promote the founding values of Europe – solidarity, collaboration, respect for others – and to identify the common policies that can promote them”. This consensus does not seem to be so obvious in the East.

Social Democracy In The Visegrad Group

In the dispute over refugees the position of the Visegrad Four, i.e. Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia runs counter to western appeals. Two of the Visegrad countries are, however, ruled by social democrats. Even so, they do not fully agree with their western colleagues – to say the least.

Responding to the sexual assaults that accrued on New Year’s Eve in Cologne and other German cities, the Slovak Prime Minister, Robert Fico (SMER), immediately called for an extraordinary European summit on border controls. Previously, Fico set out an anti-immigrant agenda, claiming Slovakia was “built for Slovaks, not for minorities” and announcing multi-culturalism to be a failure.

Fico’s proposal won the support of the Czech PM, Bohuslav Sobotka (ČSSD), who put the blame for the situation in Europe on Angela Merkel and rejected pressures to accept quotas. Nevertheless, Sobotka keeps his temper and speaks responsibly. It is the Czech President, Miloš Zeman – nowadays the leader of the centre-left Party of Civic Rights (SPO) – who does not mince his words. In his annual Christmas message he warned against an invasion of Europe – the mass migration of refugees to exploit welfare benefits. Sobotka calls the president a populist “legitimizing xenophobia”.

The Hungarian social democratic party (MSZP) remains in determined opposition to Viktor Orban’s government. Its members voted against the new anti-immigration laws criminalizing crossing of the border fence and supported by far-right Jobbik but the party remains “positively neutral” towards the refugee issue, not to irritate their electorate. Democratic Coalition (DK) has proved to be most sympathetic to the asylum seekers with its leader, Ferenc Gyurcsány, hosting refugees at his home during Budapest’s Keleti Railway Station impasse. It, however, has little say in the Hungarian Parliament.

Meanwhile, Leszek Miller, leader of Polish Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), is very open about his views. Although in the latest elections the party failed to win a single seat in the parliament, it remains the biggest left-wing political force in Poland. Miller harshly criticizes Angela Merkel for her open borders policy, as well as the SPD for its complicity. As for the refugees themselves, Miller claims most of them are “economic migrants” and demands their submission to Polish law, culture and mores of the education system. Above all, Miller warns against Islamic terrorism as the greatest threat to Europe.

The Left At A Crossroads

Martin Schulz, the President of the European Parliament, has responded to the “Eastern Bloc’s” opposition by accusing “some governments, who don’t want to take responsibility” of impeding a joint European solution. Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission, threatened to cut structural funds for countries refusing quotas. Pittella threatened to expel the Slovak leader Fico if he doesn’t change his stance.

All these actions have failed to influence the Visegrad Four. Their position has even hardened due to the change of government in Poland. In fact, the endeavours of the European Left might take completely the wrong turn: threatening eastern and central European countries simply hardens their position even more, proving the existence of a “Brussels dictate”. There has to be another way to find a consensus on the refugee crisis.

The entire European Union has to face the challenge of securing effective support for the refugees. As of now, fundamental disagreements in managing massive immigrant influxes have led nowhere but to a humanitarian crisis and growing hostility. Firstly, listening more carefully to the concerns of the rebelling V4 could be a first step towards mutual understanding. This, however, will never be possible without abandoning populist arguments and emotional rhetoric. Secondly, it would be crucial for common statements, like the already mentioned PES Declaration, to be based on a real consensus. If some member parties publicly withdraw from them, they loose credibility.

Thus, the European social democrats have to revise their axiological foundation when the competitors from the new socialist left, like Syriza, Podemos or Razem, heave into view. It has to be clear that dangling red party labels over ones brand is not sufficient proof of representing progressive values. The European social democratic movement has to be consequential, but in a constructive way: not by threatening to throw out the “rotten apples” without prior negotiation of common positions. Nevertheless, once adopted, the joint policy standards have to be respected by all members of the social democratic family, without exceptions and in the name of unity in turbulent times.

