Berlin’s new ambassador in Warsaw shows why it’s time to lay the past to rest.
William Echikson is director of the European Union for Progressive Judaism office in Brussels.
Three and a half decades ago, I met a young German diplomat in Paris. His name was a mouthful: Arndt Freytag von Loringhoven. To me, he was just Arnie: Gentle by disposition, giant in physical size; a multilingual, cultured father of two wonderful boys, who, with his journalist wife Barbara, threw welcoming, stimulating and delicious dinner parties.
It wasn’t until later that I found out that Arnie’s father, Bernd, had been a young Wehrmacht officer who had prepared briefing notes in Hitler’s bunker.
The revelation, which initially shocked me, an American-born Jew, didn’t destroy our friendship. To the contrary, it made me rethink my boycott of Germany because of its Nazi past. Arnie — who rose in the ranks of the foreign service, becoming deputy director of Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service, Germany’s ambassador to the Czech Republic, and in 2016, NATO’s first chief of intelligence — helped convince me how far his country had come from the ashes of World War II.
Although Arnie occupied big posts, he did so in a low-key manner with little fanfare. Not one to seek out the spotlight, he attracted little media attention. That changed this summer, when he was appointed Germany’s ambassador to Poland and the Polish government declined to give its official diplomatic approval. Polish media reported that Jarosław Kaczyński, the country’s prickly conservative de facto leader, had opposed the appointment because of Arnie’s father’s past.
Since 2015, a nationalistic government has attempted to destroy the independence of the press and the courts, imposed historical censorship and limited Holocaust education.
In September, the Poles relented, grudgingly. Deputy Foreign Minister Szymon Szynkowski vel Sęk accepted Arnie’s appointment, stressing that Germans should be aware of “a special kind of Polish sensitivity, resulting from the fact that the crimes of World War II remain a great unhealed wound in the minds of the Polish nation all the time.”
The incident fits into Poland’s larger effort, under the conservative Law and Justice (PiS) government, to use the past to feed an unnecessary narrative of victimization.
Poles did suffer immeasurable suffering during World War II. No one should forget that. But Poland should stop seeking to weaponize its painful past and distorting its present. It has come a long way: During the 1980s, when I met Arnie and covered communist Poland as a journalist, the country was gray and grim. Communist propaganda pervaded. Store shelves were empty. Poverty was widespread.
Today, thanks to its own remarkable efforts, Poland is peaceful and prosperous. It is democratic, sovereign and a full member in the European Union. Modern democratic Germany is a friend. Store shelves are full. Since throwing off the shackles of communism, Poland has averaged a robust 4.1 percent economic growth per year, equal to South Korea and higher than Singapore. It sailed through the 2007-08 financial crisis when its neighbors faltered. More than 80 percent of Poles say they are satisfied with their lives, up from only half at the beginning of the transition away from communism.
Yet alongside this prosperous success story is one of a rise in dangerous populism. Since 2015, a nationalistic government has attempted to destroy the independence of the press and the courts, imposed historical censorship and limited Holocaust education. Public expressions of anti-Semitism are on the rise, despite the country having a tiny Jewish community, as the government insists that Poles suffered as much as Jews during World War II.
In January 2018, the Polish parliament passed a Holocaust censorship law that forbids discussion of complicity in the Holocaust by Polish state or military organizations. Polish schools and universities no longer can teach without fear of prosecution what happened in, for example, Jedwabne in 1941, when Poles massacred that town’s Jewish population. Neither can historians explore Poland’s complex history with anti-Semitism.
Poland’s government also continues to wield history to poison relations with Germany and regularly demands Berlin should compensate Warsaw for the damage wrought on the country during World War II. Kaczyński even has accused German Chancellor Angela Merkel of being a pawn of the Stasi, the former East German secret police.
If Arnie’s story is another sad example of Poland’s relentless anti-German bashing, it is also a reminder that the stereotypes no longer hold.
Arnie’s father was a career army officer; he wasn’t charged with any war crimes and went on to become a general in Germany’s post-war armed forces. Wherever Arnie has served, he has stood up for freedom and democracy. After Donald Trump became U.S. president in 2016, I would joke with him — in all seriousness — that the tables had turned and that he and Germany were now the “defenders” of democracy.
As Arnie struggles to repair damaged Polish-German relations and continues to hear from Poles how Germany raped Poland, I can only support him. It’s a sign of our crazy times that an American Jew has come to believe that the son of an officer in Hitler’s army is one of the best defenders of his most cherished values.
Source: POLITICO https://www.politico.eu/article/germany-overcame-its-history-why-cant-poland/?utm_source=RSS_Feed&utm_medium=RSS&utm_campaign=RSS_Syndication