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300,000 displaced; 88% of total)

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(over 5,000,000 expelled and displaced, nearly 100%) COMING SOON

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(nearly 1,000,000 to Germany and Kazakhstan) COMING SOON




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distorted historical memory and ethnic nationalism as a cause for our forgetting the expelled germans

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HOW TO CITE THIS SCHOLARLY ESSAY: Institute for Research of Expelled Germans. "Distorted historical memory and ethnic nationalism as a cause for our forgetting the expelled Germans." http://expelledgermans.org/distortedmemory.htm (accessed Day-Month-Year).

This article supports our essay on the progressive abandonment of the expelled Germans by the governments of Germany, Poland, and the Czech Republic (click here), and our essay on the problem of ethnic bias and nationalist revisionism among scholars today (click here). This article analyzes how each involved nation's version of historical memory (including that of the German nationalists), as well as enduring ethnic nationalism, are a major cause for our present complete lack of awareness of ethnic cleansings against German civilians. The article places blame equally at the feet of the Germans as it does the nations in denial of their complicity in the ethnic cleansings of more than 10,000,000 civilians on lines of ethnic exclusion.

 

German, Polish, and Czech scholars and citizens have so far been unable to divorce their enduring ethnic pride, revanchism, and nationalistic versions of history from the basic need to simply commemorate the universalized removal of a people on ethnic grounds. Despite the new rhetoric of multi-cultural cooperation in the European Union, the seemingly sacral nature of ethnic identities, nationalism, and national history have remained unshakable. Old wounds persist unhealed, and inter-cultural tensions endure strongly in Europe today. As a result, the contradictory distortions of history by each involved culture has been one of the major obstacles to commemoration of the ethnic cleansing, and in shaping our general politics of forgetting.

Due to the maelstrom of brutality, genocides, and population transfers by so many different belligerent actors during World War II, as well as the role of these struggles in creating national myths, each European culture views the war and its aftermath through its own distinct lens of historical memory. Each version of history as framed by these ethnic identities is severely biased and obfuscatory.

The Germans are ambivalent. For some, the expelled Germans were the last victims of Hitler's war, subjected to ethnic cleansing as a byproduct of the brutality of the German army and National Socialism. For others, the diasporic Germans were victims of Red Army atrocities and often-exaggerated mass rapes. In both interpretations, the expelled German civilians are, in general, depicted as innocent victims of a brutal ethnic cleansing. For nationalists (and a sizable portion of Germans), the somber memory of ethnic cleansing is tied to the romanticized loss of Germany's eastern territories and Prussia, the founding locus of German statehood and reunification in 1871. Nationalists equally overlook the mass forced relocation of native Polish families to make way for German “living space,” portraying the conquest of Poland as the mere “recovery” of ancient German territory. The expulsion of Germans from the forfeited territories are, for most Germans, not seen as the removal of criminal Nazi settlers, but of innocent German families who settled centuries ago and laid the foundations for state-building and modernization in Eastern Europe. As in all cases, historical memory is vastly distorted by chauvinism, nationalism, and irredentism. In the eyes of most Germans, therefore, a great crime has been committed against civilians and must be acknowledged. The perpetrators of this crime are understood differently, either being primarily the Soviets, Poles and Czechs, the Allies, or all of the above. However, due to the German government's effective betrayal of the memory of the ethnic cleansing and the other factors outlined in this essay, even many Germans are unaware of this history.

