Germany and Democracy in Poland

by Marius Strubenhoff


Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD) protest, Warsaw, 2016. Grzegorz Żukowski via Flickr

When Germany’s Foreign Secretary, Heiko Maas, travelled to Warsaw on 1 August for the 75th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, the Social Democratic politician had big shoes to fill. Forty-nine years ago, in 1970, SPD Chancellor Willy Brandt’s kneeling at the memorial of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943 marked a new approach to dealing with Germany’s Eastern European past. Visiting Poland has become even more difficult for German politicians after the Law and Justice Party’s election victory in October 2015, which led to German–Polish disagreements about European integration, refugee policy, and constitutional issues such as the separation of the executive and the judiciary.

At the same time, Polish and German public discussions about their bilateral relations have drifted apart. While Polish debates are still very historical, with demands for reparations looming large, Germany’s media has focused on Poland’s democratic shortcomings in the present. At times, this has given rise to a new triumphalism. However, it is important to remember that beyond Hitler’s invasion of 1939, Germany has been a key variable in determining the fortunes of Polish democracy. In 1926 and 2015, the two instances that mark anti-democratic turns in Polish politics, Germany’s foreign policy worked against those seeking to build a Polish polity securely rested on democratic foundations. If Germany is to conduct a fruitful policy towards Poland in coming years, paying attention to this dynamic will be crucial.

When the Second Polish Republic was created after the First World War and the successful defence against Soviet invasion in August 1920, the Constitution of 1921 was one of the most democratic in Europe. Concerned about the internal threat to democracy posed by Józef Piłsudski, it was designed to give parliament extensive rights vis-à-vis the executive and the president. In this, Poland’s founding fathers modelled their constitution on that of the French Third Republic, whose strong parliament and weak executive were influenced by the historical experience of an internal threat to democracy, Napoleon III’s coup. Soon, however, the international context of Polish democracy changed; increasingly, what was intended as a safeguard against an internal threat came to be seen as a weakening defence against external ones.

Germany has been a key variable in determining the fortunes of Polish democracy

In the mid-1920s, under Gustav Stresemann, Germany managed to break free of its post-war isolation. With the Locarno Treaties (October 1925) and the Treaty of Berlin (April 1926), it settled its borders in the West with France and Belgium and signed a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union. By contrast, border revisions in the East remained a goal of the German government. Internally, Stresemann praised Locarno for increasing Germany’s freedom of agency in the East. Dependent on its alliance with France, Poland’s system of protection against Germany was left in ruins. Furthermore, the German government conducted a trade war against Poland from 1925 onwards after the Versailles Treaty’s most favoured nation clauses had expired. With Germany accounting for 40 percent of Poland’s trade volume at the time (Poland accounted for 4–5 percent of Germany’s trade), the trade war critically undermined Poland’s stability. In early May 1926, disagreements about deflationary measures that sought to deal with the economic malaise led to the demise of the government led by Aleksander Skrzyński. When Piłsudski staged a coup the following week, the need for a strong executive to protect Poland against external threats was one of his supporters’ main arguments.

The situation before and after the election of 2015 was different, but important similarities existed. Following the Russian annexation of the Crimea and its invasion of the Donbass in Ukraine, questions about security returned to the forefront of Eastern European politics. Under Maas’ predecessor, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, however, Germany was Poland’s military ally that was keenest to downplay the Russian threat. While formally pledging to fulfill NATO’s 2 percent military spending target at the 2014 Wales Summit, Germany’s defense budget still does not amount to more than 1.35 percent of GDP. Further contributing to the Polish sense of isolation, Germany continued to pursue the building of Nord Stream II, a pipeline running from Russia to Germany under the Baltic Sea that bypasses Poland. From August 2015 onwards, disagreements about how to deal with the influx of Syrian refugees further increased tensions. In this situation, Law and Justice politicians could successfully argue for the need for strong leadership to defend Poland and its interests against both East and West.

Remembering that democracy is as old in Poland as it is in Germany is imperative

Germany’s situation is different: even in a more hostile environment, immediate external threats are still difficult to imagine. Germany also still profits from a constitution that was written in the late 1940s, at a point when it was assumed that it would not have armed forces; the Basic Law abandoned the strong Presidency of the Weimar era, which constitutional theorists such as Hugo Preuß or Gerhard Anschütz advocated on the basis of the existence of an immediate external threat. During the Cold War, when it became a potential theatre of war, West German decision-makers would always have acted in concert with its NATO allies – and indeed under American leadership – in any potential war with the Soviet Union. Under this umbrella, calls for strong executive leadership of the type that emerged in Poland (or indeed in France under Charles de Gaulle) never made much sense. As a consequence, with its Parlamentsarmee doctrine, Germany today enjoys one of the world’s most democratic systems of military command.

Given this dynamic, providing a sense of security to Poland should be one of Germany’s core foreign policy goals. Fostering democratic development in Poland is a key interest of both Germany and the European Union: in the long run, the EU will not be able to survive in its current form without its most populous Eastern European member state. German debates about Poland, meanwhile, could profit from paying more attention to history. The criticism that Ursula von der Leyen recently faced in Germany because Polish support for her had been decisive in securing her confirmation as President of the European Commission by the European Parliament is indicative of the state of debate. Rather than bemoaning the alleged lack of a democratic tradition in Poland, remembering that democracy is as old in Poland as it is in Germany – dating back to the aftermath of the First World War – is imperative. That democracy has taken firmer roots in the latter country is, to a significant extent, down to external rather than internal factors.

About the author

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Marius Strubenhoff is a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge, working on twentieth-century German intellectual history and the history of German democracy in transnational perspective. His doctoral thesis studies the political thought of the German-British sociologist Ralf Dahrendorf.

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