Rolf Nikel: Reconciliation between Germany and Poland has been achieved

Rolf Nikel

The revolutions in Eastern Europe paved the way for the collapse of communism in East Germany, otherwise known as the DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik), in 1990. One of the most important government officials in West Germany at the time was Rolf Nikel. Today, he serves as unified Germany’s Ambassador to Poland. EURACTIV Poland reports.

Rolf Nikel is Ambassador of the Federal Republic of Germany in Poland. He was interviewed by ?Editor-in-Chief & Managing Director of EURACTIV Poland, Karolina Zbytniewska.

What would have happened if the Berlin Wall hadn’t fallen down?

At that time, I was working in Chancellor’s Helmut Kohl’s office, where I was responsible for Polish-German relations. We were amazed how the situation on the Eastern side of Iron Curtain evolved thanks to people taking their fate into their own hands. It was just incredible.

The situation as of 1989 made it inevitable in the context of the pro-democratic revolution that set off in the summer of that year in Poland – with the first semi-democratic elections and first non-communist PM Tadeusz Mazowiecki – (and) developments in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. History was happening in front of our eyes.

The Berlin Wall had to fall down. It was inevitable. It was only (a) question (of) when, under which circumstances, and whether it would be stable or not.

Seeing this peaceful uprising made you predict that Germany might be the next in line.

Yes, but we couldn’t predict the Soviets’ reaction. After coming to power in 1985, it took Mikhail Gorbachev some time to consolidate his authority. And no one really knew how he might have reacted to the changes that were occurring.  You have to keep in mind that in the GDR, there were 380,000 Soviet soldiers and that the Soviet Union (SU) had a track record of military intervention crashing down on anti-communist demonstrations as in 1953, 1956, 1968 etc.

In 1989, Gorbachev made the right decision not to intervene which allowed the whole democratic processes in Eastern Europe to happen peacefully. But the fall of the Berlin Wall and, more generally, of the Iron Curtain was a natural consequence of what began in Poland. So Germany is very much indebted to the liberation movement in Poland and other countries, but especially to Poland, which was very much advanced in the democratic process, thanks to Solidarno??.

Why did Gorbachev decide not to intervene?

Gorbachev had a vision of reforming the SU, but also would not stand in the way of developments in other countries. I think Gorbachev’s personal tragedy was his belief that the Soviet system was reformable, which it wasn’t. At that moment, one (little) change inside the Soviet machine challenged the whole structure – and the whole system crumbled.

Gorbachev paid a visit to East Berlin in October 1989, for the 40th anniversary of the GDR – just before the Wall fell down – and the famous phrase was coined – “Wer zu spät kommt, den bestraft das Leben“ (life punishes latecomers).

And so he was punished, but for the benefit of Europe.

He wanted the GDR to reform, but the GDR didn’t take his advice. Reform was no longer possible inside of that system. During that Berlin visit, while Gorbachev was giving his speech, just a couple of streets away demonstrators were shouting “Gorbi, Gorbi, Gorbi!”

A nationwide survey by Infratest Dimap, conducted by the Federal Foundation for the Reappraisal of the SED Dictatorship ahead of the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, shows that 9 November 1989 is widely known as the most distinctive date in the Peaceful Revolution. Do German people realize the role of Poland and of other then “people’s republics” in paving the way towards uniting the West with Eastern Europe?

For those personally involved at that time, like myself, being an advisor to Helmut Kohl, the democratic revolution in Poland had a major impact. And there is some hard evidence for it. The first non-communist government, semi-democratic elections, were an inspiration and encouragement for the GDR opposition. The message was clear: one can get over communism.

The second factor was Poland’s, Hungary’s, Czechoslovakia’s decision to open their gates for East German refugees. This was really significant, as the GDR’s fundament was keeping the people in the country behind the Wall. If this wall could be sidestepped – say via German embassies in Warsaw, Budapest and Prague –  the whole system would crumble.

Taking into account the evidence, government and Parliament in Germany have all recognized the important role of Poland in the German transition.

That same survey also shows differences in Germans’ perception of the fall of the Berlin Wall. When asked if it was a “peaceful revolution” or a  “transformation” (die Wende) Easterners go for the first option, while the Westerners for the latter. How would you name it?

I wouldn’t make a distinction between words here. What really counts is that it was a movement of historic dimensions.

