Over the past couple of weeks another row has broken out between the German Expellee’s Association (BdV) and just about the whole of Polish society concerning responsibility for what happened between the two countries during the years 1939 and 1949.

For the uninitiated, the BdV’s president, the Christian Democrat MP Erika Steinbach, caused the storm by supporting a claim made by two prominent BdV activists that Poland shared responsibility for the start of World War Two having mobilised its armed forces as early as March 1939. For good measure subsequently she went on to attack the character of the former Polish foreign minister (and Auschwitz survivor) Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, although these latter comments were later withdrawn. I’m not going to focus on Steinbach’s ill-considered remarks. The facts as to what really happened in 1939 are clear, and Steinbach’s singular interpretation of history needs no further comment from me.

Around the same time, Steinbach’s decidedly controversial observations were matched by a similarly bizarre outburst by the defeated Polish presidential candidate, Jarosław Kaczynski that the Polish prime minister Donald Tusk shared responsibility for the death of Jaroslaw’s twin brother Lech at Smolensk. Clearly, Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s new found moderation barely outlived his ill-fated bid for the presidency. I’m not going to comment on his claim anymore than I will on Steinbach’s I will however, offer some observation on the mind set that lies behind such utterances. It strikes me that neither Steinbach nor Kaczynski has the ability to empathise with those who hold views at variance with their own. They live in a sharply drawn world, where everything is either right or wrong, and where those who don’t fully agree with the version of events as laid down are treated as potential enemies. Moreover, both are incapable of dealing with the past as precisely that. Rather than drawing on the lessons of history in order to ensure that past mistakes and indeed crimes are not repeated, they instead utilise past injustices as a starting point for contemporary politics. Thus the BdV clings uselessly to demands that expellees receive restitution/compensation from among others the Polish government, and that expellees receive the automatic return of pre-war citizenship, coupled with an automatic right of return to the places from which they were expelled. What happened to German civilians in the former Ostgebiete (eastern territories) and elsewhere as the war drew to a close, and in the months and years after the cessation of hostilities was to put it mildly, wrong. However, the question I pose is why is it that after the best part of 70 years Erika Steinbach and others cling to a position that is not only lacking in perspective, but is irrelevant within the context of European unity? Erika Steinbach is obsessed by an historical injustice. The consequence is that although she is fully aware of nature of the German occupation of Poland, she is oblivious to their relevance to today’s Poland. Nothing matters as much as the subsequent wrongs done to German civilians. Kaczynski is similarly obsessed by historical injustice. Although he knows the truth of the situation to have been in reality somewhat different, he takes the public position that all the tribulations visited upon Poland during the twentieth century can be laid at the doors of Russia and Germany. For Kaczynski, politics begins and ends with these two simple ‘facts’. Relations with contemporary Russia and Germany are governed by the fact that in 1939, amid an orgy of deportations and mass killings, Germany and the Russian-dominate Soviet Union attempted to destroy both the Polish state and nation. Both Erika Steinbach and Jaroslaw Kaczynski are prisoners of a web of their own making. Honourable individuals in their own right, for a variety of reasons they are unable to understand and appreciate the perspectives of others on issues that provide a rationale and context for their own political perspectives. They are both unable to consider alternative viewpoints because they have constructed an intellectual prism which in turn has ensnared them.

Where does this then leave either individual? In Germany the BdV is an organisation that is increasingly irrelevant to both wider society (including surviving expellees), and to the overall conduct of national politics. With regard to Poland, the ideas propagated by Kaczynski do still strike a chord with a substantial section of society. Despite its much vaunted democratic traditions, Poland’s experience of liberal democracy is more limited than is Germany’s. On the other hand, there is every sign that as Poland at last shakes off decades of authoritarian rule, that in turn pre-dates the attempted Sovietisation of Polish society, the audience for the likes of Jaroslaw Kaczynski continues to shrink. Erica Steinbach and Jaroslaw Kaczynski are not only members of a community of fate, they are more alike than either would care to admit.

Karl Cordell is Professor of Politics at the University of Plymouth, UK, and is co-editor of Ethnopolitics

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