A WW II Memorial for Germans Rankles Some A controversy has grown over plans for a memorial center dedicated to the 12 million Germans who became refugees after World War II. Many were forced to flee the Soviet army or were expelled from homes in Eastern Europe. The planned center has raised questions about whether it's appropriate for Germans to remember their own victims of the war, given the atrocities inflicted by the Nazis on other nations.
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A WW II Memorial for Germans Rankles Some

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A WW II Memorial for Germans Rankles Some

A WW II Memorial for Germans Rankles Some

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

In the decades since World War II, Germany has built many memorials and held remembrances for the victims of the Nazis. The ongoing commemorations raise the question of how much guilt Germans should still feel. That question has come up again with a movement to honor the 12 million German refugees who fled the Soviets or were expelled from their homes. A planned memorial center in Berlin is stirring controversy at home and abroad. NPR's Rachel Martin reports.

RACHEL MARTIN reporting:

Hans-Ulrich Klose was eight years old in April 1946 when Russian soldiers arrived at his family's home in what is now the Polish town of Landikstroi(ph). They were ordered to leave immediately. They had no food, no belongings and no idea what lay ahead.

Mr. HANS-ULRICH KLOSE: The next day, we were marching to the railway station and we were put in those wagons that they use to transport cattle, and then we were driving, oh, I think five days. Didn't know where we would go.

MARTIN: After two years of struggling to find work and shelter, they settled in Hamburg, a city Klose now represents in parliament. Millions of people were driven from their homes as part of the restructuring of Europe imposed by the US, Russia and Britain after World War II. Klose says there's a basic problem with building a memorial center for the expelled Germans.

Mr. KLOSE: It's too German. That's the point. It should be a European center for victims of expulsion and it should not be concentrated on those who were driven out as a consequence of the war only because this creates new victims, victims of a limited memory.

MARTIN: Many in Germany say it's not appropriate to talk of Germans as victims of the war, but others say it's a critical part of Germany's own healing. The National Association of Expelled Germans, which claims to represent about two million expellees, is pushing for the center. Recently, the group held a seminar in the town of Gerlitz on the German-Polish border aimed at educating younger generations about the expulsion.

(Soundbite of conversation in German)

MARTIN: Twenty-nine-year-old David Burges from Muenster says Germans who don't support the memorial center are trapped by old thinking.

Mr. DAVID BURGES: (Through Translator) There is no such thing morally or legally as collective guilt. There is only individual guilt. The center won't glorify German crimes. It will help us understand the German crimes and German victims separately.

MARTIN: But Orik Feta(ph), a 30-year-old lawyer from Berlin whose family was expelled from what is now Poland, takes a different view. He says any expulsion center should reflect modern European history.

Mr. ORIK FETA (Attorney): There are also other people who were expelled from the countries. We have to see in the 1990s what happens in the Balkan states. It's a European dimension. You can't only see it from German eyes. You have to see it in European sides.

MARTIN: Erika Steinbach is the director of the National Organization of Expelled Germans, which is lobbying for the expulsion center. She's also an outspoken member of the German parliament. She can recount stories of rape and violence told to her by German war refugees and says talking about German victims of the war has been taboo for too long.

Ms. ERIKA STEINBACH (Director, National Organization of Expelled Germans): (Through Translator) I think a country that isn't able to mourn its own dead cannot honestly mourn the dead people of other countries. Our neighbors should realize that a Germany which is able to mourn its own can more honestly mourn the people killed by the Hitler regime.

MARTIN: The plans for a German expulsion center have worsened the sometimes tense relations between Germany and Poland, a country in which the wounds of the war are still very real. The new conservative government in Poland has criticized the plans for an expulsion center as an attempt to rewrite history. Pioto Yendroshik(ph), the Berlin correspondent for the Polish newspaper Rzeczpospolita, says visitors to Berlin would be given the wrong message.

Mr. PIOTO YENDROSHIK (Berlin Correspondent, Rzeczpospolita): They will come to this city and see that the Jews have suffered throughout during the war and then the Germans because they suffer when presented in that kind of institution. So it is also an act of trouble because it would distort the image of the war.

Unidentified Woman: (German spoken)

MARTIN: Back in Gerlitz, the members of the Expelled Germans Association take a tour of the historic town in which many expelled Germans were resettled after the war. The guide stops at the eastern edge of the city and points to the new pedestrian bridge that connects Gerlitz to the Polish town of Scordilatch(ph).

Unidentified Woman: (German spoken)

MARTIN: `The Poles who live here today were expelled by the Russians from their homes further east. We are all expellees,' she says. Orik Feta, whose family was expelled from Poland, says that understanding is key.

Mr. FETA: I am in the opinion that it has to begin, these dialogue and this discussion, where Germans have to find their national identity, their patriotism again.

MARTIN: A number of sites in Berlin have been suggested for the expulsion center and several key conservative political leaders, including chancellor-to-be Angela Merkel, have endorsed the project and the issue is expected to come before parliament in the coming year.

Rachel Martin, NPR News, Berlin.

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