For the Poles, understandably, history is understood completely differently than in the Germanocentric account. With great truth, Poles see the war as a catastrophic era of German malevolence against the Polish people and the extinction of their long-awaited sovereignty. Poles emphasize the fact that Poland suffered more than almost any other nation during the war, primarily the fault of the Germans, having lost nearly 21.4% of their total population. [1] Like the Russians and Soviets, the Germans – not merely the state but the ethnic identity altogether – were seen as the mortal enemies of Polish nationality and statehood. The modern framework of uniform identities and collective guilt, as facilitated by both the Third Reich and authoritarian Poland before the war, paved the way for the universal victimization of the German minority on exclusionary ethnic lines. Now, as a result of Berlin's atrocities, the modernizing state framed it such that to be German was to be a Nazi regardless of one's personal ideology or nationality. As a result, the German minority that had settled in Poland, often for as many as seven centuries since the rule of the German Teutonic Order, was now universally seen as a subversive, “Fifth Column” remnant of Nazi occupation. As Poles understood it, they were simply resolving a teleological struggle against centuries of German hegemony by expelling their physical presence. The fact that more than 436,000 ethnic Germans were transferred from the rest of Eastern Europe to occupied Poland under Heinrich Himmler's orders and often placed in the stolen homes of Polish citizens further emphasized the belief that the German minority was almost synonymous with Nazi imperialism. [2]

That most ethnic Germans populated the eastern territories of Prussia, Pomerania, and Silesia that Poles consider to be just as Polish as German further reinforced the national mythos that the German minority was an element of foreign occupation. The Poles, therefore, interpret the meaning of their national space differently than the Germans. This framework of a Polish national space inevitably facilitated their post-war program to purify the heterogeneous lands that were seen as being the historical property of the Polish people. For this reason, Poles are often bitterly angered when Germans raise the question of the ethnic cleansing because they logically associate it with the irredentism and “Prussian militarism” so typically connected with the Germans. [3] German implications of Polish atrocities consistently reignite inter-ethnic tension between the two cultures, [4] leading to a noticeable mutual ethnic antipathy on both sides of the border even today. [5] Thus, the Poles have their own version of this same history just as the Germans do. This dichotomy, combined with the role of intense ethnic nationalism and national myth on both sides, makes a fair discussion of the ethnic cleansing greatly inconvenient and problematic.

Additionally, Poles and especially Polish nationalists often insist that they played no or little direct role in the ethnic cleansing against the civilian “Fifth Column.” Instead, they deflect the blame onto the Soviet Red Army, which equally terrorized the Poles as they did the German minorities and equally vanquished Polish sovereignty as did the Nazis. [6] Under this modus of collective memory, the expulsions were not the conscious orchestration of the Polish state, but an unfortunate byproduct of a terrible war, of Nazi criminality, and the inhumane legacy of Communism and Soviet hegemony. Poles also rightfully emphasize that at the same time as Germans were being expelled (by the Soviets, they claim), Joseph Stalin orchestrated the systematic expulsion of more than 2,000,000 ethnic Poles from eastern Poland, now shorn of its territory just like Germany. [7] Polish memory of World War II almost solely revolves around the persistent victimization of Poles by both Germans and Soviets, especially emphasizing the massacre of over 20,000 Polish officers by the Soviets at Katyn. Many also argue angrily that the comparatively poor nation of Poland should not be forced to compensate Germany when Poles themselves hardly received any from Berlin for the mass deportations, forced labor, and murders of Poles during the war. [8] They argue that a half-billion Deutschmarke was hardly enough to alleviate the loss of 21.4% of Poland's population. [9] Given the Polish understanding of these historical processes, most Poles are stunned and angered when Germans claim to have suffered during the war. In such an environment, commemoration efforts are greatly obstructed.

These deflections and obfuscations of Polish responsibility ignore the direct orchestration by the Polish government in organizing the forced labor and expulsion of its heterogeneous minorities. Not only did Polish Communist First Secretary Władysław Gomułka assert that the Polish state and its national space be built on lines of ethnic homogeneity, [10] but he argued that the territorial purification programs were a prerequisite for establishing a lastly-independent Polish homeland with inviolable sovereignty and solidarity. [11] The Polish version of this history bypasses the government internment of ethnic Germans in forced labor camps prior to their expulsion, often in the same concentration camps used by the Nazis (like the Zgoda subcamp of Auschwitz itself), with the same food rations, and using white armbands to single out the German ethnic identity as universally criminal. [12, 13] It overlooks the estimated 20- to as many as 50% death rate in the labor camps prior to their expulsion. [14] It omits the general reality that the post-war state, in its effort to attain modernity and national unity, consciously pursued its right to exist by homogenizing its national space through ethnic cleansing.

