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70 years on, Poland's WWII wounds haven't healed

Back home in Germany, Erika Steinbach is hardly a household name. But in neighboring Poland she is a national hate figure, caricatured on magazine covers as a Nazi in SS uniform.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Back home in Germany, Erika Steinbach is hardly a household name. But in neighboring Poland she is a national hate figure, caricatured on magazine covers as a Nazi in SS uniform.

Her offense, in Polish eyes, is that she claims to speak for the millions of ethnic Germans who were expelled from their homes in Poland and elsewhere in eastern Europe after World War II. These accusers say she is revising history and drawing a moral parallel between the cruelties the Germans inflicted and the sufferings they later endured.

The recriminations go to the heart of the resentments that still bubble up from the war that broke out with Hitler's attack on Poland on Sept. 1, 1939.

Today, as Polish, German and Russian leaders join on Tuesday to mark the anniversary, Polish-German relations are at one level an idyll of open borders and shared membership in the prosperous, democratic European Union.

But at another level, they are one rancorous episode after another: a Polish prime minister demanding greater voting power in European forums to make up for Poland's war-related loss of population; a German magazine article that stirs Polish outrage by saying Germany had the willing help of Poles and others in executing its genocidal actions; and now a new museum in Berlin, championed by Steinbach, that will exhibit the hardships of the world's refugees through history, especially the wartime Germans.

Steinbach, 67, strenuously denies minimizing Poland's afflictions. But she is a lightning rod for Poles' fears that future generations of Germans will grow up in a historical muddle about the war and its aftermath.

"We'll probably reach a point — and we are hearing this already — that Germans suffered equally because someone expelled them from somewhere and that they were killed as well," complains Jacek Patoka, a 42-year-old Polish businessman.

What irks the Poles most is Steinbach and her Federation of the Expellees, the group that demands recognition of the suffering inflicted on some 14 million Germans when the postwar borders were redrawn and they were driven out of their homes.

When Steinbach pushed for the Berlin museum, Poland's government was indignant, seeing it as a sign that Germans were trying to play down their crimes and highlight their own suffering and resistance to Hitler's regime.

"We don't like these activities," said Romualda Tudrej, an 82-year-old woman who fought in Poland's anti-Nazi resistance. "The Germans are unfortunately changing history a little. There's a new generation now and this generation wants to have heroes, and not the bandits that it actually had for ancestors."

As tempers rose, Poland lobbied to block Steinbach's appointment to head the board of the planned museum. It would be tantamount to putting a Holocaust-denier in charge of relations with Israel, charged Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, an Auschwitz survivor and Polish government representative on German issues, in an interview with Poland's Dziennik newspaper.

After much discussion between Warsaw and Berlin, Poland last year consented to a German government-backed museum in Berlin to be called the "Center against Expulsions." That was after it was assured by Chancellor Angela Merkel that the exhibit would include information on expulsions of other peoples worldwide and throughout history.

At a gathering of Steinbach's federation Aug. 23, Merkel defended the idea, saying that the history of flight and expulsions is "part of our national identity and part of our shared cultural memory." But she insisted it did not mean Germany wants to diminish its responsibility for starting the war.

"We will not forget: This was a direct consequence of the German war and the Nazi tyranny," she said. "Yes, we admit our responsibility for the darkest chapter in Germany's history — there is no reinterpretation of history."

Many Poles are still not convinced, and to them, Steinbach's own biography is salt in their wounds: Her family was not native to Poland, but came there when her father was assigned to the German occupation forces as a Luftwaffe technician.

Steinbach represents Merkel's Christian Democratic Union in the parliament, which sharpens Polish suspicions that her views are close to the mainstream.

Steinbach's supporters say she is being maligned. They note that she has distanced herself from even more controversial efforts by a tiny number of Germans to regain prewar family property now in Poland.

At her federation's gathering, she made a point of stressing that Nazi Germany was ultimately responsible for the fate of the expelled Germans. "Our fate was preceded by something atrocious," she said.

But she insisted that her country had the right to commemorate the plight of Germans who faced "malice and viciousness" when forced from parts of Eastern Europe. Some were killed, beaten or murdered in revenge by Poles, Czechs and others.

Both Poland and Germany preserve reminders of the war. The Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, with its spire broken by Allied bombing and never restored, is a landmark of the Berlin cityscape. In Warsaw's war museum, the first thing visitors see is rubble salvaged from the capital's bombed royal castle, a historic seat of Polish kings, sending a clear message that the best of the nation was demolished by Nazi atrocities.

Now Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk has launched plans for another war museum in Gdansk, a city with a mixed German and Polish history that took some of the opening salvos of the war.

Gdansk is where Merkel and Russian Prime Minister Vladmir Putin will join Polish President Lech Kaczynski and Prime Minister Tusk in commemorating the outbreak of the war.

To most Germans, the expelled are a marginal issue, of relevance only to an elderly, dwindling group, and the Poles' fears tend to be seen as exaggerated or unfounded.

They can point to the hundreds of memorials across Germany honoring victims of the Nazis, the compensation Germany paid to millions of Hitler's victims, the more than $22 billion invested by Germans in Poland since the Cold War ended.

Relations are much better between younger Poles and Germans, especially those who have studied or worked in each other's countries.

"I have nothing against Germans," said Piotr Roguski, 39, a real estate agent in Warsaw. "For me contemporary Germans and the Germans of World War II are two different things."

Among Polish youth, German army jackets are considered cool attire, much to their elders' dismay.

Angelica Schwall-Dueren, of the German-Polish Society that promotes cooperation and cross-border exchanges between the two nations, calls today's relationship a "political and humanitarian miracle," given the shared horrors of the past.

And what horrors they were. Less than three weeks after the Germans attacked, the Soviet army invaded from the east. The Nazis regarded Poles as an inferior race. Centuries of shared history, during which innumerable Germans had settled in what is now Poland, became a master-slave relationship. The Germans blitzed Polish cities and built Auschwitz on Polish soil. At the end of the war, 6 million Polish citizens out of a prewar population of 35 million were dead — half of them Jews, half Christians.

The war left Poland feeling massively betrayed — by its Western allies who failed to come to their aid; by the Soviet army that first invaded it, then stood aside as the Germans crushed the country; and by the postwar settlement that opened the way to 40 years of communist dictatorship.

Poland today has 38 million people to Germany's 82 million, which qualifies it as medium-sized in a European Union where voting is weighted by population size. And even that ties in to the war. In arguing in 2007 for enhanced voting rights, the then prime minister, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, argued: "If it hadn't had to live through the years 1939-1945, Poland would today be a country of 66 million."


Associated Press writers Marta Kucharska in Warsaw and Melissa Eddy in Berlin contributed to this report.