Saturday, August 12, 2006

Polish-German relations – not too good, really


Berlins ‘ethnic cleansing’ exhibition plus the infamous potato jibe against the Kaczynski brothers in a Berlin newspaper make neighbors’ sticky relationship stickier still.

On the face of it, what could be so ‘controversial’ about an exhibition in Berlin looking back on 100 years of expulsions and ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Europe? From the ‘Armenian genocide’ to two monotonous world wars, to the Yugoslavian conflict of the 1990s, ‘cleansing’ certain areas of certain nationalities and ethnic groups has been a dark feature of the twentieth century.

Good topic for an exhibition, then.

Except this exhibition, ‘Paths Unchosen’, has been initiated by MP Erica Steinbach, head of the German Expellees Union. The motive behind Paths Unchosen is to highlight the plight of German expellees from Poland and elsewhere after 1945.
Polish Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski called the exhibition "a bad, worrying and sad event" and said: "it is not doing anything positive for Poland, Germany or Europe."

Former Prime Minister, Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz – now acting mayor of Warsaw - cancelled a trip this week to Berlin in protest.

"It's an attempt to relativize the history of World War II," Kaczynski said. "It's important to remember who the murderers were and who were their victims."

According to Allied information sources revealed after 1990, the German deportation and migration affected up to 16.5 million Germans from Soviet occupied areas in Poland and elsewhere.

The Potsdam Conference called for this process to be done in an ‘orderly and humane manner’ but maybe over 1 million Germans died in the process from disease, malnutrition, murder.

Radio Polonia quotes Piotr Nowina-Konopka from the Warsaw-based Schumann Foundation.

[Head of German Expellees Union] “Mrs Steinbach is neither a historian nor an expellee; she hasn’t a moral right to defend the case. Second point – we had already a bad experience with the association under her leadership and that’s why in Poland there is a generally bad feeling about its activities and this latest initiative. Of course, I must see the exhibition to judge whether it’s objective and whether it shows the reason that led to all the cruelties that, without any doubt, happened.”

I am glad he said that he should see the exhibition first before he can judge it, something that hasn’t seemed to trouble Jaroslaw Kaczynski or Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz.

Eva Kraftchyk of the German DPA agency understands Poland’s suspicions that Germany is trying to rewrite its history, but she thinks such fears are exaggerated.

“The tone of discussions in Poland over the past months is not very objective. I don’t think that anyone who is serious in Germany would try to pretend that Germany did not attack Poland, is not responsible for the Holocaust and did not start the war.”

Furthermore, Eva Kraftchyk believes that the expellees have a moral right to show their suffering.

“The refugees lost their homes in what is now western Poland, Kaliningrad, the Czech Republic and other countries. That was a very dramatic experience for these people. Now they are very old and they want to tell their stories. I don’t think this should arouse fears that Germany is trying to rewrite its history. It’s about showing all the facts.”

It’s hard not to disagree with that.

Political hot potato
The controversy follows attempts by the Polish government to prosecute a German newspaper over a satirical article – Poland’s new potatoes’ which lambasted President Lech Kaczynski and his prime ministerial brother and their mother, with who Jaroslaw still lives with.

“We were wondering why there is no reaction from the German public opinion” after the “very brutal attack,” in Tageszeitung, a Polish Foreign Ministry spokesman, Andrzej Sados, said in an interview. “This was not an attack on the Polish politicians, but on a third person, on the mother of the president.”

On July 21, the Warsaw prosecutor’s office announced that it was investigating whether to file charges against the author of the article – something that would be unique in European law if it succeeded, which it won’t.
Far right catholic newspaper Nasz Dziennik, owned by the Radio Maryja media group, printed a list two weeks ago of German correspondents working in Poland. The article urged readers ominously to “remember the names.”

Successive generations of Poles have grown less and less antagonistic to Germany – they don’t remember the war and don’t relate to the older generations memories of it. Some politicians, however, haven’t got over it and seem willing to use history – as Erica Steinbach appears to be as well – to reopen the old sores. It looks good to some of the home audience but looks a little grubby from the outside.

33 comments:

asa said...

