World War II's latest 'victims'
Plans for a memorial to Germans expelled from Poland and Czechoslavkia draw fire.
BERLIN — In the winter of 1945, 5-year-old Friedrich Vetter and his family were forced out of their home in what is now Poland and resettled in western Germany. The anguish of that upheaval has never left him.
"Of course, it's difficult to talk about it," says Mr. Vetter, who is now a geographer. "I cry almost every time."
He is one of 15 million ethnic Germans who were pushed out of their homes in Eastern Europe by the Polish and Czech governments as retribution for Nazi aggression.
Now, the expellees want a memorial to their sufferings. But the idea has poured salt on wounds still open more than 50 years later - even as Poland and the Czech Republic prepare to join Germany as members of the European Union.
The issue was expected to intrude on EU entry-preparation talks Monday between Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder.
Critics worry that the sufferings of countries victimized by the Nazis will be overlooked.
"No sympathy with the Germans!" was a typical headline in Polish newspapers recently. Last week, the head of the German League of Expellees was depicted in an SS uniform on a Polish magazine cover.
The League's proposal comes as Germans are starting to talk more openly about the plight of German civilians during and after the war. For decades, such discussion was taboo, considered by many as an echo of right-wing nationalism.
But now the concept of Germans as victims is being broached even by the left. In his 2001 novel "Crab Walk," Nobel-prize winner and leftist Günter Grass described the sinking of a Nazi vessel that was rescuing German war refugees from the advancing Soviet Army. There have also been recent documentaries on the victims of allied bombings in Dresden and Hamburg.
Josef Joffe, editor-in-chief of the German weekly Die Zeit, calls Grass's book a "tipping point" that occurred after decades of pent-up stories never told: "You take something and make it vivid, and that captures the imagination more than tomes and tomes of historical writing on what happened and its consequences."
He also attributes the new outlook to another phenomenon. "Call it post-modernity," he says. "Everybody wants to get recognition now, every group. The quest for victimhood has become an almost universal quest throughout the Western world."
"It's OK to discuss their own position as victims - but they were victims of their own war," says Tadeusz Cegielski, a Warsaw University professor who signed his name to a petition of international academics, journalists and artists against the center in July. "They were victims of the operation they started, and that's the problem."
The League of German Expellees, which represents two million German expellees and their descendants, has also drawn fire - from Poles, Czechs, and even Grass - for proposing to build the center in Berlin, once the capital of the Third Reich. The group has also been criticized for focusing on Germans only, rather than examining expulsions in a broad European context.
"When I hear that they want to build a European center, then I would suspect that it would be created as the result of a European dialogue," says Tomas Kafka, who heads the German-Czech Future Fund, an organization focused on German-Czech relations. "Nobody resents the German side for wanting to deal with their own history, but they should do it tactfully and with measure."
The League has long wanted the Polish and Czech governments to acknowledge crimes and human rights violations committed against the expellees. Chief among these are the decrees by former Czechoslovak President Edvard Benes in 1945 that stripped the country's German minority of property and citizenship. The decrees remain in effect today, with both the German and Czech governments reluctant to open the Pandora's box of claims and counterclaims that would ensue if they were repealed.
Shocked by the vitriol against the memorial, the League has begun a public relations campaign in Poland, the Czech Republic and Germany, advertising the Center for Expulsion as a place to begin dialogue about the past and bring attention to expulsions as an ongoing human rights issue.
The center would include a library, documentation center, and a museum. While the German government has not granted any site yet, the proposal has won support from about 400 German municipalities who are donating an average of about 10 cents per resident toward the $2.3 million budget.
The center will be "much more concentrated on the people that are being expelled or will be expelled in the future than it is on our history," says Peter Glotz, the League's co-director, who was five years old when he and his mother were forced to flee from what is today the Czech Republic. "That, of course, plays a role, but expulsion is a current political problem, not a historical one."
The Polish and Czech heads of government have endorsed a center that would examine expulsions in a larger context. But Poland has warned against drawing any moral equivalency between the sufferings of Germans and Poles.
To Vetter, a memorial would be a crucial testament to his harrowing experience. Though he grew up near Hanover, and spent 30 years of his life in Berlin, he has never shaken a feeling of displacement. Vetter's family was among the many Germans subjected to beatings, rape, and other humiliations by the Red Army advancing from the East. In their new home in the West, they met indifference and scorn from their countrymen.
Vetter returns two or three times a year to the town of his birth, Parchwitz, since renamed Prochowize. The area's coat of arms hangs in his office, near a map on which he retraces the route he marched along with other refugees.
"I can't be made responsible for what Hitler did," he says. "We need to be able to mourn. Let us confront this ... It is a good thing that can lead to reconciliation."