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Merkel Ally Says She Won't Insist on Disputed Museum Post

Erika Steinbach, head of Germany's League of Expellees at the center of a row between Berlin and Warsaw over a controversial new museum, said Saturday she would not insist on being appointed to the institution's board.

Erika Steinbach, president of Germany's League of Expellees

Steinbach remains a highly controversial figure in Poland because of her forceful promotion of expelled Germans

In an interview with German newspaper Welt am Sonntag, Steinbach said she did not rule out withdrawing her controversial nomination for a new museum showing how millions of Germans were forced out of eastern Europe after the Second World War.

The final decision would be taken by the German League of Expellees, Steinbach said.

"The association nominated me and I won't take any decision without a vote by the association," she said.

The 65-year-old Steinbach is a member of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU). She remains deeply controversial in Poland because of her forceful promotion of the interests of expelled Germans and Polish leaders have strongly protested against handing her a leading role at the museum.

Earlier this week, Germany's League of Expelles nominated Steinbach to the board of the museum, putting Chancellor Merkel in an awkward spot. Her cabinet has the final say on the board's composition.

The issue has strained relations between Poland and Germany. It also clouded a meeting between Merkel and Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk in Hamburg on Friday.

The leaders were both in Hamburg for the historic 'Matthiae' dinner, an event celebrated since 1356 in the city's town hall.

Decision in the making?

Angela Merkel and Donald Tusk in front of an EU flag

Merkel, left, calld Tusk "my friend and colleague" at the state dinner

Earlier on Friday, Merkel hinted she would not take any decisions that would undermine Germany's desire for "reconciliation" with Poland, adding her decision on Steinbach would be taken "in a few days."

Amongst other things, Steinbach is unpopular in Poland for refusing to recognize the German-Polish border drawn up after German reunification in 1990.

Shortly before the meeting kicked off, Tusk expressed his unease at Steinbach's possible appointment.

In an interview with the Financial Times Deutschland, Tusk said that it was up to the German government to accept or reject Steinbach's appointment, but that he hoped Berlin would factor in the Polish standpoint.

"(A role at the museum for Steinbach) painfully touches our Polish sensitivity on the truth about World War Two," Tusk told the FTD.

The museum will focus on the fate of ethnic Germans who fled areas, including parts of modern-day Poland, after World War II. Many in Poland are angry at the prospect of Germans being portrayed as victims.

Criticism of concept

Children walking to a camp for displaced persons in Berlin

Many orphaned children were among the displaced after the war

This week, the Polish ambassador to Germany, Marek Prawda, too questioned the German League of Expellees' role in the planned museum.

The League symbolized "a tradition, which in our view has not made very many efforts at reconciliation," Prawda told German television ZDF on Thursday. In addition, he said he was critical of the memorial center's concept.

"It is problematic when you select just one element out of the chain of humanitarian catastrophes from World War II and make this the basis of European remembrance," Prawda said.

A controversial figure

Erika Steinbach

Steinbach has been the president of the League of Expellees for 10 years

The nomination of Steinbach has worsened the conflict between the League of Expellees and the Polish government. Tusk had previously called Steinbach "inacceptable" for Poland as a member of the memorial center's board. She would "always be a controversial figure in German-Polish relations," the prime minister said earlier this week.

Steinbach has in the past accused Poland of attempting to blackmail the German government.

Merkel has stated that there was "no urgency" in naming the board, which must be confirmed by the cabinet.

Merkel's coalition partner, the Social Democrats, as well as the opposition Greens and Free Democrats, have appealed to the chancellor to publicly promise that she will not place Steinbach on the board, asking Merkel to calm Polish fears.

No more "mass hysteria" against Steinbach

German and Polish border police officers patroling the German-Polish border

Steinbach upset German neighbors when she oposed the ratification of the German-Polish border

Meanwhile, the League of Expellees' vice-presidents called for an end of the media campaign against Steinbach.

"We find the mass hysteria in Poland in particular against Erika Steinbach intolerable and not justifiable at all," Christian Knauer and Albrecht Schlaeger said in a statement on Thursday.

They said the League and its president maintained good relations with most countries from which Germans were expelled, for example Slovakia and countries of the former Yugoslavia, as well as Hungary and the Czech Republic.

Knauer and Schlaeger called on politicians in Germany and Poland to "quickly return to objectivity" in the matter, as "unjust accusations damaged the common path of Poland and Germany to a good future."

Poland's Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski this week said Steinbach was not suited to represent expelled Germans, as her family had moved to now-Polish territory only during the war.

"Do people who lived there for generations really want to be identified with a person who, like Steinbach, came to our country with Hitler and had to flee with Hitler?" Sikorski said. "She was never expelled. The people who were really expelled were the Polish family driven from their home in which Steinbach later lived, in a land that wasn't hers."

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