Responding to considerable domestic and international pressure, the German Federation of Expellees said Wednesday it would withdraw the nomination of controversial politician Erika Steinbach from the board of directors of a planned museum that will document the expulsion of Germans from Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe after World War II.
The board of the Federation of Expellees said it had accepted a proposal from Steinbach that, for the time being, she not be named as a member of the board for the documentation center. The federation, which is the main group promoting the creation of the museum, said it would symbolically leave its seat on the board empty. With the withdrawal of Steinbach's nomination, the group said, "we want to eliminate a blockade that was not of our creation."
In a statement, the group wrote that "the seat will remain unfilled to make clear no one can dictate" how it fills the position. The group did not state, however, when it would fill its seat or whether it might reconsider Steinbach in the future, leaving open the possibility that the controversy surrounding her appointment might be reignited at some point in the future.
Steinbach has been a source of great agitation in German-Polish relations. The Poles suspect Steinbach's group of having revanchist views. They note that, in the 1990s, Steinbach questioned the legitimacy of the current German-Polish border, known as the Oder-Neisse line. And prior to its accession in 2004, Steinbach also questioned Poland's fitness for the European Union. Poles also tend to react strongly whenever Germans appear to be presenting themselves as victims of World War II.
Steinbach has since softened her position and her group has distanced itself from demands for compensation from Poland made by some expellees.
In an interview published in SPIEGEL earlier this week, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said, "We Poles are all of one opinion concerning the mentality and attitude that Ms. Steinbach represents. I hope that no one in Berlin will jeopardize the very good relations that now exist between Germany and Poland. We Poles are very sensitive when it comes to defending the truth about World War II. We are obsessive about it -- and will always remain so."
Politicians within both the left-leaning Social Democrats and the Green Party in Germany had been calling for the withdrawal of Steinbach's appointment. Many in Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), to which Steinbach also belongs, came to her defense. The issue had become a major test of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's political will. Leading members of her party called on Merkel to be more outspoken in her support of Steinbach, who is also a member of the CDU's national executive. "We have to stand at Ms. Steinbach's side. No one can accuse her of representing revanchist positions," Jörg Schönbohm, the interior minister of the eastern German state of Brandenburg, told SPIEGEL.
The former head of the CDU's Bavarian sister party, Erwin Huber of the Christian Social Union, said: "The expellees have the right to be represented by their chairwoman. Poland should recognize that this is our decision."
But Merkel appeared in no rush to make any decision on the board's composure, which requires the approval of her cabinet. Last month, the chancellor's spokesman said "there was no urgency for her to consider" the board appointment. Mounting pressure, however, led Merkel on Monday to provide Steinbach with political support. Steinbach "has the entire solidarity of the CDU," said party general secretary Ronald Pofalla, adding that he spoke for the entire party leadership.
Still, even before Wednesday's announcement, it had become clear that Steinbach might pull back. Over the weekend, Steinbach said she would no longer rule out the possibility that she would remove herself from consideration for the post. Steinbach told SPIEGEL she would ask her board if it wanted her in the post. In an interview with the Bild am Sonntag newspaper, she also criticized statements made by Tusk.
"Poland has no right to influence the composition of the foundation's board," Steinbach told the paper. "Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk simply needs to respect that."
On Tuesday, the Augsburger Allgemeine newspaper quoted an unnamed official with Steinbach's group stating, "We have saved face, Merkel will be pleased, the Poles will be calmed and the memorial will be saved." But the decision was not uncontroversial within the group, given that Steinbach had made the creation of the museum dedicated to the expellees her life's work.
Following the Postdam Conference in the summer of 1945, it was agreed that Germans living in Poland, then Czechoslovakia and Hungary would be resettled back to Germany in a "humane way." More than 10 million either fled their homes or were expelled. It has been proven as historical fact that at least 473,000 deaths occurred as people fled or were forcefully expelled. That figure, of course, is miniscule compared the deaths caused by the Germans during World War II. Efforts over the years to commemorate Germany's expellees have been controversial in Poland and even in Germany, with some concerned organizers might seek to portray the country that perpetrated World War II as its victim.