memory. culture. art.
European memory and discourse of expulsion
Text by Anne von Oswald

The 20th century is nowadays often called the century of expulsions. Forced migration and so called “ethnic cleansing” was a collective European experience of the 20th century. 60-80 Million Europeans were forced to leave their homelands, many of them never to return again. In Central and Eastern Europe hardly any nation or region was exempt from this tragedy.
The last European experiences of expulsion and ethnic cleansing in the 1990s in the former Yugoslavia resurrected the memory and the debate on expulsion.
Starting from a strict division in western and eastern memory cultures we can observe a memory boom with the end of the cold war, the beginning of communication between western and eastern countries and the first steps towards a European debate on its common history of expulsions.
How conflictual this kind of exchange of different experiences and interpretations could be, is shown by the debates in Poland, Germany and the Czech Republic. To this day the struggle over expulsion and ethnic cleansing is dominated by a national interpretation and victimization – far away from the ideal of a European memory culture.

The debate in the Czech Republic is still dominated by the thesis of the Germans’ collective guilt (Kollektivschuldthese) — implemented with the Benes Decrees, which regulated the expropriation, expatriation and expulsion of the Germans and the Hungarians. The founding myth of the Czech Republic is based on the conviction that the Czechs have never been perpetrators but antifascist victims as a whole. On the other side, they accuse the Germans of changing their role from perpetrators to victims and so relativizing the national socialist crimes.

The Polish debate is characterized by a controversy over how to come to terms with the past between different political camps, scholars and civil society.
In recent years there has been a revision of the polish self-understanding as a pure victim nation. The debate on the nation´s own guilty history in Poland reached a climax in 2001 with the discovery of events in Jedwabne. Jedwabne is a small Polish town whose population had taken part in the murder of the local Jews during World War II. In the German-Polish debate on expulsion there can be observed a return to a confrontational position on the history of the war. As on the Czech side there still is a fear that the German initiative to build a Centre against Expulsions in Berlin would serve to emphasize the suffering endured by the Germans and minimize the crimes committed by Nazi Germany.
Many Poles felt that German expellees were put on the same footing as the Polish victims of German war crimes.

While after 1989 a cautious distancing from the nation´s former image of itself as victim took place in Poland, it has been possible to observe the opposite in the reunited Germany in recent years. The victim discourse has been booming.
Despite a strong official and public attempt to deal with the memory of the Holocaust and the Nazi crimes, new research shows that in the private memory the crimes of the Germans during the Hitler time are of minor importance. The memory in the German family – which is an important factor for identity building and opinion building – is concentrated on the suffering personally experienced. When Germans remember, they remember three experiences in particular: front line experiences of the German soldiers, flight and expulsion experiences and the bombing of German cities. The Shoah is not an issue. The subject of expulsion has recently shifted to the center of media attention. The public debate on the Center against Expulsions and the decision to build a memorial and documentation center in the coming year in the center of Berlin reflects the perspective of Germans as victims of flight and expulsion. What is important, is the individual´s role as victim and the trauma that the Germans experienced during the bombing and as refugees.
If family history is already being prettified today, it is no surprise that there are attempts to change society's entire view of history. As the historian Philipp Ther asserts: “If one transposes the rehabilitation of one's family history onto the level of society, then more or less no one in Germany wants to be a culprit, but rather a victim. However, it is precisely the Poles who lived during the occupation and their children and grandchildren who know who the culprits were. For Germany, there is no escaping this history, no matter how much present-day Germans might long to.”

Despite these national interpretations there are examples of multinational collaborations. One of these is the Network for Remembrance and Solidarity. As a reaction to the Center against Expulsions, Polish and German institutions have started research projects together with Hungary and Slovakia in 2008. Austria and the Czech Republic, who were involved in the preparatory talks, have declared their interest to cooperate with the network, so did the Baltic states and Ukraine.
Originally the Network of Remembrance and Solidarity was meant to focus on the topic of forced migration and expulsion. Its scope has now been broadened and extended to include the suffering of the people as a result of war, national socialist and communist dictatorship, forced migration, racism and nationalism.

At the same time the Council of Europe — also in response to the debate which had arisen in Germany — declared the foundation of a European remembrance center for victims of forced population movements and ethnic cleansing in October 2006. The initiative of the Council of Europe could open the issue beyond self-centred national interests. But a European memory can only be composed of diverse national and regional memories, which of course collide, but also spark a productive struggle. More than this can not be expected, if we are to respect the very different experiences of the Europeans in the century of totalitarianism and expulsion.



Adler, Bruni: Geteilte Erinnerung: Polen, Deutsche und der Krieg, Tübingen: Klöpfer und Meyer 2006.

Benthin, Madlen: Die Vertreibung der Deutschen aus Ostmitteleuropa: deutsche und tschechische Erinnerungskulturen im Vergleich (=Studien zu internationalen Schulbuchforschung, 120), Hannover: Hahn 2007.

Benz, Wolfgang (Hg.): Wann ziehen wir endlich den Schlussstrich? Von der Notwendigkeit öffentlicher Erinnerung in Deutschland, Polen und Tschechien, Berlin: Metropol 2004.

Cornelißen, Christoph (Hg.): Diktatur – Krieg – Vertreibung. Erinnerungskulturen in Tschechien, der Slowakei und Deutschland seit 1945, Essen: Klartext Verlag 2005

Philipp Ther: The burden of history and the trap of memory, vgl. vom 19. August 2008


Berlin, September 2008

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