Currently, visitors to the Vatican Museums in Rome have the opportunity to visit an exhibition devoted to Cardinal Bolesław Kominek (1903-1974), aptly titled “Europe’s Forgotten Founding Father.” The author of the “Pastoral Letter of the Polish Bishops to Their German Brothers,” sent fifty years ago today, Cardinal Kominek was a dramatic witness to the transformative moral and even political power of Christian forgiveness.
During the final session of the Second Vatican Council in 1965, attending Polish bishops were each assigned to write invitations for the celebrations of the one-thousandth anniversary of Poland’s 966 AD baptism the following year to fifty-six national episcopates around the world. Undoubtedly, the most appropriate man to invite the German bishops was Cardinal Bolesław Kominek, the archbishop of Wroclaw. However, his task would unquestionably also be the most challenging.
In 1939-1945, Poland experienced a horrific occupation at the hands of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. One-fifth of the Polish population was killed; no other nation lost such a high proportion of its people in that most macabre chapter in European history. It is well known that almost 90 percent of Poland’s Jews were murdered in ghettoes and extermination camps, ending centuries of vibrant Jewish civilization in Poland. Additionally, however, three million non-Jewish Poles were killed. The Nazis wanted to exterminate Polish culture and reduce Poles to slave-laborers; thus higher education was banned for Poles and Polish university professors were shot en masse. Half of the country’s Catholic clergy was deported to concentration camps such as Dachau. After the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, Poland’s capital was literally razed to the ground; 85 percent of its buildings were destroyed, and most of the city’s population perished or fled, with only some “Warsaw Robin Crusoes” hiding in the rubble.
Thus it is unsurprising that just twenty years after the end of the war hostility towards the Germans in Poland was strong. The Polish-Jewish virtuoso pianist Artur Rubinstein, known for his outspoken Polish patriotism, refused to give concerts in Germany for years. Many of his countrymen shared this bitterness.
To complicate matters more, relations between Poland and the Federal Republic of Germany were not normalized until 1970. During the Teheran, Potsdam and Yalta conferences that ended the war, Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt handed over to the Soviets lands in Ukraine, Belarus, and Lithuania that had been Polish for centuries, in exchange giving the Poles lands in Germany that were Polish in the Middle Ages, leading to the forced eviction of millions of Germans and Poles. The West German government did not recognize these changes.
The largest city of these “Recovered Territories,” as Poland’s government called these regions, was Wroclaw. Before the war, the city was Breslau, an important German cultural hub. A cardinalate see, Wroclaw’s first post-war Polish archbishop-cardinal was Bolesław Kominek. When Kominek received the task of inviting the German bishops, he knew that many ill feelings complicated this.
The letter’s tone and content were nothing short of revolutionary. Communist propaganda had portrayed Germans as barbarian oppressors; Aleksander Ford’s 1960 blockbuster film adaptation of Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Knights of the Teutonic Order about the Polish victory over the German Teutonic Knights at Grunwald in 1410 had a distinct anti-German flavor encouraged by the censors. By contrast, Cardinal Kominek’s letter emphasizes what linked the two nations. Kominek writes of how the (proto-German) Holy Roman Empire contributed to bringing Poland into European Christendom. He notes that the German Magdeburg Rights and German merchants helped many Polish cities flourish in the Middle Ages, and that the two nations venerate many of the same saints, such as St. Hedwig of Silesia.
Cardinal Kominek does not avoid dark chapters in history. He notes the destruction of Polish Jewry and that in many Polish dioceses half the clergy were killed in concentration camps. However, he is quick to present German resisters of Nazism, such as Sophie Scholl’s White Rose movement or the courageous Cardinal von Galen of Münster, who boldly fought against the Nazi euthanasia program of the elderly and disabled and against its racism.
However, in the most shocking part of the letter, Cardinal Kominek “forgives and asks for forgiveness” of the Germans on part of the Polish bishops. How can it be, many Poles wondered, often with resentment, that the Poles, who suffered so greatly under German occupation, must ask their Western neighbors for forgiveness? The simple—although difficult to rationalize for many—answer was that due to the Christian notion of moral sin, all are imperfect. If one Pole ever harmed one German, then that would be enough to merit asking for forgiveness.
Thirty-four Polish bishops, including Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński and Archbishop Karol Wojtyła, the future Pope St. John Paul II, signed the letter. However, its fruits initially seemed stillborn. While the German bishops expressed gratitude for the letter, they responded to their Polish counterparts that they couldn’t forgive the loss of major regions of Silesia and Pomerania. Poland’s communist government embarked on an anti-clerical campaign, accusing the bishops of being Nazi apologists and traitors of the Polish nation.
Despite the German bishops’ initial chilly response, they eventually came to have a very close relationship with their Polish counterparts. At the second 1978 conclave, it was the German-speaking cardinals—most notably König and Ratzinger—who were among the biggest supporters of electing their Polish colleague to the throne of St. Peter. Today, the German prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller, constantly visits Poland, whether for a book signing or university lecture, to celebrate Mass at a basilica or to address pilgrims at Czestochowa or Kalwaria Zebrzydowska.
At a political level, Germany is Poland’s closest ally and biggest trade partner. The first foreign visit of Germany’s current President Joachim Gauck was to Poland. Himself a former Lutheran pastor, Gauck prayed at the tomb of Pope St. John Paul II during his trip to Rome.
Throughout its history, the soil of Europe was repeatedly deluged by seas of fratricidal blood. Although armed conflict has wreaked havoc in the Balkans in the 1990s and, more recently, in Ukraine, on the whole the Old Continent is now as peaceful as it has ever been. This is largely thanks to victory of the radical Christian ideal of reconciliation in the post-war age, as embodied by such deeply Christian men as Konrad Adenauer, Alcide de Gasperi and Robert Schuman, ready to forgive other nations despite fresh, bloody wounds. The fiftieth anniversary of the “Pastoral Letter of the Polish Bishops to Their German Brothers” is high time to add Cardinal Bolesław Kominek to this illustrious list of visionaries.
Filip Mazurczak is a translator and journalist whose work has appeared in the National Catholic Register, Crisis Magazine, European Conservative, and Tygodnik Powszechny.