Poland: Demons from the Past

Edmund Stoiber: "The expulsion decrees are incompatible with European values and the law." (Photo AFP, July 16, 2002)

A growing number of Germans have begun to speak out about the wrongs they suffered as a result of population transfers after World War II. The result has been growing irritation in relations with its neighbors—first the Czech Republic and now Poland.

The trouble began with a proposal by Erika Steinbach, leader of Germany’s Expellees’ Association, seeking the formation in Berlin of an international center for expellees. The idea was to establish a clearinghouse for records of all of the 20th century’s expulsions, from the slaughter of the Armenians in Turkey at the beginning of the century to the ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia.

German parties lost no time in making political hay of the issue. Referring to post-World War II decrees in Poland and Czechoslovakia that served as the basis for deporting ethnic Germans, Edmund Stoiber, the candidate for chancellor for the Christian Democrats, told a gathering in Leipzig on June 23 that “the expulsion decrees are incompatible with European values and the law.” He accused the present German government of ignoring demands by the expellees to have the expulsion measures declared invalid, and he declared that in the event of a victory by the Christian Democrats, he would enter into discussions with European partners on the issue, Rzeczpospolita reported (June 24).

Polish commentators and the government would have none of this. Wojciech Pieciak, in a front-page story in Tygodnik Powszechny, declared (July 1): “If Stoiber and his political followers want to pick a political fight with Poland about the expulsions, let them try. Poland has been silent up to now, but its position, both political and historical, is stronger than it appears to some German commentators, with their sermonizing about ‘the spirit of the 21st century.’ ”

According to Wprost (June 26), Polish Premier Leszek Miller sought to draw a clear distinction between the expulsion of Germans by Czechoslovakia’s postwar government of Edward Benes and the expulsion of Germans by Poland, which, along with Poland’s new borders, was determined by the allied powers at Potsdam. Stated Miller: “We reject arguments of this kind. We will not allow the situation that occurred in Poland to be equated with the Benes decrees.”

Tensions between Warsaw and Berlin have not yet reached the breaking point. Rzeczpospolita reported (June 29) the assertion by Christian Democratic deputy Wolfgang Schäuble that his party will not pursue debates about the past. But the list of problems in Polish-German relations is a long one.

It may be worth recalling the words of German writer Günter Grass, who said in an interview with Gazeta Wyborcza (July 6-7): “If we want to make territorial claims based on where the Slavs and the German tribes were 2,000 years ago, we will end up in a situation like the one in the Balkans or the Middle East.”