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“Center against Expulsions” - Issue of Human Rights or Political Provocation?


On November 11, 2005, the parties of the new German government stated the following in their coalition contract: “The coalition dedicates itself to the social and historical review of the legacy of forced migration, flight and expulsion. In connection with the European Network for Remembrance and Solidarity within the hitherto participating countries of Poland, Hungary and Slovakia, we want to establish a visible sign in Berlin as well, following the spirit of reconciliation in order to remember the injustice of displacement and to outlaw expulsion forever.” 


In March 1999, the national board and administrative committee of the League of Expellees (“Bund der Vertriebenen”, BdV) declared their will to initiate a project for the documentation and processing of German and European displacements on their Day of German Expellees (“Tag der deutschen Heimatvertriebenen”) in Berlin. The name of this project is the Center against Expulsions (“Zentrum gegen Vertreibung”, ZgV). It took more than one year before the first founding concept of this project was published and transmitted to Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, the Polish foreign minister at the time. The foundation for the establishment of this center was founded in September 2000 – with Erika Steinbach (MP, CDU) and Prof. Dr. Peter Glotz (former executive secretary of the SPD and former MP, SPD) presiding as chairpersons. 

Since its inception, a lively and controversial discussion about the establishment of this Center developed and raised many mixed emotions – both in Poland as well as in Germany. Eventually, the Center even strained Polish-German relations. For instance, in 2004, the Sejm (i.e. the lower chamber of the Polish parliament) decided, without a single vote of dissention, to claim financial compensation for the destructions caused by the German occupying forces during World War II. This was intended to be an answer to possible territorial claims of the so-called Prussian Claims Conference (“Preussische Treuhand”). 

It is amazing to see how frantic the situation became in Central Europe, more than 50 years after the war, and long after occupations and expulsions had ended. The aim of this paper is to present the controversial topic of the Center against Expulsions in the context of human rights and contemporary Polish-German relations. Our personal backgrounds as a young Polish-German team working together on this issue contributed to our approach to the subject and guided us to a conclusion with mutual understanding and future possibilities in mind.

Historical background - from the Inter-war period to World War II

The best way to understand this complicated situation and all the difficult feelings involved is to briefly present the historical background. To do this, we will begin with the inter-war period and take a look at the minority policies that were conducted in Poland at that time. 

The German population first began to move into Poland during the middle ages and the last major flow occurred during the World War II. Starting from the 19th century, an outflow of the German population out of Poland was also taking place in a process called East Flow (“Ostflucht”). From this point onward, the German minority living in Poland was systematically increasing until the inter-war period when there were about 800,000 people of German nationality living on Polish territories. The German minority was represented by so-called consolidation groups – social, charitable or religious associations – and by several independent political parties. Both consolidation groups and political parties pursued five main policies: nationalistic, Christian, socialistic, national socialistic and pro-Polish (amicable). The German minority was actively taking part in Polish political life.  

On the 1st of September 1939, Germany invaded the second Republic of Poland. Shortly after the Polish army had been defeated, the Nazis began to introduce a regime of terror and violence in the occupied territories by setting up assignment groups of the SS (“SS-Einsatzgruppen”), units of the German army (“Wehrmacht”), groups of German minorities (who were called “Selbstschutzverbände” - Unions for Self-Protection) and by introducing the Nazi administration.  

The “Germanization” policy, the killing of Jews, and wild expulsions started almost immediately. This led to arbitrary shootings and public executions. For example, in the district of Danzig-West Prussia alone, there were more than 50,000 estimated murdered civilians (especially Polish Jews and Polish intelligentsia) within the first three months of the occupation. Between 1939 and 1945, about 2.82 million Poles were put into forced labor (which equaled 15 per cent of the population fit for work or 7 per cent of the whole Polish population). More than one million Poles were deported to the Third Reich for the purpose of forced labor. For example, in the district of Wartheland, more than 50 per cent of the population was expelled by the Germans. About 1.2 million Poles were expelled - excluding the Jewish parts of the population! Hundreds of thousands of Poles were “resettled”. Furthermore, the Nazis built up several concentration camps to exterminate all “enemies” of the Third Reich. Between 1939 and 1945, an estimated five to six million Poles were killed by the Germans - approximately half of them were Jews.  More than 600,000 became disabled, and more than 3.6 million women and children lost their husbands and fathers. The capital city of Poland, Warsaw, was destroyed by more than 80 per cent.  

