Seventy prominent German intellectuals and politicians make a gesture of reconciliation to their neighbours

14-09-2004

Seventy prominent German intellectuals, writers and politicians, including the chairman of the federal parliament have signed an open letter to the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, very publicly renouncing claims to any property in the neighbouring countries of Central Europe. All the signatories have one thing in common. They, or their parents, originally came from what is now the territory of Poland or the Czech Republic, but were expelled after the Second World War. Millions of ethnic Germans were forced to move westwards, as the map of Europe was redrawn after the war, an episode that continues to create tensions within the region. David Vaughan joins me in the studio. David, what is the significance of this gesture?

 Transfer of the German-speaking minority from Czechoslovakia Transfer of the German-speaking minority from Czechoslovakia "There are still tensions under the surface between Germany and its neighbours to the east. This is inevitable given the drama of what happened sixty years ago. The Poles and the Czechs, as we know, suffered enormously during the war. But what happened at the end of the war was that around about 20 million Germans - a staggering figure - were expelled from what is now the territory of these Central European countries. When they were expelled, they lost their property. What is interesting is that Germany has never officially fully ruled out any property claims that these expellees might make in these neighbouring countries, and some of these people are still fighting to have their property returned. Of course in the meantime at least two generations of Czechs and Poles have grown up in these areas that were previously mainly German and understandably they feel threatened by these property claims that are being made. In Poland in particular feelings are very strong, given the extent to which Poland suffered during the war. And so the aim of this new declaration is to calm the whole situation down, as the writer and journalist Helga Hirsch, who's one of the authors and signatories, points out:"

"The main aim of this declaration, as I see it, is to show our neighbours that there are other forces in Germany than those who are always suspected of trying to rewrite history. This is an image which unfortunately exists, and we need to work actively to break it down; it won't disappear on its own."

So will this declaration help?

Yes, I think it will help, especially in Poland, where there has been a lot of sensitivity recently over the complaints made by Germans expelled after the war. There is a lot of irrational fear, I think, on both sides, that can benefit from a bit of normality. I think that this is a very strong gesture in the right direction in that respect. In the Czech Republic it's similar, although not quite as tense as in Poland. But I think that generally speaking, since the reunification of Germany, since the fall of communism in this part of Europe, there are a lot of taboos that are gradually falling and there's a great deal more talk now - you notice it in the Czech Republic, Poland and Germany - about the nature of the suffering during the Second World War, about the fact that Germans also suffered during the expulsions after the war or during the massive bombardment of Germany towards the end of the war. These are things that arouse fears in the Czech Republic and in Poland; people ask whether it's an attempt to rewrite history, and there do need to be these gestures from time to time, just to keep things in perspective."

14-09-2004