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'No holiday'

February 15, 2011

In the aftermath of World War II, some 12 million Germans were expelled from territories in Eastern Europe. More than 65 years later, historians are fighting a proposed national holiday to commemorate their plight.

Steinbach and German refugees in traditional costumes
There are fewer and fewer surviving German expelleesImage: picture alliance/dpa

A group of prominent historians has joined Germany's Central Council of Jews and the Polish government in condemning a proposed holiday to commemorate Germans expelled from Eastern Europe at the end of World War II.

The proposed national holiday was put forth by Germany's League of Expellees. It was officially proposed Thursday in parliament by the country's governing coalition parties, Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats and the Free Democrats.

But on Monday, a group of 70 historians from Germany, Austria, Poland and the Czech Republic published a petition against the holiday, accusing it of dismissing Nazi atrocities.

'Nationalist' document

Children walking from a Polish internment camp to a German refugee camp
In 1945, Germans were expelled from the present-day Czech Republic, Poland and the Baltic StatesImage: dpa - Bildarchiv

Specifically, the historians reject the proposed date for the holiday: August 5, the day the Charter of German Expellees was signed in 1950.

"If you read the charter you see how strongly Germans see themselves as war victims," Eckart Conze, a history professor and petition signatory, told Deutsche Welle.

"The most problematic part of it is the central statement: 'We expellees renounce revenge and retaliation.' That sentence is morally and politically totally inappropriate in light of Germany's mass murder of Jews, Roma and Sinti as its forced displacement of so many other people," he said.

"The sentence certainly cannot serve as the reference point for a national day of remembrance 60 years later."

Conze, like other signatories to the petition, does not want to give special historical weight to German suffering.

Personal fight

But the president of the League of German Expellees, Erika Steinbach, sees things differently.

"Of course the charter - written in 1950 - doesn't address Nazi atrocities," she told Deutsche Welle.

"The charter is about the expellees dealing with their personal plight, overcoming their own justified resentment to say that they wanted to look forward and bring about a peaceful coexistence in Europe," she said.

As the leader of a group that purports to represent the 12 million expelled Germans and their descendants, Steinbach says her demand is "not about self pity at all."

"It is the sympathy of the German state I am expecting for the particular fate of a substantial part of the German people."

It is a very personal issue for the controversial member of parliament, who is one the most right-wing members of Merkel's Christian Democrats.

Erika Steinbach
Steinbach's quest for expellees' recognition dates to her own difficult childhoodImage: AP

Steinbach still has grim childhood memories of her life in West Germany after being forced out of present-day Poland with her family in 1945.

"My father and mother shared a tiny metal bed and my sister and I shared another," she said.

"We lived together in one room, with nothing but two chairs, the two beds and a hot plate. No toilet, no running water, no heating. Nothing. Others lived in camps at that time and had no idea what would become of them."

Out of that hopelessness, Steinbach said, the expellees resolved to stay in Germany and rebuild the country.

Document of peace?

Steinbach claims that, in this sense, the charter was a first step towards German-Polish reconciliation.

But the Polish government has joined the petitioning historians in rejecting the proposed holiday - in part, possibly, because of the league's past rejections of the post-war Polish border along the Oder and Neisse rivers.

"The celebration of this charter means that the Bundestag, or the majority of the Bundestag, interprets this document as an early signal of reconciliation between Germans and Poles, and this is simply not true," said petition signatory Heinrich August Winkler, a professor of modern history at the Humboldt University in Berlin. He escaped his native East Prussia as a child in 1944 before the expulsions began.

"There is no self-critical remark on the German responsibility for all the crimes, for the expulsion of other people, of mass murder committed in Poland by Germans," Winkler added.

Pushing on

Yet Steinbach says, no matter the fate of the proposed remembrance day, she will not let Germany forget the plight of her family and millions of others.

She explains her quest for expellees' recognition as being central to a peace among nations:

"How can you plausibly claim to empathize with Poland or other peoples when you aren't capable of mourning for your own slain grandfather and grandmother?" she asks.

Author: David Levitz

Editor: Martin Kuebler