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Somewhere between 12 and 14 million ethnic Germans were driven from their homelands in eastern Europe in the course of the Second World War. This history has been difficult to commemorate in the context of the greater horror of the war. An exhibition in Bonn succeeds in treating the subject with sobriety and depth.


A German farewell

Jörg Lau praises an exhibtion on the contested history of German exulsions

In one of the last display cases of the exhibition is an unspectacular, hand written note bearing the following in German and in Polish: "We are coming to visit our homeland. We don't want it back. Now it is your homeland." Someone who had been expelled from Silesian Lübchen wrote this in 1972, during his first visit back to his lost homeland.

© Stiftung Haus der Geschichte der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Michael Jensch, Axel Thünker

There are more dramatic pieces of historic evidence and more valuable artefacts among the 1500 objects on display in this excellent exhibition. But almost no other thing is as touching as this simple little document. The note is all the more meaningful, because the exhibition makes clear the extent of the adversity from which such humanity had to be wrested. Before one reaches the note, one sees all this: the treks in winter under Soviet fire, the documents of the long planned disfranchisement of the Sudeten Germans in the Benes Decree, the thousands of deaths in the "wild" expulsions, the privation in the camp barracks, the fight for recognition in the West, the suppression of the expelled persons in the former East Germany. This is all made visible in the 650 square metres of the "Haus der Geschichte" in Bonn.

© Bischöfliches Ordinariat Görlitz

Given all the political pressure, both from within and beyond Germany, it's nothing short of a miracle that the team from the "Haus der Geschichte" has created an exhibition with such impressive intellectual independence. At the end, one is relieved to realise that it is in fact possible to blend out all the noise of the debate about the "Zentrum gegen Vertreibungen" that is being planned in Berlin and finally take a new, open look at the history of expulsion.

Those who have seen the tastefully factual exhibition "Flucht, Verteibung, Integration" (Flight, expulsion, integration) in Bonn, will find the sterile excitement of the debate thus far foolish. The exhibition works with the tools of modern museum pedagogy without ever wanting to overwhelm. Authentic relics are presented very carefully – a hut from the refugee camp in Furth im Walde, home-made tools, drinking cups, suitcases and all sorts of belongings whose spareness demonstrates the invention born of necessity. Most haunting is possibly the festive communion frock of garbage ties that was made in a Danish camp. A mother sewed it for her daughter – a unique demonstration of both defiance and grace.

© Stiftung Haus der Geschichte der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Michael Jensch, Axel Thün

Those who conceived the exhibition had to treat such intimate objects tactfully, so as not to slide into the realm of kitsch. The team around the historian Hans-Joachim Westholt decided that sobriety would be much more effective: the scruffy stuffed animals, the tools that were made along the way, the keys for the lost houses that were brought along in undying hope, speak for themselves. The exhibition is not afraid of feelings. One should understand this as a positive signal: the refusal to emotionalise at the expense of historic truth.

The interviews that were conducted for the exhibition – which can be listened to on computer terminals – are in a category far beyond the affected dramatisations of the Guido-Knopp industry. The witnesses are given the opportunity to speak out. They are not exploited as living proof of pre-determined theses. To the contrary, the biographies of the men and women from West Prussia, Pomerania and Sudetenland give a sense of the variety and at times contradictoriness of the expulsion experiences.

Representing the fates of 12 to 14 million people requires courage. Between 300,000 and 2.5 million Germans – the estimates vary - died in the course of flight. Women and the children were the main victims. Those who landed in Brandenburg from West Prussia had a different experience from Sudeten Germans who ended up in Bavaria. In West Germany, the expelled persons were canvassed by political parties, in East Germany, they were forced by the state to deny their history. One of the most interesting objects refers to the linguistic ruling of the Soviet regime that turned the refugees into "re-settlers"; those who didn't comply were considered enemies of the state. Even "Königsberger Klops" were changed on menus to "Kochklops". The brutality with which the GDR tried to obliterate the memory is evidenced in the Stasi files. The distribution of homeland folk songs was punished with imprisonment. And the actors that took part in the 1961 rehearsal of Heiner Müller's play "Die Umsiedlern oder das Leben auf dem Lande" (The Resettlers or Life on the Land) had to make a public apology in which they "distanced themselves from this oppositional botch."

© Ernst Litter, Reprofotografie: Stiftung Haus der Geschichte der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Michael Jensch, Axel Thünker

The exhibition positions the individual witnesses in the context of the political history of forced migrations. The expulsion of the Germans is depicted in the framework of a century which also witnessed the Turkish genocide of the Armenians and the events in Kosovo. Thus, the causes and motivating forces of expulsions are illustrated in their full breadth. As the Poles were pushed westwards at the end of the war, the Germans in the eastern regions paid the price for the war of extermination that all of Germany had carried out. In Sudetenland, the National Socialist course of the Henlein movement served to fan the flames of hatred which was applied to many innocent people, even opponents of the movement. The photograph of one of the specially decorated "Anti-fascist transportation trains" in whose cattle cars German Social Democrats and other Nazi opponents were transported out of Czechoslovakia is a disturbing document of this craziness.

The exhibition expects a fair bit of its visitors. They should form their own picture by comparing the various narrative lines. On the myth of Wilhelm Gustloff, the ship of refugees that was sunk by a Soviet submarine in the Baltic Sea, the visitor is presented with the accounts of both survivors and members of the submarine crew as well as propaganda films from all sides. The obscene post-Soviet nationalistic cult around the Captain Marinesko, to whom many new memorials have recently been erected, is also documented.

© Stiftung Haus der Geschichte der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Michael Jensch, Axel Thünker

The greatest challenge of this exhibition was adopting the right tone while showing what a high price expelled persons paid for the German crime. Thankfully, it dispels the myth of the smooth integration with which the young Bundesrepublik used to flatter itself. The expelled persons in post-war Germany are not represented as the victims that their groups like to portray them as, but it is made clear that they were degraded, unpopular foreigners who constantly had to prove themselves. The former salesman got work as a postman, the architect ended up on the assembly line at Volkswagen. Only a very few were able to carry on with what they had been doing prior to the expulsion.

As hard as it was for the individuals, the millions of highly qualified labourers were a blessing for the young Bundesrepublik. Looking at the huge arrow diagram that depicts the migration flows, seeing that every fifth person in the young Bundesrepublik was a refugee, one suddenly understands what a lie the slogan "Germany is not a country of immigrants" was from the start. Post-war Germany was, from the very beginning, a country full of foreigners who clung to their identities of origin because they were treated by the locals as the enemy – just like the later labour migrants.

The great accomplishment of this exhibition is its depiction of the expelled persons as agents of the modernisation of the Bundesrepublik. It shows that one must look beyond the notorious national costume groups to understand that those who presented themselves as particularly fixated on the homeland mixed into the young West and East Germanies in social, cultural and religious terms. For the first time since the Thirty Years War, large numbers of people of different faiths were settling in the confessionally homogeneous regions of Germany. This too is part of the forgotten early history of the postwar social dynamic.

Unlike in the former East Germany, the topic of the expulsion was never really taboo in West Germany. It was not only Günter Grass' Krebsgang (Crabwalk) that brought the subject into the public sphere in novels, political debates and popular films. The Bonn exhibition teaches us to see the "Heimat films" in a new light, as a working though of the trauma of the expelled persons. Whether the strange young poacher would win the hand of the daughter of the old local forester was, in a kitschy form, a very real question for those who were seeking acceptance.

© JahnDesign

It does the exhibition no favours to see it, as the SPD parliamentarian Markus Meckel does, as a substitute for the controversial "Zentrum gegen Vertreibungen" which the "Bund der Vertriebene" has proposed erecting in Berlin. It would be smarter to consider, together with all those involved, what might be an appropriate "visible sign" with which the Grand Coalition could commemorate the expelled persons in Berlin. What's impressive about the exhibition in Bonn is that it departs from the narrow-minded political history that is represented by both the Zentrum and the Red-Green counter proposal, the "Europäische Netzwerk Erinnerung und Solidarität." The commemoration of the expulsion cannot focus solely on the German victims nor on the European context.

The exhibition has already changed the discourse on the expulsions; Polish papers praise the enterprise, despite the fact that the groups of expelled persons are well represented in it through the numerous loan exhibits. In its sober treatment of suffering, loss, departure and arrival, the exhibition sets a new standard.


The exhibition "Flucht, Vertreibung, Integration" can be seen in the Haus der Geschichte in Bonn until April 17, 2006,

This article originally appeared in Die Zeit on December 8, 2005.

Jörg Lau is an editor in the Berlin office of Die Zeit.

translation: nb - let's talk european