With the “liberation” of Poland, the Soviets introduced a socialist regime. During this time, the Soviets annexed the eastern part of Poland. Through this, Poland lost about 76,000 square kilometers of its prewar territory in the east (from originally 388,000 square kilometers to 312,000 square kilometers).  During the Potsdam Conference in 1945 the border of newly established Poland was shifted westward. Poland gained the city of Szczecin and Gdańsk, territories situated on the eastern side of the rivers Odra and Nysa Łużycka, as well as the southern part of Eastern Prussia.

In 1944, the Polish government in exile issued a statement from its headquarters in London which said: “All German citizens have to be displaced from northern and western territories, which were incorporated to Poland”. 

Subsequently, “wild evictions” began in 1944. German citizens were also mostly fleeing from the Red Army out of fear of possible revenge. Before the Potsdam Conference, in summer 1945, about 650,000 Germans escaped illegally from the Polish inter-war territories. In 1945 during the Potsdam Conference in Germany, the allied Forces decided that almost eight million Germans had to be displaced from the territories where they were residing. The three allied powers – the USA, the USSR and Great Britain – saw the displacement of Germans as a “superior political decision”.  During the summer of 1945 about five million of German citizens were expelled. In 1946, another two million were expelled. Then from 1946 to 1949, another 800,000 were expelled. Eventually, one million Germans remained in Poland.


What is the Center Against Expulsions and Who Are the Involved Parties?

As mentioned above, the will to establish a Center against Expulsions was first uttered by the League of Expellees in March 1999. 

The League of Expellees was founded by Germans who formerly inhabited present-day Polish territories in December 1958. The first chairman of the League was the former Nazi Hans Krüger, who already took part in the Hitler Putsch in 1923 and who later acted as a judge for the Nazi regime in the occupied city of Chojnice (Konitz).  The League of Expellees was founded as an umbrella organization for Associations of Compatriots (“Landsmannschaften”). These associations are organized according to regional origin and were first created in 1946.

According to the actual Charter of the League of Expellees, its aim is to promote equal rights for expellees through the reasonable and fair distribution of the encumbrances of the last war, etc.  

Nowadays, the president of the BdV is Erika Steinbach, member of parliament in the conservative fraction (Christian Democratic Party, CDU). 

At the same time, Ms. Steinbach is the Chairwoman of the Center against Expulsions. Ms. Steinbach is much more famous in Poland than in Germany because of her involvement within the Center of Expulsions. For the Polish media and society, she’s the most prominent person in this dispute about the Center and she’s also continuously considered to be the crucial element in the Polish-German relations. It is worth noting that Ms. Steinbach herself is barely really an expelled person. She was born in a territory that belonged to Poland before World War II. Her family was transferred to this territory only after the occupation by the Germans – a fact, that affected parts of the Polish society referring the discussion about the Center and that also might have led to taper the way of how the discussion about the Center eventually takes place. Accordingly, on one of the title pages of the Polish “Wprost” magazine in the year 2003, Ms. Steinbach is being presented in a black SS uniform, riding on the back of then-chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who was portrayed as a dog.  Ms. Steinbach’s life history shows that this is nothing more than mere polemic or maybe even a provocation for Polish-German relations: Ms. Steinbach might be conservative – but comparing her to a Nazi is certainly incorrect  and to be seen as an mere offence. At the same time, this is the best example of how the way of the discussion about the Center against Expulsions escalated. 

However, Ms. Steinbachs actions and ideas are also very controversial in Germany. 

From the point of view of the public and politics, there are three general positions on the Center against Expulsions: not to build it, to build it in Berlin or to build it outside of Germany (for instance, in Poland) within the context of a “European network”, including input from other states. Opinions and attitudes as to which solution would be the right one have continuously shifted according to the involved persons and the possibilities of realization. 

