“The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions that I wish it always to be kept alive.” The words of Thomas Jefferson, author of the United States Declaration of Independence, and whereas as 4th July 1776 might well have been one of those certain occasions, 2nd November 2017, in the eyes of the Polish government at least, was not. Especially when the one taken to be suggesting resistance to the Polish government is the German defence minister.
While speaking to German broadcaster ZDF on Thursday, the German defence minister, Ursula von der Leyen, said that her children had been studying in Poland as part of the EU’s Erasmus student exchange programme at a time when power shifted in Warsaw. She suggested that it was important to support the “healthy, democratic resistance of the young generation” in Poland. “Our task is to maintain the discourse, to argue with Poland and Hungary,” von der Leyen added, as quoted by Poland’s PAP state news agency.
Ever jealous of its amour propre the Polish government was quick to respond. “On November 3, Defence Minister Antoni Macierewicz, in response to a statement by German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen, instructed Col. Tomasz Kowalik, Director of the [Polish defence ministry’s] Department of Military Foreign Affairs, to summon the German Defence Attaché for explanations,” the Polish defence ministry said in a statement. The young generation would, no doubt, be better served by gaining a correct understanding of Polish history and engaging in physical activity such as marching with banners and wearing nice uniforms.
Poland’s foreign minister, Witold Waszczykowski, described the remark as an unacceptable attempt by a German politician to meddle in Poland’s internal affairs. Waszczykowski added: “For the last two years we have been hearing from German politicians that they are neutral and that whatever is being said in the local [German] media is just independent publications that the German authorities have no influence on.”
Waszczykowski also said he would make efforts — “in a gentle way, because we remain neighbours and friends” — to ensure German officials “explain why such unacceptable words are spoken publicly.” “We hope it’s just a slip of the tongue that can happen to a politician,” – and he would know – he said. “We will give [the German defence minister] a chance to take these words back without creating some kind of diplomatic incident.”
Polish defence ministry spokeswoman Anna Pęzioł-Wójtowicz said: “The Ministry of Defence considers it unacceptable for the minister of a country that is a member state of the North Atlantic Alliance… to call on citizens of another country to undertake anti-government activities.” A spokeswoman for the German embassy in Warsaw said on Monday that the remarks of Ursula von der Leyen had been mostly positive, but part of them had been taken out of context.
Meanwhile, the foreign minister was busy dealing with another outbreak of perceived anti-Polishness. Speaking in the Ukrainian city of Lviv on Saturday, Waszczykowski urged the country’s authorities to “unblock” work by a team of Poles searching for the remains of Polish victims of wartime crimes in Ukraine. He said that while Poland is open to cooperation with Ukraine, it expects authorities in that country to “take concrete steps” amid tensions over historical issues. He told reporters at the Polish consulate-general in Lviv that he welcomed a statement by the Ukrainian government “that there is no anti-Polish sentiment in Ukraine.”
On Thursday Waszczykowski had told public broadcaster TVP1 that unless Ukraine changed its approach to issues important to Poland, the authorities in Poland will “launch procedures that will not allow people who hold extreme anti-Polish positions to come to Poland,” especially Ukrainian officials who do not allow Polish experts to continue their work of searching for remains of wartime victims and who are preventing continuing work to renovate sites in Ukraine of significance to Poland. It is obviously no answer to contrast this approach with Polish government’s attitude towards Russian monuments to the war dead in Poland.
Be that as it may, in response to Waszczykowski’s statement, the Ukrainian foreign ministry said on Friday that there was no anti-Polish sentiment in Ukraine and that disputes over history should be resolved in line with the Christian principle of “forgiving and asking for forgiveness.” Which seems, given the importance the Polish government places on Poland being a European bastion of Christianity against the threat of militant Islam, a rather good response. And at a time when too many politicians seem to have forgotten their history, careless of the words of George Santayana – “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” – it is refreshing to see one for whom history is so important. The danger is that some folk seem to believe in repeats.