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Germany

Köhler Seeks to Soothe WWII Controversy

At the start of a visit to Poland Tuesday, German President Köhler spoke about a controversial center against war-time expulsions to be built in Berlin -- an issue that has offended historical sensitivities in Poland.

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Köhler (left) with Kwasniewski in Warsaw on Monday


Kicking off a three-day visit to Poland on Tuesday, German President Horst Köhler attempted to ease the fears of his hosts in Warsaw regarding the controversial center which is planned as a memorial for the millions of Germans who were driven out in 1945 from formely German areas given to Poland by Stalin at the end of World War II.

"There is no serious political force in Germany that wants to revise history with such a center," Köhler said.

The German president added that the expulsion of millions of Germans in 1945 was a result of German injustice. Köhler also recommended a European framework for the memorial.

The center has long been a delicate issue between the two neighbors. While plans for the center are supported by Germany's conservative opposition, Chancellor Schröder's government is in favor of a European-wide initiative to remember all victims of postwar expulsion and not just Germans.

Polish President Alexander Kwasniewski -- like many other Poles -- has the impression that some Germans would like to revise history and see Germans predominantly as victims rather than perpetrators. On Tuesday, Kwasniewski reasserted his "fundamental doubts" about such a center.

Focus on Solidarity

After talks with Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski on Tuesday, Köhler also laid a wreath in memory of the victims of the Warsaw Ghetto and uprising during World War II. He is to also take part in a ceremony to lay the foundations for a new German embassy in Poland.

On Wednesday and Thursday, the focus will turn to the 25th anniversary of the founding of the independent trade union Solidarnosc (Solidarity) on Aug. 31 as well as the 66th anniversary of the German invasion of Poland on Sept. 1.

Köhler will be one of 20 heads of state and government gathering in Gdansk to mark Solidarity's anniversary.

On Aug. 31, 1980 sacked electrician and strike leader Lech Walesa proclaimed to fellow strikers at the Gdansk shipyard, "We have free independent trade unions." That day Solidarity was recognized by the Polish communist government, the first free trade union in Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe. It's seen as paving the way for the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the end of the post-World War II division of the continent.

Lech Walesa, Solidarnosc 1980

Workers carry Lech Walesa on their shoulders on Aug. 30, 1980


Strengthening German-Polish ties

In 1999, Köhler's predecessor, Johannes Rau, became the first German president to take part in a Polish ceremony commemorating the German invasion. Köhler has earned sympathy in Poland by rejecting all claims by German expellees' associations for compensation for German territory lost to Poland after Central Europe's borders were redrawn in the wake of Germany's defeat. Many Poles see increased German interest in German civilian suffering during and after World War II as a sign of fading remorse for Nazi crimes.

Köhler, who was born in 1943 in what is now Poland, has a great affinity for the country. After taking office in 2004, Poland was the first country to which he paid an official visit; normally, German presidents visit France first.

Horst Köhler und Aleksander Kwasnieski

Aleksander Kwasnieski (left) and Horst Köhler inaugurated the Polish-German year in Berlin in April.

Köhler has had more meetings with his Polish counterpart than with any other head of state -- a reflection of the significance the neighbors attach to bilateral ties. Two months ago, the German and Polish presidents declared 2005/2006 a German-Polish year to promote reconciliation and arouse interest in shared history and culture.

Köhler fled to Germany from what is now Poland with his parents at the end of World War II.

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