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WWII

How a new Berlin museum is carefully exploring Germany’s wartime suffering

A new museum dedicated to the long-silenced trauma of German civilians forced to flee eastern Europe at the end of World War II opens next week after decades of wrenching debate.

How a new Berlin museum is carefully exploring Germany's wartime suffering
An exhibit at the Documentation Centre for Displacement, Expulsion and Reconciliation. Photo: dpa | Bernd von Jutrczenka

Perhaps reflecting what its founders call their delicate “balancing act”, the new institution in Berlin carries the unwieldy name of Documentation Centre for Displacement, Expulsion and Reconciliation.

Some 14 million Germans fled or were ejected from what is today’s Poland, Russia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, the Baltic states, Romania, Slovakia and the former Yugoslavia between 1944 and 1950.

Escaping the Russian army and later forced out by occupying powers and local authorities, an estimated 600,000 Germans lost their lives on the trek.

Those who fled included people who had settled in Nazi-occupied territories as well as ethnic Germans who had lived for centuries as minorities.

Seventy-six years after the conflict’s end, director Gundula Bavendamm said Germany was finally ready to talk about their suffering, while still acknowledging the unparalleled guilt of the Nazis.

“We are not the only country that needed quite some time to face up to painful and difficult chapters of its own history,” she told reporters at a preview of the museum before it opens to the public on Wednesday.

“Sometimes it takes several generations, and the right political constellations.”

‘Universal’ experience

The 65-million-euro museum takes pains to place the Germans’ plight firmly in the context of Hitler’s expansionist, genocidal policies.

It is located between the museum at the former Gestapo headquarters and the ruins of Anhalter railway station from which Jews were sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp.

Just opposite is a planned Exile Museum devoted to those who fled Nazi Germany.

Access to the second-floor space spotlighting the Germans’ exodus can only be gained through a darkened room covering the Holocaust.

The first-floor exhibition looks at the “universal” refugee experience, covering mass displacements in countries such as Vietnam, Myanmar, Lebanon and India after the 1947 partition.

“Hyper-nationalism is one of the prime causes of war and forced migration – they almost always go together,” curator Jochen Krueger said.

A folding bicycle used by a Syrian asylum seeker crossing from Russia into Norway in the spring of 2016 resonates particularly in Germany, where more than 1.2 million people arrived at the height of that refugee influx.

Dropped stitch

An estimated one-third of Germans have family ties to the mass exodus at the war’s end and the museum presents their often poignant heirlooms.

A haunting cross stitch with a rhyme about kitchen tidiness hangs unfinished, a dark thread still dangling from the cloth because the woman working on it suddenly had to run from advancing Soviet troops.

A girl’s leather pouch is marked with her address in Fraustadt, now the Polish town of Wschowa: Adolf Hitler Strasse 36, displayed in a case near a well-thumbed Hebrew dictionary.

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Keys from a villa in Koenigsberg — today’s Kaliningrad — that was fled in 1945 and from a house in Aleppo, Syria abandoned in 2015 symbolise the enduring hope of returning home one day.

“Everything you see displayed here is a miracle because it survived the journey,” Bavendamm said.

The around 12.5 million people who made it to what would become East and West Germany as well as Austria often faced discrimination and hostility.

Now decades on, the museum’s library offers assistance to families hoping to retrace their ancestors’ odyssey.

An audio guide provides context in English, Polish, Czech, Russian and Arabic in addition to German.

And a “Room of Stillness” allows people to sit and reflect on difficult memories.

‘Last remaining gap’

A shroud of silence and shame long covered the suffering experienced by German civilians during and after the war.

Groups representing the expelled in the post-war period sometimes had links to the far right, and occasionally agitated against government efforts to atone for Nazi aggression.

Only after the Cold War and a long process of international reconciliation did incidents such as the devastating Allied firebombing of Dresden or the 1945 sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff ship carrying German refugees gain an airing.

The far right’s claiming of such events to underline German victimhood also complicates efforts to find the right tone to broach the subject.

News magazine Der Spiegel called the museum “a statement to the left and the right wing, to Germany and abroad. It is meant to close a last remaining gap in German remembrance”.

The seed for the project was planted in 1999 by Erika Steinbach, an archconservative lawmaker who had voted against the recognition of Germany’s postwar border with Poland after the fall of the Iron Curtain.

An infamous Polish magazine cover depicted Steinbach as a Nazi dominatrix forcing Germany’s chancellor at the time, Gerhard Schroeder, to do her bidding.

