When it comes to Germany's relationship with Poland, few play a greater role than the parliamentarian Erika Steinbach. A member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats, Steinbach heads up the controversial Federation of Expellees, a group dedicated to commemorating the suffering of those Germans who were thrown out of Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe following World War II.
Erika Steinbach is head of the Federation of Expellees, a group dedicated to documenting the suffering of Germans expelled from parts of Eastern Germany following World War II.Foto: REUTERS
The project is hardly free from controversy. For decades, Steinbach and her group have been promoting the creation of a center in Berlin documenting the fate of the millions expelled from their homes. For just as long, Poland has protested, horrified that some Germans might see themselves as victims of Nazi Germany.
The conflict recently came to a head once again. Even as Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk has dropped Warsaw opposition to an expellee documentation center being built in Berlin, Steinbach's nomination to the center's board proved to be too much. Many in Poland have long been skeptical of Steinbach, and Tusk joined other Polish politicians in protest . Once again, Polish-German relations threatened to suffer.
The distrust of Steinbach is hardly out of the blue. In the 1990s, she voted against accepting the Oder-Neisse line, the present-day border between Poland and Germany, and also expressed doubt about Poland's readiness to join the European Union. Polish tabloids relish in depicting her as a Nazi on their covers and have incorrectly accused her of being a Holocaust denier. More recently, Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, a former Polish foreign minister and currently the country's deputy responsible for German-Polish relations, compared Steinbach with Richard Williamson, the Catholic bishop who recently made headlines for denying the Holocaust.
In an effort to defuse the situation -- and to remove pressure that had been building on Chancellor Merkel -- Steinbach opted last week not to take her spot on the museum's board. The Federation of Expellees, though, has decided to leave the seat unoccupied.
SPIEGEL ONLINE spoke with Steinbach about her decision not to join the museum board, Poland's relationship with its history, and her position as a magnet for Polish hatred.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Ms. Steinbach, how does it feel, being the new icon of Germany's conservatives?
Steinbach: Am I? I wasn't aware of that.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: What is the tenor of the mail and calls being received in your offices?
Steinbach: Widespread approval -- and calls to remain tough and not give in. Half of our supporters are not expellees. Many identify themselves as Social Democrats, which surprised and pleased me. But even when the center for expellees was founded, Peter Glotz, the former secretary general of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), was part of it. Many cities with SPD mayors support our project.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: You have met with great approval from Christian Democrats (CDU) and their Bavarian sister party, the CSU. But one fellow CDU member was long quiet on the issue: the chancellor. Did Angela Merkel let you down?
Steinbach: No. The chancellor strongly supports the foundation. She was in favor of it. I have a good and trusting relationship with Angela Merkel. But she was in a very difficult situation. The chancellor knew that the SPD members of the cabinet would not agree to my nomination (eds note: to the board of a foundation committed to building a center documenting the expulsion of Germans from Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe following World War II), and that the Poles would object. That's why she was unable to place the issue on the cabinet's agenda. I understand that. But my federation was also unwilling to put up with being politically harassed. Our self-respect is also at issue.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: But you placed the chancellor under political pressure -- and forced her into the difficult situation of having to decide between your Federation of Expellees on the one hand and Germany's relationship with Poland on the other.
Steinbach: The German government was elated over the replacement of the right-wing Polish Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski with Donald Tusk in November, 2007. Tusk is a reasonable man. I have run into him twice at podium discussions. Nevertheless, Tusk remains under intense pressure in Poland. In any case, I did not pressure the chancellor. Rather, I forced the SPD to reveal how it feels about the freedom of decision of a nonprofit victim's organization.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Did the chancellor advise you to back down as you did last week?
Steinbach: No. That step was taken by my steering committee. The chancellor did not intervene. The SPD didn't want me. As a result, due to the coalition agreement with the SPD, the chancellor had no options left to push for my appointment.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: So no deal with Merkel?
Steinbach: No. Of course, the chancellor accepted it, because the project was stagnating. But any solution other than the now empty chairmanship would have been impossible to push through within the federation. The German-Polish relationship has certainly not improved in recent weeks. But this is the fault of the SPD and Polish politicians, not the Federation of Expellees. The Polish aggression I have experienced recently goes beyond what I would have expected.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: How long do you intend to leave the position on the board of trustees unfilled?
