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New museum confronts fate of WWII refugees

June 21, 2021

An exhibition has opened in Berlin dedicated to the 14 million refugees who fled from Eastern Europe at the end of World War II. The controversial project has had a tortuous birth.

The Documentation Center is about the flight and expulsion of Germans, but also about the many other peopleImage: Markus Gröteke, Berlin

Chancellor Angela Merkel opened the Center for Flight, Expulsion, Reconciliation on June 21, an exhibition that takes pains to put the experiences of Germany's 14 million World War II refugees in the context of Nazi atrocities, and of the experiences of refugees throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.

The permanent exhibition begins with eyewitness videos and information panels as well as exhibits. Visitors are immersed in the global history of forced migration, up to and including the expulsion of people from Syria and the Muslim Rohingya from predominantly Buddhist Myanmar.

The next section guides the visitors through the Nazi era, the Holocaust and the role of the Allies at the end of World War II before focusing on the fate of the millions of Germans who were expelled from Eastern Europe at the end of the war, often after having lived in those areas for centuries.

Black and white photo of women carrying bundles walking through a Silesian village
Trekking refugees passed through formerly German villages in northern Poland in 1946Image: picture-alliance/akg-images

The third section of the center's permanent exhibition puts this in a larger context of millions of other Europeans from Poland and Hungary who made their way westwards to the occupied zones of the four victorious powers.  

The exhibition shows the stories of displaced persons in the Allied occupation zones, such as those of the then 14-year-old Stefan Ferger, whose family had to flee northern Serbia, then part of Yugoslavia, to escape the Red Army. 

In the Soviet zone of eastern Germany alone, it has been estimated that about a quarter of all inhabitants were refugees. At first they were mostly not welcome; at a time when there were shortages and hunger everywhere.

German language map of Europe with arrows showing migration routes
The exhibition includes a map showing that after the war ethnic Germans were expelled from Eastern EuropeImage: Volker Witting/DW

'Understanding what loss means'  

It took some 22 years for the museum to be opened to the public because it was driven by a difficult question: How should Germany memorialize the plight of Germany's WWII refugees? 

It's a question that became entangled in contemporary German politics partly because one of the originators for the center was Erika Steinbach, a long-time Bundestag member for Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), who has since switched her support to the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).

From 1998 to 2014, Steinbach was the influential president of Germany's Federation of Expellees (BdV), an organization with some 1.3 million members that represent the interests of the families of Germans who fled or were expelled from Eastern Europe.

Steinbach's campaigning and pronouncements about Germany's postwar border and German families' claims on land outside it have often complicated relations with the country's eastern neighbors.

A black and white photo showing Polish refugees arriving in Germany
Refugees from the Polish territories were registered upon arrival in GermanyImage: dpa/picture alliance

Many of the expellees in West Germany later banded together in so-called Landmannschaften and other associations, most of which were notably conservative and nationalistic in political orientation.

But they represented a major constituency: In the early years of the Federal Republic of West Germany, expellees and refugees made up more than 20% of the electorate. 

In East Germany, displaced persons were called "resettlers" and initially received integration assistance. But from around 1950 onward, the subject of expulsion was virtually taboo in the GDR. 

teddy bear with only one ear and no arms sitting in a glass case
The exhibition includes objects the refugees carried with them on their way to the West, such as this well-loved teddy bearImage: Volker Witting/DW

Endless dispute about remembrance 

That the exhibition can now be opened is a small miracle. Disputes arose over the location, orientation and organization of the project, and even led to diplomatic disagreements with the Czech Republic and, above all, Poland.

Suspicions arose that the exhibition would be used by the Germans to present themselves as victims and divert attention from their guilt. 

The German Bundestag decided to establish a foundation devoted to the project in 2008, which was when Steinbach began to lose her influence.  

Still, she attended the symbolic groundbreaking ceremony for the exhibition alongside Chancellor Merkel in 2013.

"The Documentation Center is about the flight and expulsion of Germans, but also about the many other people," said Gundula Bavendamm, a scholar who is the director of the center. She sees it as a place of learning and remembrance where one principle guides everything: "Understanding what loss means." 

The exhibition is housed in Berlin's Deutschlandhaus, a 1920s building that was renovated for the purpose.

Deutschlandhaus from the outside
Berlin's Deutschlandhaus was renovated at a cost of €63 million ($75 million)Image: Markus Gröteke/Stiftung Flucht, Vertreibung, Versöhnung,

The Foundation Board of the Documentation Center includes representatives of the government, the German churches, the BfV, but also politicians like Stephan Mayer, a Bundestag member for the conservative  Christian Social Union (CSU). 

Mayer said the center is particularly close to his heart as a grandson of Germans from the Sudeten area in the Czech Republic. He told DW that the memorial contributes to the "reconciliation of the Germans with themselves." The expellees now finally have a place, he said, "where their fate, which was shared by millions, is commemorated and the process of coming to terms with this last chapter of World War II is advanced." 

When he was asked at a press conference why it took so long to establish the center, Bavendamm replied that for "painful chapters" in their history," societies often need a certain amount of time." 

The Documentation Center Flight, Expulsion, Reconciliation will be open to the public from June 23. Admission is free.

Journal Reporters: German post-WWII expellees

Volker Witting
Volker Witting Volker Witting has been a political correspondent for DW-TV and online for more than 20 years.
Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight