Erika Steinbach and German Victims of WWII 'I Want the Truth, and Nothing But'

Erika Steinbach is a hated figure in Poland. She has dedicated her career to documenting the suffering of Germans expelled from Eastern Europe following World War II. SPIEGEL ONLINE spoke to her about the most recent flare up in Berlin-Warsaw relations and about what Poles must still learn about history.


When it comes to Germany's relationship with Poland, few play a greater role than the parliamentarian Erika Steinbach. A member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats, Steinbach heads up the controversial Federation of Expellees, a group dedicated to commemorating the suffering of those Germans who were thrown out of Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe following World War II.

Erika Steinbach is head of the Federation of Expellees, a group dedicated to documenting the suffering of Germans expelled from parts of Eastern Germany following World War II.
REUTERS

Erika Steinbach is head of the Federation of Expellees, a group dedicated to documenting the suffering of Germans expelled from parts of Eastern Germany following World War II.

The project is hardly free from controversy. For decades, Steinbach and her group have been promoting the creation of a center in Berlin documenting the fate of the millions expelled from their homes. For just as long, Poland has protested, horrified that some Germans might see themselves as victims of Nazi Germany.

The conflict recently came to a head once again. Even as Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk has dropped Warsaw opposition to an expellee documentation center being built in Berlin, Steinbach's nomination to the center's board proved to be too much. Many in Poland have long been skeptical of Steinbach, and Tusk joined other Polish politicians in protest. Once again, Polish-German relations threatened to suffer.

The distrust of Steinbach is hardly out of the blue. In the 1990s, she voted against accepting the Oder-Neisse line, the present-day border between Poland and Germany, and also expressed doubt about Poland's readiness to join the European Union. Polish tabloids relish in depicting her as a Nazi on their covers and have incorrectly accused her of being a Holocaust denier. More recently, Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, a former Polish foreign minister and currently the country's deputy responsible for German-Polish relations, compared Steinbach with Richard Williamson, the Catholic bishop who recently made headlines for denying the Holocaust.

In an effort to defuse the situation -- and to remove pressure that had been building on Chancellor Merkel -- Steinbach opted last week not to take her spot on the museum's board. The Federation of Expellees, though, has decided to leave the seat unoccupied.

SPIEGEL ONLINE spoke with Steinbach about her decision not to join the museum board, Poland's relationship with its history, and her position as a magnet for Polish hatred.


SPIEGEL ONLINE: Ms. Steinbach, how does it feel, being the new icon of Germany's conservatives?

Steinbach: Am I? I wasn't aware of that.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What is the tenor of the mail and calls being received in your offices?

Steinbach: Widespread approval -- and calls to remain tough and not give in. Half of our supporters are not expellees. Many identify themselves as Social Democrats, which surprised and pleased me. But even when the center for expellees was founded, Peter Glotz, the former secretary general of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), was part of it. Many cities with SPD mayors support our project.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You have met with great approval from Christian Democrats (CDU) and their Bavarian sister party, the CSU. But one fellow CDU member was long quiet on the issue: the chancellor. Did Angela Merkel let you down?

Steinbach: No. The chancellor strongly supports the foundation. She was in favor of it. I have a good and trusting relationship with Angela Merkel. But she was in a very difficult situation. The chancellor knew that the SPD members of the cabinet would not agree to my nomination (eds note: to the board of a foundation committed to building a center documenting the expulsion of Germans from Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe following World War II), and that the Poles would object. That's why she was unable to place the issue on the cabinet's agenda. I understand that. But my federation was also unwilling to put up with being politically harassed. Our self-respect is also at issue.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But you placed the chancellor under political pressure -- and forced her into the difficult situation of having to decide between your Federation of Expellees on the one hand and Germany's relationship with Poland on the other.

Steinbach: The German government was elated over the replacement of the right-wing Polish Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski with Donald Tusk in November, 2007. Tusk is a reasonable man. I have run into him twice at podium discussions. Nevertheless, Tusk remains under intense pressure in Poland. In any case, I did not pressure the chancellor. Rather, I forced the SPD to reveal how it feels about the freedom of decision of a nonprofit victim's organization.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Did the chancellor advise you to back down as you did last week?

Steinbach: No. That step was taken by my steering committee. The chancellor did not intervene. The SPD didn't want me. As a result, due to the coalition agreement with the SPD, the chancellor had no options left to push for my appointment.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: So no deal with Merkel?

Steinbach: No. Of course, the chancellor accepted it, because the project was stagnating. But any solution other than the now empty chairmanship would have been impossible to push through within the federation. The German-Polish relationship has certainly not improved in recent weeks. But this is the fault of the SPD and Polish politicians, not the Federation of Expellees. The Polish aggression I have experienced recently goes beyond what I would have expected.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How long do you intend to leave the position on the board of trustees unfilled?

Steinbach: Three weeks, three months, three years, whatever. It's a wonderful sword of Damocles. The Polish demand was that Steinbach could not be part of it. Now I am not part of it, but the chair remains unfilled. It's a solution everyone has to live with.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Steinbach's chair exists, but Steinbach isn't sitting on it.

Steinbach: No, I'm not sitting on it. Perhaps my spirit is, but the chair remains demonstratively empty!

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You criticized Foreign Minister (Frank-Walter) Steinmeier (eds note: Steinmeier is a Social Democrat and is campaigning against Merkel in autumn general elections) for not having defended you against Polish accusations, some of which came close to characterizing you as a Holocaust denier. But you could say the same thing for the chancellor. She didn't defend you, either.

Steinbach: I also happen to have a CDU heart. And Steinmeier is the foreign minister, which means it's his job.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But to the public, it looked as though Merkel was shunning one of her own.

Steinbach: Without the CDU, and without Angela Merkel, the establishment of the foundation committed to building the expellee documentation center would never have become part of the coalition agreement. The CDU/CSU parliamentary group took a positive stance toward this demand by the Federation of Expellees from the beginning. All of the states sponsoring our project are states with CDU/CSU governments.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Some Poles see your withdrawal as a maneuver.

Steinbach: Tusk has not pacified the nationalists in his country. They don't want the center at all. Naturally, the expulsions of Germans following World War II is a painful memory to many Poles. But it was also painful to us Germans, dealing with our own miserable past. This isn't easy. The post-communist countries have not completed their process of self-discovery yet. They are still holding on to their trauma and they are still holding on to their economic problems. For them, the process of finding their identity is a long way from complete.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You appear to be asking too much of the Poles, when it comes to the subject of expulsion. We Germans have, for the most part, agreed on a shared interpretation of our history. The Poles are still a long way from this sort of historic consensus. And then you come along and say: Please recognize our German expulsion.

Steinbach: But I do understand the emotions of the Poles. In the post-communist countries, it will take another 20 years for people to be at peace with themselves. It took us Germans at least as long. But if they accuse us, as a victims' rights organization, of having no interest in reconciliation, if there is no evidence of sympathy, and if the Poles constantly ignore our outstretched hand, then I don't know what else I can do. Everything I say and do is twisted into its opposite. If I sprinkle sugar on their toast, they call it salt. The Poles just have to deal with their own issues first. But they have no right to meddle in domestic German affairs and determine how we commemorate our victims.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Perhaps you are sometimes too insensitive when it comes to sensitive issues of the past? Are you capable of self-criticism?

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