The Czechs, too, have their own version of historical memory. They emphasize the role of their former Sudeten German minority in “causing” the dismantlement of Czechoslovak statehood at the Munich Conference of 1938. The Germans, at that point 28.8% of the national population, had rapidly gravitated towards pan-German nationalism, overwhelmingly supporting the pro-Hitler Konrad Henlein. The collapse of Czechoslovak sovereignty began with their German minority's call for the annexation of the Sudetenland region into the Third Reich. Thus, as Czechs and Slovaks remember, their German minority was the very cause of their suffering and the extinction of their independence. They were seen as the impetus for years of anguish under the police state of Gestapo chief Reinhardt Heydrich. Under this interpretation, the post-war expulsion of the German minority along lines of universalized ethnic exclusion was a necessary process of state-building and liberation from Nazi imperialism. To be German was to be a Nazi, a criminal awaiting the justice of the reborn Czechoslovak state. As for the Poles, the notion that Germans would claim to have suffered during the war is inconceivable to most Czechs. This singular memory of history, as fueled by Czech nationalism and national identity, greatly obstructs any dialogue between Germans and Czechs over the basic question of how to simply acknowledge the ethnic cleansing.

This version of history critically obfuscates the diverse motivations for the overall Nazification of the German minority by falsely and universally equating German nationalism with gas chambers and Hitler's atrocities. The Sudeten Germans gravitated towards pan-Germanism primarily because they perceived themselves (with only limited truth) to be a marginalized ethnic minority in a Slavocentric state, because they believed themselves to be unfairly taxed and disproportionately affected by government agricultural redistribution, and because they perceived pan-Germanism to be more responsive to their social interests than obeisance to the Czechoslovak state. Considering the early timeframe, they did not become Nazified because they advocated mass murder, world war, the Holocaust, or the direct abolition of the Czechoslovak nation. Especially by the end of the war and the radicalization of Nazi atrocities, the previous unity of the Sudeten Germans under the Nazi banner fragmented into diverse political ideologies. That all Germans were universally equated with Nazi atrocities by the reborn Czechoslovak state ignored the complicated historical evolution of the German minority.

Czech historical memory overlooks the fact that the Czechoslovak government directly orchestrated the depopulation of their entire German minority solely along markers of ethnic distinction, with only 800,000 to remain for forced labor prior to their impending expulsion with the rest of the Germans. [15] It forgets the fact that the diverse ideologies of the victims were irrelevant: whether National Socialist, left-liberal, or Communist, all Germans were affected by discriminatory ethnic policies. [16] It ignores the history that even children – incapable of commitment to irredentist subversion or Nazi atrocities – were also expelled and interned, and forced to wear white armbands to single them out for removal alongside their parents. [17] This historical memory omits the fact that ethnic Germans and Hungarians were jailed in many of the same camps used by the Gestapo and the SS, including the famous Theresienstadt. It forgets that despite government orders to make the expulsions humane, at least 6,000 Germans were shot or executed, [18, 19] and that rogue commanders organized the filling of mass graves with German civilians without official approval. [20] It forgets that thousands of civilians starved to death on long forced marches with no food to the distant border with Austria only to be turned back by the border guards, and had to march all the way back to the prison camps, further exacerbating the death toll. [21]

The importance of “founding fathers” and symbols of sovereignty in Czech national identity further hinders the collective willingness of Czechs to even consider any complicity in ethnic cleansing. As in the case of the Armenian Genocide, Turkey has refused to acknowledge any injustice committed against their Armenian minority because it would directly implicate Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the very symbol of Turkish national identity and the embodiment of the republic's raison d'etre. To undermine the founding fathers undermines the entire concept of Turkishness and the proud laicized state. The Czechs find their analogue in Edvard Beneš, their national hero, fighter for independence, and president of Czechoslovakia from 1935-38 and again after the war from 1945-48. Beneš is revered in Czech historical memory for maintaining the sole democracy in Central Europe until it was betrayed by the Allies and obliterated by the National Socialists, for fighting for Czechoslovakia in exile, and for returning after the war to rebuild a sovereign state on a unified basis of nationalism and purified ethnic homogeneity. His fall from power in 1948 after Soviet occupation further imbues him with the romanticized image of a Czechoslovak hero and freedom fighter.

