New School Straddles Europe's Divide

German university on Polish border aims for 'new European identity'

This small city on Germany's eastern border with Poland is rapidly changing from a provincial backwater into a unique workshop in European integration.

Since German reunification in 1990, the town's newly reopened university has played an important role in Germany's drive to bring Poland into Western European political and economic institutions.

Today one-third of the 2,300 students at the University Viadrina come from Poland. And together with the University of Poznan, the school is constructing a teaching and research center on the Polish side of the Oder River. This unprecedented level of educational cooperation is an indication of Bonn's new commitment to healing past wounds and building a common future with Warsaw.

"The university will not only educate," Polish President Alexander Kwasniewski said on a recent visit to open the academic year, "but will create a new European identity."

The president's words are not just political rhetoric as Poland looks toward acceptance into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU). In a concrete way, the university has become a place for young Poles and Germans to work and learn together.

'Open to Germany'

"I belong to the majority of young Poles who are open to Germany," says Kamil Karpeta as he waits in line to register for courses in economics. He voices none of the doubts of older Poles, many of whom still have memories of Hitler's invasion of Poland in 1939.

Mr. Karpeta speaks German easily, thanks to the last three years he spent at a German high school on a scholarship from Bonn.

Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the East German government had sealed the border to prevent "contamination" from Poland's nascent democracy movement. Now that the bridge linking Frankfurt-on-Oder with the Polish town of Slubice is open again, many Polish students like Karpeta take classes in Germany and live in dormitories in Poland.

What the students at the University Viadrina take for granted today - a stroll across the bridge to another country - is the result of a long controversy over where Germany's eastern border ends.

Nazi invasion

In 1945, the Allies drew the boundary between occupied Germany and Poland along the Oder and Neisse Rivers, thereby ceding previously German-held territory to Warsaw. In the aftermath of the Nazis' rule of terror, the forced expulsion of nearly 7 million ethnic Germans from Poland further inflamed mutual animosity. Not until 1990, when reunified Germany signed a treaty formalizing the existing borders, did Poles feel reassured about their powerful neighbor's intentions.

Since reunification, Bonn has shown an unprecedented commitment to bettering relations with Poland. "Polish-German relations are very, very good - the best in several centuries," says Danuta Zagrodzka, Germany correspondent for the Warsaw daily Gazeta Wyborcza. "Our way to the European Union leads through Germany. That is clear, and we need this support."

Frankfurt-on-Oder, an industrial city of 80,000 once on the fringes of East German provincialism, appears to be an unlikely setting for Polish-German reconciliation. The University Viadrina, however, draws on a long tradition of bridging East and West. Between 1506 and 1811, the original university schooled tens of thousands of Germans, Poles, and other Eastern Europeans.

"The university will play the role of training ground of the new elite of east-central Europe," says the president of Viadrina, Hans Weiler. A German-born American citizen, Dr. Weiler taught at Stanford University in California for 30 years before returning to head the university.

The international focus of Viadrina's law and economics departments attracts students from all over Europe. Peter Besselmann, a first-year international business major from western Germany, says he can imagine the frontier with Poland becoming as open as Germany's Dutch border, where he grew up. Yet Mr. Besselmann, who plans to learn Polish, adds that "there's still the language barrier."

Some cautious optimism

But there are reasons to be cautious about the new level of Polish-German cooperation as well. Because Poland has been repeatedly dismembered by Germany and Russia over the centuries, journalist Zagrodzka says that if Moscow steps up pressure to prevent Poland's entry into Western European institutions such as NATO, Bonn's support could weaken.

Nevertheless, the drive to include Poland in a unified Europe is in Germany's interest too, since the border to Poland also constitutes the eastern boundary of the EU and NATO. And even if the Germans' political will should suddenly fail, the cultural bridge that the University Viadrina provides is already up and standing.

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