1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

German expellees

August 5, 2010

Critics have questioned the role of ethnic German expellee communities forced to leave their homes after World War II. As the Charter of German Expellees turns 60, the groups have reasserted their presence.

Expellees entering Germany from Poland
After the war Germans were expelled from many countriesImage: picture alliance/dpa

Bundestag President Norbert Lammert spoke out Thursday against the proposal for an official national day of remembrance for German World War II expellees, saying such a day would ultimately not contribute to public awareness on the subject.

Speaking on German public radio on the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Charter of German Expellees, Lammert said the German calendar was already full of routine yearly commemorations. He argued that the celebration of significant anniversaries would bring more attention to the cause of ethnic Germans expelled from their homelands in Eastern Europe after the war.

The president of the League of Expellees, Christian Democrat parliamentarian Erika Steinbach, recently called on the German government to make August 5 an official national day of remembrance. She cited the suffering ethnic Germans underwent while being torn from the lands where they had lived, in some cases for centuries.

Government officials at the 60th anniversary ceremony in Stuttgart
Officials marked the anniversary in StuttgartImage: picture alliance/dpa

Chairman of the Bundestag parliament's home affairs committee, Wolfgang Bosbach, showed his support for such a day of remembrance. He said in an interview with the Cologne daily Koelner Stadt-Anzeiger that he considered "the demand understandable to keep the memory of flight and expulsion alive - especially as the affected generation is getting smaller every year." He added that more awareness was needed, as the injustices of flight and expulsion exist even today.

'Will for reconciliation'

Ceremonies were held Thursday in Stuttgart to mark the anniversary of the charter, the document created by some of the millions of ethnic German expellees. In the charter, they pledged to forego revenge and retaliation for their expulsion.

Lammert and Steinbach were both in attendance, along with several other political notables, including Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle and Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere.

At a wreath-laying ceremony in Stuttgart, where the charter was signed in 1950, Steinbach called the charter an important document with a message of peaceful coexistence in Europe.

Steinbach said rather than speaking of hatred toward neighboring nations, the declaration spoke of the "will for reconciliation."

Lammert said the charter "one of the founding documents of the Federal Republic," calling it an "essential" contribution to the German success story and subsequent economic prosperity.

Erika Steinbach and Baden-Wuerttemberg interior minister Heribert Rech
Steinbach (left) wants August 5 to be a national day of remembranceImage: picture alliance/dpa

Controversial interpretation

Generations after the signing of the charter, however, expellees are still pushing for their past plight to be recognized.

Advocates for greater recognition of expellees are often accused of historical revisionism, of trying to gloss over the tragedies of World War II and of trying to position German expellees as the victims of the Nazi defeat.

The debate flared recently with the appointment of Arnold Toelg and Hartmut Saenger to the board of trustees responsible for a recently approved, government-backed Berlin museum documenting the story of German expellees.

Both men are members of the League of Expellees and have been accused of rewriting history. Among other things, the pair have made comments in recent years alluding to the suffering of Germans at the hands of Allied powers during the war. The remarks have also suggested the men supported a slight shifting of blame for the war away from Nazi Germany.

Steinbach defended the two, telling the daily newspaper Frankfurter Rundschau recently that their comments would "not be questioned by any serious historian."

Divisive groups

Children line up at a camp for expellees in Berlin
Germany set up refugee camps to accomodate expelleesImage: dpa

Ines Michalowski, an analyst with the Social Science Research Center in Berlin, says expellee organizations remain divisive to this day.

"I think these organizations actually create a lot of dissonance and disagreement within the German population and among those who do have a certain understanding for their issues and for what they want," she told Deutsche Welle. "Namely a recognition of the fact that they have been expelled, and recognition of their story of suffering and of the loss of their homes."

Michalowski says their motives are often misunderstood by the German public and others, who see "a revisionist approach to history and a group of people who cannot really accept that Germany lost the war and that these territories went back to Poland or to the Czech Republic."

Distant stories

The expellees and their descendents are organized into 21 regional associations that correspond to the areas of origin of their members.

There are 16 further organizations to correspond to expellees' current residence, as well as five associate member organizations. A broader organization, the League of Expellees, seeks to lend a louder voice to the concerns of expellees at the federal level.

An assembly of older expellees, visiting the refugee camp where they lived as children in Berlin
Most of the living expellees were children when they fledImage: picture alliance/dpa

Jochen Oltmer, a social scientist with the Institute for Migration Research and Intercultural Studies in Osnabrueck, says the calls for more rights for descendents of expellees are becoming less relevant as time goes by.

"Today, when we discuss refugees and expelled Germans, we now refer to second and third generation individuals," he said. "There are no longer many refugees and expellees who witnessed these events as an adult."

Oltmer says this means that expellees' descendents have been fully integrated into mainstream German society.

"I think it's possible to say that, without doubt, this integration of German refugees and expellees, which seemed impossible in the 1940s, actually has had a successful history," he said.

"These organizations now really only espouse regional interests. The groups are local or regional and are interested mainly in the history and culture of the areas from which those people came. In this day and age, only a handful of more centralized bodies have any real political demands," Oltmer added.

Author: Darren Mara, Martin Kuebler, David Levitz (AFP/dpa)

Editor: Michael Lawton