Perception of Germany in Poland and Lithuania in the Shadow of the War
Discussions about which political steps should the German politicians undertake regarding the war on Ukraine have always been controversial. At first, Germany under the Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) pursued a rather mild course in this matter. This led to a shrinking popularity of the chancellor, since most Germans wished to stop gas supplies from Russia and also approved the delivery of heavy weapons to Ukraine. Even though, in the end, the German government later approved arms deliveries, Germany was still heavily criticized by the Ukrainian side. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Selenskyj stated that Germany needed to take a clearer stance towards the conflict instead of just trying to do what "hurts the least in relations with Russia and Ukraine ".
Bearing this in mind, one has to wonder about the attitudes of other countries towards Germany in the context of the war. We have chosen two countries from the European region: Poland and Lithuania. Following contributions were written by Blažej Lenkowski from Fundacja Liberté (PL) and Martynas Gruodis from the Lithuanian Free Market Institute (Lithuania).
Poland's Perception of Germany
The image of Germany in Polish media depends mainly on political and ideological camp affiliation. The right-wing camp, related to Law and Justice party, is using and waking up the historical spirit of anti-German resentment in Polish society to mobilize its supporters and build an artificial enemy figure. On the other hand, the opposition camp saw Germany, especially in the era of Angela Merkel, as a major economic partner, an economic and rule of law model to follow, and a key country in the European Union. This division is a bit of a simplification, but it is of great importance on the political map of the country. However, in the context of Russian war in Ukraine, the image of Germany began to change for worse in both groups in 2022.
The image of Germany as the leader of European Union in Poland was really strong. Both sides of political spectrum saw Germany as a European leader. The opposition was mostly willing to support and cooperate with this leadership. Law and Justice was ready to question many aspects of this leadership, but at the same time they saw Berlin as even more powerful force than the opposition. When examining the political landscape, we should separate political propaganda from the politicians’ real perception of the situation. On the one hand, the media that depends on Law and Justice is obsessively building an image of Donald Tusk, the opposition leader, as a puppet tied to Germany. In fact, even when Law and Justice camp was cynically playing the anti-German card among his voters, they were convinced that the extremely strong, strategic economic ties between Poland and Germany would ensure that Berlin would not turn its back on Warsaw, especially after the Brexit debacle. They are aware how important economic relations are for both sides.
However, when analyzing the situation in 2022, it should be emphasized that it is not so much the history that is important, but the current new disturbing trends. Since February 2022 and Russia’s military aggression on Ukraine, the German government’s policy has also begun to be deeply criticized in liberal media close to the opposition side, such as Gazeta Wyborcza, TVN and many others.
The construction of Nord Stream II was described years ago by former Civic Platform Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski as a new Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. The right-wing's assessment of this project was even harsher. Over the years, mainly due to the authority built up by Angela Merkel, the criticism of this project was less audible. After Russia's declaration of war on Ukraine and the bankruptcy of the policy of making Russia dependent on income earned in the West, the whole model of energetic transformation of Germany (Energiewende) is deeply criticized in almost all Polish media. Increasing energy dependence on Russia is considered a strategic mistake of the EU leadership under Germany. The narrative in almost all Polish media is also deeply critical of the German decision to close nuclear power plants. At a time of energy crisis, of the need to increase energetic independence from Russia and to search for clean technology, which will not contribute to further CO2 emissions and climate warming, it seems to be totally inexplicable and irresponsible.
The issue is also relevant to the perception of Germany and its policies as a whole. In Poland, Germany had the image of a profoundly rational country, which makes the decisions based on a realistic weighting of costs and losses. Despite appearances, Poles believed in and admired the German model of governance and economy. The collapse of the Germany’s energy policy and incomprehensible decisions on nuclear power (basically all political forces in Poland declare their eagerness to build nuclear power plants in Poland) undermine this image.
The decision to change Germany’s defense policy, increase the defense spending, etc., following Putin's launch of war in Ukraine, was received mostly very positively in the Polish media. Poland, feeling deeply threatened by Russian military aggression, would like to have and perceive Berlin as its militarily strong ally, ready to defend the allies, which will be the most effective tool for deterring Moscow.
