The World from Berlin How Far to the Right Can Germany's Conservatives Go?

Erika Steinbach, the head of a group that represents Germans expelled from Eastern Europe after World War II, has said she will leave her conservative party's leadership. Her decision comes after criticism of comments she made about Poland's role in starting the war. German commentators ask if she is becoming a Sarrazin for Angela Merkel's party.

League of Expellees head Erika Steinbach is becoming increasingly isolated within her own party.
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League of Expellees head Erika Steinbach is becoming increasingly isolated within her own party.


Thursday was a day of resignations for Germany's populist firebrands. In the evening, it became public that Islam critic Thilo Sarrazin was giving up his position on the board of Germany's central bank. Earlier that day, Erika Steinbach, the woman who has done for German-Polish relations what Sarrazin has done for attitudes towards immigration, announced she would be leaving her seat on the national management committee of her party, the conservative Christian Democratic Union.

Steinbach, 67, announced her decision after being heavily criticized for remarks she made about Poland's role in World War II. During a meeting of the management committee of the CDU's parliamentary group on Wednesday, she said she couldn't change the fact that Poland had mobilized its forces in March 1939 -- in other words, months before Germany invaded in September 1939. She was subsequently accused of implying that Poland shared responsibility for starting World War II, a charge she later denied.

Steinbach is the president of the League of Expellees, which represents the interests of ethnic Germans expelled from parts of Poland, the Czech Republic and elsewhere in Eastern Europe after World War II. Her remark was intended to defend two of the group's functionaries, Arnold Tölg and Hartmur Saenger, who have made controversial comments about World War II.

Tölg and Saenger, who are both members of the CDU, were recently appointed to the board of trustees of the Flight, Expulsion and Reconciliation Foundation, which is overseeing a government-backed museum project in Berlin to document the plight of the expellees. Both have been accused of historical revisionism, with opposition politicians calling for the men to be removed from their new positions. Germany's Central Council of Jews recently suspended its involvement with the foundation in protest against statements by the two men.

At Wednesday's meeting, Steinbach was defending the men against criticism from Bernd Neumann, a senior CDU member who is the government's commissioner for culture. Neumann had criticized remarks Tölg and Saenger had made about World War II.

Steinbach's comments about Polish mobilization in turn sparked a storm of criticism. German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle strongly condemned Steinbach's remark, saying it was "not acceptable." He accused her of damaging Germany's image abroad. Other members of the CDU also criticized Steinbach's statement, as did opposition parties.

'Increasingly Isolated'

Then, on Thursday, Steinbach told the newspaper Die Welt that she would no longer run as a candidate for her party's national management committee, after 10 years on the board. She said she was only on the board as a "token" member of the party's right wing and that she was no longer prepared to play that role. "I represent the conservatives there, but I find myself increasingly isolated," she said.

In the interview, Steinbach also warned her party about its current direction. "My CDU is not on the right path," she said. "You don't attract voters by making compromises."

Steinbach's comments on Polish mobilization are just the latest in a series of controversial remarks she has made over the years. The politician has been deeply unpopular in Poland since 1991, when, as a member of the German parliament, she voted against the recognition of the Oder-Neisse line as Poland's western border. She also later voiced reservations about the country's accession to the European Union.

Both Sarrazin and Steinbach pose problems for their respective parties. The center-left Social Democratic Party, to which Sarrazin -- somewhat improbably -- belongs, has initiated proceedings to expel the outspoken author from the party. Steinbach is more of a challenge for the CDU, however. She represents the expellees' lobby, which have been staunch supporters of the CDU for decades. Should the CDU expel her, it would risk alienating voters from its right wing.

Commentators writing in Germany's main newspapers on Friday take a look at Steinbach's situation, with several editorialists choosing to explore the parallels with Sarrazin.

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"The cases of Sarrazin and Steinbach may be different in many respects, but they are similar in at least one point: Like Sarrazin, Steinbach is challenging her party to show its true colors. Both are claiming the right to freedom of expression. In reality, the debate is about the question of where the limits are in terms of political viewpoints that can be represented within Germany's two main political parties (the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats)."

