Krzysztof Ruchniewicz on Polish-German Ties: Relations 'Shouldn't Be a One-Way Street'

By Uwe Klußmann

More than 65 years after the end of World War II, tensions can still flare up between Germany and Poland. In a SPIEGEL interview, Polish historian Krzysztof Ruchniewicz discusses the postwar "resettlement" of ethnic Germans, improving relations between Germans and Poles and changing attitudes toward the German past of many Polish towns and cities.

Photo Gallery: Poland, Germany and the "Resettlement" Issue Photos
Corbis

SPIEGEL: Professor Ruchniewicz, although international law now recognizes the border between Germany and Poland, it is open because both countries are members of the open-borders Schengen area. Are Germans and Poles now just normal neighbors?

Krzysztof Ruchniewicz: Yes, we are completely normal neighbors in Europe. For decades, we were separated by the Cold War and by this border that practically doesn't exist anymore. Cross-border exchanges are on the rise, and divided towns -- such as Görlitz and Zgorzelec -- are growing together again.

SPIEGEL: The exodus of ethnic Germans from areas east of the Oder-Neisse Line from 1945 onwards is viewed as expulsion in Germany but as more of a resettlement in Poland. How would you describe it?

Ruchniewicz: In Poland, the term "expulsion" is rarely used in this context. Rather, people distinguish between three different migratory processes that are lumped together under a single banner -- "expulsion" -- in Germany. These three processes are: the flight of a large proportion of the population ahead of the advancing Soviet army in the spring of 1945; the expulsions that took place between the end of the war in May (1945) and the Potsdam Conference held by the Allies in August 1945; and the resettlement that was decided upon at that conference. For a long time, Poles weren't particularly interested in the way ethnic Germans were resettled.

SPIEGEL: Still, ethnic Germans were only given a few hours to leave their homes, and they weren't allowed to take more than 20 kilograms (44 pounds) of luggage with them.

Ruchniewicz: Although the resettlement is viewed as having been necessary, most Poles now criticize the way it was handled. At the time, Poland had to absorb about 1.5 million people from the eastern part of the country, which the Soviet Union had annexed. Apart from that, given the way they had been treated during the occupation of Poland and World War II itself, most Poles were no longer willing to work alongside ethnic Germans.

SPIEGEL: The "de-Germanization," as it was officially known, of what is now western Poland after 1945 had a significant impact on the region. How familiar are today's Poles with the German history of their own towns and cities?

Ruchniewicz: In the years immediately following the War, "Polonization" was pursued very deliberately. It even got to the point where, in the early 1950s, post offices were instructed to send back mail addressed to "Breslau" because the city no longer existed after having been renamed Wroclaw. Those days are over. The municipal authorities have done a great deal over the last two decades to recognize this great city's past. The authorities now want to foster an image of Wroclaw as an open, multicultural city. A number of academic books, as well as ones aimed at a more general audience, have been published on the city's history. There are very active efforts to establish contact with people who once lived in the city. The local media also do a lot to popularize the past, and the many websites devoted to Wroclaw's history testify to just how popular the city's history has become. Likewise, many monuments and commemorative plaques remind people of the past, and a new exhibit on the city's history has been extremely popular.

SPIEGEL: Just how present are the Nazi atrocities in the minds of today's Poles?

Ruchniewicz: About 20 percent of today's Polish population has conscious memories of World War II. Poland lost almost 6 million people in the war, and many of the survivors still bear the physical and emotional scars of the war and their country's occupation. However, people also remember that Poland was pushed westward, that there was a second occupation, by Russia, between 1939 and 1941, and that the country became a Soviet satellite state after 1945.

SPIEGEL: How do you rate the way Germany deals with its Nazi past?

Ruchniewicz: Postwar Germany has taken a very critical view of the Nazi regime. You can see that to this day, for example, in the debate over the (wartime activities of) Germany's Foreign Ministry . Likewise, we mustn't forget that the debate has only been conducted in both halves of Germany since the country was reunified 20 years ago.

