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The Warsaw Voice » Politics » July 13, 2016
Foundation for Polish-German Cooperation
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A Negotiator Remembers: Two Treaties That Redefined Polish-German Relations
July 13, 2016   
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by Jerzy Sułek

Soon after Germany reunited in October 1990, Poland and its western neighbor signed two treaties that went down in their shared history as the “founding treaties.” One, signed Nov. 14, 1990, had Poland and Germany reaffirm their shared border, and the other one, dated June 17, 1991, established friendly relations and cooperation between the two neighbors.

The “founding” aspect was that the two treaties lay the political and legal foundations for new relations between Poland and Germany after World War II, a process that continues to this day. Under the Treaty of Good Neighborly Relations, a free and sovereign Poland and a reunited, democratic Germany undertook to pursue a policy of understanding, reconciliation and mutual cooperation.

Stage one: Joint statement by heads of government

This year marks 25 years since those historical events, a good opportunity to take a look back at how the treaties came about. The first attempts at negotiating such agreements were made in the late 1980s when the then-communist Poland tried old diplomatic and political methods to bargain for a new agreement with the Federal Republic of Germany. The goal was to overcome Poland’s international isolation following martial law imposed in the country Dec. 13, 1981. Seeking financial aid for its bankrupt economy, Poland also promised to improve the situation of Germans living in Poland.

In the late 1980s, these diplomatic efforts came to a halt when a democratic revolution swept across Central and Eastern Europe. It began in Poland with the first semi-free parliamentary elections on June 4, 1989. The elections produced the first noncommunist Cabinet with Tadeusz Mazowiecki as prime minister, and a new agreement with Germany became a top priority for the new authorities. This time, the German authorities, in particular Chancellor Helmut Kohl, were ready to meet Poland’s expectations. They saw Poland’s Solidarity trade union as a political ally and wanted to offer strong support to the postcommunist transformation in Poland.

While neither party had any new treaty in mind at the time, they did see it fitting to make some kind of bilateral political declaration. Polish officials quickly completed their negotiations with the Chancellor’s Office in Bonn, with Mirosław Pszon handling the talks on behalf of Prime Minister Mazowiecki and myself acting as Pszon’s deputy on behalf of Foreign Minister Krzysztof Skubiszewski. The resulting comprehensive policy document (78 articles across 17 pages) was signed in Warsaw Nov. 14, 1989, as a “Joint Declaration” by Prime Minister Mazowiecki and Chancellor Kohl.

Stage two: General Treaty with Germany

What had been done by that point soon turned out to be not enough. The reunification of Germany was beginning to happen. The Berlin Wall came tumbling down when Kohl was visiting Poland Nov. 9, 1989, forcing the chancellor to cut short his visit and head back to Germany. He then returned to Warsaw to finish his diplomatic talks and a few days later, he announced a 10-step plan for German reunification.

The Four Powers [the United States, France, Britain and the Soviet Union] that were at the time “responsible for Germany and Berlin as one” were not going to just stand and look, so on Feb. 13, 1990 in Ottawa, they decided to start “Two Plus Four” negotiations with West and East Germany on the “external aspects of restoring German unity.” It was Poland’s initiative to expand the concept to include the “the issue of security in neighboring countries.” Foreign Minister Skubiszewski had negotiated that with the Americans and Prime Minister Mazowiecki with Britain while visiting British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in London. The expanded Ottawa procedures were, of course, meant to serve Poland’s best interests. And while Poland never became a signatory of what became known as the Two Plus Four Agreement, the extra phrase earned the country an invitation to become a full partner in the Two Plus Four Conference wherever it directly concerned Poland. This was despite Kohl’s firm objection.

As the German reunification was drawing near, at the end of February 1990 Mazowiecki’s government decided that Polish diplomats should start work on a General Treaty to be signed with Germany once it reunited. Foreign Minister Skubiszewski took up the challenge and to this end, he appointed and helmed a small group of experts of which I was part. As a professor of international law, Skubiszewski personally edited different provisions in the document and went to great lengths to make sure that all the work was being done in secrecy. The group accomplished its mission in several weeks and on April 27, 1990, the Polish Foreign Ministry used its diplomatic channels to present a draft version of a Treaty Between the Republic of Poland and Germany on the Foundations of Mutual Relations to the United States, Britain, the Soviet Union, France and the two German states. Things were happening at a rapid pace, as shown by the fact that on May 3, 1990, the draft version was used as the basis for the first round of negotiations between Poland, East Germany and West Germany. The negotiations began in Warsaw and continued later that month in Bonn and Berlin. I was among the negotiators and regret to say that the talks did not end well, as Chancellor Kohl decided to discontinue his country’s talks with Poland and East Germany in June 1990.

Conflicting interests

Before Germany formally became one country, Poland and West Germany still had contradictory interests. The top priority for Kohl was to reunify Germany as soon as possible. He persistently told the other Western superpowers that this should happen. His main supporter was U.S. President George Bush and, despite some initial reservations and doubts, Kohl also sold the idea to French President Francois Mitterand and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. He also managed to overcome strong reservations in Moscow and eventually got the go-ahead from President Mikhail Gorbachev and Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze. They approved the reunification in return for financial benefits and West German economic aid to the Soviet Union. Concerned about Germany’s future, Kohl sought to prevent Poland from taking part in the Two Plus Four Conference, treating the country as a potential troublemaker that could delay the reunification process.