This text was originally published at Social Europe: https://www.socialeurope.eu/how-the-refugee-crisis-splits-the-european-social-democrats-between-west-and-east

Turning The Tables: Poland’s New Government And Europe

Last Sunday’s election results left some Poles devastated, but others seem to be if not hopeful, then relieved. The massive victory of the conservative Law and Justice party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, PiS) defeating Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska – PO) was, however, not a political earthquake, but rather a self-fulfilling prophecy that finally came true. Perhaps it also is a manifestation of a deeper change within Polish society. The question is if this will turn to good account for Poland – and for Europe, too.

The New Liberals

Civic Platform managed to waste its tremendous popularity within just a few years. Erosion of its character was progressing but the departure of ex-premier Donald Tusk settled it. A party that in 2007 mobilized Poles to “vote for change” has now lost to the conservatives. Ideological void, ineffective investments and affairs suggesting arrogance and alienation from everyday life cost PO voters’ trust. Meanwhile, nature abhors a vacuum and a new liberal party emerged. Ryszard Petru, the founder of Nowoczesna (The Modern Party), sensed the moment and won over disappointed believers in modernization. This former advisor of Leszek Balcerowicz – the father of the Polish transformation – didn’t however invent the wheel: he simply recalled the spirit of early days PO. Dialectically: a step back turned to be a (small) leap forward.

The New Right

The Polish political scene is quite sui generis, as the main battle is not waged on the left-right axis. The last decade witnessed position warfare between two post-Solidarity parties: PO and PiS. Moreover, out of eight parties running in the parliamentary elections, only two represented the progressive camp. Political sympathies among the youngest voters have proven to be right-wing and quite radical. Their idol, Janusz Korwin-Mikke, made it to the European Parliament a year ago (and has recently been sanctioned for giving a Nazi salute). He nearly made it to the national parliament this time, missing out by literally single-digit votes. Anybody concerned about the populist backlash in Poland should definitely investigate the movement of Paweł Kukiz, a former rock star. With no programme this broad initiative of “concerned citizens” managed to help members of nationalist organizations win seats in the parliament. Anti-intellectualism and an emotional, patriotic narrative commanded 9% of the votes. This illustrates how far right the Polish political scene has become.

The New Left (?)

The new parliament will proceed without any representatives from the progressive camp. Despite employing young faces and building a broad inter-party coalition it was impossible for the social democrats (Sojusz Lewicy Demokratycznej – SLD) to convince voters. Nevertheless, these elections did give impetus to a new leftist formation. Razem, strongly inspired by Syriza and Podemos, kicked off in May 2015. With no budget other than member subscriptions and despite being neglected by the mainstream media, the party managed to win 3.6% of all votes cast. Little by little does the trick and Razem, using a completely different discourse of social democratic renewal against casualisation within the labour market, tax evasion and social inequalities, broke through. Its overall vote was too low to make it into parliament – but it’s high enough to obtain public funding for the next four years, enabling it to develop proper structures.

“New” Poland In Europe

A common belief that Poles were the biggest Euro-enthusiasts held sway for a good decade, backed by the results of opinion polls and the engagement of Polish political elites at the EU level. These election results prove that this is no longer the case. Firstly, the campaign exposed that, apart from the refugee crisis, topics vital at a European level were practically absent from the national debate that remained focused on domestic issues. Secondly, in stirring up their support, right-wing parties kept on recalling the EU in negative tones – as a threat to sovereignty and traditional values. Thirdly, there might be a touch of disappointment that there still is a “multi-speed Europe” and the gap between Poland and such “eurostars” as Germany, France or the UK remains wide. With PiS winning the elections via that marauding spirit the EU might lose a positive player. The previous PO government was loyal to its old leader – Tusk, now President of the European Council. One can foresee that relations between Poland and the EU may be shaped not only by the usual national interests but also special motives: cutting Tusk down to size.

