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· Reconciliation for Europe ·

Fragment of a manuscript of the Letter with the famous sentence “We forgive and ask for forgiveness”

Manuscript of the Letter from the Polish bishops to the German bishops, with the famous sentence “We forgive and ask for forgiveness”. Photo: “Remembrance and Future” Centre.

In 1965, just 20 years after the end of World War II, Polish Catholic bishops wrote a letter to the German bishops, which included the sentence: In this most Christian, but also very human spirit, we extend our hands to you sitting here on the benches at this Council as it draws to a close, and we forgive and ask for forgiveness. And if you, the German bishops and Council Fathers, hold your hands out fraternally, then and only then will we be able to celebrate our Millennium in the most Christian way and with a calm conscience.” This sentence was a milestone in reconciliation between Poles and Germans. Reconciliation that became the foundation for a united Europe.

A sea of ruins – panorama of Wrocław in 1945; before World War II a German city, after Polish, Wrocław City Museum.

After World War II, Europe was a devastated continent with enormous demographic losses. In 1945, the leaders of the Great Powers, the anti-Nazi coalition, took decisions regarding the division of Germany into occupation zones, changes to the borders on the continent and the displacement of Germans from Central and Eastern Europe. These decisions resulted in some of the greatest migrations in history. A significant result of the war was also the division of Europe, as a result of which the states in the eastern part were subordinated to the Soviet Union.

As a result of the war, Poland lost 17% of its population and 45% of its territory, which was incorporated into the USSR. In return, Poland received compensation in the form of the eastern territories of the Third Reich, constituting the historical provinces of Silesia, Western Pomerania and East Prussia, and the territory of the Free City of Gdańsk. As the decisions taken in Potsdam in 1945 were not final, the then established border between Poland and Germany became the main reason for tense post-war relations between the two countries.

From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia, all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere.

Fragment from a speech by Winston Churchill in Fulton, 5 March 1946

Gutta cavat lapidem (a water drops hollows a stone) – the first steps at reconciliation

German officials from Pax Christi during a meeting with Archbishop of Kraków Karol Wojtyła in 1964; first from the left: Alfons Erb. Photo: KNA-Bild.

Only a few individuals were interested in Polish–German reconciliation in the first twenty years after World War II. These pioneers were mainly representatives of churches and religious organisations. As early as the 1940s, the Polish Primate called on Poles to forgive the Germans, but it took almost 15 years for the first more serious reconciliation initiatives. In 1958, at the Synod of the Evangelical Church in Germany, Aktion Sühnezeichen Friedensdienste (Action Reconciliation Service for Peace) was established, one of the main goals of which was Polish–German reconciliation. In 1960, on the occasion of the feast of St Jadwiga, revered in both Poland and Germany, the then Archbishop of Berlin, Julius Döpfner, called on the Germans to assume responsibility for World War II. At the same time, Fr Kurt Reuter from a parish near Berlin was corresponding with almost all bishops and seminaries in Poland, organising religious literature and liturgical books unavailable in Poland to be sent to them. In 1964, representatives of Pax Christi, and in 1965, Aktion Sühnezeichen, organised penitential pilgrimages to Poland. The Evangelical Church in Germany published in 1961 (1962) the Tübingen Memorandum, and in 1965 the so-called Eastern Memorandum, in which the German government was called upon to recognise the border on the Oder and Neisse. In Poland, activities aimed at reconciliation with Germany were organised by Archbishop Bolesław Kominek from Wrocław. He wrote many texts on this subject, maintained contacts with German bishops and Christian activists, especially from the Pax Christi and Aktion Sühnezeichen circles, interested in improving relations with Poland. These included Günter Särchen, Alfins Erb, Walter Dirks and Hansjakob Stehle. Catholic activists associated with Tygodnik Powszechny also played an important role.

“We want good relations with our neighbours based on trust. We have forgiven much, very much. And today we forgive everything once again. We renounce hatred. We are not looking for revenge. We want to be an active factor in the international order, rapprochement and cooperation for all humanity.”

Cardinal August Hlond, Do ludności katolickiej Ziem Odzyskanych (To the Catholic Population of the Recovered Territories), 24 May 1948

The letter which changed Europe

Manuscript and signed typescript (final version) of the Pastoral Letter of the Polish Bishops to their German Brothers, 18 November 1965, Polish Papal Church Institute in Rome, Archbishopric Historical Archive, Cologne

The Letter from the Polish bishops, originally entitled “Botschaft der polnischen Bischöfe an Ihre deutschen Brüder in Christi Hirtenamt” (The message of Polish bishops to their German brothers in Christ's pastoral office), is a letter sent by the Polish bishops to the German bishops on 18 November 1965 during the last session of the Second Vatican Council. This document was an invitation for Germans to take part in the celebrations of the 1000th anniversary of Christianity in Poland, which was to occur in 1966. The invitation was originally a message that was to lay the foundations for Polish–German reconciliation and overcome hostility between the two nations resulting from the Second World War.

The Letter contains a description summarising Polish–German relations over the course of a thousand years. However, contrary to the thesis of “eternal hostility” between the two nations promoted by the communist authorities, the narrative indicated that in these accounts, apart from difficult, negative moments, there were many periods of fruitful cooperation for both parties. The text also emphasised that, through mutual interactions, Poland and Germany had contributed to the development of European civilisation. In the Letter, for the first time in Poland, the German anti-Nazi opposition was mentioned, the suffering of the displaced Germans, and the German bishops were asked to thank the Protestants in Germany for their involvement in building an agreement with Poland. This was a reference to the Eastern Memorandum of the German Evangelical Church of 1 October 1965. The bishops also mentioned the topic of the Polish–German border, emphasising that it was the main problem in relations at the time. The message of the Letter is based on the assumption that a significant element of European culture is Christian culture and includes a program of Polish–German reconciliation based on truth, as well as readiness for reconciliation and mutual forgiveness.

“In this most Christian, but also very human spirit, we extend our hands to you, sitting here on the benches of the concluding Council, and we forgive and ask for forgiveness. And if you, the German bishops and Council Fathers, take our outstretched hands fraternally, then and only then will we be able to celebrate our Millennium with a clear conscience in the most Christian way”.

Fragment of a manuscript of the Message

Reactions across the World

The first reaction to the Letter was the reply of the German bishops, signed on 5 December 1965. In this text, the German clergy, noting the significance of the message of reconciliation, wrote: “At the end of your letter are precious words that can open a new future for our peoples: ‘From the benches of the concluding Council, we extend our hands to you and forgive and ask for forgiveness.’ We take up these outstretched hands with fraternal respect.” Already in December, most influential publications from European and around the world, such as “The New York Times”, “Le Monde”, “Le Figaro”, “Il Messaggero”, “Corriere della Sera”, “The Times”, “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung” and “Die Welt” had written about the importance of Polish–German reconciliation initiated by the bishops of both countries.

The reactions of the Communists in Poland contrasted with the enthusiasm around the world. Władysław Gomułka, the First Secretary of the Communist Party in Poland, decided that the bishops had interfered with foreign policy and undermined the strategic assumptions of Poland’s relations with Germany. Additionally, there was a fight to influence Polish, mostly Catholic, society. In the 20 years since World War II, few Poles had been ready to reconcile with Germany. Polish communists tried to use this fact to turn Poles against the bishops and the Catholic Church. They employed their entire propaganda machine for this purpose. The authorities also made the decision not to allow any bishop from abroad, with Pope Paul VI at the top of the list, to enter Poland in the year of the Millennium Celebrations.

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