Yet there is another player in this game: the so-called Prussian Claims Conference (“Preussische Treuhand GmbH & Co. KG”). It is worth mentioning, that even the name of this organization is provocative:  it strongly resembles the name of the Jewish Claims Conference, which claims reparation for the Jewish victims of the Nazi regime. This way, the Preussische Treuhand compares the German expellees to the Jewish victims of the holocaust! However, the Preussische Treuhand does not explicitly claim financial reparations for the expulsion of Germans who once lived in present-day Polish territories that once belonged to pre-war Germany – but it claims the restitution of these pre-war German territories  despite all international treaties and bilateral agreements . 

The League of Expellees continuously stresses their alienation from the Preussische Treuhand.  And indeed, the League of Expellees obviously has a certain personal attachment to the Preussische Treuhand. 

What Does all this Information Mean?

According to all of this information – the historical background of the behavior of the German occupying forces in Poland and the following expulsions; the personal and structural backgrounds of the involved parties and characters; the fears, apprehensions and the personal feelings and experiences on the part of both the Polish and German population – one can understand the political uproar about the idea of a Center against Expulsions, especially having one in Germany. Considering that many people have or had close family members who were involved in these historical events, this issue raises particularly strong emotions within the parties. 

What Are the Consequences for German-Polish Relations?

When Erika Steinbach revealed her ideas about creating the Center against Expulsions, Bartoszewski, the Minister of Foreign Affairs at the time, didn't react and didn't issue any official statements. Prof. Bogdan Koszel, an expert on Polish - German relations from the Adam Mickiewcz Universtity in Poznań, explained: “On 23rd May 1999, Germany was celebrating the anniversary of adopting its

constitution. It was then that the project of building the Center against Expulsions (ZgV) was officially presented. The Polish government did not react to this project, because it wasn't supported by the German government, but by the League of Expellees (BdV). In my opinion, Mr. Bartoszewski was very well informed about the project because it was widely discussed even a year before. But I think that he didn't sense how big Mrs. Steinbach's determination could be and how well-mobilized the supporters of this idea were. What's more, there was no use in repeating the Polish position since a well-known statement was issued in the summer of 1998.” 

Former German Minister of Foreign Affairs, Joschka Fischer (Green Party), said in an interview for the German weekly “Die Zeit” in 2003, that actions and ideas like those of Mrs. Steinbach may mitigate the historical guilt of the Germans and their responsibility for World War II.  This is, according to Prof. Ziemer, Director of the German Historical Institute in Warsaw and Professor for Political Science at the University of Kardynał Stefan Wyszyński in Warsaw, also one of the biggest fears in Polish society. “The Poles are afraid of what will be remembered after the generation of eyewitnesses will have died. The perpetrators of the wartime might then be (in the ‘Polish point of view’) some unidentified Nazis, Czechs and Poles.”  An Article in the German newspaper “Süddeutsche Zeitung” from the 14.09.2006 with Mr. Piotr Semka, one of the most influential publicists in Warsaw and author for the magazine “Wprost” and the Polish newspaper “Fakt”, seems to confirm this opinion. Although the German aggressions and the consequences are probably the most important subject in German history courses at school, Mr. Semka is afraid that the Germans shift to a historical revisionist position by trying to be the victims of World War II and by forgetting about their guilt. 

Another expert on Polish-German relations is Mr. Thomas Urban, correspondent to the Newspaper “Süddeutsche” and author of the book “Wer sturm sät” (“Who Sows the Storm”) about the expulsion of Germans from Poland. Mr. Urban was strongly influenced by his German origins, the fact that he was born in Wroclaw, and his marriage to a Polish woman. He states, “German-Polish relations would certainly be better if the question about the Center against Expulsions would not have been raised. […] It gets bad as soon as politics get involved. The center got a problem as soon as the German politics got involved.” 

Mr. Daniel Pawłowiec, another one of our interview partners, is a member of the Sejm (the Polish lower chamber of parliament) and representative of the League of Polish Families (an extremely conservative right-wing party with rather anti-German views). When talking about Mrs. Steinbach and her ideas, Pawłowiec is convinced that her actions are only aimed at gaining new voters and that the situation should be treated only as sophisticated political provocation. He says, ”some historical resentment still exists in parts of the German society. Mrs. Steinbach uses this in a very intelligent way - she knows perfectly well about the golden economic rule of supply and demand. And in this way she gains voters and political potential”. 

