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The German–Polish Border: A European Region?

©2012 Masterarbeit 34 Seiten


The paper deals with the subject matter of the German–Polish border region and its implications for Poland’s integration into the European Union. The research question is: Is the German–Polish border region (along the River Oder) a European region? This also implies the question whether Poland is fully integrated into the European Union. To answer the question, this paper deals with the importance, which political and cultural relations with Germany have for Poland’s integration into the EU. The paper will attempt to demonstrate the connection between cultural exchange and political relations. In the course of the analysis the significance of stereotypes and prejudices formed by historical events and circumstances is being analised. The focus is on the endeavours undertaken by Polish and German governments, civil society organisations and cultural institutions to make a difference concerning the complicated historical and political situation regarding the EU enlargement and Poland’s accession.


Table of Content

1. Introduction

2. Historical overview of the German-Polish relations

3. The meaningof borders
3.1 Reconciliationand actual state of society

4. The Oder region and its society
4.1 Civil societies in Germany and Poland

5. Cultural cooperation
5.1 Büro Kopernikus
5.2 The Oder project
5.3 results and experience

6. The Oder - border river andcultural space
6.1 Space of remembrance

7. Benefits of regional cooperation and Regionalism

8. The EU enlargement and Europeanintegration
8.1 Commonground
8.2 Integrationprocess

9. Analysis of the EU integration process
9.1 Recommendations

10. Conclusion

1. Introduction

The following paper will deal with the subject matter of the German - Polish border region and its implications for Poland’s integration into the European Union. The research question is: Is the German -Polish border region (along the River Oder) a European region? This also implies the question whether Poland is fully integrated into the European Union. To answer the question, this paper will deal with the importance, which political and cultural relations with Germany have for Poland’s integration into the EU. The paper will attempt to demonstrate the connection between cultural exchange and political relations. In the course of the analysis, it will also be dealt with the significance of stereotypes and prejudices formed by historical events and circumstances. The focus will be on the endeavours undertaken by Polish and German governments, civil society organisations and cultural institutions to make a difference concerning the complicated historical and political situation regarding the EU enlargement and Poland’s accession.

"There are no borders. Not for thoughts. Not for feelings. Fear draws the borders."

Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007), Swedish film and theatre director Maybe Ingmar Bergman’s assessment was a little premature and optimistic, but he is right in his estimation that fear draws border. It’s the fear of the German oppressor that haunts the Poles. Likewise the Germans fear the influence Poles could have on their labor market. But the thoughts of creative minds and the feelings of the people in the border region should not know borders. They should come together to create a borderless society in order to fulfill the dream of a united Europe and a more equal future.

It is fascinating to look into the relations between culture and international politics. Even though it cannot be spoken of a conflict between Poland and Germany any more, the relationship is definitely charged with problems and misunderstandings.

„Nicht ein Europa der Mauern kann sich über Grenzen hinweg versöhnen, sondern ein Kontinent, der seinen Grenzen das Trennende nimmt.“

Richard von Weizsäcker

Richard von Weizäcker has put it very accurately. Europe can only exist, if its borders lose their dividing aspects. But how can this be achieved in an area which had had experienced almost no cultural exchange for more than 30 years. It takes a lot to create a sense of community in a region divided by historical mistrust, political isolation and modern misunderstandings. This paper will show the efforts undertaken to give the new society a shape and its inhabitants an identity. To make the Oder­region a European region is an ambitious project.

In order to analyse the situation at the German-Polish border important background information on the history of German - Polish relations is given. It is a history of conflict, oppression, war and political isolation. Until today the events of the 20th century are influencing the relations between the two neighbouring states and it has not been forgotten what past generations have done. That will be followed by a definition of what makes a region, a border region and what a border implies for the citizens of a state. The Oder-Neiße border had been deprived of its cultural roots, but is slowly forming new ties. Due to the developments after WWII the socio-cultural structure of the area totally changed and the alienation of the two nations became even greater during the Cold War.

