The turn of the century marked a point of change in Germany’s culture of remembrance regarding World War II. The widely and controversially discussed publications of well-respected authors Günter Grass and Jörg Friedrich illustrated a new German victimhood. Both of their works dealt with the sufferings of Germans during and after the war and thus moved this – according to them – left-out topic into the center of attention. While Grass’ (2002) novel “Krebsgang (Crabwalk)” was representing the painful and deadly flight from Eastern territories, Friedrich’s (2002) book “Der Brand”, published in the same year, addressed the cruelties of the Allied bombings on German cities.
In particular the subject of expulsion and flight has more and more come to the fore of the debate. Already in 1999, the Federation of Expellees (Bund der Vertriebenen, BdV), an umbrella organization of numerous Landsmannschaften and supra-regional associations, has expressed plans for a Berlin-based center against expulsions (Zentrum gegen Vertreibung). This center would remember German victims and document the history of forced migration in the 20th century. Within Germany but also from countries like Poland and the Czech Republic, the project was criticized and accused of being intended revisionist and one-sided. Therefore, the concept was not taken over by the SPD-led Schröder Government. The CDU however, took up the BdV’s demand for a memorial and documentation center in their campaign for the early federal election of 2005. After winning most votes and having formed a grand coalition with the Social Democrats, the coalition agreement states: the governing parties want to set a “visible sign” in Berlin in order to “remember the injustice of expulsion and ostracize it forever” (Koalitionsvertrag, 2005, p.132). Nevertheless, the major questions that remained to be answered were concerning the design of this “visible sign”. After two and a half years of discussions, the cabinet had achieved a compromise on this sensitive issue in spring 2008. The Government decided to establish an exhibition and information center in which the expulsion of millions of Germans from Eastern and Central Europe should be commemorated. To do so, the federal foundation “Flight, Expulsion, Reconciliation” would be set up. One major point of the compromise included that the design and the prerogative of interpretation is not in the hands of an interest group like the BdV. Instead, the aim was to achieve a consensus-based project of the society as a whole. However, as this paper shows, not even the parliamentary representation of the society (parties and deputies) in Berlin was able to reach a consensus. Since it was a government initiative, it also had to pass and be discussed by the Bundestag. These debates vividly illustrate that the political parties were divided on the topic. But how and why did the parties discuss the memory of flight and expulsion so differently and controversially?
To get answers to these questions, this study identifies the main discussion points of the debate surrounding this initiative, the different positions of the respective parties, and their underlying motives/reasons. The study looks at the five parties/groups represented in the German Bundestag during the period of the discussions (CDU/CSU, SPD, FDP, Greens, and the Left Party/PDS). A combination of primary and secondary research was chosen: The research process begins with an analysis of parliament debates to identify the discussion points and the parties’ positions. Secondary sources are then used to expand and contextualize the insights gained from the debate analysis and to give answers on reasons and motives.
Two main parliament debates were selected which deal with the foundation “Flight, Expulsion, Reconciliation” (appendix 1). The first one took place in 2008 and is about the law to establish the foundation. The second one, two years later, discussed an amendment to the law to modify the foundation’s council. The protocols of the debates were analyzed following a qualitative analysis of content structuring after Mayring (2015). This process includes an intra-case analysis for each debate where the answers are paraphrased, generalized, translated, and reduced to relevant codes. In total, 72 codes were identified and reduced to 52 (appendix 2). Followed by an inter-case analysis where all the identified codes of the two debates were bundled and reduced to twelve different discussion points (appendix 3). Appendix 4 shows a grouping of the results.
3.1. Primary Research
Following a structured analysis of the two parliament protocols, five discussion points were identified: Moral Question, Project Dimension, Diplomatic Relations, Set-Up of Foundation, and the organization “Bund der Vertriebenen (BdV)” (Federation of Expellees).
The category of moral question is about the proper way to commemorate the victims of expulsions. Especially from a German perspective this question raised concerns among the parties. Here three sub-categories were identified: The comparing of sufferings, the abuse of history, and the German responsibility. The Greens emphasize that German crimes could lose attention during the process of commemorating expulsion victims and warn against revisionist tendencies of the foundation. The Christian Democrats and the FDP however point out that sufferings cannot be set off against each other (CDU) and that remembering German victims does not automatically lead to a mitigation of German crimes (FDP). The SPD warns against a re-interpretation of history and makes clear that the topic is also a German question because of the country’s responsibility for the outbreak of World War II.
One of the most discussed question is the scope of the foundation’s purpose. Being a German initiative, should it consequently focus on the German history of expulsion? Or should it, in times of European integration and globalization, rather reflect a European or even a Global dimension? Raising questions like these, it is surprising to identify a certain consensus on the importance of a European orientation. The CDU is most-frequently mentioning the European aspect of the foundation and even refers to it as a worldwide sign against expulsion. The SPD starts off stating that the emphasis is on the expulsion of Germans, to then point out that German history and remembrance are a European matter and a part of European integration. Also the Greens are advocating for both, a German and a European focus. The FDP would like to see all three degrees reflected in the foundation’s work while the Left Party advocates for the European.
