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„Unfortunately, she is no longer able to change it"

Erika Steinbach is responsible for her own failing - however, she is far better than her reputation in Poland suggests

(by Dr. habil. Arkadiusz Stempin, translated from German by Devrim Karahasan)


„It is not my fault that already back in March 1939 Poland started to mobilize its army." This sentence by Erika Steinbach, the representative of the Union of Displaced Persons (BdV), was a grave mistake, because it will be interpreted as a playing down of Germany´s responsibility for the outbreak of the Second World War. The heads of the ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU) disciplined Steinbach, yet made clear that the German guilt was out of question. The federal government headed by Angela Merkel is always at pains to take a reasoned stance towards the highly sensitive Polish people. This was not only amply demonstrated in the Chancellor´s speech at Westernplatte in Danzig on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the German assault on Poland. It was there that on 1 September 1939 first gunshots were fired. It was Warsaw´s desire that Steinbach would be kept out of the advisory board of the foundation „Flight Expulsion Reconciliation", although it had been her own creation. How vital the dealing with the issues of the common history of Germans and Poles is for Berlin becomes visible in the institution of the German Historical Institute in Warsaw (further such institutes are to be found in Washington, London, Rome, Paris and Moscow). Or in the work of representatives of political foundations of the Federal Republic, which have such blissful effects in Poland.

This single sentence could now speed up the end of Erika Steinbach´s political career. However, in its historical content her statement is correct. Poland has indeed mobilized parts of its troops on 23 March. Recruits were activated and four infantry divisions as well as a cavalry brigade were enacted along the German border. Yet, the phrase by Steinbach has been taken to mean that she wanted to say that Poland had decisively added to the political escalation in Europe and somehow rendered a pre-emptive strike by Hitler inevitable; the latter thus merely prevented a Polish assault, it was held.

To cut a long story short: In March 1939, Poland stood with its back at the wall; the mobilization was meant to illustrate to the Germans the risk of an aggression. There is consensus over this issue among historians of both countries. Thus, it takes no wonder that the phrase caused a wave of indignation. Erika Steinbach now only seems to prove right all those who had always warned of her historical revisionism.

However, Polish media never reported that Steinbach had somehow also always stressed the guilt and responsibility of the Germans, that she equally described the expulsion as a consequence of Hitler´s politics. She had thereby left behind the prevailing historical understanding of the BdV - the Union of Displaced Persons - , which had simply dismissed the war as an explanatory factor for the expulsion.

And likewise the Polish public was left deprived of the fact that Steinbach was in favor of addressing the demand for reparations of displaced persons directly to Warsaw itself. But she had made many mistakes with regards to Poland - she failed to give sufficient attention to historical sensibilities in Poland and has thus damaged her own „project".

It is very unlikely, however, that with Erika Steinbach´s stepping down there would be no further German-Polish disputes. It would be of little help to detect in her the main culprit for all the tension. A further question thus comes up: Why could all these numerous German-Polish institutions and councils not prevent that the expulsion debate would throw a dark shadow on the relations between both societies?

Or do the actual reasons lie deeper? Indeed, its causes have to be looked for in the different conceptions of dealing with history. The Germans increasingly see the Second World War and its consequences as a closed chapter of history. In numerous rituals the present generation stresses the German guilt and responsibility. Yet, at the same time it expects that the neighbors recognize and even laudably mention how intensively they have dealt with a coming to terms with their past.

For present-day Poland the historical experiences of their ancestors is part of their identity, among which also figures the suffering of the war generation under German occupation terror. A majority of Poles is convinced that the state has to pursue a politics of history: in their view historical images ought to be solidified through schoolbooks, museums and monuments, and thus it shall be predetermined how future generations will think of the past. Yet, there is hardly any room for a critical perspective on the nation´s past.

One can account for this attitude through the collective Polish experience: Poland as a culture nation has survived the time of the divisions during the 18th century and the occupations of the 20th century largely due to its historical memory. The notion of „being proud of national history" is common ground for the majority of the young generation.

In Germany, however, there prevails an attitude which considers a critical dealing with the issue of one´s own history as one of the preconditions for an enlightened modern society. After the turn of 1989, it was mainly this critical approach which dominated historical debates. Yet, the failure of the initially liberal and left-wing groupings led to a right-wing turn within political discourse in Poland, while the radio station „Maryja" and the political party „Law and Justice" (PiS) of the Kaczynski twins became the leading voice. A debate over the expulsion - in the way it had been led very actively in Poland during the 90s under the heading „Do we have to ask the Germans for forgiveness?" - was no longer possible in this climate.

Without the integration of displaced persons within German-Polish dialogue a reconciliation between both societies is not complete. From the perspective of displaced persons Erika Steinbach has been treated very unjustly in Poland. Now, however, that she is leaving the political arena there is a chance to commonly deal with the issue of this very complicated chapter.