While German politics remained relatively stable under former Chancellor Angela Merkel and we may observe a certain level of continuity under her successor, Olaf Scholz, Polish politics have undergone a profound change since 2015, when the United Right (Law and Justice) took charge. This shift has significantly influenced German-Polish relations, which, despite strong economic ties, are currently in a deep political crisis. This breakdown in relations came to a head on October 3, when Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau sent a diplomatic note to Berlin concerning war reparations.
German-Polish relations are complex, multidimensional and full of contradictions. Each country stands as one of the leading trading partners for the other; however, the partnership is not equal as Poland is Germany’s sixth-largest trading partner, accounting for around 5 percent of the well-balanced total import and export shares, whereas Germany remains Poland’s top trading partner responsible for 21 percent of imports and 27 percent of exports (Wits.worldbank.org, October 26). Economic ties go beyond purely trade in goods and services and include numerous investments, for which Berlin is Warsaw’s second-leading partner responsible for 17.5 percent of foreign direct investment in Poland (Nbp.pl, accessed October 25). Even so, especially recently, the bilateral relationship has been hampered by a lack of mutual trust.
The split started shortly after Law and Justice (PiS) seized power in 2015. Unlike its predecessors who “feared German power less than German inaction,” as former Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski stated (Dgap.org, November 28, 2011), PiS has distanced itself from both Germany and France. The dip in exchanges at the Weimar Triangle level and the subsequent abolishing of that platform, as well as Poland’s cancellation of the notorious Caracal deal, exemplify this shift.
Overall, Polish-German relations are influenced by two major vectors: European Union politics and official policy vis-à-vis Russia. Differing visions of European integration, namely the German ambition to follow the federal pattern and the Polish call to stick to the intergovernmental model, are mutually exclusive and further encumber bilateral relations. Furthermore, Polish authorities regularly accuse the Franco-German tandem of hegemonic tendencies. Due to historical grievances, the spectrum of German suppression remains vital. Moreover, Polish public opinion regarding Germany’s European policy has worsened year-over-year since 2015 (Barometr Polska-Niemcy, accessed October 25). Importantly, the same tendency is observed among German respondents regarding Polish policies (Barometr Polska-Niemcy, accessed October 25). This is sure to continue, as the war against Ukraine has highlighted significant differences between the German and Polish approaches. In line with this, the Polish government has been actively revitalizing the narrative of the country’s ongoing security dilemma due to being sandwiched between Germany and Russia.
Berlin’s ambiguity on Ukraine and the ultimate failure of its energy policy have enabled Poland to openly question German leadership in the EU. And the issue has gained a new credibility following Russia’s aggression against Ukraine on February 24. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, in an article for The Spectator, declared, “If Europe had sent weapons to Ukraine on the same scale, and at the same pace, as Germany, the war would have ended long ago: with Russia’s absolute victory.” Additionally, the Polish premier suggestively called for “defeating imperialism” within the EU (The Spectator, August 8). Besides, Poland had its reasons to doubt German intentions even before the large-scale war erupted. Unlike Poland’s eastern policy, which pays particular attention to the so-called “in-between” states, German Ostpolitik traditionally made Russia its focal point. After the first phase of Russian aggression in 2014, Germany remained restrained when it came to NATO military deployment along its eastern flank. This coincided with Berlin denying authorization for US troops to cross its territory and vetoing the allied status for the Anakonda-16 maneuvers. Most importantly, Germany continued developing energy infrastructure projects with Russia, despite Moscow’s activities in Ukraine.
The split has only deepened due to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. German reluctance to aid Kyiv with offensive military equipment and intense international pressure pushed Berlin to adopt the policy of swap-deals; namely, Germany agreed to replace gaps in European allies’ capabilities after they delivered weapons to Ukraine. Indeed, such an offer was submitted after Poland equipped Ukraine with more than 200 modernized post-Soviet T-72 tanks. Yet, Germany’s proposition to deliver 20 Leopard 2A4s as replacements was ostentatiously refused by Poland. Polish Defense Minister Mariusz Błaszczak elaborated that, after some misleading communications, Berlin finally agreed to deliver a limited number of “unusable” tanks (wPolityce.pl, July 23).
In her reaction to Błaszczak’s statements, German Minister of Defense Christine Lambrecht sent a letter to Warsaw in which she explained that the Bundeswehr has significant shortages and proposed joint production of a modern variant of the Leopard 2 MBT along with high-priority deliveries if Poland decides to purchase tanks from Germany (Defence24.com, August 1). Unquestionably, the recent large-scale Polish-Korean multibillion arms contracts, which included K2 battle tanks, caused some ire in Berlin. Germany remains the fifth-largest military exporter globally (Sipri.org, March 2022) and certainly expected to gain some profits from Poland’s massive military modernization program (Die Welt, September 26).
Additionally, the energy crisis in the EU has negatively affected German-Polish relations. This is due to differing approaches on how to solve the issue at the EU level (DW, October 25). For example, most recently, Morawiecki heavily criticized Germany for its self-willed plan to freeze gas prices, which could have a negative impact on competitiveness in Europe’s single market (PolskieRadio.pl, October 7).
Bilateral relations became even more fractured after September 1, when Polish authorities published a 1,300-page report on the losses sustained by Poland due to German aggression and occupation during World War II (Straty-Wojenne.pl, accessed October 25). The damages were estimated at S1.3 trillion, and the claim was formalized on October 3, when Rau issued the diplomatic note to Germany. Nevertheless, the claim was immediately rejected by German defense officials, who admitted only “historical responsibility,” as stated by German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock during her visit to Warsaw on October 4 (Notes From Poland, October 4).
All in all, the claim is widely supported by Polish society. More than 60 percent of Poles believe that Germany should pay reparations, according to a survey published shortly after Warsaw submitted its diplomatic note (Polskie Radio.pl, September 4). Even so, regardless of legal status, it will be extremely challenging for the Polish government to receive reparations. Thus, in the short term, the claim will serve as an effective “political whip” for Berlin.
Unquestionably, German-Polish relations are in a deep crisis. Ultimately, the current PiS government and Berlin’s self-serving European policies have been the primary factors driving this breakdown. However, the rift does not exclusively stem from the ideological or “anti-German” profile of the Polish government. It has also been clearly caused—perhaps predominantly—by diverging geopolitical interests and Warsaw’s lack of trust vis-à-vis Berlin. In recent months, Poland has taken advantage of the opportunity created by the war in Ukraine to position itself as an emerging geopolitical pole on the continent—a scenario difficult for Germany to accept.