Afterwards the meaning of civil society, its actions and attitudes for cultural exchange, and the political atmosphere are being presented. For a strong bilateral exchange an engaged civil society is needed. It will be examined how big the interest in cultural exchange with the respectively other country is and what efforts have been undertaken in the past. In the following, it will be dealt with the cooperation the cultural field and an exemplary cultural project chosen to highlight the possibilities and capacities of cultural cooperation. In the course of the depiction, the bodies of cultural funding in Germany, which supported many projects, are illuminated. The selected project is called “Odra - Oder”. As the name already indicates the project is set in the border region.

The Oder is not only a cultural space but also a defined political border. As such, its significance as Border River is presented and the scope of influence the historical, political and cultural aspects have for the shaping of today’s border culture. It has been said that Europe can only exist as a Europe of regions instead of a Europe of nation states. But which benefits regional cooperation actually brings will be analysed in chapter 5. This is followed by a presentation of the principles of EU enlargement and integration and what it means for the relation of Germany and Poland.

Finally, the situation in the Oder-Region will be analysed and recommendations will be given for the improvement of integration and regional cooperation. It will also be presented what the chances for the region, to function as an integrative motor for Poland’s integration into the EU might be.

In the conclusion it will be attempted to come to a concrete assessment of the progress which has been made in creating a European border region along the Oder.

2. Historical overview of the German-Polish relations

To understand German-Polish relations today, it is essential to be aware of the historical events that shaped them. Ever since the division of the Polish territory in the late 18th century between Prussia, Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire there has been an imbalance in the relationship between Poland and Germany. Back then, Poland lost its sovereignty and did not exist as a sovereign state until the end of WWI. With the treaty of Versailles a new state territory was assigned and Poland, once again, became a sovereign state free from foreign rule and oppression for the moment. The Polish territory was moved to the west for the first time and a new border with Germany/Republic of Weimar was established.[1] But the new found stability did not last long. On September 1st 1939 the German army invaded Poland and WWII proved to be more devastating for the country than anything before. The plan of the Nazis was to eliminate Poland as a nation. By especially targeting the academia, intellectuals and professionals the Nazis tried to drain the country of its intellectual resources. This was done to prove the supposed superiority of the Germanic “Herrenmensch” above the Slavic people of Eastern Europe. Until today this trauma has not been fully overcome by the Polish people. Under German occupation the Polish government had to flee into exile to France and later to London. Hence the Polish nation never ceased to exist, not during the division, nor under occupation, but it was never united. Only the strong sense of being Polish and belonging to the same nation has always united Polish people.[2] After WWII a new Polish state was created under the pressure of Soviet rule. Once again the borders were shifted to the West and former eastern Polish territory was from now on Russian. To compensate for the loss, Poland got the former East German provinces, e.g. Pomerania, Lower Silesia, and East Prussia. As a result of the territorial shift millions of people lost their homeland and were either relocated, fled, or were expelled from the country.[3] For Poland the Oder-Neiße Border has been seen as ajustification of history and the gained territory as regained motherland. For Western Germany it meant an unacceptable loss.[4]

But, not only had the Polish people suffered from the displacement after WWII. Almost 9 million German people had to leave their homes which lay now on Polish ground. The territorial relocation meant the end of a 700 year long history of German, political as well as cultural, presence in Eastern Europe.[5] During the Cold War the relationship between the two German states and Poland was very complex and difficult. For Poland it was essential that the new border was recognized by both German states, the GDR and the Federal Republic of Germany. In order to develop a strong, new Polish identity the Polish society had to define itself through amortisation from everything German. There had to be 100% political certainty that Germany never again would reach out eastwards, in order to take control of Polish territory. Polish people needed to know that they were safe from German grasp.[6]

In 1950 the GDR government acknowledged the Oder - Neiße border due to pressure from Stalin.[7] As “Friedensgrenze” (peace border) the Oder - Neiße border was supposed to be a symbol of socialist brotherhood. However, the result was that under the stern eye of the regimes in Berlin, Warsaw and Moscow, no sense of togetherness could be established.[8]

