Polish WWII anniversary highlights transatlantic rifts

A hurricane has forced the US president to cancel his state visit to Poland to mark a dark day in history — but that won’t hide the damage he has done to US-German-Polish relations.    

A key political lesson drawn from the atrocities of World War II was the paramount need for unity in the democratic West.

For Poland after the fall of communism in 1989, becoming part of the West was the ultimate answer to the not-so-distant nightmares of German aggression, unreliable Western allies and geopolitical isolation. The date that evokes the onset of those nightmares is September 1, 1939 — the day Germany invaded Poland.

On Sunday, around 250 international guests will meet in Warsaw to commemorate the beginning of the darkest period of European history. US President Donald Trump was due to be among them but he cancelled his eagerly anticipated state visit on Thursday as Hurricane Dorian barreled towards the Florida coast. Vice President Mike Pence will take his place. The gathering will not just be about paying tribute to the last living survivors and those who fell victim to war and occupation. The past will weigh heavily — but so will the future. If things go well, the anniversary will be a reminder of the dire consequences of failing to confront evil and of the virtues of staying together.

But such an outcome is not a given. 

The US decision to forsake its role as a promoter of a strong German-Polish axis — for the sake of a strong, integrated Europe — is a game changer

The Polish government, which is hosting the day of remembrance, will find itself triangulating between Pence and German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, whose presence stands for the historical burden and moral responsibility that modern Germany bears for past sins. 

The Polish-American-German triangle was once the ultimate example of how the lessons of the 20th Century transformed Europe and the transatlantic world. America played a unique role in providing security and shaping the political culture of both post-1945 Germany and post-1989 Poland. And reconciliation between Poland and Germany has been the cornerstone of the post-’89 European order.

What is more, the US endorsement of a strong Polish-German partnership was an indispensable pillar of both the EU and NATO. But those times are gone. Today, it is the policies of Washington, Berlin and Warsaw — and the mutual relations between them — that represent, more than anything, a breakdown of transatlantic unity. It makes the encounter of the three countries’ leaders on September 1 more than  an exercise in ticking boxes.

From pacifier to game player

Under Trump, the United States has transformed itself from “Europe’s pacifier” (as German newspaper editor and academic Josef Joffe put it) to a player keen on deepening intra-European divisions — and taking advantage of them.

In his worldview, Europe is not a partner but an adversary. This profound shift informs US policy towards Germany and Poland. Of course, there are good reasons for criticism of German security, energy and trade policies, which dominates Trump’s anti-German rhetoric.

But whatever one thinks of US threats to impose sanctions on German companies involved in the Nord Stream2  gas pipeline (which Warsaw opposes), or to withdraw some U.S. soldiers from Germany and put them in Poland, what is most striking is Washington’s total lack of interest in helping  Berlin and Warsaw get along.

Worse, the United States seems intent on playing them against each other. The US decision to forsake its role as a promoter of a strong German-Polish axis — for the sake of a strong, integrated Europe — is a game changer.

Poland has been skilful at taking advantage of Trump’s hostility towards German Chancellor Angela Merkel to try to present itself as the United States’ most reliable partner in Europe. It encouraged Washington to take action against Nord Stream 2. From Berlin’s perspective, involving a third party to solve what it saw as an intra-European dispute crossed a red line. When Trump lambasted Germany for its failure to meet NATO’s spending target of two per cent of gross domestic product, Warsaw offered $2 billion to build a “Fort Trump” in Poland.

The idea of a special Polish-American bilateral relationship did not go down well in Berlin, which would prefer not to irk Moscow and instead stick to reinforcing NATO’s eastern flank, as agreed at the alliance’s summits in Wales and Warsaw. Such a project provides for cooperation between Berlin, Warsaw and Washington. In fact, cooperation between the nations has never been stronger.

Germany is the second-largest provider of NATO reinforcement troops after the United States. It is also part of the alliance’s command structures in Szczecin and Elblag in Poland and it plays a key role in logistics. But the political differences between Warsaw and Berlin on how to approach not only security threats but also the “Trump challenge” are significant.

The idea of European sovereignty in defence, advanced by the Germans and French, is distrusted by Poland — not least because of Germany’s perceived lack of seriousness in security policy and its adherence to the outdated NATO-Russia Founding Act of 1997.

Reparations and rule of law

Poland’s governing Law and Justice (PiS) party bears its share of responsibility for devaluing the Berlin-Washington-Warsaw alliance as a pillar of the West. It has done this not only by courting Trump at the expense of EU unity on Iran (as it did at a Middle East conference in Warsaw in February) but also by trying to please its nationalist electorate by reviving the issue of war reparations with Germany. 

Most importantly, it has done this through a domestic assault on the rule of law, a foundation of Western democracy. Before Trump cancelled his visit, a group of former Polish ambassadors wrote an open letter to the US president urging him to be a voice “for tolerance and mutual respect, as well as compliance with the provisions of the Constitution and other laws”. To do so, they said, would have “historical significance”.

They would probably have been disappointed. Trump was expected to advance the security partnership in Poland by confirming that more than 1,000 additional  U.S. soldiers will be deployed to Poland as agreed in a Polish-American memorandum of June 12. Also on the agenda were talks about strengthening the Polish energy sector through LNG imports and technological cooperation. So, perhaps, was a long-awaited decision on Polish entry into the US Visa Waiver Programme.

Pence or other members of the US high-level delegation (among them Energy Secretary Rick Perry and National Security Adviser John Bolton) could still engage with these issues. If they do, PiS will claim foreign policy success ahead of national elections on October 13. Whatever happens, the Polish hosts will certainly do their best not to let disunity among the key partners overshadow the anniversary.

PiS played the reparation card mainly for the benefit of its national audience. A parliamentary report calculating potential Polish claims has — rather deliberately — not been prepared on time. But the genie is out of the bottle and out of Warsaw’s control. In that respect, the intervention of Hurricane Dorian may be a blessing in disguise, at least for trilateral relations. If Trump had used Poland as a stage to make anti-German jibes — on a day with special resonance for Poland and Germany — it would have put Polish and German leaders in an uncomfortable position. Even the slightest hint that playing on divisions between the two countries is in US interests would cast a shadow over what should be a commemoration of the right lessons drawn from the darkest history. 

This article appeared originally on 1 September in Balkan Insight

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Head, ECFR Warsaw
Senior Policy Fellow

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.