This romanticized memory of Czech history overlooks the fact that the same hero imposed the Beneš Decrees on its civilian population, which legalized the confiscation of property from the Hungarian and German minorities and facilitated their removal. It ignores the direct platform of the reborn Czechoslovak state to purify its national space in order to create a unified, centralized nation and attain modernity. It was noted by a foreign traveler in post-war Czechoslovakia that the “nation survives only on its hope for revenge.” [22] This revenge was directed not against Berlin, but against the German ethnicity itself along modern lines of singular exclusion. The Czech version of history obscures the fact that Beneš himself used the same vocabulary as the Third Reich on his project of state-building, announcing that the Czechs and Slovaks must achieve their own “Lebensraum” via “the departure or expulsion” of all Germans accused of collaboration with the Nazi imperialists (eventually to apply to nearly all ethnic Germans). [23] Beneš continued that “the German question in our republic must be liquidated,” encouraging the Czechs and Slovaks to “wait patiently...to cleanse the republic.” [24] Foreign Minister Tomáš Masaryk reflected similarly after the expulsions that the nation was finally “finished with the Germans of Czechoslovakia...There is no possible way to get us to live under the same umbrella again.” [25] Only through the homogenization of the nation could a free Czechoslovakia be re-established. Like the Poles, the Czechoslovak state pursued its right to exist by their removal of these minority elements it deemed to be the source of their collective demise and the extinction of their sovereignty. The direct role of the Czechs' “founding fathers” in facilitating the ethnic cleansing has been conveniently forgotten in Czech historical memory, similar to how many German nationalists diminish the horrendous Nazi atrocities and focus solely on the so-called “genocide” against ethnic Germans. [26, 27]
As all of these factors demonstrate, enduring ethnic chauvinism, romanticism, and national pride as common to all three ethnic groups greatly cloud any attempt to commemorate or even acknowledge the deaths of more than 400,000 civilians. What the Germans remember as ethnic cleansing or even genocide, the Czechs and Poles remember as merely the punishment of Nazi criminals and the formation of states long denied their sovereignty by German hegemony.

The polarity in historical memory between these three peoples has recently been epitomized in the case of Germany's Erika Steinbach. A member of the Federation of Expellees and an MP, Steinbach is easily the foremost advocate of expellee restitution. In 2000, she began organized the construction of a “Centre Against Expulsion” in Berlin with partial federal sponsorship. Intended to denounce ethnic cleansing and displacement in general and not only the suffering of the Germans, the very notion of commemorating the expulsion of German civilians has even become a major obstacle to the overall diplomatic relations between Germany, Poland, and the Czech Republic. Poles almost universally reject the idea of the Centre Against Expulsion, with some calling it a “Centre Against Reconciliation [between the two nations].” They argue that, due to underlying inherent German nationalism, the Centre would equate German plight with that of the Poles. [28] President Jaroslaw Kaczynski further reflected this national perception by insisting that the Germans should “remember who was the perpetrator and who was the victim.” [29] Due to nationalism, the media hysteria over the subject of commemoration in Poland and the Czech Republic has made the relatively insignificant Federation of Expellees seem like a central mover of German foreign policy. [30] For these reasons, Steinbach is now more famous in the two complicit countries than in Germany itself. [31] A 2003 cover montage in the Polish magazine Wprost depicted Steinbach riding Chancellor Schröder whilst wearing an SS uniform, reflecting a deeply-ingrained equation in Polish memory that Germans of even remote national sentiment are prone to German irredentism and revisionism. In 2007, Gazeta Wyborcza reproduced the montage and added their own that portrayed a triptych with Steinbach next to an SS man and a knight of the crusading Teutonic Order. As this symbolic imagery demonstrates, Poles remember history – with much credence – as one of a consistent struggle against enduring German hegemony. At the groundbreaking 2010 academic conference "The Forgotten Genocide" in St. Louis, Missouri (where the Institute for Research of Expelled Germans was represented), historian and surviving Sudeten German Rudolf Püschel gave a speech on the person of Erika Steinbach and her role in German politics (see video below).