Then, the question of Poland’s international relations emerges. The tendency to let historical policy influence the management of current affairs is a well-known inclination of the PiS, especially with regard to the big neighbours: Germany and Russia. Cordial relationships with Angela Merkel, established by Tusk, might yet cool down. Since the Smolensk catastrophe five years ago, the attitude of the Polish right towards Russia has been dominated by mistrust, feelings of injustice and lust for revenge. Perhaps the Visegrad Group of four could learn to appreciate the change in Poland as favourable, as solidarity among the four countries in opposing Brussels could finally be restored. The question is, however, if the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orban, will be willing to give up his ambition of becoming the advocate of East-Central European interests.

The situation may also prove difficult in other specific policy areas. For example, the protagonists of a new European energy policy, with energy transition (Energiewende) and the de-carbonization of economies as focal points will face resistance, as PiS favours coal-based energy production in Poland. Apart from economic concerns, this issue has a social and political background. Silesia, the main industrial region in Poland, was devastated by the rapid economic transformations of the 1990s. Remembering that trauma as well as fighting for survival, the trade unions mobilized massive demonstrations against PO government industrial policy. This provided the perfect momentum to harness the anger and frustration of the working masses – and utilize it for political purposes. And this was done not by the progressive left – but by the conservative PiS.

Last but not least, the rule of Catholic conservatives might stand in opposition to respecting the rights of women, LGBT and other minorities. Issues such as access to contraception and abortion or introducing legalized partnership are still battlefields in Poland. In fact, some of the progressive reforms were introduced (and all proposed restrictive measures turned down) thanks to the PO parliamentary majority allied with progressive forces. But these are echoes of the past – the new parliament lacks any real progressive representation. This is certain to bring repercussions at the European level. However, only time will tell which of those predictions holds true – and which risks have been completely overlooked.

This text was originally published at Social Europe: https://www.socialeurope.eu/turning-the-tables-polands-new-government-and-europe

Willy Brandt’s Forgotten Ostpolitik

Recently I have had the great pleasure of participating in an event commemorating what would have been Willy Brandt’s 100th birthday in Berlin. During the conference we elaborated on his legacy together with his old friend Egon Bahr. The discussions were very inspiring, however they led to the sad conclusion that Willy Brandt is not enough remembered in Central and Eastern Europe.

Willy Brandt was indeed a very peculiar figure in the politics of his time; not eager to join the Cold War, sensitive to social injustice and prepared to dare more democracy. The fact that he was an Anti-Nazi activist during World War II for long was not recognized in Germany. He was often offended by his political opponents as a child of an illegitimate relationship or of being detached from Germany due to his long time in exile.

Several determined attempts finally resulted in him winning the German federal elections of 1969. However, this was just the beginning. The Kniefall in Warsaw in 1970 is one of the most iconic gestures of modern European history. Ironically enough, the one who took the blame was in fact beyond guilt, actively opposing Nazi terror and the atrocities of World War II. Poland took a special place in Brandt’s political agenda – as a moral center of his politics. This gesture of German recognition of responsibility for the Holocaust and the atrocities committed in Poland by the German occupation forces showed political and personal class. This moment, important as it was, was, however, primarily symbolic. What counts most are Brandt’s political actions. Experience gained while governing besieged West Berlin – an island of freedom and democracy in the sea of Stasi GDR – was a valuable lesson learned about the iron curtain, the Soviet Union and the Cold War.

The Ostverträge proved Brandt’s understanding for the ultimate goal of peace and security in the region over nationalistic ambitions and historical amnesia. Egon Bahr’s strategy of ‘change through cooperation’ (Wandel durch Annäherung) created a new quality in international relations, opening more doors than the arms race. The Treaty of Warsaw – at first so controversial in German society and so unbearable for conservatives tirelessly demanding reunification with Silesia – turned out to be the beginning of new era in Polish-German relations. After all, the main goal was to abolish the iron curtain and Poland as a socialist but relatively independent state had the potential to be the forerunner. Unfortunately, change took longer than Brandt would have wanted.

