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Polish Row Alienates German Conservatives

10:45 AM, Mar 13, 2009 • By ULF GARTZKE
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Poland's recent aggressive political campaign to prevent the nomination of Erika Steinbach, a conservative CDU MP who heads the Association of German Expellees, to the board of the planned Berlin-based "Center Against Expulsions" has once again revealed that the legacy of WWII still affects modern European politics. The Center documented the stories of more than than 15 million ethnic Germans driven out by force from their ancestral homelands in Eastern and Central Europe after 1945; it is equally dedicated to the memory of the expulsion, deportation, and genocide suffered by various ethnic groups ranging from the Armenians to the Jews of Europe.

German conservatives in particular, were disappointed and frustrated by the fact that Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk -- who had come into office in late 2007 strongly determined to improve relations with Berlin by breaking with the harsh, populist anti-German rhetoric of his predecessor Jaroslaw Kachinsky -- decided to interfere in an internal German political matter by exerting public pressure on Chancellor Angela Merkel to withdraw political support for Erika Steinbach, a fellow CDU Executive Board Member. Ms. Steinbach, who in recent years has been the subject of harsh personal political attacks by the Polish media (including newspaper covers and posters depicting her as an SS officer), was unfairly accused by Warsaw of harboring revisionist designs and of trying to take back former German territories that are now part of Poland.In a recent German newspaper interview with Der Spiegel, Donald Tusk made the following statement:

"We Poles are all of one opinion concerning the mentality and attitude that Ms. Steinbach represents. […] I hope that no one in Berlin will jeopardize the very good relations that now exist between Germany and Poland. We Poles are very sensitive when it comes to defending the truth about World War II. We are obsessive about it -- and will always remain so."

Top German conservative leaders like CSU Party Chairman and Bavarian Governor Horst Seehofer quickly came to Steinbach's defense and lauded her as "a straight, courageous, humanistically-minded woman" and sharply criticized the Polish government for its "shameful behavior". Former CSU leader Erwin Huber made it very clear that "The expellees have the right to be represented by their chairwoman. Poland should recognize that this is our decision." Gen (ret.) Joerg Schoenbohm, the 71-year old CDU interior minister of the state of Brandenburg and someone who is widely regarded as one of the last stalwarts of traditional conservatism in Germany, declared that "We have to stand at Ms. Steinbach's side. No one can accuse her of representing revanchist positions."

Chancellor Merkel, in contrast, provided only token political cover for Ms. Steinbach in an apparent effort to avoid any direct showdown over that issue with Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, someone she referred to as a friend at a joint dinner in Hamburg just a few days ago. After Merkel failed to stand up to Warsaw and convey to the Polish side that the Association of German Expellees has indeed the right to nominate its Chairwoman to the planned Center's board, it became soon very clear that Steinbach would need to back down.

And indeed, in an effort to calm the political waters and thus pave the way for the creation of the "Center Against Expulsion", Steinbach's group declared on Wednesday last week that it would not nominate her for the board, opting instead for an empty-chair policy: "The seat will remain unfilled to make clear no one can dictate how we fill the position." At the same time, however, the Association did not state when it would fill its seat or whether it might reconsider Steinbach in the future, thus leaving open the possibility that she might be nominated at some point in the future (i.e., potentially after Germany's next federal elections at the end of September which, according to current opinion polls, are expected to yield a narrow-center CDU/CSU-FDP government rather than the current CDU/CSU "grand coalition" with the left-wing SPD party).