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World: Europe: A Symbolic Act of Atonement

5 minute read
TIME

WHILE several hundred Poles looked on in silence, West German Chancellor Willy Brandt walked slowly toward a granite slab that towers over an empty area near Warsaw’s Old City. The memorial rises on the site of the Jewish ghetto, whose 500.000 inhabitants died either in the 1943 uprising against the Nazis or in prison camps. Solemnly, Brandt placed a huge wreath at the base of the monument. Then, unexpectedly, he dropped to his knees. For an electrifying half-minute, his face sculpted in deep emotion, Brandt knelt on the pavement. It is particularly noteworthy that this symbolic act of national atonement was performed by a man who spent World War II in voluntary exile from Hitler’s Germany.

Brandt was in Warsaw to establish normal diplomatic relations between West Germany and Poland for the first time since the end of the war. In the city’s Radziwill Palace, with Polish Party Boss Wladyslaw Gomulka beaming in the background, Brandt and Polish Premier Jozef Cyrankiewicz, a former Auschwitz inmate, signed leather-bound copies of an agreement that cedes to Poland 40,000 sq. mi. of former German territory east of the Oder-Neisse rivers. In return, some 100,000 ethnic Germans who have lived in the Oder-Neisse region since the end of World War II will be allowed to emigrate to West Germany.

Tormented History. A glass-clinking round of cultural and economic socializing followed the signing, as members of the delegation that accompanied Brandt sought out their Polish counterparts. Student leaders met, Novelist Gunter Grass mingled with a group of Polish writers, and Berthold Beitz, representing the giant Krupp enterprises, conferred with leaders of the Polish Planning Commission. Nevertheless, neither Brandt nor Gomulka had any illusion that all the hatreds that have grown up between Germans and Poles over the course of 1,000 tormented years could be dispelled quickly.

Genuine normalization of affairs between West Germany and Eastern Europe is blocked by an issue completely separate from the treaty: an agreement on the Berlin problem. Brandt is not expected to submit the Polish treaty or West Germany’s four-month-old renunciation-of-force agreement with the Soviet Union to the Bundestag for ratification until the Berlin problem is solved. But there was growing worry, especially in Washington, that Brandt might have committed a tactical error in agreeing to the two treaties before Berlin’s status was resolved.

The Soviets, according to a top member of the Nixon Administration, believe that because Brandt’s government is so strongly committed to relaxing tensions with the East, it cannot leave the Moscow and Warsaw treaties in limbo for long. According to this view, Brandt may eventually be forced to accept the Soviet plan for Berlin: a “third German state” with economic ties to Bonn but with none of the political links that guarantee the city against absorption by East Germany. Other officials argue, however, that Moscow is moving slowly on Berlin largely because it is having trouble forcing East Germany’s Walter Ulbricht into line.

Last week’s 41-hour meeting between the Big Four ambassadors in Berlin produced little in the way of proof for either viewpoint. Ulbricht, for his part, declared in a speech in East Berlin that his government would be willing to talk directly with Bonn “on the basis of equality and the other principles of international law.” But senior U.S. State Department officials described the speech as basically “quite tough.”

If Moscow is indeed relying on a strategy of delay, its planning could be foiled on two counts. First, the Bundestag would be loath to ratify either treaty if it were submitted before West Berlin’s future is more assured. Second, with the recent electoral successes of his Free Democrat coalition partners, Brandt himself has grown more confident about the strength of his government. As a result, he feels less pressure to submit the treaties for ratification before he gets measurable progress on West Berlin. In the end, Brandt feels, it is the Soviets, not he, who will have to become more flexible.

Plainly, the road toward East-West detente is not exactly a high-speed expressway. It is vulnerable, moreover, to the sort of old-fashioned petty nationalism that is still able to poison relations between states. Last week, after a needless spasm of local hatreds had spoiled the atmosphere, Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito canceled what would have been his first official visit to Rome. The flare-up involved Trieste, the Adriatic port city that has been disputed territory for many years and that nearly became a casus belli between East and West after World War II.

Shortly after Tito broke with Moscow in 1948, he defused the issue by signing an agreement, negotiated under British and U.S. auspices. The pact gave Italy administration over the city and Yugoslavia day-to-day control, though not formal sovereignty, over a 40-sq.-mi. area to the east of Trieste known as “Zone B.” Since then, relations between the two countries have improved to the point where neither requires visas from the others citizens.

Not everyone is pleased. In the Italian Parliament, rightwing Deputies asked Foreign Minister Aldo Moro deliberately provocative questions about the possible “surrender” of Zone B during Tito’s trip. Moro replied: “The government will not take into consideration any renunciation of legitimate national interests.” Tito, hypersensitive to separatist tendencies in Yugoslavia’s six republics, was in fact under pressure to seek formal sovereignty over Zone B.

He evidently felt compelled to take umbrage at Moro’s comment in order to keep Slovenian nationalists quiet. As a result of the manufactured crisis, both governments announced that the trip had been “temporarily postponed.”

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