Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Amber Path North: Oder-Neisse Fallout 2

German Foreign Minister's Row Puts Merkel in Tough Spot

BERLIN -- Guido Westerwelle is making his first mark as Germany's new foreign minister by blocking a controversial appointment by the lobby of Germans expelled from Eastern Europe after World War II -- a move that puts Chancellor Angela Merkel in a bind.

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Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister and Guido Westerwelle meet in Meseberg, north of Berlin.

Mr. Westerwelle, head of Ms. Merkel's governing partner, the Free Democratic Party, vowed to veto an effort by the lobby's leader, Erika Steinbach, to join the board of a planned state museum about the expulsions, saying her appointment would jeopardize reconciliation with Poland.

The foreign minister's stance, part of his effort to boost Germany's ties with Eastern Europe, leaves Ms. Merkel at risk of alienating part of her conservative base.

The chancellor has avoided taking sides in the row, which has revived debate in Germany over what is an extremely delicate subject here. About 12 million ethnic Germans were forced out of Eastern Europe after the war, including from German territories ceded to Poland in 1945. Some 600,000 of the refugees died, many as a result of rape and acts of revenge -- carried out by Soviet soldiers, Poles, Czechs and others -- for the Nazi conquest of the region, historians say.

Germany has struggled for decades to find a way to commemorate the dispossessed Germans' loss without arousing fears, particularly in Poland and the Czech Republic, of a German campaign to reclaim property. Ms. Steinbach has long advocated for a museum.

Ms. Steinbach, a lawmaker in Ms. Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, demanded Thursday that the cabinet clear the way for her appointment by year-end, calling it "a question of freedom" and "a test of democracy."

Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Erika Steinbach addressed a news conference in Frankfurt on Tuesday.

Many Poles fear that Ms. Steinbach and her organization, the Federation of Expellees, want to rewrite history, casting Germans as victims instead of aggressors. Ms. Steinbach says she recognizes the Nazis' crimes, but says those crimes don't justify the collective punishment of German civilians.

Blocking Ms. Steinbach's bid to sit on the board has allowed Mr. Westerwelle to establish himself as a champion of improving Germany's historically fraught relations with its eastern neighbors. But some say he has gone too far. "One has to wonder if Westerwelle has lost sight at times of which country he is supposed to be serving as foreign minister," Germany's conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung said in a front-page editorial this week. The newspaper said Ms. Steinbach has made the expellees' lobby more moderate, and kept its more nationalistic elements in check.

Mr. Westerwelle had little to say about foreign affairs before he took office last month, but since then he has called for building a German-Polish relationship that is as strong as the Franco-German alliance.

"There is a feeling in Eastern Europe that the Germans, who exercise so much care and attention on reconciliation with France, have never bothered to make the same kind of effort with Poles and Czechs," said Jonathan Eyal, director of studies at the Royal United Services Institute, a London foreign-affairs think tank.

Ms. Steinbach voted in parliament against a 1991 treaty to finally recognize Poland's western border with Germany, saying it left open questions of expellees' property. For Mr. Westerwelle, that vote disqualified Ms. Steinbach from sitting on the board that will oversee the museum.

Polish politicians and media protested this year when the German expellees put forward Ms. Steinbach for the museum board. One objection is that she wasn't a part of the former German community in the territory of today's Poland. Rather, she is the daughter of a Luftwaffe sergeant from western Germany who was part of the Third Reich's army of occupation.

"She came with Hitler, and she had to leave with Hitler," Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski said earlier this year. Ms. Steinbach retorted that "one doesn't have to be a whale to fight for the whales."

Write to Marcus Walker at

Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page A5

Amber Path North: Oder-Neisse Fallout

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