What united the GDR and Poland was the superficial political solidarity within the communist system. But relations could only be maintained until the 1970, because with the beginning of the solidarity era the borders were closed in order to keep civil disturbance out of the GDR, which was supposed to be an archetype communist state. Around the same time Western Germany finally established relations with Poland by verifying the border. That had been thought impossible before, because it also meant acknowledging the existence of the GDR and eventually the permanent division of Germany.[9]

In 1981 the border to Poland was shut down completely, after only a short period of free access. Never was there a chance for a border culture to develop. So we see that the static structure of the border together with the apathy of the inhabitants led to the development of two absolutely different cultures along the border.[10] For the time of the Cold War bilateral relations with the German states were impossible for Poland because the Poles always had to consider what the other political system, the GDR or West Germany, planed. Under these circumstances it was also impossible to start a process of reconciliation and the process of coming to terms with the past. The communist regime in the East used the fear of the Germans to legitimise their claim to power.[11] Every time Poland and the BRD came in closer contact the GDR officials became uneasy and suspected a conspiracy and denounced Poland in Moscow. On the other hand, every time the two German states tried to improve their relationship the Polish became uneasy and were afraid that a unified Germany would once again reach out to take control over Poland.[12]

In 1989 one could still observe a situation of coexistence but not interdependence, not to mention a homogenous border region.[13] But even though stereotypical impressions of the other nation were unaltered, the year 1989 would have taken a different course had it not been for the gradually improved German-Polish political relations in the 80s.[14] The efforts of German politicians like Brandt and Kohl as well as civil organisations like „Aktion Sühnezeichen“, the political opposition in the GDR and the church communities in the German states, made Polish people change their minds about Germany. If that would not have been the case a reunification would have been impossible and Poles would not have taken such a big risk of supporting a unified Germany.[15]

When in 1970, twenty years after the GDR, Western Germany verified the new border a new political era had started. With the “Kniefall” (genuflection of Warsaw) of Willy Brandt in the Ghetto of Warsaw a new German “Ostpolitik” (Eastern Policy) took shape. In Western Germany politicians had realised that without accepting the border there would never be a unified Germany. And ultimately Poland needed to become a member of the EU.[16]

3. The meaning of the borders

After WWII the situation at the border was complicated by the fact that the new Polish population came from the former eastern arts of Poland that had been lost to Russia. They never had any cultural intersection with the Germans. All contact they ever had with Germans was as soldiers and during war time.[17] These “repatrianci” (repatriates) had been forced to leave the farms and settlements their families had lived in for generations in order to re-polonise, as it was proclaimed by the government, the regained western territory. It was seen as a return to piastic motherland.[18] With the relocation of the Polish territory Stalin intended to force Germany and Poland apart for ever.[19]

With Poland joining the European Union the Oder River and with it the Oder-Neiße border suddenly became the centre of Europe. It no longer marked the outer border of a, supposed to, closed cultural sphere. The Oder region has become, over night, a European landscape, at least in theory.[20] When a border, which had existed for a long time and had been associated with a certain standard, suddenly ceases to exist or is filled with a different meaning, it is difficult for all people involved to get used to the new situation. When the border to Poland suddenly became the border to a united Germany and the exchange across it was possible again, it meant a great disturbance in the feeling of security and comfort especially for the people living close to it.[21] As Polandjoined the EU and the border was opened with only a few restrictions, but the mental border became stronger. This process is called cultural consciousness (Schwell p.14-15). Even though in between Germany and Poland lay the GDR, the border had been more or less a border between East and West. Germany was part of the democratic system and lay in the centre of political action and attention while Poland was only the periphery of the socialist satellite states, far away from Moscow. People in the two countries had experienced a totally different socialisation. Because borders manifest themselves in social actions it was hard for Germans and Poles to meet each other with a general understanding for the others opinion. Still, since 2004 and already during the time Poland was applying for membership, the cross border regionalism had experienced new heights.

