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Germany and Its World War II Victims: Historians Condemn Commemoration Day Proposal

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A new parliamentary proposal to establish a commemoration day in honor of those Germans expelled from Eastern Europe following World War II has revived an ongoing debate about Germany's 20th century history. Dozens of accomplished academics have blasted the idea in an open letter.

Displaced Germans from Eastern Europe in Berlin in 1945. Zoom
DPA

Displaced Germans from Eastern Europe in Berlin in 1945.

To an outsider, it could almost seem like just another item on a packed parliamentary calendar. Last week, Germany's federal parliament, the Bundestag -- led by Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives and her business-friendly coalition partners, the Free Democrats -- voted in favor of a proposal which could lead to the addition of another commemoration day to the German year.

But the event up for commemoration is anything but free of controversy. The day, should Merkel's cabinet choose to pursue the idea, would be in memory of the expulsion of millions of Germans from Eastern Europe in the wake of World War II. Past efforts to commemorate their suffering have reliably elicited outcries from both within Germany and abroad. Portraying Germans as victims of World War II, after all, is always a dicey proposition.

The Berlin opposition took the lead last week in blasting Merkel's conservatives. On Monday, they were joined by 68 leading historians from Germany and elsewhere in Europe, who published an open letter criticizing the idea.

Parliamentary support for such a commemoration day, the document reads, is "an incorrect historical-political signal."

'Contortion of Historical Reality'

In particular, the open letter castigates German parliamentarians for choosing to peg the commemoration day to the anniversary of the "Charter of German Expellees," a document which was signed on August 5, 1950 by representatives of German groups expelled from the east.

The charter renounces any claim to "revenge and retribution" and pledges to contribute to the postwar reconstruction of Germany and Europe. But it has long been criticized for it's shortcomings.

"In the charter, there is no word about the cause of the war, about the mass crimes of the National Socialists, about the murder of the Jews, Poles, Roma and Sinti, Soviet prisoners of war and other persecuted groups," the open letter published Monday reads. "Instead, the expellees declare themselves to be 'those most affected by the agony of the period' ... a grotesque contortion of the historical reality."

Historian Heinrich August Winkler, a professor at Humboldt University in Berlin and a signatory to the open letter, says that the proposal for a commemoration day shows a lack of sensitivity on the part of the parliamentarians whose parties form Merkel's coalition government. "I can only imagine that they either have never read the charter, or at least haven't read it with sufficient discrimination," Winkler told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

The commemoration day debate is the most recent chapter in years of squabbling over Germany's approach to those who were expelled from their homes immediately following World War II. Up to 10 million Germans were forced to leave Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and other Eastern European regions -- some of which had been German territory prior to the war. Hundreds of thousands of the expellees lost their lives as they were driven out of the countries.

Efforts by the Federation of Expellees to establish a documentation center in Berlin focusing on the expulsions have long been viewed with significant skepticism, first and foremost in Poland. There is concern that putting the spotlight on Germans who suffered as a result of the war distracts from the true victims of World War II -- those persecuted and systematically murdered by the Nazis.

A Campaign Tactic?

The authors of the Charter of German Expellees "did not take into account the entire historical context of World War II," a spokesman for the Polish Foreign Ministry said last week in response to the Berlin parliamentary proposal. "The document does not serve the interests of German-Polish reconciliation."

"There are possibilities to remember the victims of expulsions," Winkler said. "But I don't see any justification to focus exclusively on Germans because of the danger of losing sight of the context."

An expellee commemoration day is seen all the more critically given that it would receive the same status as Jan. 27: Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Why, then, did Merkel's conservatives and the FDP put forward the proposal in the first place? There are some who see campaign tactics at work. Voters are heading to the polls this year for several key regional elections and Merkel's government faces an uphill battle in many of them. Courting the expellees has long been a tried and true method in Germany of shoring up the conservative vote, not unlike Republicans in the US pandering to religious conservatives.

But given concerns abroad on the issue, it is a dangerous political card to play. And the list of respected historians from across Eastern Europe who signed Monday's open letter makes it clear that the issue remains sensitive.

Government spokesman Steffen Seibert told SPIEGEL ONLINE on Monday that, while Merkel's cabinet will take a look at the parliamentary proposal, it is guarded when it comes to a commemoration day.

Still, it would seem that the Bundestag proposal has been enough to open old wounds. "The political early warning system," says Winkler, "would seem to have failed."

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About the Center for Flight and Expulsion
Background
The German government agreed in 2008 to create a “visible symbol” against flight and expulsion in Berlin. The main element will be a documentation center that provides a historical overview of flight, expulsion and integration from World War II until the present day in Germany and Europe. The museum is to be conceived by the federal government’s Flight, Expulsion and Reconciliation Foundation, which will be a part of the German Historical Museum in Berlin. The foundation’s board will include representatives of the German parliament and federal government as well as three representatives of German expellee groups. Members of the German Federation of Expellees (BdV) called for their seat to be occupied by Erika Steinbach, their president, sparking conflict between Poland and Germany.

Controversy
Erika Steinbach initiated the idea back in 2000 as president of the German Federation of Expellees together with Peter Glotz, founder of the Center against Expulsion. Their plans generated some criticism in Germany, but the complaints from Poland and the Czech Republic were very vocal. Steinbach was accused of attempting to whitewash World War II history and present Germans as victims of the war. The German government rejected Steinbach’s plans, but it nevertheless moved to establish a Flight, Expulsion and Reconciliation Foundation that has been bestowed with responsibility for creating a museum and memorial center.

Exhibition Plans
The government plans to set up a documentation center dedicated to the memory of the expellees in Berlin. The focus of the permanent exhibition will be German expellees, but it will also look at other instances of flight and expulsion in Europe during the 20th century – including groups forced out of Germany. Temporary exhibitions are also planned.
Historical Context
At the Potsdam Conference in summer 1945, the anti-Hitler coalition agreed to the Potsdam Treaty. The area areas of German east of the Oder and Neisse rivers were placed under the administration of Poland. The East Prussia region to the north was transferred to the Soviet Union. The expatriation of the German population living in Poland (including what, up until then, had been part of Germany), Czechoslovakia and Hungary was supposed to take place in a “humane manner. Over 10 million either fled or were forced to leave their homes. At least 473,000 instances of death as people fled or were expelled have been proven. In 1950, East Germany recognized the Oder-Neisse Line as its border with Poland under the Treaty of Görlitz. As Germany reunified in 1990, Germany gave up any demands for its former eastern territories in Poland and recognized the line as the permanent German-Polish border.
Expulsion of Germans
Up until 1950, when the main wave began to ebb, several million ethic Germans had been expelled from the areas they had settled. 2.1 million from Silesia; 1.9 million from Czechoslovakia; 1.3 million from East Prussia; 891,000 from Pomerelia; 410,000 from Poland; 225,000 from Danzig (today’s Gdansk); 178,000 from Hungary; 158,000 from the Soviet Union, the Baltic States and Memel Territory; 149,000 from Romania; 148,000 from Yugoslavia; and 131,000 from East Brandenburg (in today’s western Poland). Several hundred thousand people died during the difficult trip or fell victim to soldiers of the Red Army seeking revenge.

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