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Poland Rejects Berlin Expellee Center

Hardy Graupner (win)August 16, 2005

As German conservative chancellor candidate Angela Merkel met Polish leaders in Warsaw Tuesday, a debate about a controversial center against war-time expulsions to be built in Berlin is entering yet another round.

Despite differences, Kwasniewski (right) was happy to see MerkelImage: AP

The center -- a memorial for people displaced during World War II -- is the idea of Germany's League of Expellees and enjoys the official support of Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), while Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's ruling Social Democratic coalition and eastern European governments are strictly opposed to it.

Shortly before Angela Merkel's departure for Warsaw, the CDU's spokesman for European affairs, Peter Hintze, confirmed his party's support for the Berlin center which in his eyes would commemorate the fate of the millions of Germans who back in 1945 were driven from formerly German areas given to Poland by Stalin at the end of World War II.

Hintze said the center -- which is to be housed in a former Catholic church in Berlin, according to news reports -- would remind people of the tragedy that large-scale

expulsions entailed, but at the same time would promote reconciliation between Germans, Poles and other eastern Europeans.

Zahlreiche Kinder sind unter den Vertriebenen, die am 03.03.1950 aus polnischen Internierungslagern im Lager Friedland eintreffen.
Germans arrived from Poland as late as 1950Image: dpa

He added that he sees the future center embedded in an all-European network of remembrance and said he hoped that talks on this issue in Warsaw between Angela Merkel and Polish leaders would be fruitful.

"We believe that it's a good idea for Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic and other European countries to try and come to terms with the history of the 20th century in a joint effort," he said. "A center in Berlin could contribute to reminding people of the horrors of that century, including the genocides, dictatorships and large-scale expulsions. Angela Merkel stands for addressing controversial issues openly, and I think that's a far better way of achieving progress than simply sweeping such issues under the carpet."

"Our attitude is negative"

Vertriebene aus Polen bei ihrer Ankunft in Deutschland.
German refugeesImage: dpa

But Polish President Alexander Kwasniewski does not intend to give up his opposition to a center against expulsions based in Berlin. He -- like many other Poles -- has the impression that some Germans would like to revise history and see Germans predominantly as victims rather than perpetrators.

Ahead of his meeting with Merkel, Kwasnieswki said on Polish radio that people should not forget who started the war in the first place.

"Our attitude to the center for the displaced in Berlin is negative," Kwasniewski said while praising Merkel's strong opposition to compensation claims by the displaced.

"She takes a very clear position, we can only welcome it," Kwasniewski said.

He also stressed the importance of Merkel's visit to Poland.

"Angela Merkel's visit, coming after her visit to France, is symbolic," he said. "It shows that the probable future chancellor of the German Federal Republic considers Poland to be a serious partner."

A European center impossible?

Kwasniewski acknowledged that it's important to come to terms with history. But in his view the issue of expulsions should best be highlighted in a joint European project.

German Social Democratic Party member Peter Glotz argued that this is not possible right now.

SPD-Politiker und Medienwissenschaftler Peter Glotz
Peter GlotzImage: AP

"I think that a joint European project is simply unrealistic," he said. "What we've seen from talks in this direction so far is that you can perhaps get the various players at one table, but there's no common ground as to what such a center should be like and what it should symbolize. The Poles for instance would like to turn such a centre into a general site against war and not push the issue of expulsions into the foreground at all. In a nutshell, there've been many talks on the issue, resulting in various protocols and declarations of intent, but there's been no progress in the matter at all. Time, he concludes, is not yet ripe for such a joint effort."

Zentrum gegen Vertreibungen Erika Steinbach
Erika SteinbachImage: AP

Cesary Gmyz, who writes for the Polish weekly Wprost said Polish resentments towards the Berlin center emanate not least from the fact that Erika Steinbach, the head of the arch-conservative German League of Expellees has pushed the idea so much in recent months.

"The problem is that Steinbach is behind the idea of the Berlin center," he said. "And she's got a bad reputation throughout Poland. She hasn't said anything yet on the nature of such a center. Will it come in the form of a museum or a scientific research center, or something else? We just don't know in Poland which makes it even more difficult to warm to such an idea."