Such a confrontational attitude to Poland was only made worse when Kohl failed to meet Solidarity’s political expectations and refused to make any commitments as far as Poland’s future border with Germany was concerned. He excused himself with “Germany’s legal position,” which was to say that only a reunited Germany would be entitled to make any binding statements on its boundaries. Until then, Kohl said, he was only ready to acknowledge the Oder and Neisse rivers as the western border of Poland, as per the 1970 Treaty of Warsaw between communist Poland and West Germany.

Kohl first took such a stance during his Polish visit in November 1989. I was there when he talked with the then Polish President Wojciech Jaruzelski, Prime Minister Mazowiecki and Foreign Minister Skubiszewski. As the note taker, I could clearly see how deeply disappointed the top Polish politicians were with Kohl, especially because the Solidarity people had considered him to be the best friend Poland and its people had among politicians. The sense of disappointment turned into an utter shock when shortly after his visit to Poland, Kohl announced his plan to reunify Germany. The plan made absolutely no mention of the future country’s borders, not even its border with Poland. Officials in Poland were now worried that once Germany was reunified, the Polish-German border would remain an open case. I remember a number of meetings and consultations with Polish policymakers during which we did our best to avoid a situation in which a weak Poland, struggling with a bad recession and a political and social crisis, would be unable to start negotiating its borders until Germany was reunified into a powerful country. We went to great lengths to negotiate our way out of the “border dispute” before the reunification so that no disadvantageous revisions would be made to the Oder-Neisse line. We wanted to make sure that the resulting agreement would be binding for the future German state. Such was the purpose of the Polish draft version of the General Treaty “on the confirmation of the Polish-German border.”

The trilateral negotiations between Poland, West Germany and East Germany never led to a joint agreement, even though Poland received strong support from the East German delegation. Nobody in Poland knows this part of the story, but by the spring of 1990, East Germany had largely become a new country with Lothar de Maiziere as prime minister and Markus Meckela as foreign minister. With the West German delegation standing in the way, it was really East Germany that made any talks about border-related clauses possible. The clauses were close to the General Treaty drawn up by Poland and they later served as the basis for the Border Treaty of 1991.

Stage three: One treaty leads to another

Seeing how the Poland-West Germany and Poland-West Germany-East Germany negotiations were doomed to fail in 1989/1990, the future of the Treaty of Good Neighborly Relations would really be sealed at the Two Plus Four Conference, which began in April 1990 and produced the Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany dated Sept. 12, 1990. Poland only took part in the conference talks that concerned its borders and security issues. It was first at the working level on July 5, 1990 in Berlin, where I headed the Polish delegation, and then at the governmental level on July 17 in Paris, with Minister Skubiszewski at the helm. The Paris session produced a decision that paved Poland and West Germany’s way to the Treaty of Good Neighborly Relations. We proposed that the whole of the Polish-German Treaty talks be divided into two parts. One led to the Polish-German Border Treaty of Nov. 14, 1990, and the other produced the Treaty of Good Neighborly Relations. I have some special memories of those talks as we used a negotiation technique that we referred to as “the cuckoo’s egg.” First, during the official part of the Berlin session I used my negotiating mandate to enable Poland’s foreign minister to attend the Paris session. Then, over dinner with the British conference chairman John Weston and the heads of the two German delegations, I unofficially planted a “private idea” for Poland and the united German state to sign two separate treaties instead of just one. I added that this would benefit all the parties concerned. To begin with, Poland would soon get what it wanted, a border treaty with the reunited Germany, while the resolved “border dispute” would open Germany’s way to reunification. Finally, the Four Powers would be glad to see the negotiations speed up, promising a successful conclusion of the Two Plus Four Conference.

My initiative for Poland and the reunited Germany to sign two separate treaties was instantly followed up on by the conference chairman during the official part of the meeting. It was then backed by the United States, Britain and the other conference participants. Minister Skubiszewski was now able to officially present the idea at the Two Plus Four government meeting in Paris on July 17, 1990. The end result was a classic win-win situation that we knew from textbooks on international negotiations. The “cuckoo’s egg” approach opened the way to the two Polish-German treaties: the Border Treaty of Nov. 14, 1990 and the Treaty of Good Neighborly Relations of June 17, 1991.


Delegation heads J. Sułek and W. Hoeynck initial the Treaty of Good Neighborly Relations in Warsaw June 6, 1991.

Polish Prime Minister J.K. Bielecki, German Chancellor H. Kohl and Foreign Ministers K. Skubiszewski and H.-D. Genscher sign the Treaty of Good Neighborly Relations at a ceremony in Bonn June 17, 1991.



Jerzy Sułek is a Polish diplomat and scholar who was one of the country’s leading diplomatic negotiators from 1989 to 1991. He chaired Polish delegations during negotiations with Germany on the Polish-German Border Treaty and the Treaty of Good Neighborly Relations. He is now a professor at the Helena Chodkowska University of Technology and Economics in Warsaw.
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