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Recognizing A Common Cultural History

DW Staff (jp)September 21, 2004

At a recent symposium in Berlin, Germany's culture minister said her country's and Eastern Europe's shared cultural identity should be seen as a starting point for improving ties between countries.

Eastwards enlargement prompted Germany to reappraise the pastImage: AP

With the German-Polish relationship recently shaken by calls from both sides for reparations as a result of World War II, the symposium organized by Germany's State Secretary for Media and Culture, Christina Weiss, had a particular urgency.

Germany's shared cultural identity with eastern Europe, the focus of the symposium on Germany and its eastern neighbours, is also a matter with added relevance in the light of this year's eastwards enlargement.

"Together with our partners in Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and the Baltic States, we want to examine our history with a view to greater reconciliation and accepting our common cultural identity," said Weiss.

Not an 'us-and them' situation

Before World War II, millions of Germans were scattered across Eastern Europe, closely integrated into the economic and cultural life of Poland, the present-day Czech republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Russia and Kaliningrad. It wasn't until Germany's Nazi regime came to power that these communities largely disintegrated.

Another turning point come almost 50 years later.

"1989 marked the beginning of a new era," historian Karl Schlögel said at the symposium, adding that Germany's perception of Eastern Europe underwent a major change. "It was no longer an 'us-and-them' situation, it was about understanding. It was no longer about defending a position and exposing the mistakes of others, it was about objective assessment of the past."

Avoiding revisionism

Many at the meeting were keen to stress the importance of avoiding a revisionist vision of history.

"One can only agree with Günter Grass, who said that refusing to forget does not make anyone a revisionist," Weiss said.

It's a particularly thorny issue right now, given the recent debate surrounding the German expellees organizations' planned international lawsuits aimed at returning property and assets to ethnic Germans forced to flee Poland after World War II.

As one of the first German writers to focus on the sufferings of Germans in World War II, Grass triggered controversy in 2002 when he published the novel Crabwalk, about the 1945 sinking of a refugee carrier, the Wilhelm Gustloff, an event that cost 9,000 Germans their lives.

Short-sighted national understanding

Polish historian Anna Wolff-Poweska pointed out that after 1989, many Poles found themselves reappraising their national identity and rediscovering a certain patriotic pride, a trend that gained added momentum on the back of globalization. This renewed interest in the cultural legacy of Polish history went hand-in-hand with a growing awareness of the German community in pre-war Poland.

"The revolution in eastern Europe and the fall of the Berlin wall shed light on how short-sighted the national understanding on Poland's cultural legacy has always been," Wolff-Poweska said.

Recognizing the double-edged past

Breslau Stadtansicht mit Markt
The market square in Wroclaw/Breslau in PolandImage: transit-Archiv

Awareness is slowly changing. In the Silesian city of Breslau (photo), for example, monuments to the former German presence have been expensively restored in a bid to acknowledge its cultural legacy. It's the same story in the cities of Reval/Tallin, Königsberg/Kaliningrad and Hermannstadt/Sibiu in Transylvania, Romania.

"For some time there have been serious endeavours to recognize the double-edged past of these cities," Schlögel said. "What may have seemed impossible 10 or 20 years ago has become very normal. The relaxing of border controls and the end of Cold War animosity has made everything more accessible."

Meanwhile, the Prince Hermann von Pückler park in Bad Muskau on the River Neisse in Lausitz, separating eastern Germany and southwestern Poland, is still in the process of a restoration funded by German and Polish historical monument preservationists. Both the German and the Polish government recently submitted an application to have the park added to UNESCO's World Heritage list on account of its symbolic status.

It's one example of "what once linked (Germany and Eastern Europe) and what can link it again," Weiss said.