Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party has been using anti-German rhetoric for its own domestic purposes in the runup to the October 15 parliamentary election. Germany would be well advised not to comment, however. No matter the outcome of the election, the German-Polish relationship will take time to heal.

It has been around 30 years since Poland achieved an admirable economic and political turnaround. From a communist planned economy that was deeply in debt, the country transformed itself into a vibrant market economy. Freed from authoritarian oppression, the country also experienced a fascinating political and societal new beginning, with a generation of politicians at the helm who also wanted a fresh start with Germany, its neighbor to the west. 

Germany helped bring this change about by supporting Poland's accession to NATO and the EU. After Germany had inflicted so much suffering on Poland, the two governments wanted a process of reconciliation. This, in fact, seemed to work. Poland became a valued political and economic partner for Germany. 

It is all the more difficult to believe, then, how poisoned the atmosphere between the two neighbors has become since the right-wing government led by the Law and Justice (PiS) party came to power in 2015. Warsaw has been launching verbal attacks at Germany with regularity, whether against an alleged German dominance in the European Union, or German unwillingness to further compensate for damages Poland suffered during World War II, or German reluctance to provide more support to Ukraine in its fight against Russia. Yet it is not necessarily the issues that are confusing. It is the toxic rhetoric that shocks. 

With parliamentary elections set for October 15, the intensity of the attacks has increased once again. This has to do with the neck-and-neck race that the two political camps in Poland are engaged in currently. The PiS party believes that it can gain further support by lashing out against Germany, and that Poland—with regard to Ukraine in particular—has the moral right to do so. Indeed, it is true that Warsaw, unlike Berlin, had warned consistently of the dangers of Putin’s Russia. German politicians had repeatedly thrown these warning signals to the wind and continued to maintain good contacts with Moscow. They made lucrative business deals with Russia, and with the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project, they set in motion an even more beneficial energy cooperation. These steps not only increased Germany's dependence on Russian oil and gas; it also was planned and implemented over the heads of neighbors such as Poland. 

Although the accusation of German naiveté towards Russia certainly has some merit, it is still difficult to comprehend why Poland, with its neighbor to the east, Ukraine, engulfed in war, is antagonizing its neighbor to the west. One would think that Warsaw would be interested in mending fences with Berlin and having a stable working relationship. After all, Germans and Poles jointly must cope with some of the severe fallout of the war. The two countries have taken in most of the Ukrainian refugees, for example, and spent large sums to house them. Both Poland and Germany are major supporters of Ukraine, in terms of both direct financial aid and military assistance. Poland, which directly borders Belarus and Ukraine, should therefore have a strong interest in ensuring that German support continues. This could become even more important if the United States is led after next year's elections by a president who is likely to significantly reduce aid to Ukraine.

Funding is also at stake when it comes to the EU. If Poland’s government does not meet the EU Commission's demands, the EU will end structural aid to the country as of January 1, 2024. The EU has long criticized Warsaw’s undermining of judicial independence in Poland. As a consequence, last year it blocked all structural funding to Warsaw from the 2021–27 budget. With payments from other funds also blocked, Poland is at risk of missing annual allocations from Brussels of more than ten billion euros, equivalent to around one and a half percent of Poland's 2022 GDP. To avoid this scenario, Poland would need a powerful advocate such as Germany in the EU.

Instead, in order to garner one or two percent more votes in the election, PiS continues to play the anti-German card, and Warsaw’s formerly good relationship with Berlin is further destroyed. 

In December 2021, PiS strongman Jarosław Kaczyński warned that Germany wanted to turn the EU into a "Fourth Reich". Last fall, Poland presented Germany with a bill for an astounding 1.6 trillion euros for damages caused during World War II. The date on which the bill was presented was no coincidence: Berlin was confronted with the whopping demand on October 3, the day on which Germany since 1990 has celebrated its reunification. And Kaczyński repeats his accusations time and again. In December 2022, the PiS party leader went even further, saying that today’s Germany wants to use peaceful methods to realize the plans it once wanted to achieve by military means. Kaczyński consistently disparages his opponent, the liberal Donald Tusk, as a puppet of Berlin. 

Germany is well advised not to comment on such verbal injuries, but to await the outcome of the elections. Hopes are that October 15 will usher in a new government in Warsaw. But there are also sobering voices warning that even under Prime Minister Donald Tusk, the relationship cannot be healed overnight. Eight years of anti-German drumfires have left their mark. Even if the Polish population does not view Germany and the EU as negatively as the political leadership wants them to, it will take time to restore mutual trust. Fortunately, however, it is still possible to build on the foundation that was laid 30 years ago.