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Reconciliation Instead of Reparation

Elena Beier (sp)
October 18, 2004

As tension simmers between Germany and Poland over World War II compensation claims, a German journalist is trying to bring reason to the impassioned debate by urging ethnic Germans to relinquish their claims.

Expelled ethnic Germans from Poland arrive in GermanyImage: dpa

On Monday, senior lawmakers from Germany and Poland met in a bid to defuse tensions between the two countries over World War II compensation claims.

Speaking ahead of the talks, Jozef Oleksy, speaker of the Polish lower house of parliament, said the question of compensation "is inevitable, but it is not the main issue" and that German-Polish ties "cannot be reduced to the problem of reparations."

Despite the optimism, there's no denying that the issue has strained relations between the two neighbors.

Zahlreiche Kinder sind unter den Vertriebenen, die am 03.03.1950 aus polnischen Internierungslagern im Lager Friedland eintreffen.
Numerous children were among the ethnic Germans expelled from a Polish detention camp to Germany in 1950.Image: dpa

An estimated 2.5 million ethnic Germans were expelled or fled from Poland shortly before the end of World War II. Many of them who lost property and homes when Poland's borders shifted westwards after the war are calling for compensation from Poland through organizations and lawyers.

The issue has created huge resentment in Poland, particularly since the country's entry to the European Union last May. Most Poles believe that the German losses pale into insignificance compared to the deaths of more than six million Poles after Adolf Hitler's army invaded the country in 1939.

A breath of fresh air

The debate, which is marked by high emotions and painful memories of the survivors and their families, has often taken on a bitter tone with some ethnic Germans threatening to take their claims for repatriations to Polish and European courts.

The fate of the expelled ethnic German refugees from Eastern Europe is occasionally exploited by different groups to extract political mileage.

But, now a new book by German journalist and Poland expert Helga Hirsch has been hailed as a breath of fresh air in the ongoing debate. Called "Schweres Gepäck" or "Heavy Baggage", the book completely avoids the thorny issue of reparations and instead allows the children and grandchildren of seven ethnic German families expelled from Poland, to express their feelings and memories on the subject.

The result is a very personal and yet sober account of persons, who often have no own memories of expulsion and flight, but who still suffer under the burden of searching for their own identities.

Breaking the silence

Hirsch, whose own father came from present-day Poland, told Deutsche Welle that the most difficult thing about the issue was breaking the silence over it. "A fair punishment for the suffering that Germany caused in Europe" is how many children of expelled ethnic Germans who grew up in postwar Germany came to view and accept the issue, Hirsch said. Germans were simply not viewed as victims, she added.

Hirsch, who's aware that she's treading controversial ground with her book, said that a further problem when it came to the issue was the fact that for a long time in Germany there was a process of coming to grips with collective guilt, but not with suffering.

"Today's generation as opposed to the 1968 one, has a general tendency to look carefully at their own families and try to determine what's there," said Hirsch. "We've now learnt that both guilt and suffering can co-exist in a family. It demands great psychological skills to endure this ambivalence -- and I experience it as a great progress."

An important contribution

Sudetendeutsche werden aus Tschechoslowakei vertrieben
Sudeten Germans refugees wait to board one of the trains at Klingenthal station in Czechoslovakia in Sept. 1938Image: AP

The book is seen as an important contribution to the ongoing dispute between both Germany and Poland as well as Germany and the Czech Republic.

Hirsch, however, is clear that not all ethnic Germans support the idea of demanding reparations. She has thus also started a signature campaign against compensation claims and so far managed to get 70 prominent ethnic German expellees on board.

"I find it (demand for compensation) horrible in our relationship to Poland and I want to make a public gesture that those demanding reparations aren't all the ethnic Germans," Hirsch said. "For Poland the issue is important… and I notice when I'm there that such a gesture from the Germans gives an important signal to the Poles: We respect and consider your fears."

Hirsch said she hoped the process of coming to grips with the suffering of the expelled ethnic Germans would someday take hold in Poland and the Czech Republic too. But she remained clear that the process should in no manner be driven by the German side.

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