Victimhood in the Land of the Perpetrators

The 20-Year Struggle to Establish a Museum About German Expellees
By | Jun 22, 2022

Another star has joined the constellation of Berlin memorials and museums related to World War II: Across the street from the former Anhalter train station—a point of deportation for around 55,000 Jews during the Holocaust—the Documentation Center for Displacement, Expulsion, Reconciliation opened in June 2021. More than 20 years in the making, the center aims to initiate a conversation about forced migration in 20th-century Europe. Its long gestation is due to the center’s controversial focal point: the fate of ethnic Germans displaced and expelled during and after the war.

German communities had lived in what is now Poland, Hungary, Romania and the Czech Republic for hundreds of years prior to the outbreak of war in 1939, and the presence of these ethnic German communities outside Germany were a major pretext both for Hitler’s annexation of the Sudetenland and his rhetoric about Lebensraum. In the winter of 1944/45, as German forces retreated, Central and Eastern Europe’s borders shifted and ethnically homogenous nation-states emerged. Fourteen million ethnic Germans were either displaced or expelled from their homes. Six hundred thousand ethnic Germans died as a consequence of displacement and expulsion—of exhaustion, illness, or the bitter cold of winter.

The idea of a museum dedicated to those displaced and expelled Germans was first proposed in 1999 by the Federation of Expellees (BdV). Founded in 1957, “the BdV is a very conservative lobby group, which for a long time was openly revisionist and said, ‘We lost territory in the east and we want to get it back,’” explains Stephan Lehnstaedt, professor of Holocaust Studies and Jewish Studies at Touro College Berlin. BdV’s president at the time of the proposal was Erika Steinbach, a member of parliament from 1990 to 2017, who was technically not an expellee. Born in Rumia, Poland in 1943, Steinbach was the daughter of a Nazi sergeant who had been dispatched to occupied Poland two years prior to her birth. She fled west with her mother in 1945 as the Red Army advanced.

Steinbach’s concept for a so-called Center Against Expulsions was the wrong idea from the wrong person at the wrong time. In 1999, the German parliament voted overwhelmingly in favor of architect Peter Eisenmann’s design for Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Just as Germany was making concrete its historical responsibility for the Holocaust, the BdV wished to talk about ethnic German victimhood.

In the election year of 2005, looking to take the heat out of the debate around a museum about displacement, the German government announced its own project, provisionally dubbed Sichtbares Zeichen, Visible Sign, which shifted the emphasis to “the injustice of expulsion” in general. Three years later, the Foundation for Displacement, Expulsion, Reconciliation (FDER) was set up and tasked with establishing a documentation center with a permanent exhibition about “displacement and expulsion” in the 20th century. The center would indeed tell the story of displaced and expelled Germans, but their fate would be examined in the context of World War II.

But the Foundation’s problems were only just beginning. The German government, having wrestled the idea of the center away from the BdV, then gave the organization’s members six seats on the Foundation’s 21-person board of trustees. They sat alongside, among others, two representatives from the Central Council of Jews in Germany. “On this board of trustees, there were very many stalwart old Nazis,” says the Central Council’s vice-president Mark Dainow. Steinbach did not formally take up a seat on the board, but as president of BdV she continued to influence the project. In 2010, the Central Council withdrew its members from the board. “Her [Steinbach’s] ideas and our ideas” for the center were simply “no longer compatible,” Dainow explains.

The FDER also had a leadership problem. “The first choice as director, Manfred Kittel, was a good historian who was well-respected among the expellees, but he had never been the head of a museum and lacked the experience,” says Touro College Berlin’s Lehnstaedt, who has served on the center’s academic advisory council for the last five years. “He was a historian, not a museum director.” Steinbach’s association also meant the foundation had trouble attracting Polish and Czech historians to join the academic advisory council.

By the mid-2010s, the foundation’s Documentation Center had a concept for its core exhibition, yet little work had been done on its content and it remained mired in political controversy. What then changed was that, first, the more amenable Bernd Fabritius—born 20 years after the war in Agnita, Romania—replaced Steinbach as BdV president. Second, in early 2016, Gundula Bavendamm left her post as director of Berlin’s Allied Museum to take over the leadership of the foundation. In the years that followed, “she managed to keep the museum out of political controversies and out of political discussion,” says Lehnstaedt.