Poland and Germany had agreed supposedly to stop talking about WW2 issues anymore. That was some type of verbal, unspoken agreement on governments level and the agreement was rather pressed by the Germans interested to close and move the relations forward and away from the past. Poles were glad to hear about Germany support for our joining EU, listened to another set of apologies made by another chancelor and were glad some money were paid to polish nazi victims My aunt who was a slave worker in Nazi Germany at age 16 for 3 years, working down to dusk hours at Bavarian farm with no day off refused to apply for financial recompesation saying something (not literary quoute)like this: Fuck Germany, Germans and their money! - :) Now, considering that she was offered for thausands of hours of slave labour and humiliation the equivalent of 500 USD I was personally not shocked by her statement (maybe by her harsh words! because she's a soft spoken, churchgoing old lady).
In her example anyway one can see the deep pain Poles feel for what Germany did to us. I was born many years after WW2 and am more eager to accept that Germans have right to mourn their victims of war. It is bothering that many in Germany do not admit to their guilt but rather would talk about "Nazis groups" or "mad man Hitler". The most popular books on WW2 in Germany are: biographies of Hitler (mad individual) and the ones about Germans resistence to Nazism. ... Somewhere else I was reading that Poles would have to do something similar to Germany to get their sensivity back on track. Invade them, call them subhumans, incorporate some parts of Germany to Poland, murder 6 mln of them, execute them for illigal activities, feed them 600kcal a day, burn most towns and villages, retrive to former teritory, get finacial support, years later pay some small momey to victims and build a museum to commemorate those who suffered.

beatroot said...

What you point to is a different process by which the two countries are coming to terms with their past. It’s painful for both sides. Of course.

We see the reaction among many in Poland when Poles are suddenly put in the role, not as victims as they are used to, but as perpetrators of crimes (Jedwabne etc). It’s a difficult thing to come to terms with and they find it difficult. It’s something that one ‘did not do’ during communism. Well, now they having to do it.

In Germany, like you say, we have a generation that feels estranged from the Nazi years. They feel nothing in common with it. Hitler was ‘mad’ and the Nazis were aliens from Planet Fascist who came to town one day and stayed awhile.

There is also, as you say, another publishing trend where Germans are seen as victims too, not just of the Nazis but of other things going on after the war was over. Steinbach is part of that movement.

Maybe the next round of historians on both sides will be a little more realistic. The nineteen thirties, forties, fifties was a murderous time in Europe where many people were acting like pigs. And many more acted like normal people in a very un-normal situation.

Let’s get some balance. .

Michael Farris said...

Random notes/ideas:

IINM La Steinbach is somewhat better known in Poland than she is in Germany.

Had the duck brothers not wasted so much political capital on the kartoffel article, they'd have a little more to expend here.

Again, they're handling this in a ham-fisted idiotic way. The thing to do is request that Steinbach personally guide Marcinkiewicz through the exhibit so that he can comment (politely) on the contents thereof.

IMHO the expulsion of Germans from areas that are not now Germany was unpleasant, occasionally tragic, but ultimately mostly justifiable (less so in cases where they were integrated into the local communities). They did after all generally support German expansionist policies from which they benefitted for a time. The principle should be: start a war and lose, you're gonna lose land (a good deterrent).

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't be so harsh on Marcinkiewicz for cancelling a visit before seeing the exhibition. He could hardly cancel after the visit... Whether he should have cancelled at all is another matter.

This always comes up in obscenity/blasphemy/censorship debates: "you haven't seen the offending painting or play so how can you judge it." You can judge from second hand reports. In fact that's the only way we can judge most things. Until time machines are invented I will have to take on trust the reports of others about world war two, for instance.

Not that I approve of censorship.

sonia said...

the expulsion of Germans (...) was (...) ultimately mostly justifiable

Stalin thought so too.

It's interesting that this issue is seen as a 'Germany vs Poland' issue, rather than 'Communism vs Germany' issue.

The historical reality was this: Stalin's Communists expelled Poles from Eastern Poland (Wilno, Lwow, Tarnopol, Wolyn, etc.) and settled them in Silesia, Pomerania and East Prussia (from where Germans were expelled to West Germany).

