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Remembering suffering, without downplaying guilt

Poland uneasy over new German museum dedicated to those expelled from Eastern Europe after World War II.

Erika Steinbach, head of the League of German Expellees, poses at the exhibition 'Erzwungene Wege' (Enforced Ways) in Berlin, Aug. 10, 2006. Letters on the left read "The displacement of the Germans in the end of World War Two." Steinbach will not be allowed to join the board in charge of a new museum dedicated to the 12 million Germans expelled from eastern Europe after World War II. (Tobias Schwarz/Reuters)

WARSAW — Remembering the bloodiest war in history is no easy matter — especially for the perpetrators. That is Germany’s predicament as it tries to commemorate its losses without alienating neighbors who suffered at the hands of the Nazi war machine.

Earlier this month, the German government finalized the board that will be in charge of setting up a new museum dedicated to the memory of the 12 million Germans expelled from eastern Europe after World War II.

But the very idea of the museum, and especially its most prominent backer, Erika Steinbach, a Christian Democratic member of parliament and head of the controversial Federation of Expellees, convulsed Polish-German relations for more than three years.

In the end, Steinbach was not allowed to join the board that will plan the new museum following pressure by Donald Tusk, the Polish prime minister, on Angela Merkel, his German counterpart.

Steinbach is not particularly well known in Germany, but in Poland she has long been a hated figure — reviled for her attempts to turn the spotlight on German suffering during the war. Poland’s concern is that in highlighting its own victims, Germany will try to play down its guilt in starting the war.

Five years ago, Steinbach was pictured in a photo montage on the cover of one of Poland’s leading news weeklies dressed in a black SS uniform riding on the back of then-Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, warning of the influence she had on the German government.

Relations between Germany and Poland reached a nadir due in large part to Steinbach during the 2005-2007 government of Poland’s right-wing Law and Justice party, which sought to play up Poland’s grievances suffered at Germany’s hands.

Although ties between Berlin and Warsaw warmed after Tusk’s election in 2007, Steinbach’s activism around the issue of the German expellees continued to dog relations between the two NATO and European Union allies. Every recent Polish-German summit has in part focused on the Berlin expellees museum, called the “Visible Sign”