Steinbach: Three weeks, three months, three years, whatever. It's a wonderful sword of Damocles. The Polish demand was that Steinbach could not be part of it. Now I am not part of it, but the chair remains unfilled. It's a solution everyone has to live with.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Steinbach's chair exists, but Steinbach isn't sitting on it.
Steinbach: No, I'm not sitting on it. Perhaps my spirit is, but the chair remains demonstratively empty!
SPIEGEL ONLINE: You criticized Foreign Minister (Frank-Walter) Steinmeier (eds note: Steinmeier is a Social Democrat and is campaigning against Merkel in autumn general elections) for not having defended you against Polish accusations, some of which came close to characterizing you as a Holocaust denier. But you could say the same thing for the chancellor. She didn't defend you, either.
Steinbach: I also happen to have a CDU heart. And Steinmeier is the foreign minister, which means it's his job.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: But to the public, it looked as though Merkel was shunning one of her own.
Steinbach: Without the CDU, and without Angela Merkel, the establishment of the foundation committed to building the expellee documentation center would never have become part of the coalition agreement. The CDU/CSU parliamentary group took a positive stance toward this demand by the Federation of Expellees from the beginning. All of the states sponsoring our project are states with CDU/CSU governments.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Some Poles see your withdrawal as a maneuver.
Steinbach: Tusk has not pacified the nationalists in his country. They don't want the center at all. Naturally, the expulsions of Germans following World War II is a painful memory to many Poles. But it was also painful to us Germans, dealing with our own miserable past. This isn't easy. The post-communist countries have not completed their process of self-discovery yet. They are still holding on to their trauma and they are still holding on to their economic problems. For them, the process of finding their identity is a long way from complete.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: You appear to be asking too much of the Poles, when it comes to the subject of expulsion. We Germans have, for the most part, agreed on a shared interpretation of our history. The Poles are still a long way from this sort of historic consensus. And then you come along and say: Please recognize our German expulsion.
Steinbach: But I do understand the emotions of the Poles. In the post-communist countries, it will take another 20 years for people to be at peace with themselves. It took us Germans at least as long. But if they accuse us, as a victims' rights organization, of having no interest in reconciliation, if there is no evidence of sympathy, and if the Poles constantly ignore our outstretched hand, then I don't know what else I can do. Everything I say and do is twisted into its opposite. If I sprinkle sugar on their toast, they call it salt. The Poles just have to deal with their own issues first. But they have no right to meddle in domestic German affairs and determine how we commemorate our victims.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Perhaps you are sometimes too insensitive when it comes to sensitive issues of the past? Are you capable of self-criticism?
Did Hitler Help the Poles Get what they Wanted?
Steinbach: I constantly ask myself what might help to resolve the problem. It is clear that the Federation of Expellees and some of its past leaders have been favorite targets for Polish hostility. But it cannot be the responsibility of a victims' rights organization to deny the fates of its own in order to achieve better international relations. Mutual empathy -- that's the right approach.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Still, one of those leaders, Herbert Hupka, was even given an award in Poland in the 1990s.
Steinbach: He was no longer in office at the time, and he was made an honorary citizen of his city. At the municipal level, there have been, and still are, good connections between the expellees and the Poles. There are partnership programs, and they have summer parties, go on pilgrimages and attend church services together.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: The fact that you voted against recognition of the Oder-Neisse line (eds. note: the border between Germany and Poland established after World War II) in the Bundestag in 1991 didn't exactly encourage such cordialness.
Steinbach: My goal at the time, together with other members of parliament, was to ensure that all unanswered questions, such as the issue of restitution, were resolved concurrently with the border issue, so as to establish a permanent peace. And not doing so was a cardinal error, as the fierce territorial debates of recent years have shown. At the time, we also made it clear that we recognized the Oder-Neisse border as the binding border under international law.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Your father was a soldier in the German army that occupied Poland. This is a bitter pill to swallow for many Poles when you speak in your capacity as head of the Federation of Expellees. Is that clear to you?
Steinbach: The decisions of past governments should hardly be unloaded onto the civilian population. If soldiers had no choice, then it is certainly no different for women and children.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Besides, both your parents come from western Germany.