Ironically, since millions of East Europeans were fleeing Communism anyway, those Germans were actually quite lucky (except those stupid enough to settle in EAST Germany).

I hope that this Berlin exhibit talked about explusions of Poles from Eastern Poland as well, and pointed to the links between both expulsions.

Another fact: those expulsion were decided at the Yalta conference - Roosevelt and Churchill (along with Stalin, of course) are responsible for them - not Poles.

There is something both frustrating and profoundly injust that one of the biggest crimes of Soviet Communism is being pinned on Poles (similarities with Holocaust are striking)...

And by objecting to the exhibit, the Kaczynski fools are effectively defending Stalin and Communist ethnic cleansing...

beatroot said...

Mike The thing to do is request that Steinbach personally guide Marcinkiewicz through the exhibit so that he can comment (politely) on the contents thereof.

Can’t argue with that.

Anon: You can judge from second hand reports. In fact that's the only way we can judge most things.

You can and we do judge like that but it’s called prejudicium in Latin.

The difference is that we are not in a position to impose a fatwa and sentence novelists to death without reading the book (Rushdie and many more) and we are not a nation’s representatives when all our moves internationally are diplomatic moves. I think in that situation it is very much in everyone’s interest that they do see what they are pontificating about.

Sonia: It's interesting that this issue is seen as a 'Germany vs Poland' issue, rather than 'Communism vs Germany' issue.

It’s just as interesting that this issue is being seen as a German – communism issue when this was actually a German-Communism-Poland issue. The borders had been shifted by Yalta. The area the German’s were in was now in Poland/Czechoslovakia etc.

So we had Stalin’s interest in getting the Germans out…but we also had the interest of the Poles in getting them out. They didn’t want them there either. For understandable reasons.

There is something both frustrating and profoundly unjust that one of the biggest crimes of Soviet Communism is being pinned on Poles (similarities with Holocaust are striking)...

Is it one of the biggest?

And I don’t think it being ‘pinned on Poles’. The issue with Steinbach is that she wants compensation for German expellees. Many of her party – the same side as Merkel – wants some of Poland and the Czech republic back in Germany.

The dispute should be seen in that context. It’s not just about history.

Anonymous said...

"You can and we do judge like that [i.e from second hand reports] but it’s called prejudicium in Latin."

I don't care what they call it in Latin America. I reserve the right to express opinions (nb: not issue death warrants) on matters which I know only at second hand.

Hodcent said...

Sonia is right to point out that Stalin's victory in this part of Europe led to a massive ethnic cleansing. The Czechs and the Poles continue to refuse to admit it. They just snap: "We are the victims". As if being a victim could give you the right to commit all sort of crimes. Before 1939, there were millions of Jews and Germans in what is now Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia or Hungary. The Nazis killed the Jews, the Communists expelled the Germans (the fact that probably 1 to 1.5 million died on their way to Germany tells the horror of this deportation). The Czechs often say: "We don't bear any responsability, it was decided by the Allied powers in Potsdam". But they forget to tell they started well before the end of the Potsdam conference in August 1945. (For me, the most revealing thing is that the Czechs forced the Germans to wear a piece of cloth with the word N (for Nemec) on their clothes). The Poles were not as radical with the Germans but some of them thought there were still too many Jews in the country in 1945 and killed a few of them to have a "judenrein" territory. Concerning the Germans, it was perhaps inevitable that they got expelled from their homes after all the sufferings the Nazis inflicted. But in 2006, you can't say it's justifiable, unless you think ethnic cleansing is an efficient if bloody solution to all the current ethnic conflicts of this planet.

beatroot said...

I reserve the right to express opinions... on matters which I know only at second hand.


No you don’t. Judging things at second hand is not a ‘right’ – you won’t find it in the Bill of Rights – it’s just what we do everyday.

You pre-judge if you want to. But I cant judge an exhibition until I have seen it. So I won’t. Neither should politicians.

There is a lot of pre-judging still between Poles and Germans – it’s time we all moved on into the 21st century.

Michael Farris said...

