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Sixty years ago on Wednesday the Second World War began with Nazi Germany's attack on Poland. Two days later, Britain and France declared war on Germany. The war was eventually to see the death of over 50 million people, the eclipse of European power, and the emergence of America and the Soviet Union as two rival world superpowers. Yet today relations between the Germans and their immediate Eastern neighbours - Poles and Czechs - appear better than they have been for many generations - perhaps centuries. Jan Repa examines the change and its wider implications for the future of Europe:

On September 3rd 1939, Britain's prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, addressed the nation:

(Neville Chamberlain) "This morning, the British ambassador in Berlin handed the German government a final note, stating that unless we heard from them, by 11 o'clock, that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us. I have to tell you now, that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently this country is at war with Germany."

War had already been raging for two days, as Nazi Germany hurled its vastly expanded armed forces against Poland in an all-out campaign of conquest, targeting soldier and civilian alike. Hitler, it seems, did not intend to go to war before 1942. Having consumed Austria and Czechoslovakia without provoking an armed response, he tried intimidating Poland, demanding the incorporation of the Free-City of Danzig (present-day Gdansk) into Germany and a special motorway linking Germany with its detached province of East Prussia. But the Poles were in no mood for concessions. When foreign minister, Jozef Beck, addressed parliament, it was clear Hitler would have to back off or fight:

(Jozef Beck)"Peace is a precious and desirable thing. But peace, like nearly all affairs of this world, has its price. A high price, but a measurable one. We in Poland do not know the concept of peace at any price. The German Chancellor, as a concession on his part, suggests the definitive recognition of the present Polish-German border. I have to say that this would involve recognising what is already incontrovertibly, de-iure and de-facto, ours."

Two and a half million German soldiers surged over the frontier on September 1st. Two weeks later, two million Soviet troops invaded from the east. This time, there was no declaration of war from Britain or France. With Poland overrun, Hitler gave public vent to his feelings:

(Hitler)"Polish military journals wrote of the uselessness of the German army, the cowardice of the German soldier, the inferiority of German weapons, the superiority of Polish army, which would crush the Germans before Berlin and destroy the Reich. It took a lot of effort to keep calm in the knowledge that in the space of just a few weeks, the German army would wipe this laughable state and its army from the face of the earth."

In fact, despite the Nazis' subsequent policy of genocide and enslavement, Hitler's Polish policy, according to the German historian, Lothar Kettenacker, had been largely improvised:

(Lothar Kettenacker) "I don't think that before 1939 there were any detailed plans what to do with the Poles. If he could win them over a sort of satellite, warrior class, to conquer the East, he might have been prepared to go along for a while. I don't think he could imagine Polish independence in the long run, without clear-cut domination from Berlin."

The ferocity of Nazi rule in Poland - which married racist theory with traditional Prussian expansionism - contrasted with the relatively milder treatment meted out to the Czechs. Lothar Kettenacker explains:

(Lothar Kettenacker)"That has to do first of all with the fact that the Czechs did not put up resistance - and also Bohemia and Moravia held a different place in Hitler's historical perspective - these parts being once an integral part of the Holy Roman Empire. As far as Poland is concerned, here you had collaboration of the traditional German elite and the backing of the military. I'm not saying in all aspects of this genocidal policy. There were protests, we know that. But as soon as Himmler was appointed as Reich Commissioner for the Strengthening of the Volkstum ("Germanness"), Poles were only seen as a slave nation - and not any longer as a potential collaborator against Russia."

For today's younger generation, in particular, it is difficult to comprehend the deep antagonism that marked Germany's relations with its Eastern neighbours earlier this century. The German author and journalist, Thomas Kielinger, was born in Danzig - present day Gdansk - a year after the German invasion of Poland:

(Thomas Kielinger)"These events are so far removed now, they're virtually before time. And it's not only difficult for the younger generation to grasp those - it's also difficult for them to connect to them. But it all happened within our lifetime - at least my lifetime. For the young generation to understand that this is part of the heritage, really is not easy to transmit."

The Polish historian, Jan Ciechanowski, an expert on the Nazi occupation, broadly agrees:

(Jan Ciechanowski)"I think it is primarily a generation issue, because young Poles now visit Germany - and they don't display this hatred of Germany. I would say that to some extent anti-German feelings are stronger in Britain than in Poland. After all, we were neighbours for such a long time that, obviously, we have more in common with the Germans than with the British. Also one can say that culturally, to some extent. The food we eat resembles, let us say, more the German food than French or British!"

With Poland and the Czech Republic both now members of NATO - and straining to join the European Union - Polish diplomats already claim, somewhat optimistically, to be building a "strategic partnership" with Germany, akin to the close postwar understanding between Germany and France. How, then, does Dr Ciechanowski rate the chances of wider regional cooperation, involving the Czechs as well, with whom Poland's relations have traditionally been cool:

(Jan Ciechanowski)" Well, you see, there's a problem. Because, on the one hand, in Poland we are talking about a Paris-Berlin-Warsaw axis. And this leaves the Czechs, sort of, on the sidelines. On the other hand, we should try to develop as good relations with the Czechs as possible. But the Czechs, by detaching themselves from Slovakia, diminished themselves, you know. They count for less than they used to."

