German-Polish Relations 'Respect for Poland Hasn't Always Been Germany's Strong Suit'
In a SPIEGEL interview, Janusz Reiter, Poland's former ambassador to Germany, discusses the negative impact on Berlin-Warsaw relations caused by Erika Steinbach, the controversial president ofthe Federation of Expellees, which represents Germans forcefully expelled from Eastern Europe after World War II.
SPIEGEL: For months, the German government has been embroiled in a dispute with the Federation of Expellees (BdV) over whether its president, Erika Steinbach, should be given a seat on the board of the planned Center Against Expulsions. How is this debate viewed in Poland?
Reiter: This is a German discussion. I wish it revolved around more than just positions and individuals. I wish the Germans would ask themselves what the word "expellee" is supposed to mean in the future, 65 years after the end of the war. The generation to which it relates is almost extinct.
SPIEGEL: In Poland, one often hears the complaint that the Germans would have put an end to a historical controversy with Israel or France, for example, much more quickly
Reiter: I understand that domestic political considerations play a role, given that the expellees do constitute a certain amount of voting potential. But a good German-Polish relationship is also something of value, and it isn't possible to please everyone in a debate like this.
SPIEGEL: Why doesn't Warsaw clearly ask Berlin to keep Ms. Steinbach out of the project?
Reiter: I think the restraint on the part of the Polish government is completely correct. All arguments have been exchanged. Berlin is aware of Warsaw's opposition, but it's up to the Germans to act.
SPIEGEL: Do the Poles feel that the Germans place a stronger emphasis on their own role as victims than on Polish suffering?
Reiter: Until 1989, our relations were overshadowed by the East-West conflict, which obscured the old national antagonism. In Germany, anti-Polish prejudices were tolerated at the time, because they seemed to be covered by the underlying anti-Communist position. Besides, there was also an old tradition of condescension toward the Poles. To this day, the average German knows nothing or very little about the fact that the Nazis didn't just commit crimes against the Jews, but also conducted an ethnic war against the Slavs. Its purpose was to destroy the national elites. In Poland, that was the key experience of the 20th century. What is still absent in the German-Polish relationship, most of all, is respect, which hasn't always been the Germans' strong suit.
SPIEGEL: Are the Poles concerned that future generations of Germans could believe that only two groups became Hitler's victims: the Jews and the expellees?
Reiter: In Poland, one often hears the charge that the Germans are trying to rewrite history. I don't believe that that's their intention. But the perception of historical events will change. Those who were part of the war generation could disagree, even to the point of antagonism, but basically everyone knew exactly what happened before 1945. This part of history is beginning to fade for current generations. What relative emphasis should now be placed on which of the many horrific experiences? The responsibility for dealing with history cannot fall into the wrong hands.
SPIEGEL: Are you troubled by the notion that the expellees could be given a stronger voice in the planned foundation, as a price for Steinbach foregoing a seat on the board?
Reiter: I'm not interested in the tactical considerations. The BdV must ask itself how it intends to treat the Poles. We could have been a partner to it. We were much further along at one time than we are today.
SPIEGEL: In what way?
Reiter: I remember the 1990s, when we even pinned hopes on the group of expellees. They were in contact with Poland, and they were not indifferent to Poland. We said: You need us, because we are upholding the cultural legacy in the former German regions of Poland, but we also need you, because you have a lot to say about this part of modern-day Poland. However, the BdV adopted an approach that led to confrontation with Poland.
SPIEGEL: Now the Berlin Center Against Expulsions is the main bone of contention. What could have been built instead?
Reiter: A German-Polish documentation and exhibition center, for example, which would examine and portray important aspects of our shared history. Expulsion would have been a part of that, but by no means exclusively.
SPIEGEL: Are the Poles willing to concede that the Germans were not just perpetrators, but in some cases were also victims?
Reiter: Are you asking whether the Poles are capable of compassion? Of course. In the 1990s, many Polish books were published about the expulsions, and there were exhibitions on the former German territories in Eastern Europe. We broke a taboo when we said: There were also Germans who suffered. That was something that couldn't be discussed in communist Poland.
SPIEGEL: The expellees say that the center is important because this issue was long considered taboo in Germany.
Reiter: The BdV is a government-funded organization, even today. I don't know how anyone can say that.
SPIEGEL: Do you fear a new ice age in German-Polish relations if the Steinbach controversy continues to rumble on?
Reiter: I hope that the controversy will end soon, because it is neither the only nor the most important aspect of our relationship.
Interview conducted by Jan Puhl. Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.