Following months of rancour and dispute, the Federation of Expellees (BdV) has offered to forgo having its controversial chairwoman Erika Steinbach put on the board of the Foundation for Flight, Expulsion, Reconciliation. But what Steinbach is attempting to sell as a noble gesture is in truth nothing more than self-serving political posturing. This is because the BdV has attached conditions to the offer that will hardly be acceptable to the German government. Not only does the BdV want to eliminate governmental approval for nominees to the foundation’s board, but it also wants more than the three seats it already has.
Without a doubt, Steinbach and the BdV have been the driving force behind the creation of the foundation. The planned centre for expellees it will control is meant to remember the fate of those persons forced to leave their homelands across Europe because of the war started by Germany more than seven decades ago. But – just as its name implies – the foundation is intended to facilitate reconciliation as well. Steinbach stands in the way of this regardless if she wants to believe it or not.
The head of the expellees’ lobby group and a Christian Democratic parliamentarian, Steinbach certainly is not the evil revanchist she is portrayed to be by the Polish media and some politicians from Germany’s eastern neighbour. In fact, she has even opposed the demands for compensation by a few radical German expellees. However, she has also made inflammatory comments in the past and her quick rejection of the Oder-Neiße border has made her an object of hate in Poland. Even though her image in much of Eastern Europe has become an overly simplified caricature, there can be no reconciliation with her participation at the foundation.
Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle has rejected giving Steinbach a key role for the same good reasons his predecessor Frank-Walter Steinmeier did. The latest offer from BdV will not change Westerwelle’s mind or that of his party the Free Democrats (FDP). Were the government to give in to the BdV’s demands now it would create the impression that the foundation is simply a project for the expellees, but it’s long since moved beyond that.
The centre for expellees was agreed to only after tortuous talk with Poland. In order to alleviate remaining concerns there, a law was passed attaching the foundation to the German Historical Museum in Berlin. This was to ensure the remembrance of the expulsions of Germans at the end of World War II was not taken out of the context of the uniquely unjust Nazi military aggression responsible for them.
The German government cannot accept any compromise that calls this into question. The Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats (CDU), has long considered itself the advocate for German expellees and has signalled its support for the latest Steinbach proposal. Some members of the CDU would like to back it as well. Westerwelle and the FDP have said they’ll consider it, but they aren’t like to go along with it.
In the end it will come down to the chancellor. Up till now she’s merely avoided the issue by pointing out Steinbach hadn’t yet been officially nominated for the foundation by the BdV, postponing any final decision by her cabinet. But now an ultimatum has been put on the table by the expellees: if the government doesn’t agree to its conditions, the group will nominate Steinbach for the foundation.
At that point Merkel can no longer continue to prevaricate. She’ll have to decide: is the historic reconciliation with Poland and good relations with Germany’s eastern neighbours more important than placating some of her own conservatives? Will she act as chancellor and a stateswoman or a party politician and powerbroker? She cannot be both in this case.