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(E) neglected victim of WW II by Gunter Grass
By Nenad N. Bach | Published  03/5/2002 | Politics | Unrated
(E) neglected victim of WW II by Gunter Grass
 
 
    
  By Peter Finn 
  Washington Post Foreign Service 
  Monday, February 11, 2002; Page A18 
  
  
  VIENNA -- From Vienna to Berlin, the embers of history have unexpectedly 
  flared in politics, literature and journalism to reveal an allegedly 
  neglected victim of World War II and its aftermath. 
  
  The German. 
  
  After decades of fitful introspection about the crimes of Hitler's Reich 
  and the burdens of atonement, the German-speaking world has recently become 
  seized with the fate of 13 million Germans who were expelled from Eastern 
  Europe in 1945 and 1946. Tens of thousands died as they fled to Germany and 
  Austria, rousted from their ancestral homes by the redrawing of Poland's 
  borders and their status as defeated pariahs in what was then 
  Czechoslovakia. 
  
  An unusual constellation in the culture that combines the leftist, Nobel 
  Prize-winning German novelist Gunter Grass with the Austrian hard-right 
  politician Jorg Haider has resurrected German suffering as a worthy if 
  still controversial topic. 
  
  Grass, in his latest novel, "Crab Walk," has fictionalized the horrific 
  death of 8,000 Germans fleeing Poland by ship in 1945. Haider has 
  capitalized on recent Czech comments that ethnic Germans expelled from the 
  Sudeten borderlands with Germany and Austria after the war were traitors 
  deserving of their rough fate. 
  
  Suddenly, the long-ago dislocated Germans are a popular sorrow. The 
  influential Austrian tabloid, Neue Kronen-Zeitung, ran an emotional series 
  last week under the headline "Death to the Germans," recounting in 
  excruciating detail the deprivations suffered at the hands of Czechs. And 
  the premier German magazine, Der Spiegel, in a cover story on Grass's 
  novel, said the last taboo was being broken as Germans moved beyond their 
  own atrocities to confront the cruelty of their neighbors. 
  
  "Since the crimes committed by us Germans were and are so overwhelming, 
  there was obviously no strength left to also talk about the history of our 
  own suffering," Grass said in the weekly German newspaper Die Woche. 
  
  The debate over whether this compulsory flight was righteous revenge for 
  Hitler's willing minions or a crime upon a crime has long been consigned in 
  Germany and Austria to the margins of political and academic consideration. 
  
  The cause of the expellees, as they are known in Germany and Austria, found 
  little or no outlet in societies busy ignoring or apologizing for the sins 
  of their fathers. To raise it too loudly smacked of apologizing for 
  fascism. 
  
  Frank Bajohr, a historian at the Institute for Contemporary History in 
  Hamburg, noted that the last broad political discussion of the expellees 
  occurred in the 1950s and was marked by a self-pity that allowed Germans to 
  avoid confronting their own crimes. 
  
  The discussion died as the horrors of the Holocaust came into focus for 
  Germans in the late 1960s. The German politician Antje Vollmer said 
  Auschwitz left no room for the subject of German tribulations. 
  
  But Austria and Germany are no longer so silent. 
  
  "With this book, Gunter Grass keeps the tragedy of millions of people who 
  suffered greatly in the expulsion from the east or who lost their lives 
  from being forgotten," former German foreign minister Hans-Dietrich 
  Genscher wrote in a recent newspaper column. "Gunter Grass is writing not 
  to settle scores, but to counter forgetting about the horrors and the 
  distress always associated with the war." 
  
  On a continent where accelerating integration through the European Union is 
  supposed to bury the bloody past, not everyone is comfortable with this 
  subject -- not least those countries that kicked the Germans out, often at 
  gunpoint. 
  
  Poles remain leery that Germans will reclaim what they lost by using their 
  wealth to buy up areas that were formerly part of Germany. For that reason, 
  in negotiations to enter the European Union, the Poles have fought for a 
  long transition period in which foreigners -- meaning Germans -- would be 
  barred from buying agricultural land. 
  
  Also, the issue of restitution remains a real fear for eastern countries, 
  which firmly oppose it. An Austrian group of expellees is threatening to 
  launch a class-action suit in U.S. courts to reclaim property, following 
  the path of Jewish groups that sought recompense for the Holocaust. 
  
  But it was Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman who galvanized political 
  interest in the expellees. He said in an interview with an Austrian 
  magazine this month that ethnic Germans were Hitler's fifth columnists, 
  bent on the destruction of Czechoslovakia. Their forced removal, he said, 
  was a founding moment in the denazification of the country and the 
  establishment of Czechoslovak sovereignty. 
  
