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The Warsaw Voice » Politics » July 13, 2016
Foundation for Polish-German Cooperation
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Young Poles, Germans Together in a New Europe
July 13, 2016   
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Poland and Germany have mended fences and put aside many of their differences since Germany reunited in 1990. The two countries are continuing to edge closer as a new generation of Poles and Germans sharing the same European values has matured.

Poland and Germany have a millennium-plus-long history of mutual attraction and repulsion as neighbors. In recent decades, the lives of Poles and Germans have been marked by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the first free parliamentary elections in Poland in 1989. Another defining moment in their shared history was the European Union’s 2004 enlargement to include Poland and nine other countries. Today young people in Poland and Germany are witnessing geopolitical tensions of a different kind, including human migrations on a scale unheard of since World War II, in this trying time for Europe and its unity.

Closer but still worlds apart

It could seem that similar lifestyles and pop-culture idols should cause people to form ties even stronger than those resulting from their shared cultural heritage, but the problem is that there is a mental wall between young Germans and Poles. A demographic survey conducted by the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), a Warsaw-based center for policy research, shows that young Poles have a somewhat idealized image of their German peers, while young Germans have only a vague idea of what young Poles are really like. Around 2 million Polish students learn German in school, while in Germany, the Polish language is mainly chosen by students with a Polish background. Polish students are the third-largest group of foreigners at German colleges, after students from Russia and China, whereas Germans rarely decide to study in Poland, the only exceptions being the Polish-German Viadrina University in Frankfurt on the Oder and the English-language medical college in Szczecin, northwestern Poland.

This asymmetry could be remedied by personal contacts facilitated by student exchange programs, for example. One such program is provided by the Polish-German Student Exchange organization established under the Polish-German Treaty of Good Neighborly Relations and modeled after a similar German-French program. So far, the organization has sent over 2.5 million Polish and German children and young people on student exchange programs. Interestingly, the Institute of Public Affairs survey shows that young Germans wrongly believe their fellow Polish students will insist on discussing history with them. Meanwhile, young Poles and Germans are the first generation to be free from mental burdens such as inferiority complexes and fatalistic attitudes derived from the Romanticist tradition on the Polish side and the post-World War II sense of guilt on the German side.

Duality

At the civic level, younger groups among Polish immigrants to Germany play a key part in Polish-German relations today. These young people find it natural to navigate different cultural codes and meanings in search of a common denominator for Poland and Germany. This highly diverse group is sometimes referred to as “the Podolski and Klose generation” after Lukas Podolski and Miroslav Klose, the two successful German soccer players of Polish extraction. It comprises well-adjusted children of Poles who moved to Germany in the 1980s. Their dual national identity makes them natural ambassadors of Poland to Germany and of Germany to Poland.

“My life has been split between Poland and Germany ever since I turned 15,” says Adam Gusowski, a journalist and founding member of the Berlin-based Polish Losers Club, a hit with local Polish expats as well as young German intellectuals. “I have always been somewhere in between, always keeping my distance from either side. And then you can’t help but make never-ending comparisons. I love this sense of duality. It’s like I’m cooking two dishes at the same time and the mixed flavors never cease to surprise me. My double identity, further multiplied by Berlin’s multiculturalism, is my capital that allows me to feel at home in different systems.”

A special connection between Poland and Germany was established by Polish people who came to live in Germany after Poland joined the EU in 2004. The resulting, rapidly growing Polish-German community is the most prominent in border regions. Many young Poles live in small German towns near the Polish border such as Uckermark or in Poland’s S³ubice, while commuting to work in bigger cities such as Germany’s Frankfurt on the Oder and Poland’s Szczecin. Polish children bring life to desolate preschools and schools in the small towns of Mecklenburg and Brandenburg in Germany, while German patients come to Poland to obtain medical treatment from local specialists.

Many of such young “inbetweeners” have carved out successful careers for themselves, but most of them have culture-related jobs. Politics is not a popular career choice and given the estimate of 40,000 Poles and Polish Germans living in Berlin, surprisingly few Polish immigrants have made their mark on local politics.

One exception is Katarina Niewiedzial, commissioner for integration in Berlin’s Pankow district, who says that young Polish immigrants are trying to reinvent themselves. “They are intelligent and committed people who feel at ease within the European community,” says Niewiedzial. “Together, we debate issues of high importance to Germany as a modern immigration destination as well as issues important to Poland and the Polish-German partnership.”

Young Polish Germans usually work as informal groups, but some of them have recently chosen a more professional style. Examples include the Polish Sprachcafé group in Berlin and the new Berlin-Warszawa@rtpress website, which young Berliners and Varsovians visit to exchange cultural and political news.

Toward a shared future

New challenges take new ideas. Whenever sparks begin to fly between Warsaw and Berlin, the young, bi-national demographic seizes the initiative. For example, a group called Poles Without Hate works online to organize real-life relief for refugees. According to Gusowski, the immigration experience can teach people a lesson in empathy and help build a system of values where refugees are seen as people in need. “This realization in Poland is eclipsed by the resentment of unknown cultures even though Poland used to be a multi-cultural country itself,” says Gusowski.

Through their grassroots initiatives, cosmopolitan Poles are triggering a social change that could have an impact on the Polish people’s collective memory. A new generation of Poles and Germans has been given a European upbringing within a bi-national society and if these people can have their way, the public in the two countries might gradually start to think along different lines.

Young people with a Polish background in Germany hardly identify with traditional Polish expat organizations and see them as outdated. If these organizations want to develop a strong political lobby like those of Turkish and Russian Germans, they need to reach out to the young generation. Different Polish-German organizations seem to lack young blood in them and policymakers in both Berlin and Warsaw would do well to tap into this dormant potential.

Magdalena Szaniawska
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