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Poles can’t live with Germans, can’t live without them

Poland will demand World War II reparations from Germany, the ruling party announced in Warsaw the other day. A parliamentary committee set the amount at €1.3 trillion, which is roughly the same in dollars and equals between two and three annual German federal government budgets. Oh dear.

As eager as post-war Germany was to atone for its Nazi past, there is no way Berlin will pay any part of that sum, as the Poles are well aware. But that’s not what it’s about. Instead, the move by Poland’s far-right Law and Justice (PiS) party speaks volumes about other ills plaguing the European Union.

Namely: there is the rise of populism and nationalism in several member states, which will be particularly visible in the PiS campaign for next year’s elections. Then there’s Germany’s controversial and ambiguous role in the EU, a bloc it probably should, but can’t or won’t lead. And there’s how all the resulting tensions continue to frustrate the EU’s raison d’être – internal reconciliation that would allow its nations to jointly confront external threats such as an autocratic Russia.

There is no point in discussing the number, 1.3 trillion. A “real” amount – counted in human suffering as well as property damage – would be countless multiples higher.

And that’s where the problems begin, seen from Berlin – or any other world capital that once ordered or oversaw atrocities committed in its name somewhere. Once you start compensating the descendants of certain victims, where and when do you stop?

Berlin’s official response to all demands for reparations – Greece is another country that keeps asking – is frustratingly legalistic. After World War II, West Germany paid symbolic indemnities to Israel, Yugoslavia and other nations. East Germany compensated its communist big brother, the Soviet Union, which was in turn to allocate part of the sums to its communist little brother, Poland.

During the Cold War, the Germans therefore viewed the war claims of others as settled or still awaiting final agreement with the Allied powers. This closure came in 1990, with the two plus four treaty between the two Germanys and the Soviet Union, the United States, the United Kingdom and France.

Since then, the Germans have maintained – as Chancellor Olaf Scholz told the Poles again last week – that the books are closed. As the Greeks joke: Before reunification, the Germans said it was too early to negotiate; afterwards, they said it was too late.

But to get bogged down in such polemics, the Germans like to point out, is to miss the whole spirit of European integration. It’s meant to be a “peace project”, an idealistic leap of reconciliation, embodied in the mutual embrace of Germany and France – enemies turned friends, with aspirations to become family.

Poland, like other member states formerly behind the Iron Curtain, entered the EU late and had different motivations for joining. He was in a hurry to get out of the Russian orbit and into that of the West. But rather than submerge its identity in a new European identity, it also wanted to catch up with its own nation-building, after centuries of being partitioned off, displaced, invaded and tormented by German- or Russian-speaking peoples — and sometimes, as in 1939, by both.

Simultaneously, the entire EU has been debating the latest iteration of the old “German question” for years. It is the recurring problem that Germany, right in the middle of Europe, is either too weak (like in the 17th or early 19th century) or too strong (in the late 19th and early 20th) to allow the balance of the system of continental states. Today’s story might be that Germany is too small to lead but too big to follow.

The EU, whose founding institutions were crafted from the ashes of a war of German aggression, was built to prevent any member nation, and especially Germany, from dominating the others again. At the same time, the club – with 27-plus members in the queue – is fragmented and dysfunctional enough to need leadership, a role for which its biggest country is the obvious candidate.

In Germany, this conundrum has led to a long “hegemony debate”. Most Germans, still traumatized by the Nazi past, reject the role of leader – it doesn’t help that the word translates to Führer. They often quote the writer Thomas Mann, who feared a “German Europe” while yearning for a “European Germany”. During the euro, refugee and other crisis, however, Germans have also realized that the EU only works when Germany takes the initiative.

Other Europeans were equally torn. They hate being lectured by Germans – about how to save money, in Athens or Madrid; on how to enforce the rule of law, in Warsaw or Budapest; on anything, in Paris or in Rome. In Brussels, Germans are often perceived as humorless and hypocritical, the worst combination. One of the first countries, along with France, to break the much-vaunted EU fiscal rules – originally drafted by the Germans – was Germany itself, in 2005.

