- Martyrs and Neighbors:Sources of Reconciliation in Central Europe
Since the end of the Cold War, observers have chronicled a growing obsession with problems of the past, and many have assumed that this too would pass into history, soon or eventually. The generation possessing direct memories of World War II (the most intense focus of conflicts over the past) is passing on. Politicians have been learning the wisdom of facing difficult pasts—and thus, perhaps, defusing conflict—rather than evading or denying painful memories. Insofar as memory conflicts are a product of the uncertain geopolitical order after the fall of communism, these uncertainties should eventually give way. Concerns with the past should give way to a focus on the future—the future of a united Europe—or on the problems of democracy and the global economy. Even so, skeletons from the closet have shaken and toppled governments, reminding us that the relationship between the uses of the past and the health of the polis is key to understanding the twenty-first century.
Meanwhile, the academic field of "memory studies" seems to be getting a little stale. What began as a provocative and compelling effort to show how unease about the unresolved past underlies the contemporary imagination seems to have devolved, in the last few years, into a ritual interrogation of the cultural meanings of countless monuments, commemorations, and museums. The field is dominated by articles and books about "the politics of memory" or "the politics [End Page 149] of regret"—writings that concern not politics as such but the public implications of amorphous cultural phenomena. The connection between the contemporary political world and the study of uses of the past becomes attenuated; it becomes less obvious that this still-young field of history is critically important to our understanding of the present.
The nations of Central Europe have been at the center of the study of memory, while simultaneously undergoing a transition to democracy. The coincidence of the two processes is worthy of some attention. As these countries made their final preparations to join the European Union—preparations that implicitly involved setting aside old scores—conflicts over the past appear only to have increased. Perhaps this seeming coincidence was a result of the impending accession, as those within the EU (as well as those in its antechamber) sensed that some arguments will be easier to pursue in the context of negotiation than within the fraternal atmosphere of Union bodies. Whatever the case, the year 1945 has emerged as a focal point for tension between Poland and the Czech Republic, on the one hand, and between Germany and Austria, on the other.1 In 1999 and 2002, W. G. Sebald and Günter Grass published works that revived consideration of the suffering experienced by Germans in 1945, as refugees and as victims of Allied firebombing.2 The question of refugees has loomed largest. A proposal made by Erika Steinbach (chair of the German Expellees' Association) to build a Center Against Expulsions has caused the most uproar. Ostensibly, her proposal is for an academic institute that would document the experience of refugees in Europe in the twentieth century and raise consciousness about the horrendous effects of expulsions and deportations. But since the original proposal envisioned locating the institute in Berlin, the obvious conclusion is that it would be a forum for advancing the cause of Germans expelled from Poland, Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union between 1945 and 1948.3
Even before World War II was over, millions of Germans had fled the approaching Soviet army, most of them leaving behind homes of many generations. When the war ended, the escapes became expulsions as the Czech and Polish civilian administrations endeavored to make the lands bordering Austria and the German zones of occupation as Czech and Polish as possible. This process was then sanctioned by the agreements between the Allies at Potsdam and, in Czechoslovakia, by a series of decrees issued by President Edvard Beneš. The [End Page 150] numbers of people affected is sobering, even against the background of the horrors of the war: some 12 million Germans became refugees. The vast majority left virtually all their possessions behind...