Poland shares reconciliation, democratization lessons

By Korea Herald
  • Published : Jan 3, 2016 - 21:26
  • Updated : Jan 3, 2016 - 21:27

A true reconciliation with neighboring nations takes forgiveness and remembrance from the whole of society, Polish Ambassador Krzysztof Ignacy Majka said in an interview last week.

Referring to Poland’s postwar rapprochement with Germany, Majka stressed that the majority of a national community, from top to bottom and across the political spectrum, must be involved to keep the conciliatory momentum alive.

“Real reconciliation does not have to take place at the high political level. It can come from genuine hearts of people and spread bottom-up,” the envoy highlighted.

“The civil society, religious groups, academic institutions and nongovernmental organizations for reviewing history must all come together. You cannot make everyone happy, but it is important to trigger a commitment and consciousness.”

He added that citizens of Korea and Japan should make greater efforts to seize the opportunity forged recently through the agreement on wartime sexual slavery. 

From left: Polish Embassy First Secretary and Consul Maksymilian Zych, Polish Ambassador Krzysztof Ignacy Majka, Commercial Counsellor Donat Krzysztof Wisniewski and Second Secretary of the political section Lukasz Graban pose at the Seoul Club in Seoul last Wednesday. Joel Lee / The Korea Herald

In 1965, the diplomat noted, Polish bishops sent a letter of conciliation to their German counterparts, which read, “We forgive and ask for forgiveness.”

The move was not well-received by Polish and German authorities, who saw it as civil interference in political matters. But over time, he said, the efforts proved decisive in thawing tensions, leading German Chancellor Willy Brandt to kneel at a Warsaw war memorial on Dec. 7, 1970.

The gesture of humility and penance was largely unexpected, and came during a time of signing the Treaty of Warsaw, which decreed Germany’s acceptance of new borders with Poland.

Another symbolic event, according to the ambassador, was the effort to end Communist-era enmity between German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Polish Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki in the southwestern Polish city of Krzyzowa, just days after the Berlin Wall fell.

“Reconciliation cannot be done overnight. It is an ongoing process that requires all-out efforts by everyone,” Majka said. “The more the society is involved, the faster and more effective the settlement. Once started, it can roll like an avalanche.”

Differences remain between Germany and Poland, but the two countries utilize institutional instruments to manage their divergences, he underscored.

“Forgiveness and remembrance are two different things. Remembrance is imperative to improve future ties, to narrow differences. True remembrance means you are able to put all the facts on the table, openly admit the wrongs and assume responsibilities.”

Regarding the “Asian Paradox,” where the countries largely maintain politically abrasive, yet economically adhesive relations, the envoy warned that use of the term could magnify problems.

“It’s like looking for excuses to avoid present-day difficulties in dealing with the past,” he argued. “Reconciliation was a long and difficult process in Europe, too. Economic cooperation helps achieve harmony, but it can come much faster if you avoid political and historical ambiguities.”

During a conference organized by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in June, which invited German, French, Polish and British diplomats and scholars to share Europe’s lessons in postwar reconciliation and cooperation, Majka offered a view that East Asia could emulate Europe’s experience.

Urging people not to overly dramatize their different underlying values of Christianity and Confucianism, he said: “What is important is respect for humanity, which exists in both systems. People should reconcile. Passing the buck to the government makes the process diplomatic and compromise harder to reach.”

The diplomat suggested combining an official apology, financial compensation, historical commemoration, joint education projects, student exchanges, cultural events and municipal partnerships, asserting that disparate actors can coalesce their strategies.

More than 25 years have passed since Poland became a democratic economy, and the Central European powerhouse can offer lessons on transformation, the ambassador said.

“To move from one end of the command economy and communist bureaucracy to the other end of market economy and democratic politics, you have to do many things in your legal structure, ownership of assets and everyday mentality,” he said.

“Through trial and error, we achieved a successful transition in just over a decade. It happened much faster than expected, though it was not easy. You can never underestimate people’s potential, as they constantly search for optimal solutions.”

One crucial aspect of Poland’s transition was devolving power from the central government to the regional governments. The local elites and people were given administrative and fiscal autonomy, and held accountable to their self-governance. Feeling empowered, citizens built their lives from scratch, the envoy claimed.

In October this year, the embassy will organize a conference in Seoul highlighting Poland’s experience in its political and economic transformation, as a lesson for Korea’s unification. Another exhibition in the same month will feature the history of reconciliation between Poland and Germany.

By Joel Lee (