Remembering suffering, without downplaying guilt

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”


Steinbach “wounds our Polish sensitivity about the truth towards the Second World War,” Tusk said in a recent interview with FT Deutschland, a German business daily.

Even Steinbach’s claim to be a German expellee makes Poles see red. Expellees are usually people whose families had lived for generations in German territories like East Prussia, or in the Czech lands, and who were forced from their homes by the changes of borders and ethnic expulsions after the war.

However, Steinbach was born in 1943 in Rumia, a Polish town near the Baltic that had been annexed by Germany in 1939. Her father was there serving with the German air force. The family was forced to flee west when the Soviet army approached in 1945.

Steinbach also voted against recognizing Poland’s frontier with Germany until the issue of reparations by Germans expelled from what is now Polish territory was addressed.

She has stood by her claims that millions of Germans were dealt an injustice by being forced from their homes after the war.

“Tusk has not pacified the nationalists in his country,” she said in an interview with Der Spiegel, the German weekly. “They don't want the center at all. Naturally, the expulsions of Germans following World War II is a painful memory to many Poles. But it was also painful to us Germans, dealing with our own miserable past. This isn't easy.”

Poland has little sympathy, pointing out that about 6 million Polish citizens, half of them Jews, were killed in the war, and that Poland lost about a third of its territory in the east to the Soviet Union after the war, being compensated by land in the west taken from Germany. Millions of Poles were expelled by the Soviets.

Steinbach’s presence was so divisive that former foreign minister Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, a member of the Polish underground who helped arm Jews and fought in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising and who has taken an immense interest in improving Polish-German relations, said that allowing Steinbach onto the museum’s council would be akin to letting Holocaust-denying bishop Richard Williamson become the Vatican’s new emissary to Israel.

Bartoszewski’s comments provoked outrage in Germany, but underlined the seriousness with which Poland treats the museum and historical issues between the two countries. In the end, Berlin saw that it made no sense to provoke a fight with Warsaw over Steinbach.

“The primary cause of the expulsions of Germans was the world war started by Germans and the Nazi government. The injustices they committed in turn begat injustices committed against Germans,” Merkel told a conference of her Christian Democratic party.

More GlobalPost dispatches on museums:

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History gets a rewrite at the Pinochet Museum

More GlobalPost dispatches on Poland:

A controversial, and powerful, broadcaster riles a nation

Poland split over IVF