Documentation Center Debate 'Expellees Paid a Higher Price for Crimes of Third Reich'

Preparations are currently underway in Germany for the opening of a museum that will commemorate Germans who were displaced after the country's borders were redrawn in the wake of World War II. SPIEGEL spoke to the director of the government-backed foundation about plans for the museum and the controversies surrounding it that have strained German-Polish relations.

By and Hans-Ulrich Stoldt


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Photo Gallery: Germany Moves Ahead with Expellee Museum

SPIEGEL: Mr. Kittel, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle opposes the inclusion of Christian Democratic Union (CDU) politician Erika Steinbach on your foundation's board. The Federation of Expellees, however, is insisting that Steinbach, their president, be appointed. Do you see a solution?

Kittel: We're waiting for a wise decision to emerge from the political arena, hopefully as soon as possible. The law stipulates who approves board members -- namely the German chancellor's cabinet. I have to live with this solution, regardless of what difficulties led up to it and regardless of whether I'm happy or not so happy with it.

SPIEGEL: Isn't the debate over Steinbach putting a strain on the plan to establish a documentation center about the flight and expulsion of Germans from Eastern Europe after World War II?

Kittel: Of course the controversy isn't advantageous, especially in the start-up phase. So in recent months, we've focused our work inward. We appointed an scientific advisory council, including experts from Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary. And we will engage curators to design the exhibit with me. We want to begin holding events on the topic of flight and expulsion in 2010.

SPIEGEL: Polish historian Tomasz Szarota resigned as a scientific advisor, criticizing your organization's concept and the composition of the foundation's boards.

Kittel: Mr. Szarota's resignation is a strange occurrence. The concept he criticized hasn't changed one bit since he accepted his appointment to the advisory council in July. The composition of the boards has also remained essentially the same since then. Of course, the foundation continues to be interested in having a Polish historian participate on our international advisory board.

SPIEGEL: The Federation of Expellees has threatened to withdraw from the board completely. Is the entire project in danger of failing apart?

Kittel: I don't think so. The whole thing is too well established as a governmental project for that. If the seat claimed by Ms. Steinbach remains unfilled at first, it won't impair the board's legal ability to act. The board draws from a broad spectrum of society, with representatives from politics and different religious denominations. Admittedly, however, it would be somewhat absurd to push ahead with the project against the resistance of organizations that represent expellees.

SPIEGEL: There have been suggestions that your foundation could receive additional funds for the documentation center in Berlin if Erika Steinbach withdraws ...

Kittel: ... I don't want to engage in such speculation. The director of any institution would be glad to see his or her organization receive additional funds. The center is important for Germany's culture of remembrance.

SPIEGEL: Poland and other Eastern European countries are afraid that Germany's guilt will be qualified -- with a documentation center for German expellees located near the Holocaust Memorial.

Kittel: We try to respect our neighbors' concerns in our work. The documentation center won't rewrite history or blur the historical causes and context. Nothing will be relativized here. The planned permanent exhibit will also cover events throughout Europe. In addition, we plan to include a look at expulsion around the world -- through temporary exhibits, for example.

SPIEGEL: Why does Germany need a central documentation center at all? The topic is covered in various exhibits and books, and there's no shortage of films on the subject either.

Kittel: That has only been the case recently, motivated not least by discussions surrounding the center. There was a significant lack before. Expellees sometimes felt they were being expelled a second time -- this time from the public memory. The western German majority culture kept its distance from the expellees and their culture of remembrance. Some critics even spoke of a certain ghettoization.

SPIEGEL: When was that precisely? Annual commemorative events held by expellees and their descendents used to carry far more meaning in Germany than they do today, and commitments from politicians were never lacking.

Kittel: Yes, but those political commitments were often half-hearted. Many people saw the loss of Germany's eastern territories, and not without reason, as the historical price that had to be paid for the terrible things that were done in the name of Germans and perpetrated by Germans themselves. No one wanted to touch on the injustice of the expulsion. The expellees, however, did so. There's a connection between the difficulty in dealing with Nazi crimes and the indifference toward expellees. Many people probably longed simply to put both things behind them.