Historian and survivor Rudolf Püschel speaks at an academic conference on the Sudeten Germans and Erika Steinbach in St. Louis, Missouri (Click HERE to watch the remaining speech segments)

The raising of discussion of Polish atrocities by Germans and expellee advocates like Erika Steinbach is therefore inconceivable in the Polish version of historical memory. The Poles' perceived connection between Germans and imperial ambitions has direct implications on the commemoration effort, since most Germans were cleansed from regions in Poland that are a source of bitter dispute between the two peoples. The prominent Polish magazine Rzeczpospolita expressed concern that the “Germanness” of Prussia, Silesia, and Pomerania – now depopulated of Germans – was a significant underlying focus of the Centre. It is seen as the resurfacing of German “Drang nach Osten” and irredentism. [32] They feared that the Centre was focused almost exclusively on the suffering of ethnic Germans. [33] Others pointed out that Steinbach was not innocently commemorating an ethnic cleansing, but was herself of questionable character. They claimed that Steinbach refused to accept the forfeiture of Prussia and the eastern territories to Poland in 1990, and is therefore a closet nationalist and historical revisionist. [34] Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski reflected that Steinbach was a poor choice to represent the Centre because she “came to our country with Hitler and had to flee with Hitler...she was never expelled...The people who were really expelled were the Polish family driven from their home in which Steinbach later lived, in a land that wasn't hers.” [35] As this reveals, Polish national sentiment interprets the drive to commemorate the ethnic cleansing as being subconsciously tied to German expansionism and a romanticized claim to the “lost lands” of the east. This hostile environment, with equal fault on both sides, makes dispassionate commemoration almost impossible.

Polish Foreign Minister Władysław Bartoszewski even reflected the polarity in national memory by suggesting that if the Germans were to build their Centre Against Expulsion, the Poles should construct their own variant that emphasizes the timeless belligerence of the Germans against the Polish nation even going back to the Partitions of Poland in the eighteenth century. [36] This exemplified the popular Polish interpretation that the Germans uprooted from Poland were not innocent settlers, but a legacy of centuries of foreign intrusion and the obstruction of the long-awaited Polish statehood. Bartoszewski refused to even speak with Steinbach, exclaiming, “I will not argue with this person. She does not exist for me. I will not do her the honour of entering into a debate with her.” [37] Prime Minister Donald Tusk agreed that “our position is firm. This person [Steinbach] is unacceptable for Poland...Steinbach is a problem for our country.” [38] Similarly, former Czech Prime Minister Miloš Zeman put in the Czechs' interpretation by reminding the Germans and Steinbach that the expelled Germans were “traitors” and “Hitler's fifth column,” greatly angering many Germans. [39] German Chancellor Angela Merkel has tacitly accepted the construction of the Centre, but insisted to the Poles that she would ensure that the general crime of ethnic cleansing and displacement be the focus of the scholarship, rather than solely the suffering of Germans. Donald Tusk, upon hearing the agreement, effectively declared the burial of the memory of ethnic cleansing a “good solution for Poland and Germany.” [40] German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer encouraged Merkel to consider that we “should not be prisoners of history.” [41] Ironically, only days later, he commemorated the memory of German atrocities against Jews and Namibians, still leaving many increasingly-disgruntled Germans as prisoners of that tragic history.

