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Germany

New Chancellor Gives New Hope to German Expellees

A controversial center aiming to acknowledge the postwar plight of German expellees could be closer to reality since Angela Merkel took over the chancellery.

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More than 15 ethnic Germans were forced to flee the east after 1945

The long march from his childhood home in Parchwitz, now Poland, is as vivid a memory in Friedrich Vetter's mind as if it happened yesterday.


Then only five, Vetter and his family joined an estimated 15 million ethnic Germans kicked out of their ancestral homes in Eastern Europe following the demise of the Nazi regime in 1945. Now 56, Vetter thinks it is time Germans have a place to learn about the suffering his family endured. He has thrown his support behind a controversial plan to erect a center dealing with the mass exodus.

"It's important that you do something like that, so that it remains part of memory and doesn't happen again," said Vetter.

The proposal is anything but welcome by Germany's neighbors. They see an echo of misplaced nationalism in the Center Against Expulsions, and object to its planned location in Berlin, the former capital of the Third Reich. But its realization could be closer than ever since Angela Merkel took over the chancellery.

Angela Merkel mit Lech Kaczynski in Polen

Angela Merkel (left) talks to Poland's President-elect Lech Kaczynski in Warsaw

Merkel in favor of "symbol" in Berlin

A supporter of the plight of the expellees, the coalition agreement between Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union and the Social Democrats foresees the establishment of a "visible symbol in Berlin" to show the "injustice of expulsion." Though the wording may be a bit vague, advocates say Merkel, who visited Poland on Friday for the first time since becoming Chancellor Nov. 22, is sure to take a stronger stance on the issue than any of her predecessors.

"I'm expecting far better policies and the signs point in the right direction for the next four years," said Erika Steinbach, a member of German parliament and director of the German League of Expellees (BdV), in an interview. "I think the chancellor will be able to take a lot of the emotion out of the debate."

Zentrum gegen Vertreibungen Erika Steinbach

Erika Steinbach, president of the German League of Expellees

The poisoned atmosphere between German advocates of the center and Germany's neighbors has been its biggest hurdle. The refusal of Polish and Czech governments to acknowledge crimes and human rights violations committed against the expellees are among the League's biggest gripes. Their demands, on the other hand, have prompted accusations in Poland and the Czech Republic that the association is ignoring the Nazi conquest that prompted the postwar expulsions.

Bad blood on all sides

"From our point of view, it seemed like they wanted to change history, and change the past," said Tadeusz Cegielski, a professor at Warsaw University.

The argument reached a low point in 2003, when Steinbach herself was the victim of scathing depictions in the Polish press, including one magazine that dressed her up in a Nazi uniform in a photo montage. Some, including other expellee organizations, say Steinbach and her organization's reputation in eastern Europe might make it necessary for them to fade into the background of the discussion.

Polen Deutschlandbild Zeitschrift Coverbild

The controversial cover of the Polish weekly WPROST (Direct)

"I don't think the solo leadership (in the discussion) should be with the BdV," said Herbert Werner, director of both a German-Czech organization, and a working group on expellees associated with the Catholic church.


A center for Europe, not just Germans

The discussion has taken a more positive turn since Steinbach expanded the idea to include the expulsion of some 30 other ethnic groups in Europe in the 20th century. Ahead of her visit on Friday, Merkel emphasized the European context of the planned center, and said it wasn't about "making history relative."

"It could be a good idea when we try to show what has happened all over Europe, and not to only speak about the German side," said Cegielski.

Vetter agrees, adding that forced expulsions were a regular occurrence in 20th century Europe. He says he has hope for the future. The warm welcome he gets whenever he returns to his home town, now known as Prochowize, as well as the family that bought the house where he was born, gives him hope for the future.

Kosovo-Albaner auf der Flucht 1999

The displacement of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo would also be a topic for the proposed center

"I have a lot of contact with Polish colleagues and we already have good relationships with one another," said Vetter. "That's why I think Merkel will be able to do the same."

In fact, before her trip to Poland, Merkel told the magazine Fakt that a center in Berlin would be part of a Europe-wide "Network of Remembrance and Solidarity," which the previous German government under Gerhard Schröder had supported. She said any project would be undertaken with Poland's agreement.

"Remembering understood in that way has nothing to do with a relativization of history," she said.

Prime Minister Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz also showed a more conciliatory attitude toward a center for expellees. However, at the same time, he did not rule out the possibility that Warsaw might make new demands for reparations from Berlin for damages incurred in the Second World War, which began when Germany invaded Poland in 1939.

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