Polish-German Relations Dampened by Expellee Dispute

Meetings, meetings, meetings! But maybe that’s a foretaste of the soon-to-be EU of twenty-five members. As we noted, Tony Blair met on Saturday (20 Sept.) with Gerhard Schröder and Jacques Chirac in Berlin. Then on Sunday he met back at Chequers (the British Prime Minister’s country residence) with Spanish premier José Maria Aznar. (Those were surely discussions most suited to Blair’s day of rest, as he and Aznar see much more eye-to-eye on international issues these days than do his interlocutors in Berlin.) As for Gerhard Schröder, he met yesterday with Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller – just before flying yesterday evening to New York, for that all-important opening of the UN General Assembly and tête-à-tête with President Bush.

The German papers hardly gave front-page coverage to this meeting between Schröder and Miller (which took place at the conference center attached to the Schalke stadium in Gelsenkirchen, in the Ruhr area – Schalke are a famous German first-division football team, by the way). By and large that treatment was devoted to the overwhelming victory in the Bavarian state elections over the weekend for Edmund Stoiber’s Christian Socialist Union party – something that, unfortunately, EuroSavant isn’t all that interested in, although it has given rise to speculation that Stoiber is now rarin’ to take on Gerhard Schröder again in an electoral fight for the Chancellorship, when the time for that comes ’round again, of course.

That lack of press coverage was unfortunate, because Schröder and Miller had a lot to talk about in Gelsenkirchen. For one, they seem to have some hard-to-bridge differences over the draft EU Constitution, and this just a little over a week before the big EU Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) opens on October 4. Interestingly, according to an article previewing the Schröder/Miller summit in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung entitled No Unbundling of the EU Constitution-Package, it looks like Germany is considering deploying its big financial guns to try to get its way here. Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer is quoted by the FAZ as saying as early as the beginning of September that, in his view, EU expansion, the adoption of the draft Constitution, and negotiations over EU finances – which have much to do with how much financial help of various kinds Poland gets upon entering the EU – all constitute an interrelated package. Subtext: If you want to get the money you expect, you better show some give on the Constitution. But let’s leave any further discussion of those negotiations to the near future. With the start of the IGC coming up soon, it’s guaranteed that we’ll get back to this subject soon, and in considerably more detail.

At their meeting, the German and Polish heads of government also devoted considerable time to a controversy that arose over the summer – but is still simmering – about a proposal to erect a memorial called the Zentrum gegen Vertreibungen or “Center Against Expulsions,” in Berlin. This has considerably strained relations with Germany’s neighbors to the east, not just Poland; and it’s a dispute that gives me the opportunity to display a neat picture on these pages – a magazine cover, sorta kinky! – for the first time. (But you’ll have to click on “More…” to see it – ha ha!)

The “expulsions” in question here are naturally German expulsions, specifically the expulsions of Germans from Eastern Europe, back to the truncated territory of post-World War II Germany. This brings up the larger theme – you could even say “larger meme” – that German society has now reached that curious stage where it has progressed mentally beyond the crimes of the Nazis so that it’s now fair game to raise the subject of (and even bewail) the sufferings of Germans during Hitler’s war. For example, Günter Grass’ last novel (Im Krebsgang, English title “Crabwalk”) of early 2003 centered around the sinking by a Russian submarine on January 30, 1945 in the Baltic of the Nazi passenger liner Wilhelm Gustloff, carrying some 10,000 German refugees fleeing Gotenhafen (now the Polish port of Gdynia) from the advancing Red Army, with the loss of all on board. And earlier this year I remember there was a work of non-fiction out, in the German market, telling the story of the Allied bomber campaign from the perspective of the German civilians who had to suffer through it. (I’m sorry that I don’t remember any further details about that latter book; I’ll see if I can go search for them, find them, and post them in an addendum here.)

This proposal for a Zentrum gegen Vertreibungen, then (the project of the Bund der Vertriebenen (or “League of the Expelled”) headed by CDU Bundestag representative Erika Steinbach), fits right in with this new attitude that it’s now OK, if you’re German, to talk about how your family suffered during and after the war, especially if your family was expelled from its ancient homestead in Eastern Europe. Unfortunately, that attitude has received little sympathy or support from the countries making up those formerly-German areas, especially Poland and the Czech Republic. Their attitude is (and I certainly agree with it), “Don’t go devoting too much attention to the sufferings of the Germans we threw out of our country at the end of the war. Yes, they were treated harshly – and neither Poland nor the Czech Republic is particularly proud of that episode in their histories (A similar expulsion of Hungarians, if on a somewhat lesser scale, took place from what is now Slovakia, by the way, and that, too, occasionally pops up as an irritant in relations between the Slovak Republic and Hungary.) – but there’s one key thing to remember: The Germans started that war, and they didn’t hesitate to treat the native populations (not even to mention the Jews) with unprecedented cruelty during their occupations. So don’t even try to make the case that the sufferings of the Germans and the sufferings of the Poles and Czechs are equal; instead, keep in mind the crucial difference between Ultimate Instigator and Ultimate Victims.” The Poles and (especially) the Czechs have another motive here: If they concede any guilt for expelling Germans from their territory, then the groundwork could very well be laid for legal claims by those expelled Germans (or, these days, by their descendants) to gain back or receive compensation for seized property, an event something no Polish or Czech politician could expect to survive politically.

The proposal for the Zentrum gegen Vertreibungen quickly attracted criticism, as this story in the Süddeutsche Zeitung from last July summarizes well. (Its title is “A ‘National Project” Disturbs the Neighbors.”) Then, a public appeal against letting these plans go ahead was signed (in addition to the Polish and Czech political figures that you would expect) by ex-German foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, the current president of the Bundestag (Wolfgang Thierse), the last president of the Bundestag (Rita Süssmuth), and even, yes, by Günter Grass. But that didn’t mean that the project was killed; it sort of just staggered on through that summer season, when there was nobody around to take care of political things (or of old people dying in droves from the heat), anyway.