People were sick of communism, sick of the way the system performed politically and economically, and they decided to turn against it. In my view it, was a revolution. We have to distinguish between the general European freedom revolution, including Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, the GDR, and Germany’s unity happening one year later as a consequence of the European freedom revolution.

Almost one year after the Berlin Wall fell down – on 3 October 1990 – the GDR and West Germany united after long years of separation. The East had a lot to catch up. Can we treat the process of economic integration as an example to follow in implementing the cohesion policy system of the EU?

Clearly East Germany was much behind in terms of economic development. The situation was actually a lot worse than the statistics seemed to indicate. According to the data from those times, the GDR was among the 10 most developed states in the world. But this was bogus. The situation was far from good and therefore it took some time – more than anticipated – before the former GDR got close terms of the living standards. Today, nearly a generation after the fall of the Wall, living conditions in the former East Germany have drastically improved. The infrastructure in some places is better than in the West.  This was achieved by a big transfer of public and private money from West to East. As part of this effort, the German taxpayer pays up to this date a Solidarity Tax – the Solidaritätszuschlag.

How is it perceived by Western Germans?

Most people would say that it is still necessary. The issue comes up usually before elections.

And how high is it?

It’s 5.5 % of the income tax. Its net financial contribution to the German federal budget is approx. 14 billion Euros per year. It shows that the development of East Germany is a common task and that everybody should make a contribution to improving situation in the new Länder.

But this level of investment would be not high enough to really leverage the situation of East Germany. How else does the West contribute?

True. The solidarity tax only covers a small portion of the total transfer from West to East. Some put the total transfer sum at 1.5 trillion Euros over the last 25 years. That is 15000 billion Euros, or 60 billion per year, an enormous effort.

Actually, Germany is reported to generally lack public spending and especially on infrastructure, which hinders economic development.

There is an ongoing discussion in Germany on how much investment in the infrastructure is needed and how to get the funds for that. But clearly the enormous amount of investment money that has been contributed by both private enterprise and public budgets to East Germany’s very new infrastructure in terms of transport, telecommunications etc. is a fact..

Coming back to the East, still, the standard of living objectively differs.

Income and the economic performance in the new Länder are not as high as in the former West. If you look at the income, it’s now about 80%; the economic performance stands at two thirds of the West. It’s already a pretty good result. Still, it has been 25 years since the Berlin Wall came down, and many thought that it would be faster.

Eberhard Diepgen said that reunification cannot be completed. The differences are too big, especially the mental ones.

Reunification will be completed, but it’s the question of generations. In some people’s minds, the Wall is still there.  But if you look at the young generation, at people born right before or after the revolution, there is a totally different mindset. The problem is really the question of the older generations. Germany has managed to integrate the former GDR into its political and economic structure, and is still very competitive on the international scale. This is a great achievement. But it’s not finished yet. It still needs attention, funds, and a willingness on everybody’s part to contribute to it.

Can how we deal with the former GDR being a blueprint for EU cohesion policy?

It’s different. Between East and West there were 40 years of separation, but we still kept a national consciousness. I think it’s easier to make sacrifices for your nation than for others.

The other side of the story is that the EU has provided substantive cohesion funds to its new members, and Poland is a prime beneficiary of that. But of course, those funds are proportionally not as big as those that we transferred from West to East Germany.

Poland has boomed recently, fulfilling its potential, thanks to the boost from the cohesion policy. Within the last 25 years of its freedom, and 24 years of German reunification, the two nations established unprecedented, good relations.

Federal President Gauck called it a miracle. But it’s not just a question of good relations on a government level. It is also about civil society, about networks of contact, business links, twinning cities, cooperation between universities, regions that works together. Our bilateral trade stands at 78 billion euros in 2013. It’s higher than trade with Russia, even before the present crisis.

This is a development which has increased over the last 25 years, but started earlier. Some of the contacts date back to the ‘70s, Willy Brandt’s kneeling down in front of the monument for the heroes of the ghetto uprising, the letter of the bishops in 1965.

Today we can say that to a large degree, reconciliation between Germany and Poland has been achieved. This is remarkable, if you look back at the history with the enormous atrocities of World War II, and the crimes committed by Nazi Germany on Polish soil. We are grateful for this very positive development of the last 25 years.

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