More than two decades after it was proposed by the German Federation of Expellees, the Center for Flight, Expulsion, Reconciliation has finally opened in Berlin, commemorating the suffering of Germans expelled from Eastern Europe at the end of World War II.
There was good reason for the protracted wrangling over the center's location. It's housed directly opposite the preserved facade of the Anhalter Bahnhof, a train station from which tens of thousands of Jews were deported to their deaths in the concentration camps before it was destroyed in the last months of the war. There were serious concerns that, if the new center were situated here, it could become a focal point for historical revisionism.
These concerns cannot be dismissed, even now. The Czech Republic and Poland have continued to criticize the project. Their warnings are justified and deserving of respect. Partly, this is because of where the idea for the center originated in the first place.
Until well into the 1980s, there were attempts at the annual meetings of the associations of German expellees to counterbalance the suffering of German refugees and the forcibly expelled with the actions that had led to these events: the German extermination campaigns in Eastern Europe, the murder of more than 6 million European Jews and indeed the suffering inflicted by Germans on the entire continent — and the people of the former Czechoslovakia and Poland in particular.
Empathy and historical sensitivity
Human suffering, however, cannot be offset. It's good that German politicians have taken on this project and have established the Federal Foundation for Displacement, Expulsion, Reconciliation, which now runs the documentation center. Many of the country's interest groups, including the churches, are represented in the foundation.
But the creators of the center are treading on very thin ice. They are now responsible not only for the exhibitions but also for the programs that accompany them.
It's up to them to ensure that this place does indeed become a center for reconciliation. They must do so with empathy and historical sensitivity, and they will be judged on their achievements.
Many Germans, including German politicians, still don't understand that for many people — especially in Central and Eastern Europe, in Poland in particular — this historical healing process is only just beginning, three decades after the fall of the Iron Curtain and more than 75 years after the end of the war. Remarks such as the comment by Alexander Gauland, the parliamentary group co-leader of the far-right Alternative for Germany, who described the Nazi-era as mere "bird shit" within the context of Germany's otherwise "long and successful history," are repeated setbacks in the reconciliation of victims and perpetrators.
Key to lasting peace
However, reconciliation can also succeed. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, members of the associations of expellees and the homeland associations traveled to the villages and towns of their birth, in those regions east of the rivers Oder and Neisse that were once part of Germany — Silesia in southwestern Poland, for example — in order to make peace. To make peace with themselves, and with the Poles who have now found a home there, the families who were also forcibly resettled after World War II from what is now western Ukraine to Silesia, and who now live in houses that were the birthplaces of these German expellees.
Documenting this human journey, and the power it has to ease the psychological burden on all of Europe, must also be part of the program that accompanies the new Documentation Center in Berlin. It represents one of a number of keys to lasting peace on the continent.
The ethnically motivated expulsions during the wars in the former Yugoslavia, and the initial apathetic response, demonstrated that even decades after World War II, Europeans, and Germans in particular, clearly have not learned enough. We are seeing it again, now, in Ukraine. It keeps on happening. Here, too, in Europe.