According to these statements, one might think that the Center against Expulsions is nothing more than an unnecessary political problem, or maybe even a provocation due to historical tensions and the difficult political situation between Germany and Poland at them moment. However, before taking a closer look at this question and the opinions of some experts on this issue, the question of what the discussion about the Center against Expulsions might mean for the future relations between Poland and Germany should be examined. 

Regarding the possible damage of the discussion about the Center against Expulsions, Prof. Bogdan Koszel from Adam Mickiewcz Universtity in Poznań, expert on Polish-German relations, is optimistic about the future: ”Maybe trust between the countries has weakened, but we haven't observed any direct, negative consequences. On the contrary, thanks to Mrs. Angela Merkel's help, Poland received enormous financial support from the European Union budget and, additionally, 100 million Euros from the German government. I think it's the overreaction and oversensitivity on the part of the Poles in this matter that forced Germans to take action, but at the same time caused them to think about where they made a mistake. That's why we see that they have redoubled their efforts to make the reconciliation process even faster and more effective.” 

Prof. Ziemer notes that we have to distinguish between the state level and the social level. He says, ”the relations of the states will be 'good, but not very good' in the future. The new Polish government and administration is almost completely inexperienced and therefore unsettled in foreign policy. There will be difficulties on a European level to conduct a common policy. At the same time, Poland and Germany share common interests on basic issues. Germany has a vital interest in a strong and stable Polish state as an eastern partner and the state with the biggest competence in east-European matters. On the social level Poles and Germans discover each other more and more". 

Pawlowiec knows exactly what actions have to be taken in order to improve Polish-German relations. ”The most important thing,” he says, “is to define our needs. First of all, we should continue exchanges between Polish and German youth in order to create bridges of understanding between them. I believe that once you get to know another culture, you are no longer afraid of it. Secondly, we have to constantly develop economic relations between our countries. Thirdly, we have to improve the situation of Poles who live in Germany and at least try to make it as comfortable as the situation of Germans living in Poland.” 

Center Against Expulsions – Human Rights Issue or Political Provocation?

Mr. Pawłowiec says, ”when talking about expulsions and forced displacements, one can never forget about their historical and political perspective. For example, we can call recent displacements of Serbs in Kosovo an expulsion, but we can’t say that Germans were expelled from Poland after World War II. We have to remember that the majority of German citizens who lived on Polish soil left the country because Adolf Hitler told them to and they, of course, followed his orders. The rest left Poland because of international agreements and treaties, which were agreed upon and signed by Allied leaders during conferences in Yalta and Potsdam. But we have to point out that this was only a small number of Germans, the majority of them left Poland because Hitler gave them an order.”  What's more, Mr. Pawłowiec is convinced that the expulsion of Germans was a historical necessity: ”I want to emphasize and underline that we, as Poles, don’t feel responsible for the suffering of Germans caused by the Allies’ decisions. What happened is a consequence of World War II - a war which was initiated by Germans. Displacement of Germans was a historical necessity as well as a good solution. Thanks to this we didn’t experience a brutal partisan war between Poles and Germans and it was easier to build Polish - German relations after World War II.”  

Our Polish interview partners further denied the necessity of a Center against Expulsions because of different reasons: 

Prof. Koszel said, ”I'm strongly against building any Center against Expulsions anywhere because it will cause a never-ending reproach for mutual harms and resentments. Textbooks and media are keeping constant watch, so these matters will never be forgotten.”  Pawlowiec stated, “definitely not. The only country where such a Center could be created is Germany - because it’s Germans who are responsible for many of the expulsions and displacements in Europe.” 

Even Prof. Ziemer’s point of view regarding the Center against Expulsions is the following: "I don't know whether this is really necessary. I don't see the necessity. Still a European network [building such a Center] seems to be much more plausible to me, dealing with the subject on several levels. It's important to show that the expulsion of Germans is not a singular event in history." 

Some of the German expellees of World War II are of the contrary point of view. Expellees who fled to West-Germany received financial assistance and special interest-free credits for their “lost” property in Poland after World War II. In East Germany, the situation was different. For the most part, expelled people did not receive any help from the state. A person could even be sent to jail for talking about the issue of “expulsion” (instead of “resettlement”) in public. 