The discussion of the project also represented a burden for Germany’s diplomatic relations to its Eastern neighbors: The initiative faced strong criticisms from the Czech Republic and Poland. For example, the location Berlin was a dissent with government representatives of Poland but also the role of the BdV (Lutomski, 2004). Until the start of Donald Tusk’s presidency in 2007, the Polish Government rejected direct cooperation on the subject of expulsion. This far-reaching issue was only tackled by the SPD, the Left Party and the Greens, all condemning that this young project has already caused such disruption.
The foundation’s set-up was another extensively discussed topic. It included a debate on the place, the general process, and the composition of the foundation’s council. Here we see similarities among parties of the left spectrum (Left Party, SPD, Greens). The loudest critics come from the Left Party which strongly opposes Berlin as location to remember the consequences of WWII: “the place from which all the murderous crimes arose” (Deutscher Bundestag, 2008). In addition, they criticize that the general set-up-process has been too fast and, sharing the opinion of the Greens, not transparent and open enough. Regarding the council, the Left Party and the SPD would like to see members representing other minorities like Sinti Roma or Muslims. In contrast to these views, the other side argues that there is no better place than Berlin to achieve visibility and impact (FDP) and both, CDU and FDP, believe that the council’s set-up would increase its democratic legitimacy.
Underlying almost all discussions and a very controversial topic on its own is the role of the BdV, the Federation of Expellees. Besides discussing the organization in general, critics hit their initiative “Center against Expulsion”, their former influential leader Ms Steinbach, and their degree of influence. Here the pattern mentioned above becomes visible again: CDU and FDP are very well disposed to the association. The Christian Democrats are even open to take over content from their “Center against Expulsion” to the foundations work. In addition, they backed their party colleague Steinbach and advocated for a greater say of the BdV. The Social Democrats believe that no extra rights should be given to the BdV since it is an official government initiative which affects the whole society. Moreover, they reject the “Center against Expulsion”, criticize Ms Steinbach’s role, and, supported by Greens and the Left, strongly warn against too much influence.
3.2. Secondary Research
This section aims to better understand the reasons and motives behind the identified positions. Very noticeable is the positive attitude of the Christian Democrats towards the Federation of Expellees on whose demands the whole initiative is based. Looking back in history, there is a tradition of this behavior. An insightful work is the book “After the expulsion” by Ahonen (2010) which analyzes the relation of German parties with the expellee lobby. In 1953, there was an overarching consensus among the three main parties (CDU, SPD, FDP) on foreign-policy demands by expellee organizations which represented a significant voter group. Being considered a non-partisan interest group, the competition over their sympathy was high. Even the very pro-expellee Adenauer had to accept losing votes due to concerns of expellees about his policy of Western integration (too little weight to reunification and too insensitive to the loss of eastern territories). Whereas the SPD, putting great effort on reunification and the borders of 1937 seemed to be more attractive, albeit only for a short period (Hirsch, 2003). However, Ahonen (2010) argues that in the following decades, the expellee lobby had lost power and influence on the parties due to relaxing tensions with the East and “broader generational, social, and attitudinal changes in West German society” (p.266). “The SPD and the FDP moved towards new policy positions, gradually distancing themselves from the expellee lobby, while the CDU/CSU remained much more supportive of expellee-associated Ostpolitik doctrines” (Ahonen, 2010, p. 266). The policies of the Social-Liberal Government meant significant setbacks for the organization (e.g. Warsaw and Moscow Treaty), causing the expellee lobby to shift from being a non-partisan interest group to one that is closely-tied to CDU/CSU. Besides foreign policy, the SPD’s struggle in attracting expellees had deeper roots. Firstly, due to the agrarian structure of the former German Eastern territories, the conservative spirit among expellees was generally more dominant (Lee, 1999). Secondly, “the experience of flight and expulsion had left the majority of the displaced persons with a pronounced sense of anticommunism and anti-socialism” (Lee, 1999, p. 137). Moreover, worth mentioning is Ahonen’s (2010) analysis that the Christian Democrats were using the expellee lobby in a manipulative way. The party and specifically Adenauer took over their demands and supported them only to achieve their own goals and not out of true conviction (p.115).
4. Discussion and Interpretation
The discussion on the foundation “Flight, Expulsion, Reconciliation” shows that there is no common position among German parties and that patterns of the past remain visible. The Christian Democrats were driving the initiative (triggered by BdV actions and by Grass’ and Friedrich’s wave of German victimhood). CDU/CSU picked on the debate on how to commemorate German victims of expulsion and translated it into a position strongly oriented on the expellee lobby (cp. “Center of Expulsion” by BdV). The strong ties to the expellee lobby have a long tradition. Although the impact of expellees as voters has significantly decreased, the topic of expulsion still gives the Christian Democrats an opportunity to express truly conservative positions shaping their profile. Not only this is a continuation of Ahonen’s findings, also the use of expulsion as mean to justify own policies can still be observed. CDU leader Merkel for example connects the fate of the expellees with the ongoing European migrant crisis and asks for more understanding and empathy (Tagesspiegel, 2016) (DIE WELT, 2018).