SPIEGEL: The integration of expellees was long seen as one of Germany's great success stories.

Kittel: It was certainly a success story, but one with significant downsides. Reconciliation within the population didn't work so well from the outset and many things went fundamentally wrong. It's no accident that many prejudices that existed toward Slavic people were transferred after 1945 to German expellees -- not only in West Germany but also in the Soviet occupied zone and East Germany. The expellees there were known simply as "the other Russians."

SPIEGEL: Can the center heal these wounds?

Kittel: Expellees have paid a higher price for the crimes of the Third Reich than the portion of the German population that was not expelled and the country should recognize this fact. We should also remember more clearly to what degree the German east shaped our culture, doing this as a productive grieving process together with the people who now live in those regions.

Interview conducted by Jan Friedmann and Hans-Ulrich Stoldt. Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein.

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mae 12/31/2009
1. Cause and reaction
Will the exhibit also tell why they were expelled. In other words will it give the whole story. Just talking about the expulsions while forgetting the events that caused the expulsion is a distortion of history. After all it was Germany's aggression towards its eastern neighbors that caused this expulsion. The bottom line is that it was the German government of that time (nazis) which enjoyed the support of millions & millions of Germans (when the war was on going on favorably for Germany) that is to blame for the expulsions. No aggression, no expulsion.
Insulaner 12/31/2009
2. Revisionism vs. Remembrance
Zitat von sysopPreparations are currently underway in Germany for the opening of a museum that will commemorate Germans who were displaced after the country's borders were redrawn in the wake of World War II. SPIEGEL spoke to the director of the government-backed foundation about plans for the museum and the controversies surrounding it that have strained German-Polish relations. http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/0,1518,669482,00.html
I personally think that a museum focusing on the Germans expelled from eastern Europe is redundant. It may be useful if it does not mainly focus on German victims, but on all people being displaced during the course of the European wars. It is easy to understand that the Poles do not like the idea, especially if someone like Mrs. Steinbach delivers the concept (or just parts of it). If such a museum will be realised the whole story has to be considered. The Germans were the main delinquents at that time. The horrors Poland and others had to endure during the time when their country was occupied by the Germans must be displayed with first priority in such a museum. It is unbearable if people expelled from e.g. Poland are shown as victims who setteled eastwards to occupy the space cleared by Hitlers troops. Those people were the occupants in first place. Mrs. Steinbach playing any role for that museum is inacceptable for me. Regards Insulaner
rsr 12/31/2009
3. This documentation centre is long overdue!
A museum or documentation center detailing the largest ethnic cleansing crime ever committed in the modern western world is long overdue, and it continues to amaze me how some people continue to want to sweep this under the carpet. While the 1945 Potsdam agreement on policy for the occupation and reconstruction of Germany wasn’t a secret, given the amount of coverage it received and its subsequent nearly silent treatment in western history books would suggest that it may as well have been a covert agreement between the US, Britain and the Soviet Union. In short, the US and England gave in to the bully Stalin’s demands to keep that part of Poland he stole through the infamous Molotov–Ribbentrop deal, and to redraw Poland’s borders further west in compensation for the theft, and be allowed to expel the entire German population east of the Oder-Neisse line. In real numbers, this meant that approximately 2 million Poles were forced to abandon their homes and lands and resettle behind the Curzon Line to the west, and that a staggering number of approximately 13 million Germans were to be repatriated to the remaining German territory. And while the agreement with Stalin was to allow for the “orderly and humane” repatriation of the millions of Germans from their homelands, it really does need to be documented what actually took place for the sheer and unbelievable inhumanity perpetrated on absolutely helpless people forced to leave their homes and lands and everything that they or their ancestors had worked for over countless generations. It has been estimated that roughly 1,2 million did not survive the forced but unassisted trek west across their now former homelands and through Polish territory to the relative safety of Allied-occupied German territory on