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1.
BTraven 02/21/2011
Germans drove themselves away by starting the war and annexing parts of Poland, Lodz for example, where they had displaced Poles who were given, if at all, just a few just minutes to pack their suitcases. German families moved in the furnished flats. The same happened later, however, the Germans left their flats and farms voluntarily which may sound quite harsh when you consider that women knew they would probably be raped by Soviet soldiers. Goebels propaganda department managed to produce a newsreel where killed civil Germans who had lived in a small village the Wehrmacht conquered back were shown. It caused the hysteria necessary for the Nazis to keep up the fighting spirit of Germans. That fear played an important role in the defence – the German pockets in the east were hold so long because of the refugees who had to be evacuated. By the way Berlin was not evacuated when the Russians approached the town. At least Poland did not need to set up a decree which demanded the expulsion of Germans – almost all had left the new parts of Poland. Maybe it was different in the area around Stettin a town close to the border. And do not forget that during the 70s and 80s many ethnic Germans left the country for Germany. Many Germany top football players were still born in Poland. I think there is a lot of hypocrisy in the questions. Some of them are hard to answer for a Pole. But Mr. Ruchniewicz preferred to be polite instead which is typical of the Polish character.
2. polish-german border
aanna 02/21/2011
Mr Ruchniewicz!! Let's give back to Germans what is their's in your, as well as their, opinion
3.
BTraven 02/23/2011
Zitat von aannaMr Ruchniewicz!! Let's give back to Germans what is their's in your, as well as their, opinion
Is he a traitor?
4.
aanna 02/24/2011
Zitat von BTravenIs he a traitor?
I wouldn't call him a traitor but a man with disregard for the polish history and for the suffering of six milion people who perished during the german regime in Poland. And yes, I have deliberately used the term german regime , not nazi regime. Nazis took power in Germany not by any military coup but in democratic elections and were very eagerly backed up not only by rich and influential people in Germany but by the vast majority of german citizens. It can be very clearly seen in many documentaries dealing with their taking power in which crowds in the streets are simply ecstatic when Hitler and his henchmen are delivering their speeches.And what's the worst in all this, german war criminals in most cases avoided any responsibility and punishment for the atrocities they committed on polish soil. So I think that such a man as Mr Ruchniewicz should express more respect for the history of his country and has no right to speak on belhaf of all Poles. That doesn't mean that the reconciliation between Germans and Poles is impossible. But for reconciliation the good will of both sides is much needed. And I can't see such a good will on german side. I can't understand for example how in the country with such a past as german's and in the 21 st century, neo-nazi party has been allowed to operate quite legally , can take part in local and maybe even general elections, arrange various marches with the protection of the police forces. They are after all Hitler's successors, they worship him, his henchmen and his ideology. For me it's a disgrace. Maybe they are only a fringe group at present but we sholudn't forget that in 1920th they were also a fringe group and what happened? So we never know what the future has in store and should be constantly on guard. And don't tell me that we have democracy and everybody has a right to express their opinion.It is a very comfortable justification but in certain cases a very hypocritical one . Democracy should also have its limits.
5.
BTraven 02/28/2011
Zitat von aannaI wouldn't call him a traitor but a man with disregard for the polish history and for the suffering of six milion people who perished during the german regime in Poland. And yes, I have deliberately used the term german regime , not nazi regime. Nazis took power in Germany not by any military coup but in democratic elections and were very eagerly backed up not only by rich and influential people in Germany but by the vast majority of german citizens. It can be very clearly seen in many documentaries dealing with their taking power in which crowds in the streets are simply ecstatic when Hitler and his henchmen are delivering their speeches.And what's the worst in all this, german war criminals in most cases avoided any responsibility and punishment for the atrocities they committed on polish soil. So I think that such a man as Mr Ruchniewicz should express more respect for the history of his country and has no right to speak on belhaf of all Poles. That doesn't mean that the reconciliation between Germans and Poles is impossible. But for reconciliation the good will of both sides is much needed. And I can't see such a good will on german side. I can't understand for example how in the country with such a past as german's and in the 21 st century, neo-nazi party has been allowed to operate quite legally , can take part in local and maybe even general elections, arrange various marches with the protection of the police forces. They are after all Hitler's successors, they worship him, his henchmen and his ideology. For me it's a disgrace. Maybe they are only a fringe group at present but we sholudn't forget that in 1920th they were also a fringe group and what happened? So we never know what the future has in store and should be constantly on guard. And don't tell me that we have democracy and everybody has a right to express their opinion.It is a very comfortable justification but in certain cases a very hypocritical one . Democracy should also have its limits.
I’m not familiar with the expressions Poles use to describe the time when they were occupied by the Germans, however, after reading your first paragraph it occurred to me that we tend to express one condition with two different phrases – we often say that France was occupied by Germans while Poland was subjugated by Nazi Germany. That we do not use the word nazi to name the occupation in France has something do with the behaviour of Germans there, of course. It was brutal, and Jews were deported and gassed too, however, it was not so terrible and inhuman that for the sane of national psyche and self-confidence the nazis had to been made responsible for the sufferings of natives. So resorting to the nazis makes it much easier to distance from the crimes Germans did. It’s difficult to find arguments which would disprove your reasoning. Had Germany been a democracy only the war against the Soviet Union would have caused the displacement of Hitler. At least, the occupation would have been much less cruel. I find Mr Ruchniewicz’s statements are subjective, totally against the cliché we have about Poles namely that they are very proud of the history of their country, especially the time when they had to deal with the Germans. Therefore I asked. I think he is the first person I know who has criticised his country so harshly. In some points he maybe right though he missed to explain why it happened. As long as many people see it as their obligation to prevent manifestations of neo-nazis, for example by blocking them to reach the places where the demonstrations start or by organising protest meetings, we do not need to think that nazis could grow out their fringe group existence. It is a long way to become a party which is capable of getting 10, let alone 25 percent of votes. Times have changed, of course. The only problem I have is that German justice seems to be in favour of nazis. It’s much more likely that it supports nazis than leftist activists. That is a pity. By the way the renaissance of nazism is not just limited to Germany. In Russia whose population suffered as much as your during WWII neo-nazis get a lot of support of population, especially young people are attracted by their ideology. It seems to me that Poland belongs to the few countries in Europe where neo-nazism does not play any role. Great prospects for your country.
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About Krzysztof Ruchniewicz

Krzysztof Ruchniewicz, 43, is the director of the Willy Brandt Center for German and European Studies at the University of Wroclaw in Poland. He is the author of numerous publications on German-Polish relations. Since the end of 2010, he has also served as a member of the scientific advisory board of the Foundation Flight, Expulsion, Reconciliation in Berlin, whose mandate is to create a permanent exhibition on the expulsion of millions of Germans from Eastern Europe at the end of World War II. Few issues in postwar Europe have been as divisive in Polish-German relations than that of the expellees.

Earlier this week, Ruchniewicz co-signed a letter written by 68 leading historians from Germany and elsewhere Europe criticizing a vote by the German parliament that could move forward a proposal to create a commemoration day in Germany in memory of the expulsions. Their specific criticism is that the German parliamentarians with Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative government pegged the commemoration to August 5, the same day in 1950 that representatives of German groups expelled in the east signed the "Charter of German Expellees" in 1950.

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 its 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 or other persecuted groups," the letter reads. "Instead, the expellees declare themselves to be 'those affected by the agony of the period' ... a grotesque contortion of the historical reality."

SPIEGEL conducted this interview with Ruchniewicz prior to the release of the open letter on Monday.

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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