As these statements illustrate, merely discussing the question of commemorating the death of more than 400,000 civilians incites the deep-seated forces of polar ethnic identities, nationalism, and inter-cultural antipathy. The Germans, Czechs, and Poles each have their own distorted memories of this extremely controversial past. In an environment of such discordant nationalisms, any dispassionate discussion has been vastly obstructed by the modern states, which prefer economics and national romanticism to acknowledgment of one of the worst forced population exchanges of the twentieth century. As a result, our collective memory has forgotten the ethnic cleansing altogether.


 

___________________________________

Citations/Footnotes

1) Tadeusz Piotrowski, Poland's Holocaust: Ethnic Strife, Collaboration with Occupying Forces and Genocide in the Second Republic, 1918-1947 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 1998), 295.

2) Burleigh, 596.


3) Charles Hawley, “Lingering Fears: Is the World Ready for German Victimhood?,” http://www.spiegel.de/international/0,1518,383263,00.html


4) Jerzy Lukowski, A Concise History of Poland (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 328.


5) Lutomski, 450.

6) Anna Fotyga, “Statement of the [Polish] Minister of the Foreign Affairs,”
http://www.msz.gov.pl/index.php?document=8688


7) Mark Blacksell, “Private Property Restitution: The Geographical Consequences of Official Government Policies in Central and Eastern Europe,” The Geographic Journal, Vol. 168, No. 2 (2002): 178-190.


8) Dingell.


9) Ibid.


10) Burleigh, 800.

11) Mazower, 217.


12) Ibid.


13) Burleigh 800.


14) Zygmunt Wozniczka, "Oboz pracy w swietochlowicach," (Dzieje Najnowsze, Rocznik, 31, No. 4, 1999), 18.

15) Institute for Research of Expelled Germans, "The removal and discriminatory laws of Czechoslovakia against Carpathian and Sudeten Germans,” http://expelledgermans.org/sudetengermans.htm


16) Burleigh, 799.

17) Naimark, 117.


18) Rüdiger Overmans, Personelle Verluste der deutschen Bevolkerung durcht Flucht und
Vertreibung
(Dzieje Najnowsze, 1994), 2.


19) Eagle Glassheim, "National Mythologies and Ethnic Cleansing: The Expulsion of Czechoslovak Germans in 1945," Central European History, Vol. 33, No. 4 (2000): 463.


20) Institute for Research of Expelled Germans, "The removal and discriminatory laws of Czechoslovakia against Carpathian and Sudeten Germans," http://expelledgermans.org/sudetengermans.htm


21) Ibid.

22) Glassheim, 471.


23) Ibid., 473-4.


24) Ibid., 471.


25) Naimark, 122.

26) Andrzej Sakson, “Interview with A. Dybczynski,” 10 March, 2004.


27) Cordell, 103.


28) Mark Landler, “Poles riled by Berlin exhibition,” New York Times, 30 August, 2006.


29) Ibid.


30) Cordell, 149.

31) Ibid.


32) Jaromir Sokołowski, “Odwetowcy czy ofiary historii?,” Rzeczpospolita, http://rzeczpospolita.pl/dodatki/plus_minus_030920/plus_minus_a_6.html


33) Ibid.


34) Deutsche Welle 2, “Merkel Says She Won't Insist on Disputed Museum Post,” http://www.dw-world.de/dw/article/0,,4057645,00.html

35) Stanislaw Waszak, “Poland ups the pressure in WWII memorial feud with Germany,” Expatica, http://www.expatica.com/nl/news/news_focus/Poland-ups-the-pressure-in-WWII-memorial-
feud-with-Germany--_49974.html


36) Lutomski, 455.


37) AFP/Expatica, “German and Polish leaders to meet amid memorial feud,” http://www.expatica.com/nl/news/dutch-news/German-and-Polish-leaders-to-meet-amid-memorial-feud--_49870.html


38) Waszak.


39) Cordell, 98.

40) Staff Writer, 2008, “Expulsion Center 'No Longer Poisoning German-Polish Relations',” http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/0,1518,533503,00.html

41) Kroeger.

 

 

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