memory. culture. art.
Flight and Expulsion of the Germans in the Culture of Memory in Germany
Text by Christian Lotz

The following text by Christian Lotz is taken from his contribution at the Berlin conference “Memory, Culture and Art”, July 2008

The text deals with the politics of memory towards the expulsion of Germans after the Second World War; it focuses on the debates and conflicts in and between the two Germanys. Examining those debates, the text aims to show the dominant interpretations and the change of dominance between 1948 and 2003. For that purpose, sources of different organizations were analyzed: The Landsmannschaft Schlesien (an organization of expellees from Silesia in the FRG), the protestant Church of Silesia (which was re-established after 1945 in the GDR as “Evangelische Kiche von Schlesien”, i.e. “The Protestant Church of Silesia”, and in the FRG as “Gemeinschaft Evangelischer Schlesier”, i.e. “The Community of the Protestant Silesians”) and the Helmut-von-Gerlach-Gesellschaft.

During the first years after the Second World War we can recognize a consensus: Most Germans in East and West interpreted the expulsion as an “injustice”, even as a “crime”. The lost territory was seen as “German” territory. The Landsmannschaft Schlesien was one of the powerful organizations that stressed such an interpretation. The Gerlach-Gesellschaft (as well as the SED), which emphasized the guilt of German “Imperialism” having caused two Wars in the 20th century, represented just a minority.

The situation changed in 1956/57 due to three reasons: First, expellees in East- and West-Germany were economically integrated. So the social pressure on the debates faded; second, the thaw in Poland after 1956 changed the western perspectives on “Ostpolitik”; third, the ongoing Cold War strengthened the desire for a détente in the USA, GB and France, so that the West German demand for a revision of the Oder-Neiße-Border became a minor matter.

Nevertheless, the official West German “Ostpolitik” did not changed so quickly. Beyond that, the Landmannschaft Schlesien was successful in standardize the cultures of expellee-memory. The Landsmannschaft and the Bundesvertriebenenministerium (Federal Ministry of Expellee-Affairs) gave money for memory-projects such as exhibitions, books and rallies only to those organizations that fit the aims of the official policy (especially to the Landsmannschaften). As a result, in West-Germany there were no other powerful organizations that compete with the Landsmannschaften claiming to represent expellees. So, remembering the “crime” of expulsion and the history of “German” territory in the east served only as a main argument for territorial claims.

The Gerlach-Gesellschaft (and the SED) used the memory as a political argument as well: They attacked the Landsmannschaften by arguing: Everyone talking about the “crime” of expulsion and remembering “German” history in the East is preparing a new war. The Gerlach-Gesellschaft tried to establish an interpretation of history, that the former eastern territory was settled mainly by polish workers and peasants since the 19th century already, and that there was just a small minority of German “Junker” (landowners) exploiting them. So the expulsion of the “Junker” was an appropriate act of social revolution.

It is important to emphasize, that the history of expulsion and the history of the eastern territory was neither in West- nor in East-Germany a “taboo” (as many historians nowadays argue). Rather we can see in the GDR and in the FRG during the 1950s and early 1960s an official memory culture: On both sides of the Iron Curtain certain aspects of history were selected. There was no “un-distorted” view of history. Interpretations in East and West were arranged in a way, that they were useful for political aims: In East-Germany to defend the Oder-Neiße-Border; in West-Germany to strengthen territorial claims.

The domination of the Landsmannschaften ended in the 1960s. That was a result of two aspects: Firstly, there was no longer any support (neither in West-Germany nor in the USA, GB or France) for territorial claims; secondly the legal proceedings against Adolf Eichmann and others revealed the Nazi-Terror during the Second World War, so that the interpretation of the expulsion as a “crime” was damaged.

After the Re-Unification of Germany in 1990 the Landsmannschaften again started to gain a dominant position in the debate about flight and expulsion. Several attempts were made to establish a memory of ‘Germans as victims’. From the year 2003 onwards different concepts of memorial-sites, museums and network-structure (so called “Zentrum gegen Vertreibungen”, “Netzwerk Solidarität”) were discussed – a debate that still lasts.

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