Expellee Scuffle Merkel Caught in a Warsaw-Berlin Vice

Once again, Berlin and Warsaw are arguing about the legacy of Germans expelled from Poland following World War II. This time, Chancellor Merkel finds herself at the center of the row -- not a good place to be in an election year.


Chancellor Angela Merkel, one might think, has enough on her plate this year. Saving the economy from collapse has become a fulltime job and, soon, her campaign for re-election in the September vote will become a priority.

Erika Steinbach, head of the Federation of Expellees, is unloved in Poland.
REUTERS

Erika Steinbach, head of the Federation of Expellees, is unloved in Poland.

But now she's got a new worry brewing. Once again, the issue of how to remember those Germans expelled from Poland following World War II has come to the fore. Merkel only his two choices available to her. She can either side with the expellees, which could do serious damage to Berlin's relations with Warsaw. Or, she could decide in favor of German-Polish relations and risk alienating the conservative wing of her party just months before the general elections. So far, the chancellor has opted to do nothing at all.

The thorn currently working its way into Merkel's side has a name: Erika Steinbach. She is the president of the Federation of Expellees, a group dedicated to remembering the plight of Germans forced out of parts of Eastern Europe following the defeat of Nazi Germany. For years, Steinbach has been lobbying for the creation of a museum in Berlin documenting the expulsions.

Poles, though, have long been skeptical of Steinbach's group, suspecting it of being revanchist. They point to the fact that Steinbach called the current border between Germany and Poland, referred to as the Oder-Neisse line, into question in the 1990s. Steinbach also voiced doubts as to whether Poland should become a member of the European Union before its accession in 2004. On the other hand, Poland reacts strongly whenever Germans appear to be presenting themselves as victims of World War II.

Merkel, of course, thought the problem had been solved. Once Donald Tusk took over as Polish prime minister in late 2007 from the deeply conservative -- and German skeptical -- Jaroslaw Kaczynski, tensions between Berlin and Warsaw began to dissipate. Poland gave up its vociferous opposition to any kind of expellee monument and Merkel's government decided on building a museum in Berlin.

But there was a hitch. As a condition for its agreement, Warsaw said it didn't want Steinbach to have anything to do with the monument. Now, though, the foundation in charge of building the documentation center has nominated Steinbach to take a place on its board of directors. Poland is protesting, the conservative wing of the chancellor's Christian Democrats supports Steinbach, and the final decision is Merkel's to make.

Recent cross-border rhetorical fisticuffs have been making the issue even more difficult for Merkel. On Monday of this week, Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, a Polish official in charge of his country's relations with Germany and himself a survivor of the Holocaust, reiterated that Warsaw couldn't accept Steinbach's presence on the foundation's board. "That would be like the Vatican nominating the Holocaust-denier Bishop Williamson to take charge of relations with Israel," he said.

Steinbach was quick to retort. "What the Polish government is doing is nothing other than blackmail," she told the newspaper Passauer Neue Presse on Thursday. She insisted that her group would not withdraw her candidacy for the board. And she has received support from politicians within Merkel's party. "Ms. Steinbach is being treated unfairly," said CDU deputy floor leader Wolfgang Bosbach, for example. A similar message can be heard from the Christian Social Union, the CDU's Bavarian sister party. "Ms. Merkel must decide quickly," said former Bavarian governor Günther Beckstein.

A press release on the Web site of the conservatives' parliamentary group takes Bartoszewski to task for the tone of his comments saying that his comment is "an outrageous defamation."

Government sources have told SPIEGEL that the chancellor is not at all pleased by the tone of the back-and-forth as it makes a compromise more difficult. For now, though, she is playing for time. She can certainly delay making a decision for now. But it will likely be difficult for her to avoid the issue entirely until after the September elections, as would be her preference. Merkel is scheduled to speak at an annual expellee gathering on August 22 in Berlin. Steinbach will no doubt be expecting Merkel to take a clear stand.

Tusk too is watching the situation closely. Should Steinbach emerge victorious, the Polish prime minister will find himself in a difficult position domestically. There are many who are suspect of his conciliatory tone toward Berlin, even apart from the Steinbach issue. Were she to end up on the foundation board, it would be seen as a failure of Tusk's more open policy on German-Polish relations.

After all, many in Warsaw say that Germany hasn't done enough to keep Steinbach and her group in check. "Steinbach could have been made the Malaysian ambassador, or the CDU could have pushed her out of the leadership of the Federation of Expellees for the sake of German-Polish relations," says Piotr Semka, an influential Polish journalist. "We now know that our goodwill is not returned in Berlin."

cgh, with reporting by Ralf Neukirch and Jan Puhl

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