German classes used as a weapon in Polish election campaign
Poland's German minority is angered by the government's decision to slash German language classes for its community and feels it is being exploited by the ruling party to get re-elected
About three weeks ago, large billboards bearing the slogan "Give our children back their language!" began appearing on roadsides in the province of Opole in southwestern Poland.
Around the same time, banners with the same message began appearing on private houses in the region.
The billboards and banners show a boy holding his hand in front of his mouth and include the phrases "One is not equal to three" and "#LanguageLearningIsNotPolitics."
They are all part of a protest by Poland's German minority against the government's decision to cut heritage (or minority) language classes for German from three to just one a week in the school year 2022-23.
German minority disproportionately affected by cuts
The cuts, which coincided with a corresponding drop in funding in the 2022 national budget, only affected the German minority; other ethnic groups still have three heritage language classes per week.
After numerous protests, Education Minister Przemyslaw Czarnek promised to reverse the cuts in January 2023. So far, however, nothing has happened.
Anger and dismay in the German community
Officially, about 140,000 Polish citizens currently identify as ethnic German. According to the Association of German Social Cultural Societies in Poland (VdG), however, well over 300,000 Polish citizens have a German identity.
Most members of Poland's German minority live in the province of Opole in the southwest of the country, which explains why people here are so pained by the reduction in German classes. The province has been part of Poland since World War II ended in 1945.
'Political calculation' on the part of the ruling PiS
Some 55,000 children in the region are affected by these cuts, according to Rafal Bartek, president of the VdG.
"In my opinion, this was based on a completely false political calculation that children can be used for politics," he told DW.
Bartek went on to say that the government's decision was heavily political and is part of its anti-German rhetoric in the run-up to the parliamentary election that is due to take place this fall.
Polish government targets Berlin
"Minister Czarnek believed he could hurt Berlin in this way because of what he claims is the asymmetry in the funding of German heritage language classes in Poland and of Polish heritage language classes in Germany," he said.
Poland's ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) has accused the German government of unequal treatment many times before. Education Minister Czarnek doubled down on this accusation in a recent tweet in which he reacted to the billboard and banner campaign in Opole.
"If spending 120 million Zloty per annum on German classes for native speakers is discrimination," he tweeted, "what would you call the €0 the government of the Federal Republic of Germany spends on Polish heritage language classes for Poles in Germany?"
Ignoring differences in the education systems
In February 2022, Bernd Fabritius, the German government's Commissioner for Matters Related to Ethnic German Resettlers and National Minorities at the time, responded to this frequently repeated reproach by explaining the differences between the school systems in the two countries.
"It is often claimed in Poland that the Federal Government, the Federal Republic, does not provide funding," he said. "The reason for this is that in Germany, education is the responsibility of the federal states. Funding is provided at federal state level."
Fabritius went on to say that the federal states in Germany spend about €200 million ($219 million) every year on Polish classes.
According to a report on the state of Polish tuition in Germany published by the Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs of Germany's federal states, almost 14,500 pupils were learning Polish in Germany in the school year 2019-20.
In short, the accusations aimed at the German government are based on incorrect assumptions and could be misleading for people in Poland who are not familiar with the German education system.
It is also worth noting that the sum of 120 million Zloty (€27.1 million/$29.8 million) mentioned by the minister in his tweet is half of what the Polish government used to spend on heritage language classes for German.
Hard times for German teachers in Poland
The teachers who spoke to DW are worried. Marcin Gambiec has been teaching German both as a first and a foreign language at Primary School No. 24 in Opole for 14 years. The two subjects are very different: Classes in German as a first language start in first grade; German as a foreign language in seventh grade.
When German classes were cut, Gambiec lost half his teaching time. Nevertheless, he was one of the lucky ones: "I was in a good situation because I had in the past completed an additional degree in computer science, which meant I was able to make up the missing hours teaching computer science," he told DW. "But my two fellow German teachers — two women who taught German part time — lost their job."
Playing politics at the expense of children
Gambiec says that it is the children who have been hardest hit by the cuts. "For families of German origin, it is very important that the young generation keeps the language alive and also that they learn it at school," he explained. "Anyone who can, sends their children to relations in Germany for extended periods so that they can practice their German." He went on to say, however, that this is no substitute for regular German classes.
Rafal Bartek says that it is normal for the PiS to ratchet up its anti-German rhetoric in the run-up to elections. "For as long as I can remember, the anti-German card has always featured in election campaigns," he told DW. "But it has never been so bad that 55,000 citizens — children, in this case — have been so directly affected by the political game."
German classes will be restricted even further in the school year 2023-24, which is just about to begin.
Rafal Bartek is in no doubt that the government's reduction of German classes is "discrimination against its own citizens."
"It is a shameful card that is being played here. This will go down in the history of Polish politics," he said.