This makes one think about the idea, that if cross border regionalism gets increasing importance for people’s identity, it might even redeem national identity. (Schwell p.21) If one follows that train of thought one can assume that if regionalism redeems national identity it can only be helpful for creating a European identity. To create cross regional/cross border identities it is of high importance that the others (all individuals not belonging to a closed group) are not defined by bad characteristics. If Poland and Germany overcame their dividing elements and attitudes a European region would develop in which both identities could unfold.[22] So far the Oder region can be categorised as frontier. As such it is an “area that is physically distant from the core of the nation. It is a zone of transition, a place where people and institutions are shaped by natural and human forces that are not felt in the heartland.” (Schwell p.21) We can assume that the reality in the frontier zone is different from the political, cultural and social situation in Warsaw and Berlin. The micro cosmos of the frontier has the potential to develop into a European region without borders, be they mentally or physical.[23]


[1] Ménudier, Henri (2002). Frankreich, Deutschland und die Ostpolitik. In D. Bingen & K. Wóycicki (Eds.), Deutschland - Polen - Osteuropa: deutsche und polnische Vorüberlegungen zu einer gemeinsamen Ostpolitik der erweiterten Europäischen Union (pp. 273-288). Darmstadt: Harrassowitz.

[2] Bender, Peter (2005). Polen und Deutsche - Eine historische Bilanz. In A. Riechers, C. Schröder & B. Kerski (Eds.), Dialog der Bürger. Die gesellschaftliche Ebene der deutsch-polnischen Nachbarschaft (pp. 39-51). Osnabrück: Fibre Verlag.

[3] Bender, 2005, p.39-43.

[4] Ruchniewicz, Krzysztof (2003). Versöhnung - Normalisierung - Gute Nachbarschaft. In F. Frost, J. Wierczimok, P. Rehder (Eds.), Deutsche und Polen, Geschichte, Kultur, Politik (pp.95-110). München: C.H. Beck oHG.

[5] Bender, 2005, p.39-43.

[6] Ibit, p. 39-43.

[7] Bender, 2005, p.40.

[8] Schwell, Alexandra (2008). Europa an der Oder: Die Konstruktion europäischer Sicherheit an der deutsch-polnischen Grenze. Bielefeld: transcript Verlag, p.148-158.

[9] Bender, 2005, p.42.

[10] Schwell, 2008, p. 148-158

[11] Friszke, Andrzej (01.08.2009). Solidarnosc 1980-1989. Eine lange polnische Revolution. DIALOG. Retrieved August 17, 2010, from

[12] Bender, 2005, p.41.

[13] Schwell, 2008, p. 148-158

[14] Olschowsky, Burkhard (2009). Distanz und Dialog - Das Verhältnis beider deutscher Staaten zu Polen nach 1945. In B. Asmuss, B. Ulrich & M. Koch (Eds.), Deutsche und Polen: Abgründe und Hoffnungen (pp. 66). Dresden: Sandstein.

[15] Friszke, 2009.

[16] Bender, 2005, p.40.

[17] Schwell, 2008, p.149.

[18] Schwell, 2008, p. 148-158.

[19] Bartoszewski, Wladyslaw (2005). Heutige Probleme bei den gesellschaftlichen Transformationsprozessen in Polen. In H. Rosa, K.-U. Meyer & M. Philipp (Eds.), Bürgerbewusstsein und Demokratie in Mittel und Osteuropa, zum Zustand der politischen Kultur in den postsozialistischen Staaten (pp. 19-31). Jena: Christine Jäger.

[20] Büro Kopernikus (2006). BÜRO kopernikanische Wende: Texte, Projekte und Materialien zum deutsch­polnischen Kulturaustausch 2004-2006. Berlin: Büro Kopernikus. Also published online on: www.buero- p.180-181.

[21] Schwell, 2008, p.13-36.

[22] ibit, p. 13-36.

[23] Ibit, p. 13-36.


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Paperback)
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Institution / Hochschule
Universiteit Maastricht – Faculty for Arts and Social Sciences
2013 (August)
EU-Integration German-Polish relations Border studies cultural diplomacy civil society cultural cooperation

Titel: The German–Polish Border: A European Region?