Germany's Expellee Museum Charges of Historical Revisionism Stir Up Berlin

Those Germans who were expelled from Eastern Europe following World War II have long sought recognition of their plight. With a museum in sight, however, some associated with the project have been accused of historical revisionism. Germany, says one deputy board member, wasn't solely responsible for starting the war.
Displaced Germans in Berlin in 1945.

Displaced Germans in Berlin in 1945.

Foto: A0009 dpa/ dpa

Polish suspicion of the League of Expellees has never been in short supply. The group represents the interests of ethnic Germans expelled from parts of Poland, the Czech Republic and elsewhere in Eastern Europe after World War II, and has even succeeded in getting government backing for a Berlin museum documenting their plight. Poland, though, has long seen the group as a bastion of historical revisionism, attempting to recast Germans as the real victims of Adolf Hitler's orgy of violence.

A conflict currently gaining steam in Berlin appears to be giving skeptics a boost.

The dispute focuses on two deputy members of the recently-established board of trustees overseeing the Berlin museum project. The two, Arnold Tölg and Hartmut Saenger, both functionaries in the League of Expellees, assumed their roles on July 8 when they, along with the rest of the board, were approved by German parliament.

Since then, however, opposition to the pair has been growing in both breadth and volume. Both have been accused of historical revisionism. And German opposition politicians have joined historians in calling for the two to be removed from their new positions.

'Willingness to Go to War'

The accusations of historical revisionism against Saenger, a state parliamentarian from Hesse, stem from an article he wrote for the conservative weekly Preussische Allgemeine Zeitung last September. "Sept. 1, 1939 is considered the beginning of World War II and is thus marked by both politicians and the media with speeches and images. Often, they use such phrases as 'the world war started by the National Socialist regime.' Such locutions raise more questions than they answer." Saenger then provides his own viewpoint. "The historical context to the summer of 1939 reveals an astonishing willingness to go to war among all European powers -- to achieve national aims or to defend themselves against threats presented by opposing alliances."

Tölg's alleged transgression took place 10 years ago. In an interview with the far-right weekly Junge Freiheit, the long-time Christian Democratic parliamentarian in Baden-Württemberg state parliament said that those who speak about forced labor during World War II also have to make clear "that especially those countries which are particularly vehement in their reparation demands are hardly free of blame because they had hundreds of thousands of German forced laborers in countless camps." And: "While the German war criminals were rightly convicted by victor countries in Nuremberg, the same countries perpetrated crimes similar to those of Hitler's Germany when it comes to forced labor."

On Tuesday, Saenger declined to discuss the accusations of revisionism with SPIEGEL ONLINE. Tölg, however, sought to defend himself on German radio, telling Deutschlandfunk that he was not trying to relativize Germany's World War II crimes. "I'm just pointing out the facts, nothing more," he said. As for his colleague Saenger's claims, Tölg said "I am not a historian and I haven't studied the source documents. I can't really say anything on that point. Mr. Saenger is, I know him, he is a qualified man. He surely has reason for what he said."

The growing scandal surrounding the two is far from the first time the League of Expellees has been suspected of harboring revanchist tendencies. Erika Steinbach, a parliamentarian with Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) in Berlin and head of the League of Expellees, is heartily disliked by Poles for her 1991 refusal to recognize the Oder-Neisse line as Poland's western border with Germany, though she has since backed away from that position. She also publicly opposed Poland's accession to the European Union. Indeed, controversy surrounding Steinbach's own possible appointment to the board of the Berlin expellee museum consumed the CDU at the beginning of the year.

'Clear Case of Revanchism'

Karl Lauterbach, a parliamentarian in Berlin with the opposition Social Democrats (SPD), has called the comments from Saenger and Tölg "a disgrace." He told SPIEGEL ONLINE that he learned of their controversial views during the July 8 parliamentary session at which the museum's board was named. Several opposition politicians called attention to the two during the floor debate. "I was really shocked. For me, it is a clear case of revanchism," Lauterbach said.

Claudia Roth, co-head of the Green Party, told SPIEGEL ONLINE on Tuesday that both Saenger and Tölg "are not suitable to … furthering reconciliation with our neighbors." Her comments echoed those of Raphael Gross, the director of the Jewish museum in Frankfurt and a member of the expert commission advising those behind the expellee museum project. Gross said that the positions held by Saenger and Tölg "positively mock" the museum project's stated goal of reconciliation.

Steinbach has stepped into the debate to defend the two. She told SPIEGEL ONLINE that the debate was being used by the opposition to try and prevent the museum project from going forward. She also told the daily Frankfurter Rundschau that the facts mentioned by the two would "not be questioned by any serious historian."

German Taboo

Many would not be prepared to accept that claim. In the decades since the end of World War II, Germany has been at pains to avoid the appearance of trying to dodge the blame for triggering the conflagration. Saenger's theory that several powers were eager to go to war is questionable in the extreme. Indeed, most Allied powers -- particularly Britain under Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and the US under President Franklin D. Roosevelt -- have been criticized for doing too much to avoid the conflict. Tölg's position, on the other hand, seems to be an attempt to relativize Nazi crimes by comparing them to transgressions committed by others -- a taboo in Germany.

Salomon Korn, vice president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, told the Frankfurter Rundschau newspaper that his group would be discussing the comments by Saenger and Tölg at their next board meeting. Silvio Peritore, head of the Central Council of Sinti and Roma in Gemrany, called the comments an "affront" and said it smacked of trying to recast Germans as the true victims of World War II -- "which has long been the intention of the League of Expellees."

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