The reference being to the breakup of Czechoslovakia into separate Czech and Slovak states, at the beginning of 1993. Zdenek Kavan, brother of the Czech foreign minister, Jan Kavan, contemplates these issues from the seaside calm of Sussex University, in the south of England:

(Zdenek Kavan) "It seems to me, without a shadow of a doubt, that for the Germans by far the most important country in Central Europe is Poland. The disintegration of Czechoslovakia lessened the strategic significance of the Czech Republic. It's not that the Germans would dismiss the Czech Republic as being insignificant to their interests. But it's not comparable to Poland. So I think they are much more likely to adopt a more constructive attitude towards the Polish government than towards the Czech government. I'm not quite convinced that German governments have a very clear vision as to how they perceive the future of their relations with the region as a whole - and then with the specific countries concerned."

The idea of an age-old racial struggle between Teuton and Slav can now be largely dismissed as a nationalist fiction of late 19th century origin. But Zdenek Kavan insists that the nationalist school of history continues to be an obstacle in the way the Czechs think about Germany - especially their continuing unwillingness to acknowledge the injustice of the wholesale expulsion of Czechoslovakia's three-million-strong German minority in 1945:

(Zdenek Kavan) "Bohemia and Moravia are historical entities that have always belonged to the Czechs. The Germans may have come by invitation from one of the kings of Bohemia in the 11th century. But they have colonised Czech land - and therefore they could still be treated, even after centuries, as visitors, who can stay as long as they behave. If they stop behaving, they can be rightfully expelled. And they cannot conceive of an alternative construction of history. And if there's going to be a normalisation of relations, you would actually have to start rethinking the past in terms of alternative versions of history."

On the other hand, official German commitment to close relations with Poland coincides with an often surprising degree of public ignorance about Germany's second largest neighbour after France. Thomas Kielinger:

(Thomas Kielinger)"The fact that Poland is now our neighbour to the East, is a wholly novel experience - is a novel fact to millions of West Germans. And so you're looking at a divergence between what the political world is saying - that we are now friends, that we reconcile and build bridges - and the general public, which still has a long way to travel. We also find it hard to jettison old prejudices. One of the favorite ones was the notion of "Polnische Wirtschaft" (Polish economy), which in the German language was synonymous with topsy-turvy planning and organisation. Now we completely forget that the Polish economy is one of the fastest growing in Europe altogether."

The reassuring rhetoric, then, conceals a lingering insecurity. For the Poles, friendship with Germany is part of a larger strategy. Dr. Jan Ciechanowski:

(Jan Ciechanowski)"Obviously they want to have good relations with Germany. But at the same time they also say that they want to have very good relations with the United States of America. And they insist on an American presence in Europe. Indeed, one British diplomat, who spent a lot of time in Germany, told me that Poles probably are more pro-American than the Germans - let alone the French."

The disparity in economic strength between Germany and its eastern neighbour is likely to remain enormous for some time. But Thomas Kielinger and Jan Ciechanowski appear sanguine:

(Thomas Kielinger)"Germany is really not in a position to be the umpire about other people's economic performances or otherwise. We are an over-pampered, over-entitled economy and people, where everyone continually takes holidays. We are the least industrious people in Europe. This is Germany"

(Jan Ciechanowski)"At the moment the Germans are primarily preoccupied with East Germany. So this German economic penetration of Poland will take some time. Undoubtedly, these areas will probably tend to lean economically towards Germany or Berlin. I'm talking about the Western parts of Poland. One could say, for instance, that Szczecin is nearer to Berlin than Hamburg - and undoubtedly, in the long run, Szczecin will become one of the main ports which will serve Berlin. But I'm not afraid so much of this."

German guilt and remorse for the horrors inflicted during World War II have exercised a restraining influence in the country's dealings with its eastern neighbours. There are signs that a new generation of German politicians and opinion-formers may be less willing to go on building a relationship on the basis of contrition for sins for which they do not feel responsible. Common interest based on future common membership of the European Union may prove a more durable glue. Lothar Kettenacker expresses the received wisdom of the German political establishment, in discounting the likelihood of a resurgence of a "Germany-first" foreign policy:

(Lothar Kettenacker)"I think that is very unlikely to happen. The more likely development is that we won't have in the long run an independent German foreign policy. Because Germany is very determined to bring European unification forward. There were two aims in our Constitution. One was German unification - that's been ticked off. The other is European unification - that is not is yet settled. And that is almost in the German national interest."

The Nazi invasion of Poland spawned its share of myths - like that of Polish cavalry charging German tanks. The story seems to have been invented by an American journalist, following the campaign from behind German lines - and has never been authenticated. But the myth proved durable, the image of brave - but fundamentally backward and irresponsible - Poles, unable to cope on their own with the realities of the modern world. It was an image well suited to ease Western consciences after Poland's incorporation into the Soviet bloc. Since the fall of Communism, Germany and Poland have been setting a new agenda in Central Europe. What role the Czech Republic is to play in these calculation is as yet unclear. But,even here, there is scope for optimism.

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