The political framework in the German–Polish border area between 1945 and 2020 for bilateral cooperation
The economic development of the border region, bilateral cooperation and the mutual perceptions of citizens from both sides of the Oder have been enormously influenced by the two regions’ political and historical background.
The current German-Polish border region along the Oder-Neisse border has been in existence only since 1945. Polish territory shifted westwards after the Second World War. As a consequence of this shift in boundaries, there was a massive transfer of people. Polish citizens who lived east of the Curzon Line at that time were forced to settle in the former GDR (East Germany) regions. The German population also had to leave their homes east of the Oder and Neisse. These terrible expulsions and the experiences of the Second World War contributed to the animosity between the two nations (Jajesniak- Quast, 2017: 34). The German-Polish border then became a hermetically sealed border within the socialist community, which meant ‘militarily secured, impermeable to people, information and goods, passable only by means of special certificates and on the basis of strict controls’ (Jajesniak-Quast & Stoklosa, 2000: 13).
The first easing of the border regime developed slowly from the mid-1950s onwards. The commuter agreement between the GDR and the Polish People’s Republic, which was agreed in 1957 and signed in 1966, allowed Polish employees from border districts to be employed in East German companies near the border. The economic interests of the two states were the reasons for this agreement: in the eastern parts of the GDR there was a lack of workers because of refugee movements and migration to the metropolitan areas, while in the west of Poland, near the border, jobs were lacking on account of high birth rates and low levels of industrialisation. According to the agreement, Polish commuters were given permanent contracts of employment and, with their company ID and stamp in their passport, they were allowed to cross the border (Rohr, 2001: 202-203). The German-Polish border was opened to all other residents of the border area in 1972. The introduction of visa- free travel between East Germany and Poland made it possible to shop in the neighbouring country or have a holiday there. There was an unofficial private and cultural exchange, which ended in 1980 when the Oder-Neisse border was closed. When the free and independent trade union Solidarnosc was founded in Poland in the 1980s, an anti-Polish propaganda campaign by the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands: SED) started in the GDR (Kowalczyk, 2008: 66-67). The hope for normal relations in the German-Polish border region eventually led to the final opening of the border after the end of socialism and the signing of the Treaty of Good Neighbourship and Friendly Cooperation in 1991. In the view of Kurcz (2006), this started to create new social and economic areas and form new border areas in central and eastern Europe. For the composition of the border areas, he saw a need for the state borders to be open and permeable, as this would enable ‘numerous members of society on both sides of the border to move freely’ (Kurcz, 2006: 81). However, after 1989 the German- Polish border areas moved to the national periphery. On the German side, many large post-socialist companies were closed, the high unemployment rate led to the migration of parts of the population to West Germany and, as a result, the social security arrangements and the existing system of values were shaken (Opilowska, 2014: 34-35). The accession of Poland to the EU in 2004 changed the perception of the German-Polish border area, which was no longer part of the EU external border. Since the accession of Poland to the Schengen Agreement in 2007, citizens have been able to cross the Oder and Neisse without border controls. In 2011 unlimited freedom of employment and establishment for Poles was introduced in Germany, which resulted in the number of Polish citizens in the state of Brandenburg and Berlin more than doubling within seven years.1 In 2018 20,640 Polish citizens lived in the state of Brandenburg and 58,020 in Berlin (Statista, 2019; Statistik Berlin- Brandenburg 2019a: 18). The sudden closure of the border because of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020 became a huge problem for the approximately 25,000 cross-border commuters who live on the Polish side and work in the state of Brandenburg and in Berlin (Handelsblatt, 2020). The free movement of citizens as well as bilateral social cooperation were suddenly stopped by the decision of the Polish government, which led to many protests on both sides of the Oder.
The eventful, often closely intertwined history of these two parts of the border region also has long-term effects, especially on mutual perceptions of the people living there. The international entrepreneurs from the German border region, 30 years after the political change, are still not interested in developing foreign business in the directly neighbouring region and tend to perceive this region negatively (Steinkamp, 2017: 298-302). It is with good reason that the German-Polish region has been called ‘one of Europe’s most historically conflict-ridden borders’ (Kimura, 2014: 43) and classified as one of the ‘hardest language borders in Europe’ (Fichter-Wolf, 2009: 202). But, from another side, a real ‘miracle’ has occurred economically. Within a very short space of time the central German and Polish border regions came closer to each other, so that an increasingly homogeneous border area could emerge (Steinkamp, 2020: 55-57).