Europe

Germany, Poland and the shifting centre of European Union power

  • 18 December 2012
  • From the section Europe
Candles lit on All Saints Day
A vigil at the Powazki Military Cemetery in Warsaw marking All Saints Day - the Day of the Dead

Forty years ago Europe was being shaped by those who had survived World War II on the Western Front. Today, more and more, it is being driven by those who lived through the brutality of the Eastern Front, and who endured 40 years of communism.

On 1 November each year an eerie silence descends on the Polish capital, Warsaw. The city empties out. It is All Saints Day - the Day of the Dead. At dusk, everyone goes to the cemeteries.

As the shadows fall, the graveyards fill up with little flickering orange and red candles and lanterns, that form a shimmering carpet of flames in the damp autumnal chill.

Powazki Military Cemetery holds the graves of many who have fought and died for their country since the early 19th Century, including the dead of the Warsaw Uprising and others from World War II.

On this day, nowhere else in Europe do the dead speak so eloquently; nowhere else do the dead reach out so powerfully to stake a claim to the present.

When 10 former communist countries of Eastern Europe first applied to join the European Union, Britain was an early enthusiast.

The Conservative Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Major believed that widening Europe would help prevent its deepening - help put a halt to what they saw as the growing power of Brussels, and the erosion of the sovereignty of nation states in Europe.

It has not turned out that way.

"Mrs Thatcher did believe people who escaped from the Soviet Empire, from the Warsaw Pact, would not want to put themselves under a strong central authority again - this time in Brussels not Moscow," says Lord Kerr, Britain's former ambassador to the EU.

"So she believed that the advent of East Europeans would make the European Union more confederal rather than federal. That it would be a Europe of free proud independent nation states. That was her view. It was clearly wrong. The bigger the thing got the more it had to deepen."

The EU as liberator

The Poles and others did not believe that Brussels was remotely like Moscow; or that the European Commission was remotely comparable to the Soviet Politburo.

"For us [joining the EU] was the ultimate institutional confirmation that we were a regular European country," Poland's Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski tells me.

"This is a status of which we were deprived against our will by the two totalitarian powers: Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany.

For us World War II and its political consequences only ended, in some sense, in 1989 when we had our first free elections and, really and truly, only after we joined Nato and the EU."

The European Union - viewed by many in Britain as undemocratic, bureaucratic and burdensome - is seen by many Poles as a liberating force; a way of locking themselves into a secure and democratic family of nations and finally, after centuries, making Poland safe and free in Europe.

The city of Wroclaw in Western Poland is at the heart of this rediscovered European identity. German investment has flooded into this young and vibrant city, especially in the fast growing IT sector.

Peeling paint on buildings in Wroclaw, Poland reveals German writing.
Peeling paint on buildings in Wroclaw reveals old painted German signage, from when the city was known as Breslau and part of Germany

But in Wroclaw, as everywhere in Poland, history ambushes you. There is a street in the city centre where old paint is peeling from an apartment block. Underneath you can make out the signs of old shop fronts. And they are not in Polish, but in German.

For Wroclaw, until 1945, was not Polish at all. It was the German city of Breslau. Some 500,000 people were uprooted from here and resettled in a much diminished and humbled post-war Germany.

Half a million Poles - themselves uprooted from lands seized by the Soviet Union - came to Wroclaw and settled in the empty homes the Germans had left behind.

This is where the centre of gravity in Europe now lies. It has shifted dramatically to the East. In the early decades of the European project, it was driven by those who had survived the war on the Western Front.

It was a very Western European affair, centred on the axis between Paris and the sleepy little West German capital at Bonn, near the Belgian border.

"Today, when the Polish government wants to know something about Europe... they don't go to Paris, they go to Berlin", says Joachim Bitterlich - Helmut Kohl's former foreign policy advisor.

"It's a difficult position for the Germans because from 1989/90 they had to learn something they had totally forgotten: responsibility and leadership."

Go to Wroclaw and you see in an instant that, increasingly, Europe is being reshaped by those (including the Germans) who survived World War II on the much more brutal Eastern Front - and then went on to survive 40 years of Soviet-imposed tyranny.

In the 1980s, Radoslaw Sikorski spent years in exile in Britain, and was a near-contemporary of David Cameron's at Oxford. He is a friendly and engaging Anglophile and wakes up, he tells me, to BBC Radio 4's Today programme every morning at his home in Warsaw.

He is a politician firmly on the centre-right and would be a comfortable fit in the British Conservative party on almost any issue - except on Europe.

On that, Poland's painful history has shaped him, and the voices of generations who have gone before speak through him. Mr Sikorski's is an increasingly powerful voice in Europe.

Central Europe's destiny

A year ago he went to Berlin and gave a speech calling on Germany to lead in Europe - actively pushing for a more disciplined and, yes, more centralised European Union - not as a way of undermining national sovereignty, but as a way of more securely anchoring freedom in Europe.

People walking in Warsaw
Poland's economic performance has outstripped many other EU countries in recent years

"The problem [of the current crisis in the] eurozone was the treaties were not enforced; that rules were breached when their observance depended only on the goodwill of member states - and of course that included the biggest ones too," he says.

"So in order to make the EU work we need stronger rules."

Stronger rules: it is not what the British had hoped for from their new partners in the East.

For Britain is shaped by a different history altogether. Britain - almost alone in Europe - did not suffer the humiliation of military defeat and foreign occupation.

It did not seek membership of the European community in order to secure its democracy or to protect it from old enemies.

But the belief that European integration has delivered the nations of the continent from their appalling histories is powerful and tenacious in Central Europe. And it is a belief shared by Germans and Poles.

In both countries history is the unseen guest at every conference table; in both countries the dead of past conflicts reach out to speak through the voices of the living.

I went to see a retired diplomat called Dietrich von Kyaw. The arc of his life reflects the changing fortunes of his country and of Central Europe.

He grew up in Eastern Germany. His father, a Wehrmacht officer, was killed in Poland in 1939. At the age of 10 he and his family fled west to escape the approaching Red Army.

He remembers the terror, the humiliation of defeat, the Germans who died in ditches.

"You ask what the European Union means to a man like me?

"My father fought in Finland in 1920, when he was 17-years-old, to protect the Finns against the Reds. As a diplomat I negotiated Finland's accession to the EU.

"My father was killed somewhere in Poland. Our family estate in Germany was ceded to Poland in 1945. After 1989, I went to Warsaw to begin the process of bringing Poland back into Europe."

Generally, Central Europeans do not feel they have merely joined the European Union, they feel they have fulfilled a destiny disrupted by war. It is a sentiment echoed by the young.

In Wroclaw I meet 26-year-old Mateusz Koracki. He loves every street of this lovely old city, every brick and chiselled stone of it, and runs a business that gives guided tours.

"I belong to the first generation of Poles that has not had to fight for freedom," he tells me.

"That's what a strong European Union has given us. We don't want to mess it up this time."

Listen to Europe Moves East on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday, 18 December at 20:00 GMT. You can listen again via the Radio 4 website or download.

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