Krzysztof Ruchniewicz on Polish-German Ties: Relations 'Shouldn't Be a One-Way Street'
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.
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.
- Part 1: Relations 'Shouldn't Be a One-Way Street'
- Part 2: "German is no longer considered alien"
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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.