  "Many Sudeten Germans committed treason, a crime which was punishable by 
  death according to the laws of the time," Zeman said. "If they were 
  expelled or transferred, it was more moderate than the death penalty." 
  
  That set off a firestorm in Austria and Germany, where it was interpreted 
  as assigning collective guilt to the 3 million people expelled from 
  Czechoslovakia, many of whom were children. 
  
  Haider, the power behind Austria's far-right Freedom Movement, jumped on 
  the comments, saying the Czech Republic should not be allowed to join the 
  European Union until it repeals the Benes decrees, approved by the Allies 
  at the Potsdam conference in 1945, that allowed the expulsion of Germans 
  and the seizure of their property. Expellee groups have long linked EU 
  membership for eastern countries to redress for the past, but they have 
  failed to move either the German or Austrian government. 
  
  But this time the controversy quickly spilled beyond the far right. The 
  leader of the German opposition, Edmund Stoiber, said the Benes decrees 
  were an "injury to Europe [that] must be finally healed when the European 
  Union is enlarged eastwards." German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who 
  pronounced the Sudeten question closed after the signing of a German-Czech 
  reconciliation treaty in 1998, threatened to cancel a March visit to 
  Prague. The German Parliament moved to debate the subject. Austrian 
  President Thomas Klestil called the Czech president, Vaclav Havel, to 
  complain. 
  
  And the expellees and their descendants suddenly found themselves with an 
  avalanche of welcome publicity. 
  
  "It is almost as if people are rediscovering that something was very 
  wrong," said Hildegund Pobel, a Berlin resident who was 14 when she and her 
  family were stripped of their valuables and expelled from Czechoslovakia in 
  June 1945. "It was a taboo. And in the West, hardly anyone dealt with the 
  expulsion for the last 30 years. It was something people distanced thems 
  elves from -- it was uncomfortable." 
  
  Germans with no connection to the Sudeten Germans are also now speaking 
  with none of the old self-censorship. 
  
  "I think the issue of suffering is too one-sided," said Jenny Buehnig, 33, 
  who works in a Berlin video store. "For years we have only been hearing 
  about the pain and suffering of one group. But there were other groups, 
  too, and what happened to them was not right, either. There were German 
  expellees, and they shouldn't be forgotten. But as soon as you say that, 
  you are considered a neo-Nazi." 
  
  Such sentiments worry some observers. "The expulsion was unjust, but it is 
  minor compared to what the Nazis did and cannot be understood in isolation 
  but in the larger context of the time," said Gerhard Botz, a professor of 
  history at the University of Vienna. 
  
  And Josef Harna, a historian at the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague, 
  said the Sudeten Germans were the authors of their own misery because of 
  their overwhelming support for the Nazis. The Benes decrees, he said, were 
  an expression of Czechoslovak liberty. And he rejects the idea that they 
  were a criminal ethnic cleansing, noting that anti-fascist Germans were 
  allowed to stay in their homes. 
  
  It is the historians' hope that Germany's long self-examination, which 
  began in earnest after the student revolts of 1968, may now be mature 
  enough to allow a studied consideration of the whole period, including the 
  trauma of German refugees. 
  
  More than anyone else, it is Grass, the brilliant curmudgeon of German 
  letters, who might allow this to happen. A native of Danzig, which is now 
  Gdansk in Poland, Grass has used his fiction since the publication of "The 
  Tin Drum" in 1959 to lecture his countrymen on their burdens and failings. 
  He was unsparing in lacerating Germans and just as often resented for it, 
  which makes his newest sympathy all the more surprising. 
  
  His new novel, published last week, centers on the sinking of a German 
  liner, the Wilhelm Gustloff, which was torpedoed by a Soviet submarine 
  while fleeing Danzig in January 1945. More than 8,000 people perished in 
  what is being called the German Titanic. Beyond neo-Nazi memorializations, 
  the story was little known in Germany until Grass picked it up. 
  
  Grass said he wants to reclaim that history from the fascists. The book has 
  received sterling reviews for its prose as much as for its political 
  ramifications. The distinguished literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki, a 
  Jewish survivor of the Warsaw ghetto, said on German television that he 
  nearly wept as he read "Crab Walk" and pronounced it among the "best, most 
  distressing works that Grass has written." 
  
  The response was just as emotional in the popular press. Writing in the 
  German tabloid, Bild, the columnist Franz Josef Wagner, an expellee, 
  addressed Grass and said, "My mother fled from village to village with me. 
  For that reason I did not drown in the cold water. I survived camps, hunger 
  and lice. You write about the German victims of Hitler. So many relatives 
  of mine died trying to flee. Uncles, aunts, cousins, we expellees are now 
  allowed to cry together. I thank you for this feeling." 
  
  
   2002 The Washington Post Company 
  
 
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