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Tense Memories

DW staff (th)February 5, 2008

Visiting Poland on Tuesday, Germany's Culture Minister Bernd Neumann extolled the merits of an expellee memorial planned for Berlin. The proposed memorial has caused ongoing tension between Germany and Poland.

Refugee families in Berlin
Millions became refugees at the end of World War IIImage: dpa

More than 12 million ethnic Germans were forced to leave their homes in Central and Eastern Europe in the years following World War II. The hundreds of thousands of refugees who died as they fled East Prussia, Silesia, Pomerania and Sudetenland were some of the last victims of the war that began when Adolf Hitler invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939.

Efforts to commemorate the expellee experience have proved to be an ongoing thorn in the relationships between Germany and its neighbors, particularly Poland. In 2000, the Association of Expellees (BdV), lead by Erika Steinbach, announced plans for a Center Against Expulsions. The center was opposed by Germany's ruling coalition, which at the time was made up of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Greens.

Erika Steinbach, head of the Association of Expellees
Steinbach remains a polarizing figureImage: AP

Then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's coalition proposed instead a European-wide memorial to be planned together with Germany's neighbors. The European Network of Memory and Solidarity was created to plan the center, which was opposed by both the BdV and the Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

Changes in Perspective

Yet when the government changed in 2005, ushering Angela Merkel's CDU-led coalition into a power-sharing agreement with the SPD, the parties looked for a compromise. They agreed that it was important for Berlin to have a "visible symbol" against expulsion. But instead of only focusing on German expellees, the exhibit would emphasize Europe-wide issues of forced exile.

"Our neighbors are invited to take part in the design," the Web site of Germany's Culture Ministry promised. The German parliament designated 750,000 euros ($1.1 million) from the German parliament for the exhibit.

Aggressors made victims?

In Poland and the Czech Republic the project has been controversial since it was introduced. The Germans want to turn aggressors into victims, Warsaw has said. The criticism was particularly strong during the Kaczynski brothers' time in office. While Jaroslaw Kaczynski has since stepped down as premier, his twin, Lech, still serves as Polish president.

A wooden cart used by expellees as part of a museum exhibit in Bonn
Disagreement persist on how to portray expelleesImage: AP

The Poles also objected to Erika Steinbach's involvement in any project having to do with commemorating expellees. As the head of the Association of Expellees, Steinbach is seen in Poland as a symbol for German revisionism about the war. Despite Steinbach's efforts to modernize the group, there has been anger over support for ongoing claims some expellees have make on land lost after the war.

Steinbach's critics, who include the SPD, have been adamant that she not play a role in Germany's expellee project.

No agreement, but dialogue

Poland's new Prime Minister Donald Tusk has signaled he's ready to talk about the project, although he did not say he supports it.

During Tusk's first state visit to Germany, he suggested that Germans participate in a joint European project for a World War II museum. He called for establishing a museum that takes the fate of the expellees into account "in a conclusive and comprehensive context" of the war as a whole.

Merkel called the idea "interesting," but didn't see it as a replacement for the German expellees project. Nevertheless, a German delegation is going to travel to Poland to take a closer look at the proposed Polish project.

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk
Tusk has suggested combining effortsImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

Dieter Bingen from the German-Polish Institute said he was skeptical that the Polish point of view would be represented in the German project. It probably makes more sense for the Polish to not be involved in the project directly, as it allows them to offer outside criticism.

Tusk seems likely to continue his criticism. Tusk told the online edition of the mass-selling newspaper Bild that Poland would never accept anything that called into question how the war was seen in its historical context.

"It is important that the plans for a center against the expulsions in Berlin are abandoned," he said.