The German–Polish borderland as a laboratory of German–Polish relations?

The millennium-long history of Germany and Poland as neighbouring states, marked by German dominance with regard to power relations and economic development, is often presented by referring to the changing length, location and character of the common border (von Bonin, 1998). The present-day border dates back to the consequences of the Second World War and decisions taken at the Yalta and Potsdam conferences (Trosiak, 1999). The interwar border - which more or less followed the linguistic divide - was pushed significantly westwards to its current location, following the rivers Oder and Neisse in the strategically shortest cut between the Baltic Sea and the Sudeten Mountains. The German population either fled or was expelled, and the border area was reinhabited by Polish settlers (with many originating from the former Polish eastern territories transferred to the Soviet Union) (Halicka, 2013). Physical separation prevented Poles and Germans from everyday contact during the communist period (with the exception of the 1970s), and this was supported by the ‘eternal hostility’ paradigm as Polish communist propaganda (re)interpreted history. At the same time, border areas suffered from peripherality and economic underdevelopment, especially on the Polish side. With the collapse of communism in central and eastern Europe and the reunification of Germany (conditioned by its final recognition of the border established with Poland in 1945), the border regime was softened, and, fuelled by European integration principles - especially the economic development of peripheral areas and the overcoming of social alienation - intensive CBC has been observable along the entire length of the border (Szczegofa, 1999). Numerous actors have been involved in these processes: the central authorities (trying to build friendly relations between the states and create symbolic places for cooperation), regional and local authorities (Stoklosa, 2007) (undertaking initiatives funded by the European Union and employing the strategy of integration: Janczak, 2018b), business (taking advantage of price differences and creating a dense network of functionally oriented interrelations), NGOs (Mirwaldt, 2012) and individuals (engaging in cross-border interactions of a commercial and non-commercial nature: Janczak, 2009).

The border itself, at 456 kilometres in length, is divided into three distinct sections in historical, functional and political-administrative terms: northern, central and southern. On the German side these correspond with the Lander of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Brandenburg and Saxony, and on the Polish side with the regions of Pomorze Zachodnie, Ziemia Lubuska and Dolny Slfjsk. A brief overview of their characteristics is presented based on the proposed components of (a)symmetries: structural components and the difference in potentials.

With regard to structural asymmetries, these are the same for all three sections, being related to the decentralised federal system on the German side and the unitary system on the Polish side. The different levels of divisions also have diverse levels of autonomy and political capacity (Table 13.1). It is important to understand how both countries are structured in terms of the nomenclature of territorial units for statistics (NUTS).

It is also important to note that the German states (Lander) of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and Brandenburg have no administrative districts, whereas Saxony does. German states and local authorities both have strong powers and competences, as established by the German federal constitution. On the other side, in Poland, the central authorities remain a key actor despite administrative reforms. In the case of cross-border projects, these two realities affect the capacity of local actors to take part in projects.

Table 13.1 Nomenclature of territorial units for statistics in Germany and Poland






States (Lander)

Macroregions (makroregiony)


Administrative districts (Regierungsbezirke)

Voivodeships (ivojewodztwa)


Districts (Kreise)

Subregions (podregiony)

LAU 1/2

Collective municipalities (Verwaltungs-gemeinschaften); municipalities (Gemeinden)

Districts (powiaty); municipalities (gminy)

Source: Authors' own work.

With regard to differences in potentials, the three sections differ significantly in terms of historical legacies, which has consequences for models of interdependence. General asymmetric relations (Scott & Collins, 1997) are visible in indicators of development. If we measure this in terms of GDP per capita, the German figure was found to be around four times higher than the Polish for the period studied. However, on the border itself, the ratio looks different. Territorial units on the German side of the border are among the least developed in the state, whereas those on the Polish side are among what are known as the ‘transformation winners’, meaning they have transformed successfully from communism to the free market. The German side of the border suffers from depopulation (Simon & Mikesova, 2014) and, despite massive federal development support, underdevelopment, even if each border section displays a different pattern (see Maps 13.1, 13.2 and 13.3).

The contemporary German state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and the Polish region of Pomorze Zachodnie appeared as the result of the 1945 division of the Pomerania province (with the post-1990s territorial reform in both states). Its historical centre - the harbour city of Szczecin/Stettin - was left just to the eastern side of the border (Bialecki, 1992), leaving rural spaces on the western side isolated from the metropolis. After 1989 ongoing periph- eralisation resulted in massive depopulation and economic stagnation. The German part of the borderland is now among the least developed regions of contemporary Germany. The Polish side, on the other hand, thanks to the city of Szczecin and the role it plays, is one of the more dynamic regions, with a strong academic profile and transportation sector (Musekamp, 2010). Entry into the European Union and the free movement of people that later came with it (in 2011) resulted in local Polish migration from Szczecin (Barthel & Barthel, 2018) to empty towns and villages on the German side (Lada & Seges Frelak, 2012).

Brandenburg and Ziernia Lubuska reveal different patterns. The Polish side is mainly covered w'ith forests and lacks large urban centres, w'hile the German side is dominated by the metropolitan area of Berlin. Depopulation on the western side is not as drastic as in the northern section of the border, as many border area inhabitants commute to Berlin (Janczak, 2017). These regions constitute the main gateway between Germany and Poland, and, more broadly, between the east and west of the continent, with regard to both transportation infrastructure and symbolic and functional places for cooperation, including joint universities, etc.

Saxony and Dolny Sl^sk are more balanced, with numerous small and medium-sized towns located on both sides and similar distances to the regional centres of Dresden and Wroclaw'. From this perspective, the southern section is less peripheral than the northern section and the Polish side of the central section. This is enhanced by its neighbouring the Czech Republic and its border regions. Industrial legacies mix with the tourism-oriented profile of the regions.

Map 13.J Population density on the German-Polish border in 2017 Source: Authors’calculations based on Eurostat.

Map 13.2 GDP per capita on the German-Polish border in 2017 Source: Authors’ calculations based on Eurostat.

Map 13.3 Median age of population on the German-Polish border in 2017 Source: Authors’calculations based on Eurostat.

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