From the Margins to the Centre: The Discourse on Expellees and Victimhood in Germany

Co-authored with Karoline von Oppen and subsequently published in Germans as Victims: Remembering the Past in Contemporary Germany (ed. by Bill Niven, Palgrave, 2006), this paper examines how the refugees and expellees and their descendents, and the organisations representing them, were able to reclaim a significant presence in, and mindshare of the discourse on Germans as victims from the late 1990s onwards, that had been unthinkable only a few years earlier. Considering the perception of the German expellees as victims, and the role and place that they have occupied in the broader discourse on the reappreciation of victimhood in Germany, we argue that a much broader reconceptualisation of the notion of Germans as victims has taken place since the late 1990s of which the reappreciation of German expellees and refugees is one among several elements. We focus on the catalytic role played by the events in the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s and in particular during the Kosovo crisis at the end of that decade that brought the suffering of German refugees and expellees from Central and Eastern Europe very much (back) into the now broader discourse on Germans’ Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung. Grasped by the expellee organisations as a unique opportunity to re-open the debate on their individual suffering, the conflict in and over Kosovo proved pivotal in sensitising German public opinion to possible historical parallels. Publicised in major media and across the traditional left-right divide, the debate over German involvement in the NATO bombing campaign against Serbia coincided with the rapprochement between the political left and the expellees that had begun prior to the red-green election victory in 1998, and has seen its preliminary conclusion with the publication of Guenter Grass’s Im Krebsgang. Yet, this renewed debate has also led to controversies: the proposed “Centre against Expulsions” has been widely rejected in German and abroad, and the instrumentalisation of the expulsions in the context of the EU accession, particularly of the Czech Republic, has, to some extent, restored traditional left-right divides over how best to deal with this particular period in German and European history, suggesting that the political left’s brief flirtation with the expellees rarely went beyond mere expediency. Analysing the interplay of domestic and international events and of political agendas of various influential players in the debate, we conclude however that the discourse concerning the collective victimisation of German expellees and refugees over the past several years has added an important dimension to the gradual change in ordinary Germans’ view of their own history.

Published

September 2006



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