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.
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.