» (E) neglected victim of WW II by Gunter Grass
|(E) neglected victim of WW II by Gunter Grass
|By Nenad N. Bach |
(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.
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
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
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
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
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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