The Politics of Reconciliation Revisited: Germany and East-Central Europe

By Phillips, Ann L. | World Affairs, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview
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The Politics of Reconciliation Revisited: Germany and East-Central Europe

Phillips, Ann L., World Affairs

A theme of atonement toward both domestic and neighboring victims of National Socialism distinguishes West German policy from that of other former Axis powers after World War II. Since 1989, Germany has intensified its commitment to a well-established, post-war policy of reconciliation in Western Europe to assure neighbors that unification would not derail European integration. In East-Central Europe (ECE), Bonn initiated a new phase of reconciliation, a process that until 1990 had been hobbled by the division of Europe and of Germany. Reconciliation quickly assumed a high profile in Germany's relations with the region, much as it did in West Europe after World War II. In ECE the politics of reconciliation have shaped distinct bilateral relations that continue to diverge ten years after the revolutions of 1989. In this article, I analyze the dynamics of that process.

Three dimensions of reconciliation form the centerpiece of the inquiry. The first is Germany's unique dedication to reconciliation with its former enemies and victims. What factors motivated West Germany after World War II and united Germany after 1989? Individual processes of reconciliation constitute the second dimension. Here the role of guilt and victimhood in domestic politics informs the uneven progress toward reconciliation in German relations with Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary. I explore the interaction through three issues that are common to, but distinct in, relations with each of three groups: victims of National Socialism, German minorities in ECE, and expellees. Finally, the impact of reconciliation on traditional power relations in this region of post-cold war Europe is analyzed.

To address these issues, I must begin with a discussion of the concept of reconciliation. A significant literature has developed that sets forth varying demands and thresholds of reconciliation.


The Concept

Most of the literature on reconciliation applies to domestic matters ranging from family quarrels to ethnic conflicts. An elaborated, systematic definition applicable to relations between states remains elusive, despite increasing use of the term.(1) A composite definition can be constructed from a variety of works even though the authors often disagree on essential components. In its simplest, crystallized form, reconciliation means restoring friendship, harmony, or communion. Applied to states, it incorporates a societal as well as an official quest to generate a reservoir of mutual trust supportive of warm, friendly relations. Official declarations of friendship between state leaders alone cannot create a climate of confidence and trust between societies. Government-to-government relations can, however, contribute to reconciliation by transforming the tone and range of official contacts, so that conflicts can be gradually muted and shared interests nurtured without suspicion. Reconciliation does not posit harmony between two states or peoples; it does, however, create a more felicitous environment within which conflicts can be addressed. The need for reconciliation presupposes a traumatic experience locking two peoples in an ongoing cycle of mistrust, fear, and/or hatred.(2) The challenge varies based on the gravity and duration of the conflict.

A growing number of scholars working on the issue have identified two thresholds of reconciliation. The less exacting one is essentially pragmatic. It focuses on cooperation driven by common, contemporary interests. The second threshold demands much more than accommodation; it requires the development of sympathy and empathy that shared interests alone cannot generate. Joseph Montville emphasized the psychological element of reconciliation, in particular the role of victimhood in history.(3) Addressing painful questions of the past openly and honestly is essential to provide the foundation for a fresh relationship, according to Bjorn Krondorfer in his book on young Jews and Germans.

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