Unfortunately, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz's subsequent moves on the issue of military support for Ukraine were described as making one step forward and two steps back. In Poland, the Chancellor has an image of a person suspending military aid for Ukraine, looking for excuses and delaying, rather than taking on the role of natural leader that Germany repeatedly played in the European Union. The mayors’ narration in Polish media is that German foreign policy during this conflict is failing.
Lack of leadership
During the time of Angela Merkel as German Chancellor, Berlin was almost always described in the Polish media as a European leader and a key player in Europe. Merkel was sometimes highly praised and sometimes criticized, but in general no one questioned her role. Chancellor Olaf Scholz, on the other hand, is described as politician without vision or leadership skills, and without a clear strategy for dealing with the biggest military conflict in Europe since World War II.
Among Polish journalists and experts, European Commission President Ursula von Der Leyen has a far better image. Many experts see a different approach to the conflict presented by politicians from the FDP and the Greens, as well as by the opposition leader Friedrich Merz. However, it does not change the whole image of German during the conflict and its perception by the public, which is criticized with varying intensity and argumentation by both the pro-government and opposition press.
Therefore, in order to oppose the current negative trends and narratives built in the Polish media, but also to rebuild the leadership role of Germany in the European Union as a whole, Berlin’s clear and decisive strategy towards the war in Ukraine is necessary. Ukraine, as an independent state and a free society, should have the right to fully and independently decide about its fate and future. Ukraine should belong to the family of the European Union. It is the duty of free and democratic states to support Ukrainians in their efforts to defend themselves against Russian cruel military aggression. Leadership is forged in difficult times. This is the moment when Germany, by redefining many of its political assumptions, can save a free and democratic Central and Eastern Europe. Illusions about Russia under Putin should be put aside.
Lithuania's Perception of Germany
Generally public opinion of Germany has been mostly positive. In Lithuania Germany is perceived as the backbone of stable Europe. It has always been associated with good finance management, fiscal discipline, stable internal affairs as well as being a reliable international partner. Lithuanian media have portrayed Germany as a country taking a leadership role in dealing with key challenges Europe has been facing in recent decades. Although certain measures were met with criticism (Migration crisis in 2015 and the backlash after that & post global financial crisis measures for certain EU heavily indebted member states e.g., Greece), Lithuanian public opinion ended up supporting measures initiated by Germany.
Policies directly affecting Lithuanian interests have met much more opposition in public sight. It mainly includes Germany’s energy policy.
Economy and Energy Policy
As for the general economy - Germany was and is considered prominent in terms of managing its economy as a whole - fiscal discipline as a great example.
In recent decades Germany has managed to reduce its general government debt by 13 percentage points between 2010 and 2021 (second best result after Ireland). The budget deficit between 2011-2019 was always under Maastricht criteria, managed by stability and growth fund. At the same time other largest economies in Europe – France, Italy, and Spain have only been increasing their debt - by 27, 31 and 57 percentage points respectively, between 2010 and 2021. This is regardless of obligations to each other drown by the Maastricht Treaty and later supported by the Stability and Growth Pact. Germany is seen as disciplinary and perceived as a role model in fiscal management. However, energy as part of the economic perception of Germany has received quite a different response – both in the past and recently in Lithuania.
Nord Stream 1 opening in 2011 was met with cautious disagreement in Lithuania. Arguments among Lithuanian public opinion were that this project might become a political tool for Russia to raise energy prices. The Baltic States and Poland argued that with an increasing demand for gas in Europe, and Russia trying to secure as much market share as it can, Nord Stream 1 project will be used as leverage when negotiating a future relationship with Germany.
If the general opinion of Nord Stream 1 project in Lithuania has been filled with cautious doubts, mostly was expressed in a moderate fashion, including the words „might”- the continuation of the infamous project, Nord Stream 2, has received much more direct criticism. Key Lithuanian decision-makers had been much firmer on their statements: Lithuanian President at the time Ms. Dalia Grybauskaite said that the project is not commercial, it is geopolitical, and its goal is to harm Ukraine.