One has to keep in mind that parallel to redefining ties with Poland and balancing relations with the USSR, Germany still remained divided internally. This was naturally Brandt’s biggest concern, to reunite ‘what belongs together’. This perspective shows the double importance of the treaty with Poland. Brandt was legitimizing the border of East Germany being the Chancellor of the West. The CDU’s reluctance and stubbornness in a accepting Willy Brandt’s politics was very short sighted – the chance for restoring the old status quo was minuscule if there at all. Brandt’s pragmatism ended the time of temporary ceasefire. Rightfully so, one of the SPD’s election slogans was ‘So that you can live in peace also tomorrow’ (Damit Sie auch morgen in Frieden leben können, 1969).

The Kniefall of Willy Brandt

I was born in Breslau, today known as Wrocław. After the war chaos my ancestors came to the lands known as ‘regained’ to the Poles and ‘lost’ to the Germans. History is never black or white and so gains and losses grow side by side. The repatriated took over the households abandoned first by German refugees, then by expellees. Thus, the history of Lower Silesia as well as the whole chronicle of Polish-German relations were stigmatized by pain, grieve and mutual claims. I am the second generation of my family born in a city that was completely bared from its German past when the communists took it over. In political propaganda Wrocław was always pictured as a genuine Polish city, a compensation for the lost lands in the east, the city of Lwów (today’s Lviv) in particular. However, for too long no investments into the city were made and the solid German bricks were taken away by train to rebuild ruined Warsaw. Wrocław is now in blossom, renewed, gladly reaching out to its multicultural history of Jewish, German and Czech descent.

There is no more hate or fear between Poles and Germans. Both the polls as well as daily experience show the development of good neighborhood relationships. This is very much worth noting as the history of Polish-German relations has never been easy, reaching far beyond World War II: Prussian aggression, partitions of Poland, even as far back as the legendary battles with Teutonic Knights. Centuries of mistrust have passed and it’s impossible to understand this change without Willy Brandt and his Ostpolitik.

Sadly, Brandt is rather forgotten in today’s Poland. He is a Nobel Peace Prize winner, a figure comparable to Nelson Mandela or Martin Luther King, but he hardly exists in the historic consciousness of the younger generations of Poles. Searching for the reasons one might think of the impact of the communist rhetoric differentiating between ‘good’ GDR Germans and the ‘bad’ West. As a social democrat and anti-fascist Brandt was very inconvenient for this communist propaganda as he was completely contradicting this image. Thus, the photo of Kniefall (see above) was censored in the People’s Republic of Poland. Second, it may also be because of the turbulent times of transformation that Poland experienced in the 1980s and the 1990s. Third, in Warsaw policy towards our neighbours is dominated by the ups and downs in Polish-Russian relations, an unfinished story of guilt and unforgiveness that always stirs up strong emotions. And last but not least, the meeting of Tadeusz Mazowiecki and Helmut Kohl is commonly perceived as the cornerstone of Polish-German reconciliation. However, without the Kniefall, the Treaty of Warsaw and the strategy of Wandel durch Annäherung this step would not have been possible. The foundations for this true reconciliation were laid much earlier, when Mr Kohl’s camp was still openly opposing the Ostverträge, calling it ‘illegal’ and ‘high treason’.

It is shameful for Polish political history not to commemorate Willy Brandt in the way he deserve – not only because of his gestures towards Poland, but also because of the role he played in overcoming the post-war division of Europe. The big changes that have started in the late 1980’s have many mothers and fathers, not only the trinity of Tatcher-Raegan-John Paul II. Without Willy Brandt there would not have been a dialogue between East and West. Hopefully, the latest Polish publication of Brandt’s memoirs will bring back memory to the Poles too.

Willy Brandt was Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany between 1969 and 1974. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1971 for his ‘work in improving relations with East Germany, Poland, and the Soviet Union’. Willy Brandt died in 1992 after witnessing the unification of Germany he decisively helped to bring about. He would have celebrated his 100th birthday on 18th December 2013.

This text was originally published at Social Europe: https://www.socialeurope.eu/willy-brandt-forgotten-ostpolitik