Many people suffered during World War II, Germans among them. But let there be no mistake: To label as victims the millions of ethnic Germans who were expelled from their homes in Eastern Europe after the defeat of the Nazis is to make a mockery of the Holocaust.
Since 2000, an association representing some 2.5 million German expellees and their descendants has been raising funds and support for building a lavish historical center next to Berlin’s nearly completed Holocaust memorial. The Federation of the Expelled, known in German as Bund der Vertriebenen, plans to document and commemorate the suffering of German “victims.” The federation wants the German government to declare August 5 as the “National Day of Remembrance for the Victims of Expulsion.” It also wants to make Polish and Czech entry into the European Union contingent upon property restitution and forced labor compensation to German expellees.
Of course it is painful to be driven from your home, to be driven from your land. During the war, I had to move about 20 times. I did not want to, but either the German authorities forced me to move or I had to go into hiding to escape death at their hands. Somehow, though, I could live with moving. At least I stayed alive.
Being expelled from your home is certainly a dramatic event in the lives of the expellees. But expulsion did not kill expellees. The Holocaust killed six million Jews.
True, some ethnic Germans died during their expulsion. Their deaths, however, were not intended; they were part of the horror that was World War II. The killing of 6 million Jews in the Holocaust, on the other hand, was planned from the very beginning of the Final Solution — and aided by many of those expellees who now seek to memorialize their suffering alongside the victims of the Holocaust.
Every war bring about the deaths of people on both sides. Yet in memorializing their suffering, Germans should — and must — not forget that World War II was a war they wanted. The German nation supported Hitler. They wanted to be masters of the world, and would have been had America not entered the war.
Though it obviously does not justify the practice, it is worth remembering that mass deportations were practiced by all European dictatorships. The communists resettled Tartars, Chechens, Germans, Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians, to name a few. They also deported Jews, which happened to save the lives of some of them. Poles were deported to Siberia, and other Poles were resettled in parts of pre-war eastern Germany that were reincorporated into Poland.
Nobody, though, intends to erect monuments for those people. What, then, makes German expellees different?
The answer is politics, pure and simple. The push to build a center dedicated to German expellees is nothing more than a nationalistic, chauvinistic move. It seems that the conviction that Germans do not have enough Lebensraum keeps smoldering in Germans’ subconscious. How else to explain an effort to reclaim German heritage in Eastern Europe other than as a Drang nach Osten?
Despite the efforts of many good Germans, nationalism is still a force today in Germany. Fifty-eight years may seem like a long time to some, but history does not pass without leaving a trace. Given the history of the Holocaust, Germans have to be doubly cautious. They must cling to the principles of democracy, to the ideals of human rights. They must fight every manifestation of nationalism, every attempt toward an ethnically uniform state.
The denazification of Germany ended less than a decade after the fall of the Third Reich. The proposed center for German expellees, though, makes me wonder whether the process is as yet unfinished.
Germans, with their past, are no normal people. A people that actively and intentionally murdered millions cannot be normal. As long as even a minority of Germans long to be part of the Herrenvolk, the majority of Germans of good conscience must continue to do penance for the guilt of their fathers and grandfathers.
Despite my past, I do not seek revenge against Germans. I do not have a quarrel with them, and count among them some of my dearest friends. But as a Polish Jew, I cannot view German expellees as victims. To do so would be to consider myself an executioner.
Germans should not boast of their ill fortunes during World War II, for they do not deserve compassion. Their lot should be expiation, for many generations to come. Without atonement, Germans will recover their haughtiness, their arrogance. The memory of the Holocaust does not allow that.