European refugees are once again at the center of identity politics in Germany and Eastern Europe. More than sixty years after the Second World War ended, the construction of a museum in Berlin for the victims of twentieth century “expulsions” – including an estimated 15 million ethnic Germans – is testing what it means for Germans to see themselves as victims and for postwar Germany to be at peace with neighbors. By Amanda Rivkin, special to /e-politik.de/
Former Polish President Lech Wałęsa first met conservative German politician Erika Steinbach at a muted diplomatic event commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Frankfurt Constitution of 1848. The Constitution, formalized in 1849, brought together Germany’s first elected parliament. It was the first in a series of attempts to unify German lands into a single, whole-hearted nation state.
Given the historical implications a strong Germany has meant for Poland, it was an unlikely place for an encounter between the one-time leader of the anti-communist Polish Solidarity trade union and the woman many Polish people believe to be the greatest national security threat to their country. Then, as usual, there were these prickly questions of identity and politics after 1989.
As a Christian Democrat (CDU) Member of Parliament and head of the Bundestag’s Human Rights Committee, Steinbach holds several distinguished titles but she remains a politician of little stature in her native Germany. Across the border in Poland, she has graced magazine covers in an SS uniform spanking former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.
For many, she may be a more recognizable face of Germany’s foreign policy than the current Chancellor Angela Merkel. While her human rights credentials are solid (she built her career working for German-Israeli cooperation with some of Germany’s most public Jewish intellectuals and is active in German commemorations of such atrocities as the Armenian Genocide), in Poland she is often seen simply as the daughter of a German Wehrmacht officer in occupied Poland. But his obligations to the SS were nowhere near the front lines; he was an airport technician.
When the two met in 1998, nine years after Poland’s largely successful transition to a capitalist democracy, Wałęsa asked his acquaintance, then Polish Ambassador to Germany Andrzej Byrt, to introduce them. “I understand you want back Polish land,” he greeted Steinbach.
Steinbach answered, “That is not what I am after.”
As head of the organization Bund der Vertriebenen (known in German as the BdV and often translated in English as the Federation of the Expelled), Steinbach represents a group of mainly elder Germans who were forced from their homes across Eastern Europe during the population transfers at the end of the Second World War. The Federation of the Expelled represented some of the twelve to fifteen million ethnic German civilians who were forced from Eastern Europe after the Nazis retreated. Much of modern Poland’s western lands were German territories less than a century ago.
Steinbach, a tall, middle-aged blonde with smooth, ruddy skin and a curvaceous German physique, was born in 1943 in the German town of Rumia. Her birthplace, a village once close to the German city of Danzig, is now near the same city, currently Polish, of Gdańsk. Although she counts herself among “the expelled”, she was a small child at the time. Her recollections of this period are limited by a child’s memory.
In February of 1945, Joseph Stalin, Winston Churchill, and Franklin Roosevelt gathered at Yalta to redraw Europe’s borders. Stalin, the apparent victor as a result of Germany’s weakened position, was able to reshape the Eastern half of continental Europe largely according to his designs. Stalin famously indicated to Churchill using loose match sticks which he brushed aside to the left on a tabletop to indicate where he wanted postwar Poland’s borders to fall: several hundred kilometers to the West. With Red Army troops in place across the region, Churchill and Roosevelt had few options. They conceded to Stalin’s demands. The Soviet Army won the Eastern front and Poland was a secondary concern to defeating Nazi Germany.
Among other concerns, Stalin wanted the ethnic German populations of the future Soviet satellites removed from the equation. By simply moving them west, twelve to fifteen million of them, he spared them a fate that awaited so many other Eastern Europeans at gulags in places like Vorkuta and Siberia. The suffering of the expellees in historical memory is further undercut by the fact that ethnic Germans from Eastern Europe assimilated with great ease into postwar West German society, where most found themselves living after the population transfers. The exchanges helped to further clean Eastern Europe of yet another undesired minority.
When Americans learn about these atrocities, most hear that the population exchanges were the only way to ensure regional security in places where multiethnic societies had failed. In Germany, where greater deference is shown to Stalin’s cruelty, the postwar transfer of millions of German civilians is called “expulsion”. While not nearly as inhumane as the Holocaust, the humanity of Stalin’s rearrangement is viewed somewhat more critically there.
Most of the “expellees” were women and children whose greatest crimes amounted to surviving the war. Rapes, beatings, and other displays of human cruelty were not unheard of on the long journey to a divided Germany. As many as two million – and possibly more – ethnic Germans may have perished in the aftermath. Yet the world has not shown much sympathy given the unfortunate fact that history prefers victors.
Read more about „Germany’s History Problem“ in Part 2 of the article.
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