Around 25% of Germans are descended from those expelled from the east after World War II. The far-right AfD is trying to make use of their grievances, as the eastern state of Thuringia heads to the polls.
A blue-eyed German teacher points to a weathered map of Germany in his classroom. The map displays Germany's territory before World War One, when it was far larger and contained parts of what is now Poland, the Czech Republic, and Russia. When students asked the teacher why he displayed the map despite it being over a half-century out of date, he reportedly told them: "So that you all can always see your European roots right in front of you." In Germany, a country whose borders were set after a brutal war of aggression and state-sponsored ethnic genocide, saying this is a huge taboo. And the teacher? That was Björn Höcke, the polemic head of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party in the eastern German state of Thuringia. The state holds elections on Sunday seen as a key test for Chancellor Angela Merkel's party and the future of German politics, and Höcke is at the top of the far-right party ticket.
With ancestors who were expelled from the formerly eastern German region of East Prussia, Höcke is one of many such "expellees" and their descendants. Many of them have never visited the lands of their ancestors, but still feel tied to those places decades later. They gather in pubs to talk about their genealogy, attend memorials for their ancestors who fled from the Red Army, and use online forums to speak of their "Heimat" — an evocative German notion of "homeland."
For some, this takes the form of simply appreciating the varied cultures that comprise German history. But others see themselves as the true "victims" of World War II, and talk about an "ethnic cleansing of the German East." The rights of expellees and Germany's eastern border were once fiercely disputed topics. These questions have dropped off the political agenda — and the AfD is trying to make use of that.
In 1963, expellees and their families gathered in Berlin for a rally celebrating the 'Day of the Homeland'
After World War II, some 14 million ethnic Germans fled from areas that had been Germany's east, but was now controlled by Poland, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union, regions known as Prussia, Pomerania, the Sudetenland and Silesia. For much of the rest of the world, the story ended there.
But within Germany, there were huge numbers of "expellees" who had to settle in new areas and rebuild their lives. The experience led many to band together and see their situation in a similar light. Many expellees started political and social organizations; a large contingent joined the the conservative parties the Christian Democrats or Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU). "They played a huge role politically," Andreas Kossert of the Berlin-based Foundation Flight, Expulsion, Reconciliation told DW. "In some regions, expelled Germans weren't a minority, they were a majority."
In recent years, social media has enabled expellees and their descendents to gather both online and offline.
"It shouldn't be called northern Poland, it should be eastern Germany," wrote one user on a Facebook group organizing meetings for expellees of East Prussia, though the region has not existed as such for over 70 years. The group, which describes East Prussia as "the Atlantis of the German East," has more than 4,000 members and dozens of posts a day.
Christine Schoenwiese recently co-founded an East Prussia meeting group in Leipzig. She told DW she is interested in where her grandparents came from. She thinks that the story of the violent expulsion is not sufficiently taught in German schools, and was even "hushed up" in what was then East Germany (the GDR). She describes the expulsion as a "loss of homeland for many people," but it is clear that she is interested in remembering the past, not reliving it.
Others believe that the expellees were treated badly in West Germany, too. "They were treated like dirt," wrote a user named Kurt Müller under a YouTube video on the topic.
Read more: Czech city remembers expelled ethnic Germans
Now the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, East Prussia was formerly part of Germany — and the home of German philosopher Immanuel Kant
AfD steps in
In 2017, when the AfD entered Germany's Parliament, the Bundestag, it was the first time a far-right party had done so in seven decades. Now, it has set up a parliamentary working group on expellees and runs a Facebook group for "Expellees, Returnees and German Minorities," (VAdM).
Earlier this year, in the eastern German state of Saxony, the AfD's parliamentary leader, Jörg Urban, led a memorial service for the expulsions. In the state's September elections, the party won more votes than ever. And their leader in Brandenburg, Andreas Kalbitz, was the center of a recent scandal for signing a letter by a controversial group of expellees.
VAdM's spokesperson Vadim Derksen told DW: "We saw that the expellees weren't a relevant topic for the CDU/CSU anymore. We know it's an emotional topic and when every fourth German has a family member who was expelled, it can really speak to people." Derkson also told DW that the idea initially came from people who weren't themselves expellees but saw it as ripe territory for the party, who then reached out to him.
The current head of the Federation of Expellees, the largest of several such organizations that cropped up in postwar Germany, has ruled out all cooperation with the AfD. The relationship between expellees and the AfD is complicated. The Federation of Expellees' former leader Erika Steinbach left the CDU/CSU in protest at Chancellor Angela Merkel's refugee policy. Steinbach has campaigned for the AfD and serves as head of its think tank, the Desiderius Erasmus Foundation. The AfD's parliamentary working group on expellees is also headed by a parliamentarian who previously served as the federation's vice president.
DW spoke to current vice president of the Federation, Siegburt Ortmann, who underlined that although many expellees are members of the Christian Union, the Federation is itself politically neutral. According to him, its main tasks nowadays are to remember the folk culture of eastern Germany, to maintain contact with German-speaking minorities in eastern Europe, and to remind Germans to remember the atrocities of the Nazi regime and "not just see themselves as victims."
But why would these people, who had to flee from war, sympathize with a far-right party who have targeted refugees? Historian Kossert, who has written of the "broken identity" of the expellees, told DW that their expulsion has remained a constant theme in many families of expellees. Although their descendants might have all the outer signs of a successfully integrated minority, many of them still feel they are in a parallel society even up to the third generation, which Kossert calls a "mental homelessness."
Since 1950, Sudeten Germans have held an annual festival in southern Germany to celebrate their heritage
The expellee federation's Ortmann acknowledged that the group previously had many members with a Nazi past, and that he had encountered some who sympathized with the AfD or even the neo-Nazi NPD party, which German officials have long attempted to ban. Though he himself fled from the Sudetenland aged six, he has always very strictly ruled out any cooperation with the AfD "with no ifs or buts," because he blamed the "racism, anti-Semitism and right-wing extremism" of the Nazis for the expulsion of Germans from the east. Many of these members, he said, "just wanted their homes back."
But to those who claim that Germans were the real victims of World War II, the 80-year-old Ortmann says: "I was packed into a train going from Czechoslovakia to Frankfurt with my mother. I would prefer that to being sent on a train to Auschwitz."