Klaus Glowna is an expellee who claims to be one of the underdogs of history or even a “loser of the war” (despite the fact that he, unlike many other witnesses of World War II, is still alive). He can’t understand why everyone else except him can inherit property. “Why can’t I?”, he asks.  Should there be any collective liability for Germans for what the Nazi regime did to the Polish society?

Maybe Mr. Glowna doesn’t match the “norm”. However, as Mr. Urban notes, “the perpetrators were mostly scooted before the expulsions started. Fact is that, for example, the expellees from the region of Oder-Neiße were women and children to 98 per cent. These expellees were no hangmen”. 

Whether you call it expulsions or resettlements, label it as genocide or not: there is no doubt about the grave personal suffering and pain of many expellees. The number of expellees who died during the expulsions is estimated to be 2.1 million according to two research studies issued by the German Parliament in the years 1958 and 1965.  Millions of women were raped and an estimated 240.000 women died from these violations. 

As one takes a further look at the list of supporters of the Center against Expulsions, one will recognize plenty of significant personalities and names among the supporters. One of them is Dr. Klein, Professor for International and European Law at the University of Potsdam, Director of the Center of Human Rights of the University of Potsdam, former member of the Board of Human Rights of the United Nation, and finally, one of the advisory board members for the Center against Expulsions. He states that “Expulsions are a serious injustice. I don't see genocide within the expulsions of the Germans after the war, but it still was a grave crime against humanity – even according to the law of that time. […] Formerly, the issue of expulsions weren't taken serious enough.”  His name is listed beside people like Joachim Gauck , Ralph Giordano , Dr. Rudolf Kučera , Dr. Otto Graf Lambsdorff , Dr. Christian Tomuschat , Dr. Christoph Pan  and many others on the web page of the Center against Expulsions.  The list of supporters shows a wide consent about the Center beyond any political attitude. 

On the other hand, one will not find a single complete list of Polish politicians or social scientists, having only one common point of view on this matter. First of all, there is a group of people, who strongly reject the whole idea of building a Center against Expulsions anywhere in Europe. Especially rightist politicians from League of Polish Families like Daniel Pawlowiec belong to this group. Their attitude was always strongly anti-German and this fact has an historical explanation. Polish “national democracy” – a strong and influential political movement created by Roman Dmowski at the beginning of the 20th century, which is a kind of an ancestor of todays League of Polish Families – was always on the position that Germany is Poland’s biggest enemy and that Poland should cooperate with Russia. Furthermore, there is a group of fine politicians and journalists, who support creation of a center under the condition that it will not be build in Berlin but in Wrocław. This view is presented by the Polish-German initiative called “Copernicus Group”, created by the German and Central Europe Institute in Szczecin (Poland) and the Deutsches Polen Institut in Darmstadt (Germany).  Adam Krzemiński , Klaus Bachman , Kazimierz Wóycicki  or Włodzimierz Borodziej  are some of the members of this initiative.

Looking at the matter from this point of view possibly explains the interest surrounding a Center against Expulsions. Ultimately, are expulsions not  a violation of human rights? Are massive displacements not a breach of international law? 

Nevertheless, massive displacements and expulsions are part of our contemporary history. In Europe alone, the list of populations being involved in forced migration after World War II is very long.  The situation is even worse when one considers the continent of Africa. This also explains why the involved parties would call it a center and not a museum. Expulsions are an actual issue in many parts of the world. 

Expulsions are obviously a serious issue when it comes to human rights. Yet one question remains: will expulsions of Germans after World War II be remembered within such a Center or is there a danger in such a project? 

Or, to put it in another way: did the expellees ever think about the possibility of being the ones to pay the cost for German aggression in Poland, which devastated the state of Poland during World War II and killed millions of its inhabitants? Could the establishment of a Center that puts expelled Germans and expelled Poles together be a way to victimize the aggressors? Can the suffering of perpetrators and suffering of victims be compared or equalized?

According to Mr. Urban, the Center against Expulsions has been wrongfully perceived in Polish society. “We wind it up the wrong way. There was a fundamental misunderstanding.”  The three main factors of the debate are, according to Mr. Urban, the different perceptions of the Center in Germany versus Poland, the different presentation in the media, and the “wrong” communication about it. This way the press as well as the politicians contributed to the escalation of this dispute. Still, Mr. Urban opposes the idea of reparations. “I see the moral right on the side of the injured persons. But at some point we have to stop this wheel!” 

