Germany: Road to Better Days; Germany and Poland Squabble Anew over History. the Good News Is That the Past Has Lost Much of Its Power

Article excerpt

Byline: Stefan Theil

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. …