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Forgotten history: The expulsion of ethnic Germans

Rosalia Romaniec / kjbSeptember 27, 2012

Over centuries, millions of Europeans have been expelled for ethnic and political reasons, including Germans after World War II. A plan is finally on the table that might just honor the victims - and not Nazi crimes.

This is the scene in Turkey in 1915 when Armenians were marched long distances and said to have been massacred
Image: AP

The idea for a documentation center where the fate of displaced people is told first came up 13 years ago. It was the end of the 1990s when Erika Steinbach, a conservative politician and president of the League of Expellees - an advocate group for Germans and their descendents who were expelled from eastern Europe after World War II, proposed her plans for a Center Against Expulsions. And her plan met with firm resistance.

Voices both in Germany and neighboring countries quickly pointed out that such an institution could present a lopsided view of history. In Poland, Steinbach was accused of labeling Germans as the victims in the aftermath of World War II, without adequately emphasizing that the fate of the ethnic Germans living in eastern Europe after the war was a consequence of the heinous crimes the Nazis had committed in Europe.

For years, Poland has been a major opponent of the plan to build a Center Against Expulsions in Germany and the political elite in Poland has lobbied at the highest political level to prevent Steinbach from implementing her initiative.

Steinbach's plan was at a stand still until 2008, when the German government decided to found its own organization tasked with creating a permanent exhibition on expulsion. To smooth over ties to Poland, Steinbach was left out of the picture entirely.

Erika Steinbach
Erika Steinbach has ruffled feathers, particularly in PolandImage: dapd

The protests ceased, in both Poland and Germany. Poland trusted the German government to present a balanced historical view, according to official statements from Warsaw.

A matter of interpretation

In 2010, the first plans for an exhibition was presented to the public - and harshly criticized.

"There are two different approaches to dealing with the history of expulsion," said Robert Zurek, a Polish historian in Berlin. "One takes the view that expulsions in the 20th century were mainly a consequence of the National Socialists' policies on European states. That suggests, however, that not just the Nazi crimes but nationalistic tendencies in general are responsible for the way of expulsions.

"The second approach views the war and the Germans' atrocities as the main cause of expulsions in the East," explained Zurek.

Critics of the 2010 proposal said the fate of the German expellees was not sufficiently contextualized in the war. Some historians found it unacceptable to put the expulsion of ethnic Germans on the same level as other expulsions in Europe. They said that the relationship between cause and effect - that is, between the Nazi crimes and the expulsions of the Germans from eastern Europe - was not clear enough.

A look at the Germans who fled or were forced out of their homes in eastern Europe after World War II was intended to be "just" one focus of the permanent exhibition, placed in the larger context of expulsion throughout Europe during the 20th century, emphasized Bernd Neumann, Germany's minister for culture and media.

Robert Traba says the new plan is a good start
Robert Traba Polnisches Zentrum für Historische ForschungImage: DW

According to the proposal, which is now gaining traction, the exhibition would consider "the context of the nationalistic policies of expansion, elimination and living space and their consequences." The reconciliatory aim of the exhibition was captured in the slogan: "Remember expulsions - Respect expulsions - Deepen reconciliation and understanding."

The European perspective

Though the expulsion of Germans is to be the main focus, the concept intends to take into account many different perspectives on expulsion in Europe and include the fates of other groups as far back as the 19th century.

Ethnic cleansing in the Balkans is a major issue, according to the proposal. Millions of Muslims were forced from their homes as a result of the Serbian uprising against Ottoman rule in 1804, the Greek independence movement starting in 1821 and the Balkan Wars from 1912 to 1913. The Armenian genocide in Turkey in 1915 and 1916 is also to be touched upon.

The millions of people affected by Stalin's policies in the 1930s are another focus of the exhibition. "Forced labor, deportation, gulags, starvation and mass murder were part of the Stalinist terror," the proposal said.

The effects of totalitarianism, genocide and concentration camps as well as expulsions by Germans at the beginning of World War II will be addressed by the project. Then start of World War II saw massive displacements of people as the Nazis invaded neighboring countries and sending those who were politically or ethnically "unacceptable" to camps.

The proposal was developed by a team of 15 international historians, including two from Poland, who aim to make history come alive with personal stories.

A group of Germans is pictured leaving their village in East Prussia in 1946
A group of Germans is pictured leaving their village in East Prussia in 1946Image: picture-alliance / akg-images

Acceptance on all sides

Reactions to the paper have been positive thus far. "I am far away from being enthusiastic, but the concept seems to be a good basis for further discussion," said Robert Traba from the Polish Center for Historical Research in Berlin. Traba was one of the most outspoken opponents of Steinbach's suggested Center Against Expulsions and accused her of having a penchant for mythology.

After a long public silence, Steinbach has also commented on the current proposal. In an interview with DW, she underlined how glad she was that plans were becoming more concrete and that expulsions "were to be dealt with in a broad historical context and not only in the context of World War II."

As president of the League of Expellees, Steinbach has taken credit for the recent developments: "Of course the federal foundation is responsible for the project, but it shouldn't be forgotten that without the work of our foundation, Center Against Expulsions, a concept for this kind of institution never would have been developed."

The expulsions documentation center will be housed in Berlin's Deutschlandhaus, in close proximity to other institutions like the Topography of Terror documentation center, which is located in the former Gestapo headquarters on Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse.

In addition to the permanent exhibition, temporary exhibitions on the issues of ethnic cleansing and deportation will be part of the program. First, however, the Deutschlandhaus building has to undergo renovation. The federal government is covering the project's estimated budget of 30 million euros ($38.6 million) and the exhibition is slated to open in 2016.