German Chancellor Angela Merkel was forced to exercise damage control after a senior member of her party and head of an organization representing German WWII expellees insulted a Polish Holocaust survivor.
Steinbach isn't making herself any friends in Poland
A senior member of Germany’s governing Christian Democrats, Erika Steinbach, faced growing criticism from senior political figures Friday after comments she made about a distinguished Polish politician. Steinbach had accused Auschwitz survivor and former Polish foreign minister Wladyslaw Bartoszewski of having a "bad character."
German Chancellor Angela Merkel was quick to defend Bartoszewki but stopped short of mentioning Steinbach by name.
"As for the comments regarding Mr. Bartoszewski, the fact is that I deeply respect him as a person and I also believe that he has done much for German-Polish friendship," Merkel said at an EU summit in Brussels on Thursday.
Bartoszewski, currently Poland’s special envoy for German relations, reacted calmly to the comments, saying he had never spoken to Mrs. Steinbach in his life.
Leaders across the political spectrum have also been swift to criticise Steinbach. Green Party leader Claudia Roth accused her of poisoning German-Polish relations, and the Social Democrats and the Greens said they were ending their cooperation with the CDU politician on the human rights committee of the Bundestag.
Volker Beck, parliamentary secretary of the Greens parliamentary group, demanded the CDU leadership relieve Steinbach of her position as a human rights group spokesperson.
Steinbach is the head of Germany’s League of Expellees, an organization representing ethnic Germans forced to leave their homes in what is now Poland at the end of World War II.
Wladyslaw Bartoszewski: underground activist and two-time Polish foreign minister
But in an interview with ZDF television, Steinbach, who was born in Poland to German parents, said she had no regrets about the substance of her comments - with the possible exception of her tone.
"I should have, perhaps, been a little more friendly when speaking openly against an 88 year-old man - sure, I'll admit that. But of course there have been many cases over many years that have led to my feeling this way," Steinbach said.
Steinbach cited the failure of the Auschwitz survivor to respond to her letters as the main reason for her poor opinion of him.
Green Party deputy chair Baebel Hoehn was outraged.
"This is a man who was in a concentration camp, who said afterward, 'I will be open to the West', a man who sat in jail under communism, and afterwards said, 'I will try to do everything for German-Polish friendship,'" said Hoehn.
"When you say, 'this man has a bad character,' then I think you have disqualified yourself," the leader of the parliamentary group said, adding she found it 'shabby' of Steinbach to suggest people read her book to find out her reasons.
Inflammatory WWII comments
It's not the first time Steinbach has put her foot in her mouth. Earlier in September she announced she would resign from the CDU’s executive board after backing two members of her federation who had publicly implied Poland shared the blame for starting World War II.
Steinbach represents about 12.5 million expellees and their descendents
The former CDU general secretary Heinrich Geissler said on ZDF television that any attempt to shift the blame for WWII on to the mobilization of Poland - a rationale for invasion used by Hitler - was incompatible with the party's principles.
"To speak of the mobilization of Poland six months before that September is not only misguided, but is basically, for someone who is a member of the CDU, unacceptable. It's shameful; it's a scandal."
Some of Steinbach's colleagues on the board for displaced people have also moved to distance themselves from her. Board member Stefan Meier told the newspaper Passauer Neue Presse that Steinbach's comments were "anything but helpful."
Author: Georg Schwarte (smh)
Editor: Susan Houlton