"Steinbach's statement does not come out of the blue, rather from the part of the political spectrum where the politician has been located for a long time -- in other words, pretty far to the right. Not so far to the right, however, that she would deny Germany's responsibility for the outbreak of World War II."

"Steinbach has made ambiguous statements before, only to claim afterwards that she was maliciously misinterpreted. This time, it will be difficult for her to do that. Steinbach is siding with those who like to give Poland part of the blame for starting World War II … . She is allowed to do so. She is even allowed to make crude remarks about 20th century history. The only question is how long the CDU will continue to shelter her."

The left-leaning Die Tageszeitung writes:

"Will Erika Steinbach become for the CDU what Thilo Sarrazin is for the SPD? At first glance, it looks like she will. Both have deliberately provoked with their right-leaning ideas, which they then claim have been misinterpreted. ... It is no coincidence that Steinbach has ardently defended Sarrazin. Both of them are playing a similar game, at the end of which they always make themselves out to be the victims of a narrow-minded public."

"That, however, is the extent of the similarities. Sarrazin is a dogmatist who mainly represents himself. Steinbach represents the influential expellees associations, which have formed a reliable source of support for the CDU for decades. The connection between the CDU and the League of Expellees was for a long time practically symbiotic. This symbiosis is now dissolving, as Steinbach's statement yesterday clearly shows. The conservatives are splitting into a reasonably open-minded section and a dreary reactionary part -- a process that Steinbach herself has accelerated."

The conservative Die Welt writes:

"Erika Steinbach has always supported European reconciliation. Why, then, is she now dealing with historical issues in a way that is more typical of certain Balkan countries? This is not 'conservative' in the sense of the CDU. Therefore, Steinbach is right to withdraw from the national management committee. The CDU now has to think about the balance between legitimate freedom of expression and its role as part of the government. They should, however, give Erika Steinbach time to reconsider what she has done."

The Financial Times Deutschland writes:

"Erika Steinbach could not resist: When criticism of her remarks started getting louder, she came out with a phrase that has been heard increasingly often (i.e. in the debate triggered by Sarrazin) in Germany recently: 'One should surely be allowed to say ...' This is an insidious position. It implies that freedom of expression is being suppressed in Germany, which is clearly not the case -- as Thilo Sarrazin's tour of the TV talk shows has clearly demonstrated. Expressing steadfast opposition (to a point of view) does not equal repression. On the contrary, it is the most visible sign of free speech, especially in the case of extreme views."

"Expelling Steinbach from the CDU's parliamentary group, or even from the party itself, as some people are advocating, would therefore be counterproductive. It would stifle any rational debate on the issues and it would turn Steinbach -- like the provocateur Sarrazin -- into a martyr for freedom of expression. Of course, Steinbach should be allowed to say that the Poles mobilized their army at the end of March 1939, just as Sarrazin should be allowed to spout his nonsense about the supposedly stupid lower classes. By the same token, however, opposition to those views must also be allowed -- especially from within their own parties."

The left-leaning Berliner Zeitung writes:

"These days, both of Germany's major parties have their hands full trying to cope with their right wings. The CDU has found the more elegant solution: Erika Steinbach is stepping down by herself. The SPD will probably spend months dealing with Thilo Sarrazin. Maybe that's good. Drawing the line is one thing -- what's more difficult is deciding where it should go. That will require a lot of debate and conflict within the parties. Views that were not only tolerated for decades, but that were even encouraged, can not simply be eradicated with a stroke of the pen."

"But why has hardly anyone from within the CDU opposed Steinbach over the years? The long silence has been followed by a sudden downfall -- and that will be followed by another silence. The leper will be kicked out, and the ranks will close again. Instead of debate and transparency, forced unity will prevail. It is a fatal cycle of self-deception."

-- David Gordon Smith

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