"Concerning the Germans, it was perhaps inevitable that they got expelled from their homes after all the sufferings the Nazis inflicted. But in 2006, you can't say it's justifiable, unless you think ethnic cleansing is an efficient if bloody solution to all the current ethnic conflicts of this planet."

Was it justifiable then? I'd say yes and it would have happened in some form with or without Stalin. The communists may have started the process but it's my understanding it had strong support among the Czech and Polish populations (understandable if not commendable).

Is it justifiable now? 20/20 hindsight is a wonderful thing. Knowing how the last 60 years turned out, maybe not. But Poles and Czechs didn't have that experience to draw on.

beatroot said...

Was it justifiable then? I'd say yes and it would have happened in some form with or without Stalin.

Exactly.

Is it justifiable now? 20/20 hindsight is a wonderful thing.

Judging historical events from the comfort of a reasonably civilized today is never a good idea. What happened then happened. How would I have felt about Germans then? Don't know...but not how I feel about them now (people who win football on penalties all the time).

Anonymous said...

Beatroot,
here are a few definitions of prejudice or "pre-judging":

In general, it implies coming to a judgment on the subject before learning where the preponderance of the evidence actually lies, or formation of a judgement without direct or actual experience.

an unwarranted bias

See? "unwarranted," "before learning...". If I am foolish enough to trust the judgement of, say Ryszard Bender or David Irving, then I will deny the holocaust. That's not pre-judging the issue; it is badly judging the issue.

You can judge an exhibition you have not seen but that judgement is likely to be faulty unless you have seen it or been reliably informed about it by someone who has.

As for not having a right to make a judgment because it's not in the bill of rights, well I think most constitutions worth the name guarantee freedom of opinion. You yourself have argued here that David Iriving should be free to hold (and propagate? - correct me if I'm wrong) his noxious opinions.

beatroot said...

David Iriving should be free to hold (and propagate? - correct me if I'm wrong) his noxious opinions.

Absolutely. Freedom of speech, like freedom of assembly, are HUMAN RIGHTS.

Forming opinions ‘second hand’ is not a human right.

Slight confusion here about the meaning of a 'right' me thinks...

Anonymous said...

But very often you can form opinions only at second hand. Are we supposed to hold up our hands and say "sorry, I have no opinion on the British empire in India because I wasn't there"?

And if you have a right to an opinion then it doesn't matter how you formed the opinion. If it did, constitutions would read "All citizens are guaranteed the freedom of opinion formed on the basis of reliable information," which is a right that has been qualified out of existence.

beatroot said...

Maybe we are talking at cross purposes here.

You originally said that “I deserve the right to frm opinions second hand” or so,ething like that. My point is that we have know Rights to our opinions we only have rights (or not) to express them. That is the right of free speech and expression. But we have no rights over thoughts. They simply don’t exist because no government literally has made some thoughts a crime. When they do then will need ‘rights’ for our thoughts.

What you mean is “I have the right to express any opinions I choose, second hand or not.” And of course you can and that goes without saying.

Michael Farris said...

Yes, I agree that the 'right' to do something implies that someone can prevent you from doing it (but shouldn't because, you know, it's a right).

beatroot said...

Apologies for awful typos in last comment. But that's right Mike.

copydude said...

The fact is that Poland's relations with all its neighbours, not just Germany, are at an all-time low.

And in the case of neighbouring Kaliningrad, it has shot itself in the foot yet again, bankrupting the Port of Elblag and killing its local tourist industry.

See Paradise Lost

Michael Farris said...

"The fact is that Poland's relations with all its neighbours, not just Germany, are at an all-time low."

Which is just what the governing parties want.

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Brian said...

lol... I'm still not so certain that a thousand years of German/Polish animosity is just going to dry up. I'm of both Polish and German ancestery... so i have both sides of the story ingrained on my from different grandparents... but my opinion is this: Germany has been trying to kill off all Poles for centuries... and the Poles just keep rebuilding... somehow I think you could nuke Poland and the people would come out swinging with a club in one hand and a brick in the other. I don't think this is going to go away for a long time... for the Germans may be efficient... but they're not nearly efficient enough to kill a people who refuse to be exterminated...

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