the other side of the Neisse river. The survivors – typically not the very old or the very young – and mostly ordinary farm folk who had done nothing more than toil ceaselessly for a living from dusk to dawn their entire lives – told of weeks and months of incredible suffering along the way during which time they were habitually beaten, robbed of the few possessions they had, the women raped repeatedly. Thousands of expellees committed suicide, no longer able or willing to endure this kind of suffering any longer. Albert Schweitzer, in his speech accepting the Noble Peace Prize in Oslo in 1954, said: “The most grievous violation of the right based on historical evolution and of any human right in general is to deprive populations of the right to occupy the country where they live by compelling them to settle elsewhere. The fact that the victorious powers decided at the end of 2nd World War to impose this fate on hundreds of thousands of human beings and, what is more, in a most cruel manner, show how little they were aware of the challenge facing them, namely, to re-establish prosperity and, as far as possible, the rule of law”.
contrarian 01/01/2010
4. A right to remember one's past
Zitat von maeWill the exhibit also tell why they were expelled. In other words will it give the whole story. Just talking about the expulsions while forgetting the events that caused the expulsion is a distortion of history. After all it was Germany's aggression towards its eastern neighbors that caused this expulsion. The bottom line is that it was the German government of that time (nazis) which enjoyed the support of millions & millions of Germans (when the war was on going on favorably for Germany) that is to blame for the expulsions. No aggression, no expulsion.
There is little doubt that the Germans expelled from their homes by the Allies paid the highest price of all the Germans and I sincerely hope that the entire history of the expulsion will be documented, including the decision making processes leading to the expulsion. It is an essential part of a learning experience for all people: Do not follow the path of evil! The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union has started a new wave of research and analysis across all categories of victims of the Hitler Regime. As it is also a fundamental right of every person to understand and to know his or her background. This right applies also to those who suffered the fate of Vertreibung and it extents to the documentation of these events and the experiences and to pass those documents on to their descendants. It is worth looking at the meaning of the German word Verteibung: and words such as dispossession, banishment, repel, drive away, expulsion. Whilst some of the those who suffered this event are still alive, an effort should be made to record their personal histories along the lines carried out by other victims of the Hitler regime. It is not possible to build a European Community in which one Group is prevented by demand from others to have its own history expunged. It is also a reminder to those Germans who did not suffer expulsion. It was no more than a historical accident who was displaced by force. It could have just as easily have happened that the Allies might have decided to expel Germans from the West to the East, It was just a matter of luck or misfortune where one was born. The most important lesson to be learned by all Germans (and others in Europe) is the rejection of all forms of violence towards other people. To try to sweep an event of such magnitude under the carpet of history is simply not appropriate.
kdittschlag 01/04/2010
5.
Zitat von maeWill the exhibit also tell why they were expelled. In other words will it give the whole story. Just talking about the expulsions while forgetting the events that caused the expulsion is a distortion of history. After all it was Germany's aggression towards its eastern neighbors that caused this expulsion. The bottom line is that it was the German government of that time (nazis) which enjoyed the support of millions & millions of Germans (when the war was on going on favorably for Germany) that is to blame for the expulsions. No aggression, no expulsion.
It is very easy to critizise more then 64 years after the end of WW2 what did happen before during and after those terribele times. I am one of the exspelled survivers and did grow up in northern Germany where we did not get an open arm reception. When you are as a 9 year old treated like a a peace of trash not worth living it does not leave a very good memory of the people that send you out away from the only home you have ever known. I don't think it is such a bad idea to open a museum to show the facts. In no way do I have any no intension to reclame my home because I'm now 74 years old and live prowdly for the last 42 years in the USA. Wars are the cause bad things it does not mather what the reason is. Only the people that profit on them are winners.
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