Yes, it lived on, this “project that would not die,” and the more the Poles and Czechs looked at it, the more they truly thought they saw a Frankenstein monster. This was despite a visit by Erika Steinbach herself to Warsaw to debate the issue on Sept. 16; “I was shocked by the Polish reaction,” was her comment after the event (which I read about myself via the English-language Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Newsline). Meanwhile, on the Czech front (as that same RFE/RL Newsline reported the very next day), Czech president Václav Klaus unfortunately found himself in Germany at the wrong time (but not too far from the border, in case he wanted to make a run for it!), visiting an international conference in Passau. Pestered by journalists as to what he had to say to the Sudeten Germans (i.e. the Germans expelled after World War II from Czechoslovakia), he had to report that he had “no new message.” What “new message” did they expect him to have? He and his ODS party have always been rock-solid against any sort of compensation or even apology for the Sudeten Germans. But that he was being asked at all for a “new message” was a sign of the passions around the subject of German expellees heating up again.

Finally, things reached a peak of sorts (or, to some, a valley) when the Polish newsweekly Wprost (that word itself means “direct,” “straight out,” or “point-blank”) came out with the magazine cover that you see depicted here: Bund der Vertriebenen head Erika Steinbach, dressed provocatively in an SS uniform, riding Gerhard Schröder like a horse, to the title Niemecki Kon Trojanski (or “German Trojan Horse” – and the text over to the left screams “The Germans owe the Poles billions of dollars for World War II.” Well, at least we know that the art of image manipulation via Photoshop is alive and well in today’s Poland.)

My my! – and this right before Prime Minister Miller’s regularly-scheduled appointment to go meet Chancellor Schröder in Germany! It threatened to be a mess, but the Welt am Sonntag had everything covered, at least journalistically. Here the newspaper had its own analysis of the way Polish-German relations were being strained by the Zentrum gegen Vertreibungen issue. Included were key quotes about that eye-catching cover. Chancellor Schröder: “I found it more than unappetizing”; Wprost vice-editor-in-chief Piotr Gabryel (directly responsible): It was fully justified because “Erika Steinbach is like a demon out of this terrible past.” She is one of the reasons why “the friendship between Poland and the Germans which has developed in the past years could end in a pile of ruins.” In all, wrote Welt am Sonntag, “Like a sword of Damocles, the dispute about a Center against Expulsions in Berlin hovers over the sixth German-Polish governmental meeting.”

This newspaper at the same time managed to pull off the major scoop of lining up Polish prime minister Leszek Miller for an interview just prior to his visit to Gelsenkirche, in an article entitled I Can Imagine No Compromise. Don’t worry: Miller’s “no compromise” has rather to do with Poland’s hard-line stance towards the changes to the draft EU Constitution that it wants. He shows himself in the interview to be rather more conciliatory when talk turns to the proposed Center Against Expulsions, as it does right off the bat. He naturally disavows the Wprost cover: “That was tasteless. I regret it quite personally. The Polish press is in a state of fever.” And he confidently states that German-Polish relations are much too solid to be damaged by the dispute. Still, he also delivers the Polish/Czech catechism: “What were the grounds for the expulsions? For Poles, the grounds are clear: They didn’t start the war, but rather Germany under Hitler attacked Poland. . . . Initiatives such as that of Frau Steinbach are always seen in Poland as attempts to write history anew, to relativize the concepts of instigator and victim.” Miller even briefly mentions his own family’s sad history during World War II – among other things, the son and daughter of his aunt were active in the Polish resistance, and one night were taken away and shot, and their bodies never recovered – but admittedly this is only in response to the direct question of Gerhard Gnauck, Welt am Sonntag’s interviewer.

Still, the Germans are nothing if not a people that knows how to persevere, and, as Die Welt recently reported (Despite Criticism: The Expellees Insist Upon the Center in Berlin) those representing the German Expellee organizations and their families have not given up. In fact, they’ve found just the place for their Center in Berlin, namely the former air-raid bunker on the Fichtestrasse, where in 1945 and then after the war 15,000 German expellees from the East were forced to live in terrible close-quarter conditions, because no other living space could be found for them. The Bund der Vertriebenen (BdV) has the cash and is ready to buy that site; but, as the article relates, the German National Heritage Fund (“Liegenschaftsfonds“) that owns the site isn’t yet willing to sell it until it has finally been decided whether the BdV should be given what it wants. In the meantime, some leading politicians (including former foreign minister Genscher, and, it seems, increasingly Chancellor Schröder, too) are inclining to let some pan-European institution deal with the question. Maybe the Council of Europe – itself not any part of the EU, as you may not know. Or maybe the European Parliament, if you do want to involve the EU. In any case, says this viewpoint, whatever monument eventually gets built, build it outside of Germany!

During a treatment of this issue on the BBC World Service the other night, I even overheard the suggestion that the dispute be defused by building a memorial to all the expellees of World War II in Poland – specifically, in Wroclaw, the city where I spent most of July. Wroclaw might be particuarly suited for such a memorial, since it was a German city (“Breslau”) up until 1945, when almost all of the Germans living there were chased away. Their places were taken mainly by Poles coming from the East – Poles who themselves were being displaced out of the Eastern Poland which was being reclaimed by the Soviet Union as its territory. All this nastiness took place only slightly less than sixty years in the past, folks. No wonder plenty of people are still willing to get upset about these memories even today.

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