“We have to throw them out,” said Wladyslaw Gomulka, deputy prime minister of Poland’s Soviet-backed provisional government, in May 1945. Gomulka was referring to ethnic Germans living on Polish land. There were millions of them. Some were colonists who had arrived during the war and took land previously belonging to now-slaughtered Poles. Some found themselves on newly Polish territory when borders were shifted west at the Potsdam Conference in the summer of 1945. Most had been there for generations. Almost all were “thrown out.”
And not only from Poland, but also Czechoslovakia, Hungary and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. More than 10 million Germans were ethnically cleansed as the war on the eastern front turned against Germany, and in the months and years following the end of hostilities. Many who were not thrown out were killed—as many as 700,000 between 1943 and 1947. Those who survived arrived in Germany poor and resentful. Today, almost 70 years later, they and their descendents, who constitute a powerful political lobby in Germany, have secured government support for a documentation centre to commemorate their plight at the German Historical Museum in Berlin.
It’s a contentious undertaking. Poland and the Czech Republic have long viewed German expellee groups with suspicion, oftentimes with reason. German expellees opposed Poland joining the European Union, and have demanded compensation for their wartime suffering. More fundamentally, Poles and Czechs believe efforts by German expellees to commemorate their wartime tragedies implicitly challenge the notion of German guilt for the Second World War. “The museum, to a Pole, says the Germans were victims, and the Poles don’t want to hear that,” says Andrei Markovits, a professor of comparative politics and German studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
It’s unlikely the planned documentation centre could have completely avoided controversy. It might have diminished it, however, by acknowledging German responsibility for the cataclysm that ultimately resulted in the ethnic cleansing of Germans from Eastern Europe. “The devil is in the details,” says Jeffrey Kopstein, director of European studies at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs. “As long as the story is told in a balanced manner. It’s not like the expulsion of the Germans happened out of nothing. They were expelled in the context of Germany having started and then losing World War II.”
But now two of the museum’s board members, state parliamentarians Arnold Tölg and Hartmut Saenger, have raised doubts even among Germans about the museum’s message and the motives behind those who fought for it. In an article he wrote for a conservative weekly, Saenger criticized those who blame the National Socialists in Germany for starting the Second World War. “The historical context to the summer of 1939 reveals an astonishing willingness to go to war among all European powers,” he said. In fact, France and the United Kingdom appeased German aggression and territorial demands in Spain and Czechoslovakia for years before finally declaring war in September 1939 over Germany’s invasion of Poland.
Tölg, a long-time Christian Democratic Union parliamentarian in Baden-Württemberg, has drawn fire for comments he made 10 years ago in an interview with a far-right magazine in which he criticized those countries demanding reparations from Germany because they “perpetrated crimes similar to those of Hitler’s Germany when it comes to forced labour.” But as Yale historian Timothy Snyder documents in his forthcoming book, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, Eastern European slave workers were far more likely to die—and indeed were intended to die—than were German civilians forced to work for Poles.
Karl Lauterbach, an opposition parliamentarian with the Social Democratic party, has called Saenger and Tölg’s comments a “disgrace.” Whatever they are, they touch on an issue that still shapes politics in Central and Eastern Europe, regardless of how much time has passed. Claudia Roth, co-leader of the Green party, told Spiegel Online that the two politicians are “not suitable” to furthering German efforts at improving relations with its neighbours.
“It’s a very charged memory,” says Markovits, the University of Michigan professor. “If you know anything about Europe, World War II happened two seconds ago on some level, especially [in] the East.”