But most Europeans also understand the need to reconcile with Germany and implicitly gain access to its leadership. “I will probably be the first Polish Foreign Minister to say so”, joked Radoslaw Sikorski in 2011, when he was head of diplomacy in Warsaw, “but here it is: I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity. Yet he added: “Provided you include us in the decision-making, Poland will support you.

Since Sikorski’s remark, things have mostly gone downhill. In 2015, Poland followed Hungary’s lead and elected populist nationalists to power ever since. Step by step, the PiS has compromised judicial independence, freedom of the press and the rights of LGBTQ citizens, while ranting against Brussels and Poland’s historical enemies, the Germans here and the Russians there.

Previous PiS campaigns have featured ghosts such as Muslim migrants, queer and trans people, Brussels technocrats and others allegedly bent on corrupting authentic Polish-Catholic mores. To win next year’s elections, the PiS decided to deploy the German villain again.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the party leader, speaks of “German-Russian plans to rule Europe” and the EU becoming a “German Fourth Reich”. He slanders his opposition as wanting to make Poland an “appendage of Germany”. As if directly refuting Sikorski in 2011, the current Polish Foreign Minister, Zbigniew Rau, recently declared that “the EU does not need German leadership, but German restraint”.

Germans, for their part, have — largely out of parochial distraction — lived up to the stereotype. Ignoring Sikorski’s plea, they didn’t include the Poles – or the Balts or whatever – in their decision-making.

The worst example of their neglect was Nord Stream 2, a gas pipeline built – after Russia’s first attacks on Ukraine in 2014, no less – under the Baltic Sea from Russia to Germany. Passing right next to Nord Stream 1, this link was supposed to provide cheap Russian hydrocarbons to support Germany’s energy transition. The Germans were also convinced that doing more business with Russian President Vladimir Putin would keep him soft.

In contrast, the Poles and other Eastern Europeans (including the Ukrainians) recognized the two Nord Stream pipelines as Putin’s geopolitical ploys to make the connectors crossing their own country irrelevant, so that he could blackmail or starve them at will. Worse still, the whole project looked like another separate Russian-German deal over their heads, the kind history has taught them to fear.

This year, as Putin weaponized Russia’s energy exports, the world found out who was right (the Poles) and who was wrong (the Germans) in this argument. I don’t know of any German politician who has explicitly apologized to Warsaw, Riga, Tallinn, Vilnius or Kyiv for the pipelines – or any Kremlin darlings that came with them.

These eastern capitals – whose countries once constituted what historian Timothy Snyder calls the “blood lands” between Hitler and Stalin – are now on the front line against Putin’s assault on Ukraine and decency. The four in the EU and NATO lead the Western alliance in exposing Putin’s lies and building the courage to resist.

Berlin, for its part, has only lined up behind its Eastern EU partners. His resolution came late and often appears wobbly. The leadership – by Germany as country or Scholz as chancellor – looks different.

There are two tragedies in this story. The first is that Kaczynski, the PiS and their populist cronies in other countries are playing with fire. They sully European ideals of reconciliation and destroy dreams of strength in unity. Instead of demanding reparations for what Hitler did in World War II – that is, instead of stoking resentment – they should unite with all their European friends to defeat Putin.

The second tragedy is that the Germans are no wiser. Thomas Mann is probably turning in his grave. Europe is not German and nobody wants that. However, Germany is no closer to being truly European either.

Germany will never again be the threat to Europe that it once was – nowadays Russia is playing that role. But that’s not a high standard. Not only the Poles, but all Europeans would be forgiven for feeling that they cannot live with the Germans, but neither can they live without them.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andreas Kluth is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics. A former editor of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for The Economist, he is the author of “Hannibal and Me”.

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