A blog by an American expatriate living in the heart of New Europe

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Friday, August 11, 2006

Leaving the past in the past

German politician Erika Steinbach

... is an idea conservatives here in Central Europe sniff at

Yesterday evening an exhibition opened in Germany which focuses on the plight of Germans exiled from Central and Eastern Europe in the aftermath of World War II. The event was organized by German CDU politician Erika Steinbach, whose father who was a Silesian-born non-commissioned officer in the Luftwaffe. Steinbach is the head of the German Federation of Expellees, which has been demanding for some time that now-Polish lands confiscated from Germany by the Soviets be returned to German hands. Very few, except for the odd tooth-gnashing Polish politician, has ever paid them much heed.

One of those tooth-gnashing Polish politicians is the Prime Minister of Poland, Jarosław Kaczyński, who, as soon as he heard about the offending exhibition, took time out from his vacation at the Baltic seaside to visit nearby former Nazi concentration camp Sztutowo (Stutthof) where he told reporters, “It's important to remember who were the murderers and who were the victims.”

Another is former Prime Minister and current acting Mayor of Warsaw, PiS' Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz, who has cancelled a trip to Berlin today in response to the opening of the exhibition (Polish link).

For her part, Mrs. Steinbach has said that she hopes the exhibition is the first step towards the creation of a permanent center recording the suffering of the expellees. That idea has been mooted for some time, and infuriates most Poles. Chancellor Angela Merkel has said such a center ought to be considered.

Making a point

Poles believe by portraying some Germans as victims of WWII, such a center would gloss-over or even challenge the idea of Germany as an aggressor during the war.

Steinbach's group believes the suffering of people who were forced to leave their homes as a result of the political machinations of post-war Europe ought to be documented.

Both have a point. Certainly some Germans who were exiled from western Poland at the hands of Soviet Russia must have been unsupportive of Hitler but were powerless to stop him. That Stalin forced them to leave their homes was cruel and unjust.

But the suffering of those few cannot be allowed to overshadow the crimes committed by the German state during the war. A center documenting the plight of expellees might be another useful reminder of how war tears lives apart – but it should not gloss over Germany's ultimate responsibility for WWII, and emphasize that it was Stalin, not Poland, who forced these people out of the land of their births.

Out of the question

Giving formerly German lands back to Germany however, ought to be out of the question. It would set a dangerous regressive precedent. If Silesia were returned to Germany, oughtn't Poland demand western Ukraine back? There would be a downward spiral of territorial disputation, and it's hard to see what good that would achieve.

My own personal view is that Europe started over at the end of World War II. That war was as cataclysmic for this continent as the Biblical Great Flood. When the water receded, it started from scratch. There is no use focusing on the wave-tossed past – though it ought to be remembered. Europe's gaze ought to be set on the future.

It's good then, that nobody important really takes the Federation of Expellees' proposal for reclaiming of German lands very seriously.

Nobody important, except, of course, the ruling party in Poland and some prominent politicians in Germany - all of whom, because of their fixation on Europe's past, are unable to look towards the continent's future.


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