“One of my principal assignments was to find a way to steer this project into calmer waters,” Bavendamm says during an interview in her office at the Documentation Center. The political storm surrounding the institution had left the museum’s staff “frustrated and anxious,” she says, and certain key questions about the core exhibit remained unanswered: “How national, how German-centric should it be and how open, how European, how kaleidoscopic must it be so that it fits within the framework of Germany’s existing remembrance culture and achieves acceptance?” remembers Bavendamm. “Under what conditions can German suffering and German victimhood be discussed in the land of the perpetrators?” The exhibit, she adds, could “not become an instrument for the relativization of history.”

Five years after Bavendamm assumed the directorship, the completed permanent exhibit opened in June 2021. It emphasizes that the displacement and expulsion of ethnic Germans was a direct consequence of the war Germany had initiated and of the Nazis’ racist, expansionist policies in Eastern Europe, which included resettling Germans in homes stolen from Poles and Jews. Pillage, starvation, expulsion, extermination: the brutality of the Nazi occupation of Poland and the Soviet Union is made clear. And while it is true that displacing ethnic Germans had been part of Allied war plans as early as 1942, there was a symbiotic relationship between German war aggression and the harshness of the Allied response.

“The truth is uncomfortable for many people,” says the Central Council’s Dainow,  “but one can’t turn away from the fact that the expulsion was a consequence of Nazi actions in Europe.” Dainow is one of the Central Council of Jews in Germany’s representatives on the museum’s board of trustees, the council having decided to retake their seats after Bavendamm became director. “Once Erika Steinbach’s influence decreased politically and within the BdV, the museum was no longer seen as so controversial,” Lehnstaedt observes. The change of leadership within both the BdV and the museum made possible a reconciliation between the expellees and the Jewish community, allowing the core exhibition to come to fruition.

German expansionism is one way the Documentation Center seeks to contextualize the fate of German expellees. Another is by looking at the postwar period as an era of mass displacement, when hundreds of thousands of Poles, Ukrainians, Hungarians and Slovaks were also on the move. The core exhibition also pulls back to look at displacement and expulsion in 20th-century Europe, using the examples of Armenians, Bosniaks and Jews among others to address general themes such as  nationalism, war, violence and memory. The Documentation Center’s first temporary exhibition, “Our Courage,” looks at the diversity of Jewish experiences in postwar Europe. “It’s very important to show the context,” Lehnstaedt argues, “because then you understand to what degree Germans became victims, why they became victims, and that the fate of others was much worse.”

In that sense, the context for the Documentation Center for Displacement, Expulsion, Reconciliation is not only central to this project but to Berlin’s broader memorial landscape, which today includes specific memorials dedicated to Jewish, homosexual, Roma and disabled victims of National Socialism as well as forced laborers. The Documentation Center is one piece in that mosaic, Lehnstaedt says, one that “shows the normalization of Germans dealing with their past” but also the “relative importance” of displaced and expelled Germans in comparison to, for example, Jewish victims of the Holocaust whose suffering was far greater.

“I believe this center can contribute to what we’re experiencing right now,” Dainow says during our conversation at the Central Council’s headquarters near Berlin’s golden-domed New Synagogue, “the war in Ukraine and the creation of another generation of refugees.” The Documentation Center, Lehnstaedt thinks, came along at “the right time” not only because of Ukraine but also because of the 2015 refugee crisis that brought around a million refugees from the Middle East and North Africa to Germany. Its exhibit may not only become a forum for talking about migration, but the experiences of Syrians and Afghans in Berlin puts into perspective the fate of displaced and expelled Germans in postwar Germany.

“I think the contribution we’ve made with this center is to bring the debate out of an unproductive phase into a more productive one. Before now, the debate over this institution was bogged down in a kind of trench warfare between different opinions, very emotional positions,” Bavendamm reflects as we close out our interview. “I believe we’ve been able to offer a middle-way approach, a way that allows for reconciliation. Although the ghost of [former BdV president] Erika Steinbach remains in the room,” Dainow concludes, “I am very optimistic that one day she will be vanquished.”

Top image: Objects from a Sudeten German Homeland Room © Foundation for Displacement, Expulsion, Reconciliation, photo: Markus Gröteke

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