Steinbach: My father did not invade Poland in 1939. He arrived there later as a soldier in the air force. Incidentally, my father's side of the family is from Silesia, and several of my great uncles and aunts were expelled from there in 1946. But the Poles, of course, are not interested in that. Ultimately, this sort of a debate is a very banal diversionary tactic.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: You were not born in the former German Reich, but in occupied Poland. Wouldn't it have made more sense if you had disclosed your family history yourself, instead of leaving it up to Polish newspapers? As a result, papers in Warsaw were suddenly claiming that Steinbach is not a real expellee.
Steinbach: My ancestry is documented in the handbook of the German Bundestag. But am I supposed to justify where I was born? That's irrational and an excuse. The Poles are not afraid of the reinterpretation of history, but of its being examined in the first place. Besides, many of the expellees were not expelled from the former eastern part of Germany, but from countries like Hungary, the Czech Republic and Yugoslavia. Fortunately, no one from any of those countries is getting involved.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: The Poles pay very close attention to everything you say. Why do you keep provoking them? In one interview, you stated that without Hitler the Poles would not have been able to achieve their goal of driving out the Germans. The Führer as willing executioner of Polish public sentiment? Are you serious?
Steinbach: We have come a long way, if the truth is reinterpreted to mean provocation. It happens to be a fact that postcards were used in Poland before the beginning of World War II that depicted the country's borders as being near Berlin. And Polish politicians wanted to reduce the "foreign elements" -- which included, in addition to the Germans, Ukrainians and Belarusians -- to less than 1 percent. These are proven statements. It goes without saying that this does not justify what Hitler did. Next to the Russians, the Poles are the most mistreated people in Europe. There is deep trauma there, particularly from the fact that the country has been partitioned three times in its history.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: In which the Germans were not uninvolved.
Steinbach: Yes, we were always involved.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: And, after 1945, it wasn't the idea of the citizens of Lviv, in what was then eastern Poland but now belongs to Ukraine, to be resettled to Wroclaw on Stalin's orders.
Steinbach: Of course not. I am familiar with the fate of the eastern Poles who were expelled at the time, as well as the story of Zamosc. We presented this in an exhibition. The Federation of Expellees also organized an event about the Warsaw Uprising, a premier in Germany. But the reaction in Poland was: This is an outrage. The Federation of Expellees is taking away our sanctuary. I could stand on my head and catch flies with my feet, but it wouldn't do any good. That's why I'm giving up. The Poles have to calm themselves down. I cannot contribute to that. I am distorted, deformed and insulted in Poland. But my good will is still there. However, when we extend our hands in reconciliation, we are attacked in return. After 1965, the Poles eradicated their own bishops' message from their memories: "We forgive and ask for forgiveness." That is tragic.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: You demand recognition of the suffering of the expellees. At times, it seems as if no one has even listened to you through the 60 years of postwar German history. But in the 1950s and 60s, expulsion from the former eastern territories was the central issue in German domestic politics -- long before open discussion of the Holocaust began.
Steinbach: There was indeed considerable solidarity with the expellees at the time. Nevertheless, the new arrivals were not welcomed with open arms. After 1968, the media's treatment of the expellees began to deteriorate, and in many cases they were literally denounced. Today, thank God, this has changed.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: The differences between today and 1968 certainly have something to do with the expellee organizations' bitter attacks on (former Chancellor Willy) Brandt's policy for Eastern Europe. But you cannot claim today that the fate of the expellees is ignored in the media. From Günter Grass to movies aired in prime time, the expulsion of the Germans is a hot topic.
Steinbach: We, as a federation, have spent the last 10 years intensively contributing to and pushing this development.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Ms. Steinbach, when was the last time you were in Poland?
Steinbach: The last time was when I met with Donald Tusk in Grünberg (Zielona Góra). It was a few years ago. He was still a member of the opposition at the time. As a welcome, I was burned in effigy outside the building.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Is it possible that you are not diplomatic enough for this job?
Steinbach: I do believe that I generally manage to cut to the chase. I want the truth, and nothing but the truth. If I expressed myself like a diplomat, I would not be heard. Of course, I want to be a mouthpiece, one that can be heard, for those who, as a result of psychological strain, cannot articulate their fate. If I were to beat about the bush, they would say: nice, but boring.