Most recent energy and military moves by Russia in 2021 and early 2022, allowed western countries, including Germany, to finally reevaluate their economic ties with Russia, as is seen by Lithuanian media. Germany‘s Ostpolitik has started to change.
One of the most important moves by Germany, which was perceived positively by the Lithuanian public, was the decision to halt Nord Stream 2 in the dawn of the Russian invasion, immediately after Putin recognized two separatist regions in Ukraine. Two Lithuanian ministers called this unilateral decision a „strong response“ and „an important message to the whole region“.
From that point on the argumentation, confrontation, and persuasion atmosphere in Lithuanian media was replaced with supporting and understanding of Germany‘s energy problems.
Germany is generally portrayed in Lithuanian media as:
a) In the most part, self-responsible for dependency on the Russian gas supply (57% of Germany’s demand is being supplied by Russian gas). At the same time reducing its energy production means closing nuclear plants.
b) Remaining an overall role model for standing firm with Ukraine even if it means the German population is going to suffer and might feel a shortage of gas in the winter of 2022.
The shift of Germany’s Ostpolitik was seen as predominantly critical developments in Germany by the Lithuanian public. Overall opinion in Lithuania is positive as most Western Allies started to see that energy has become a geopolitical tool, that could harm western populations. Response – reduction of energy dependency, reduction of consumption, and enhanced security cooperation.
Germany is generally seen as a reliable and important ally in terms of security. Germany as leading the NATO mission in Lithuania since 2017 had almost no negative appearances in the media. Quite the contrary. Less than two weeks before the invasion of Ukraine, Lithuania received a total of 350 additional troops from Germany. This was done just 2 days after the decision was made. It was covered in Lithuanian media as a sign of immediate reaction if needed.
German chancellor's visit to Lithuania was met with unprecedented positive coverage in the media, especially after the announcement of the decision to increase the current NATO battalion size to form a brigade-size unit. Boosted public opinion on the larger constant presence of the military has been immediately halted by later clarification that the brigade will be formed and will be dedicated to the Baltic States, however it will stay in Germany. Lithuanian media have covered this topic extensively. Although it is mostly technical details (not ready infrastructure in Lithuania) of why Brigade is not allocated right away, public opinion after this clarification has been quite negative.
Despite that Lithuania is generally confident in the security provided by Germany and troops that have been deployed in Lithuania. Technological advancement of Germany‘s military equipment as well as professional personnel is viewed with confidence and respect in Lithuania.
Rule of Law
Germany is seen as a trustworthy country not only in security, economy, or energy but also the ability to successfully manage processes internally in Germany. Lithuanian public opinion of the rule of law in Germany is usually associated with fairness. If other areas of Germany are criticized occasionally in Lithuania, rule of law of Germany receives a minimum amount of criticism. There are almost no scandalous court decisions that could be traced in Lithuanian media. As the media is prone to covering controversies, the absence of them is also a good indicator of public opinion evaluating rule of law in Germany. Such a positive evaluation of Germany in terms of the rule of law is quite stable and has not changed much even in the presence of 2022’s chaos.
Generally, Economy, Rule of Law and Security are all areas where Lithuanians perceive Germany as being a role model country. However, decisions regarding energy dependency with Russia and sudden retreats of statements made by politicians are usually perceived negatively in Lithuania. Nevertheless, a shift of Germany’s perception of Russia is perceived with utmost optimism in Lithuania.
About the Authors
Fundacja Liberté! is a think tank established in Poland in 2007. It defends values as open society, free-market economy and liberalism. It is a member of 4liberty.eu network, Atlas Network and European Liberal Forum.
The Lithuanian Free Market Institute (LFMI) is an independent non-profit think-tank founded in 1990. The think-tank promotes the ideas of individual freedom and responsibility, free market and limited government through policy analysis, advocacy and educational activities. Their areas of expertise are property rights, taxes and public finances, business regulation, competition policy, energy policy, labor markets, social security, and healthcare. LFMI is a member of the 4liberty.eu network.