Dr. Klein strongly supports the solution of the realisation of a Center against Expulsions in Berlin. “I support Berlin as a location for the Center, since this project has been initiated by the German side and the Germans have played a big role in the history of expulsions in Europe throughout the 20th Century. So why not in Berlin?” 

On the other hand, 61 per cent of the Poles think that the possibility of claims by German expellees regarding lost property and territories are probable or very probable. From a German point of view, one cannot understand such a fear, especially since there are valid agreements about the abandonment of claims and the recognition of the present borders between Poland and Germany…


Magdalena Kaj, Poland:

On 10th of August 2006, Erika Steinbach opened the exhibition “Forced roads: Escape and expulsion in Europe in 20th century.” Immediately after the opening, members of the League of Polish Families – an extremely conservative and nationalistic party, which happens to be a part of governing coalition – went to Berlin and organized a demonstration against this exhibition. I don’t think it’s normal, when relations between two countries are based only on the past. When we wonder why the Polish-German relations are in such bad condition, we often only blame the German side. For example, we blame “those bad people from League of Expellees”. Right now we, as Poles, thanks to our new extremely backward and conservative government, are considered to be oversensitive and have the monopoly of being victims. That’s why a Center against Expulsions might be a good decision after all. People have to know about the pain, sorrow, and death that was caused by expulsions for all those who were involved. They have to know that not every German person was a Nazi. But it is also very important to engage all involved nations and events of the history in the establishment of such a center;  and to be objective and truthful, no matter how painful it might be.

Frank M. Esser, Germany:

Being of German origin means having the heavy burden of history. When I first came to Poland to visit a friend some years ago, she showed me the “Old Town” in Warsaw. When I asked – in a moment of stupidity – how old the oldest building of this “Old Town” of the city was, I completely embarrassed myself: each and every building of this part of the city had been destroyed by the generation of my ancestors. And this is just a very small aspect of a cruel part of “my” history. 

How can one not understand the fears and apprehensions of a Polish population that has been mistreated by others throughout significant parts of history? How can one not be ashamed of one’s own German history? Could German society care for human rights issues now? Should the grandchildren of the biggest perpetrators in history really be the ones to remember victims?

But maybe I should start over again: history is not a burden. It is a challenge. It is responsibility. There is no ownership of history. Everything in the past will be a closed matter at some point – and then it’s “our” history, our challenge and our responsibility. 

However, we have to be careful. We can learn from history, but only if we deal with it in an appropriate way, with appropriate emphasis and in an appropriate context. This requires more than just studying numbers and facts. Maybe most of all, it requires mutual understanding. 

In conclusion I would say that a Center against Expulsion is certainly not a mere political provocation, but might be an issue of Human Rights through its realization. However, in my eyes, the only way to establish a Center against Expulsions is within a European context and with common consent. It is also most crucial to present the backgrounds and events leading to the expulsions in each case. History may not be re-written. I agree with Dr. Klein when he says, “expulsions are a serious injustice [...], a grave crime against humanity.” Still, one should not equalize suffering without having a look at one’s own possible contribution to the suffering of others or at the historical context!





Prof. K. Ziemer, German Historical Institute Warsaw, 23rd June 2006, Warsaw.

Prof. B. Koszel, A. Mickiewicz University, 25th June 2006, Poznań.

Prof. Dr. Dr. Klein, University of Potsdam (Phone), 26th June 2006,

D. Pawłowiec, Sejm, 23rd June 2006, Warsaw.

T. Urban, German Historical Institute Warsaw, 26th June 2006 Warsaw.


H. Chałupczak, T. Browarek Mniejszości narodowe w Polsce 1918 – 1995, Lublin 2000.

W. Borodziej, K. Ziemer Deutsch – polnische Beziehungen 1939 – 1945, Osnabrück 2002.

M. Podlasek Wypędzenie Niemców, Warsaw 1995.

Z. Mazur Centrum przeciwko Wypędzeniom (1999 – 2005), Poznań 2006.

Journals and newspapers

Die Zeit, 36/2003.

Wprost, 1086/2003.

Süddeutsche Zeitung, 14th September 2006.


Coalition contract of the German governmental parties CDU and SPD, 11th November 2005.

Internet sites







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