PARIS (Reuters) - After its first unification in 1871, Germany saw itself as “surrounded by enemies,” against which it unleashed two world wars in the 20th century.
Today, reunited Germany is ringed by friends who are fellow members of the European Union and the NATO defense alliance, and mistrust is gradually fading due to conciliatory diplomacy and economic integration.
Suspicion of German power and intentions still tinges politics in Poland and the Czech Republic 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, even though the neighbors mostly regard the new Germany as a benign and dependable partner.
Conservative nationalist leaders in Warsaw and Prague have invoked historical grievances with the Germans in their conduct of EU negotiations, as have Czech communists, but those concerns have a dwindling resonance in the younger generation.
In the latest such incident, Eurosceptical Czech President Vaclav Klaus demanded guarantees that the EU’s Lisbon treaty would not undermine 1945 decrees expropriating expelled ethnic Germans and Hungarians as a condition for signing the document. A poll showed 65 percent of Czechs backed Klaus on the issue.
“People are afraid of the Sudeten German property claims. Deep in their souls they feel that justifying confiscations today could be a problem,” wrote Czech analyst Bohumil Doelzal.
During the treaty negotiations in 2007, then Polish Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski suggested his country should be given more voting power in the EU to compensate for millions of Poles killed by the Nazis in World War Two.
“I am very surprised by some people’s view that you can’t return to questions of history,” Kaczynski, whose twin brother Lech is still Poland’s president, told the German daily Die Welt. “The Jews also return to this question, to the question of the Holocaust. Does that mean others may do it but not Poland?”
Many analysts see the central Europeans’ pursuit of close military co-operation with the United States, and their support for its 2003 invasion of Iraq, as a quest for insurance against a resurgent Germany, as well as for protection against Russia.
“FEARS WILL FADE”
Reunited Germany did much to calm worries that it might throw its weight around in central Europe by actively promoting its eastern neighbors’ bids to join the EU and NATO.
A survey conducted by the Warsaw-based Institute of Public Affairs (ISP) in August showed 57 percent of Poles now think that relations between Poland and Germany are good or very good.
“Historical grievances will drag on for some time. It’s inevitable. But Poles increasingly feel they are being treated as partners by the Germans, so the fears will fade with time,” said Agnieszka Lada, an expert on Polish-German ties at ISP.
German firms invested heavily after the fall of communism in the emerging markets of Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, dubbed Germany’s “extended production line,” creating quality jobs and weaving a web of economic interdependence.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has worked hard to smooth feathers ruffled by her predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder, notably over a planned Russian-German gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea that will cut out central Europe. A Polish minister compared that deal to the 1939 Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact that was a prelude to the invasion and carve-up of Poland.
Western neighbors such as France and the Netherlands were also anxious in 1989 at the prospect of a more powerful united Germany coming to dominate the continent.
“There was a fear that a large Germany would adopt a new leading role in Europe, but that that has not taken place,” said Alfred Pijper of the Clingendael Netherlands Institute of International Relations.
“It is not dominating, and the German reluctance to be a leader made room for smaller states such as the Netherlands and Belgium to have a role in European affairs,” he said.
France long resisted increasing reunited Germany’s voting power in the EU to reflect its increased population. Paris finally accepted the principle in 2004. But at the insistence of Poland, the change in the voting system will only take effect in 2014 -- a quarter of a century after the fall of the Wall.
(Additional reporting by Gabriela Baczynski in Warsaw, Jan Lopatka in Prague, Martin Santa in Bratislava, Krisztina Than in Budapest and Reed Stevenson in Amsterdam)
Editing by Ralph Boulton