However Schroeder’s successor Angela Merkel recognised the necessity of the museum and in 2008 agreed with broad mainstream support to establish a centre dedicated to a spirit of international reconciliation.

Historians from across Europe and Jewish community representatives were enlisted as advisors.

“Understanding loss is at the heart of the project – loss of property and ownership in general but also loss of social status, of community, of loved ones,” Bavendamm said.

“But it’s also about how people manage to process loss and perhaps, after a time, begin to look toward a better future.”

SEE ALSO: ‘We just didn’t realise’ – What it was like growing up in post-Nazi Dachau

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HISTORY

‘Lost’ manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

A book by one of France's most celebrated and controversial literary figures arrives in bookstores this week, 78 years after the manuscript disappeared

'Lost' manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

It is a rare thing when the story of a book’s publication is even more mysterious than the plot of the novel itself.

But that might be said of Guerre (War) by one of France’s most celebrated and controversial literary figures, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, which arrives in bookstores on Thursday, some 78 years after its manuscript disappeared.

Celine’s reputation has somehow survived the fact that he was one of France’s most eager collaborators with the Nazis.

Already a superstar thanks to his debut novel Journey to the End of the Night (1932), Celine became one of the most ardent anti-Semitic propagandists even before France’s occupation.

In June 1944, with the Allies advancing on Paris, the writer abandoned a pile of his manuscripts in his Montmartre apartment.

Celine feared rough treatment from authorities in liberated France, having spent the war carousing with the Gestapo, and giving up Jews and foreigners to the Nazi regime and publishing racist pamphlets about Jewish world conspiracies.

For decades, no one knew what happened to his papers, and he accused resistance fighters of burning them. But at some point in the 2000s, they ended up with retired journalist Jean-Pierre Thibaudat, who passed them – completely out of the blue – to Celine’s heirs last summer.

‘A miracle’
Despite the author’s history, reviews of the 150-page novel, published by Gallimard, have been unanimous in their praise.

“The end of a mystery, the discovery of a great text,” writes Le Point; a “miracle,” says Le Monde; “breathtaking,” gushes Journal du Dimanche.

Gallimard has yet to say whether the novel will be translated.

Like much of Celine’s work, Guerre is deeply autobiographical, recounting his experiences during World War I.

It opens with 20-year-old Brigadier Ferdinand finding himself miraculously alive after waking up on a Belgian battlefield, follows his treatment and hasty departure for England – all based on Celine’s real experiences.

His time across the Channel is the subject of another newly discovered novel, Londres (London), to be published this autumn.

If French reviewers seem reluctant to focus on Celine’s rampant World War II anti-Semitism, it is partly because his early writings (Guerre is thought to date from 1934) show little sign of it.

Journey to the End of the Night was a hit among progressives for its anti-war message, as well as a raw, slang-filled style that stuck two fingers up at bourgeois sensibilities.

Celine’s attitude to the Jews only revealed itself in 1937 with the publication of a pamphlet, Trifles for a Massacre, which set him on a new path of racial hatred and conspiracy-mongering.

He never back-tracked. After the war, he launched a campaign of Holocaust-denial and sought to muddy the waters around his own war-time exploits – allowing him to worm his way back into France without repercussions.

‘Divine surprise’
Many in the French literary scene seem keen to separate early and late Celine.

“These manuscripts come at the right time – they are a divine surprise – for Celine to become a writer again: the one who matters, from 1932 to 1936,” literary historian Philippe Roussin told AFP.

Other critics say the early Celine was just hiding his true feelings.

They highlight a quote that may explain the gap between his progressive novels and reactionary feelings: “Knowing what the reader wants, following fashions like a shopgirl, is the job of any writer who is very financially constrained,” Celine wrote to a friend.

Despite his descent into Nazism, he was one of the great chroniclers of the trauma of World War I and the malaise of the inter-war years.

An exhibition about the discovery of the manuscripts opens on Thursday at the Gallimard Gallery and includes the original, hand-written sheets of Guerre.

They end with a line that is typical of Celine: “I caught the war in my head. It is locked in my head.”

In the final years before his death in 1961, Celine endlessly bemoaned the loss of his manuscripts.

The exhibition has a quote from him on the wall: “They burned them, almost three manuscripts, the pest-purging vigilantes!”

This was one occasion – not the only one – where he was proved wrong.

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