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War and reconciliation: Poland and Germany’s relations post World War 2

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Picture: The Museum of the Second World War in Gdańsk, Poland.

By Noni Mokati

In one of her thought-provoking writings to date, award-winning author Jessica Marie Baumgartner proclaims in one of her books: “Part of coming together as a nation means accepting what has been done, rebuilding, helping those harmed, and finding power in forgiveness and redemption.”

This quote by Baumgartner resonates with the unmatched strength and resilience that the Republic of Poland has shown the world over the last few decades.

To recap a bit, there has been much interest in how Poland was established into existence.

Historians often reflect on the 10th century when the nation became Christianised and found itself being the descendants of the Slavs who inhabited parts of East and Central Europe – over time and establishing their own countries.

A power struggle ensued among some of the rulers of that time resulting in the Bohemian invasion of 1038, which saw Poland ceasing to exist.

But alas, the nation was later rebuilt by Casimir, son of ruler Mieszko, who was given the land that had been lost during the invasion and restored it.

Poland, yet again, faced another rebirth.

This time after gaining its independence in 1918 following its victory over the Bolsheviks in the Polish-Soviet War around the World War 1 era.

But it may be that those who have witnessed the country’s history following the bitter events of World War II between 1939 to 1945 can truly attest to the fact that the country has indeed risen from the ashes like a phoenix to become one of the strongest and most influential countries in Europe.

The gut-wrenching cries of women and young girls who aimlessly searched for their loved ones through ravaged cities such as Warsaw and Gdańsk as unrelenting German and Soviet Union soldiers attacked them with reckless abandon are cries that continue to conjecture up hurtful emotions and bad memories for Poland’s inhabitants and albeit tourists – something I had come to experience during a recent week-long study tour to the country.

But by no means does Poland today resemble a trodden nation.

On the contrary, it has transformed into a melting pot of rich history and culture where the generation of yesteryear labours intensively to keep their heritage and history alive.

In fact, the fact that some cities under the Polish territory were occupied by Germans and some parts destroyed by the invasion seems near impossible given the richness that emanates from the central European country today.

But this article does not only seek to reflect on the WWII era or any wars before that but rather breaks down the dynamics that continue to set Poland apart and places it under the spotlight as a prime example of what can be achieved when a nation stands together – another case of Poland’s rebirth and building.

Perhaps it is the same lessons from the 1939 German invasion, also known as the September Campaign, that could provide answers to the current world order on conflict resolution.

Simply put, there are nuggets of wisdom that come from Poland’s history that current world leaders can refer to where rebuilding is concerned.

To focus on what Poland brings to the table, it would be noteworthy to reflect on one of the many aspects that stood out for me during the study tour to the country.

Poland and German relations in the 21st century

On September 1, 1939, Germany attacked Poland, invading her from the West, North, and along with Slovakia from the South. While Poland sought to thwart Germany and resist its invasion, it was later attacked by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) from the East.

On September 17, the Red Army began its assault on Poland along with the Eastern border. For five weeks, Poland fought on its own, with some historians asserting that “no country would have been able to withstand being attacked from both sides.”

Poland simply did not stand a chance.

In a bid to continue the fight, the country’s authorities and the army were reconstructed in exile, but this effort did not yield results as Poland faced insurmountable losses. In the final years of the war, Poland faced further aggression from the Soviet Union.

Post-war, the Polish continued to live under communist captivity. But noteworthy in this history is the famous letter that Polish Bishops sent to German Bishops in 1965, which contained a line: “we forgive and ask forgiveness.”

According to historians, this propelled the beginning of the Polish-German reconciliation. Years later, things have seemingly changed. Just like in South Africa post the apartheid era, freedom has reigned between the two countries and the current generation lives without boundaries – German-Polish families are plenty. But one also tends to wonder if reconciliation simply means forgiving and not truly forgetting atrocities.

This thought is spurred on by the fact that foreign media recently reported that Poland wants $1.3 trillion in war reparations from Germany for the World War II invasion.

“We not only prepared the report, but we have also decided as to the further steps,” Jaroslaw Kaczynski, leader of the Law and Justice party, was quoted as saying by the AP in an article compiled by Monika Scislowska during an announcement of the claim.

The announcement follows the release of a long-awaited report on the cost to the country of years of Nazi German occupation during the 83-year commemoration of WWII.

Whether Germany will accede to this demand remains to be seen.

But organisations such as The Institute of National Remembrance – Commission for the Prosecution of Crimes against the Polish Nation have taken it upon themselves no to leave any stones unturned in ensuring those responsible for the war crimes against the Polish are brought to book and are held accountable – regardless of their age or social standing in the 21st century.

Mokati is the editor of The African.