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The Warsaw Voice » Politics » March 18, 2009
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Steinbach Row Defused-For Now
March 18, 2009 By W.¯.    
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Following furious protests from Poland, Germany's Federation of Expellees (BdV) said March 4 it was withdrawing the nomination of its president, Erika Steinbach, to the board of a planned center in Berlin that will document the expulsion of Germans from Eastern Europe after World War II.

Steinbach's place on the board of the Escape, Expulsion, Reconciliation foundation will remain vacant, and the final decision will be made some time in the future.

Many Polish politicians fear Steinbach will seek to join the board as soon as the controversy surrounding her dies down or when the German government changes. Parliamentary elections take place in Germany in September.

Many Poles fear the new center in Berlin will portray Germans as victims of a war they started. Objections against Steinbach joining the foundation board came from Poland, the SPD party, a member of the German government coalition, and opposition parties. Meanwhile, Steinbach has found support among members of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU.) Merkel has decided to put off her decision regarding the appointment of the foundation authorities and intends to solve the problem "in a spirit of reconciliation" with Poland, as she put it.

In a string of interviews for the German media in early March, Steinbach hinted that her place in the foundation board was an open issue. Steinbach added that Merkel had not pressed her to stand down. "Polish-German relations have hardly improved in the past several weeks," Steinbach said. "But the BdV is not to blame, Polish politicians are. The manifestations of Polish aggression which I have experienced recently are beyond what I could have imagined."

Leading Polish politicians repeatedly protested the Federation of Expellees' earlier move to put Steinbach forward for the foundation board. In mid-February, Steinbach complained to German politicians about the "aggressive" attitude of Władysław Bartoszewski, Prime Minister Donald Tusk's senior adviser on international affairs. During talks in Berlin with Merkel, Bartoszewski compared Steinbach to Bishop Richard Williamson, who has denied the Holocaust.

Bartoszewski later described Steinbach as "anti-Polish." President Lech Kaczyński agreed, saying that Steinbach was a problem in relations between Poland and Germany. Kaczyński added that the very idea of a Berlin center documenting post-war expulsions was problematic and such a center "should never be established." Kaczyński also took a shot at Tusk's government, claiming its policy towards Germany was too conciliatory.

Leading Polish politicians put up a united front against Steinbach. Prime Minister Donald Tusk said Feb. 24 that Steinbach was "unacceptable" to Poland. Tusk was speaking following sharp remarks made about Steinbach by Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski. Sikorski appealed to Steinbach to follow the example of German President Horst Koehler, who like her had been born in Nazi-occupied Poland in the 1940s, but never called himself an expelled person. "Ms. Steinbach came to our country with Hitler and had to get out of it with Hitler," Sikorski said. "She was not an expelled person; her daddy had to flee because the Red Army and the Polish armed forces were advancing."

Tusk said Steinbach "will always be a point of contention in Polish-German relations."

"In Pomerania [northern Poland] all people who have elementary historical sensibility know what Nazi Germany did to the local population," added Tusk, who comes from Pomerania himself.

Steinbach is the daughter of a non-commissioned officer in the German air force who served as a engineer at an airfield in the Nazi-occupied Polish town of Rumia near Gdynia. In January 1945, three months before the Soviet Red Army entered the area, Steinbach's mother took 18-month-old Erika and her three-month-old sister and left to what is Germany today. Steinbach's father was taken prisoner by the Soviets and returned to Germany in the late 1940s.

Steinbach has been a CDU member since 1974 and since 1990 she has been a member of the German parliament, the Bundestag, as a CDU deputy. Since 2005 she has been a member of the Bundestag committee on human rights and humanitarian aid. She first became a member of the Federation of Expellees in 1994 and has been its president since 1998.

Steinbach made her mark in the 1970s as one of the most active opponents against the recognition of Poland's border along the Oder and Nysa rivers by Germany. In speeches at the beginning of the 1990s she questioned the legality of the eastern border of Germany. She was one of the few Bundestag members to vote against the recognition of the Polish-German border when Germany was reunified.

In the mid-1990s, Steinbach became an avid campaigner for the return of property which German owners had "lost in the East," despite the fact that such people had received compensation from the German authorities.

Many Polish politicians believe the Steinbach controversy is not over yet. The situation may change after the September parliamentary elections in Germany.
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