Poland and Germany: Overcoming an economic stereotype

A computer image of how the Szczecin concert hall should look once completed ((image from city website)
Image caption Bright future - this computer image shows how the new Szczecin concert hall should look once construction is complete

Sebastian Genz is something almost unheard-of of two decades ago: a German worker employed, in his home town, by a Polish manufacturing company.

He assures me he really does not have a problem with this even though, as he puts it, "lots of people would".

Germany and Poland may have signed a neighbourly contract, 20 years ago this week, to guarantee mutual "friendship and cooperation", but the real relationship between the two nationalities still demonstrates other realities.

The deal of 1991 was seen by many in Berlin as a magnanimous gesture of solidarity from one fortunate party to another less fortunate.

The gulf seemed huge between the prospects of former East Germans newly taken into a reunified country and post-communist Poles struggling to find their economic feet alone in a capitalist Europe.

And there remains a tendency, according to Wieslav Lewicki, president of the Polish congress representing Poles in Germany today, for Germans to look slightly down their noses at visitors from across the eastern border.

"Twenty years ago, many Poles were here for simple jobs," he says.

"Summer jobs on a building site, perhaps. Now they might be engineers in charge of that building site.

"We are talking about a new world. We are doctors and dentists, professional people who have less need to come here anyway, now that we can make a perfectly good living in our own country.

"Germany needs to take note of the fact that we are central to Europe now and we are proud of what we bring to European life."

To some of the most economically depressed parts of Germany, Poles are indeed proving to be a lifeline.

New life

For more than a generation now, the town of Loecknitz, one and a half hours north-east of Berlin, has seen its population age and decline as jobs get thinner on the ground and young people abandon the region.

Detlef Ebert, the town's deputy mayor, says: "The actual border might hardly be visible when you drive across it, but inside people's heads it's still very much there.

"The two nationalities see each other as different. We know that there might be job opportunities on the Polish side, but we're reluctant to take them, for example. The language issue is just one explanation."

But the Poles come to Loecknitz, nearly 300 of them since 2004, boosting the town's population to about 3,000, the level its oldest inhabitants remember from their childhood.

Most newcomers are taking advantage of the fact that property prices are significantly lower in Germany.

They are commuting to jobs in their home country but living in the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, where land was so bitterly contested during the last war and to where the German border retreated after defeat in 1945.

"The schools are full again," says Mr Ebert.

"We're building new kindergartens. We're building houses in Loecknitz. There is a definite recovery going on."

The irony of the peaceful invasion is not lost on a group of pensioners enjoying their weekly card games get-together in the town hall.

They confer earnestly among themselves when I ask them what they make of the influx.

"Where they come from used to be our homeland and that bothers us a bit," says one woman.

"That never goes away - the fact that we were born there, we spent our childhood there. Then again, the Poles can't do anything about that."

Perhaps more remarkable is the number of young, highly qualified Poles who have no intention of leaving their country in search of the foreign work opportunities prized by their predecessors.

Gateway city

Less than 40 minutes' drive away from Loecknitz, the city of Szczecin boasts a student population disproportionately big for its 400,000 inhabitants.

Image caption The cranes are at work in Sczcecin

Their sense of local pride is on the rise, and increasingly, they envisage their future there.

"People are able to see, especially in the last two or three years, how this city is changing," says Seweryn Purolczak, who is studying law.

"We have got even more ideas how to develop the city and more opportunities to do it."

He is speaking in a crowded cafe indistinguishable in its decor and feel from one in fashionable Prenzlauerberg in Berlin.

Outside, the trams are rolling down nearly elegant boulevards whose ornate but long-neglected fin-de-siecle facades are being given a make-over.

Nearby, ambitious construction projects are under way. Hi-tech business parks are being built alongside office complexes for international companies, museums, shopping centres and concert venues.

Sczcecin has branded itself the "floating garden city", as a leafy gateway to the Baltic with a new marina planned.

"I think there is still something that should be done in our heads to make us realise that we have everything to achieve success in Europe," says Małgorzata Wesołowska, a Phd student.

"Still, we have to be more relaxed and believe more in ourselves. I hope we will not treat Germany and other nations as superior or inferior and that friendly co-operation will be established and there will be no prejudiced thinking and stereotypes."

Severin goes further: "I see the role of Poland in the next ten years as a country which will remember our eastern European neighbours and will try to show other countries like Belarus and Ukraine that it's worth working hard.

"Europe should definitely unite in the future and opportunities should not be closed for countries in the east."

It is an optimism his parents and grandparents might never have dared voice.

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