In a hall in a renown museum on Berlin`s most famous street, Unter den Linden, a grey haired woman in her 80’s stood at a podium and recalled a memory from when she was a very young girl. A memory of her family being caught up in the wild ethnic cleansing that swept large swathes of Central and Eastern Europe after the Second World War. Recalling the moment when a group of Czech soldiers surrounded her refugee column.
“As a 10 year old back in 1945 I was afraid of being beaten or shot, not least when I saw infants ripped from their prams and tossed into the air and shot to pieces like clay pigeons.” She went on to recount “I can relate the memory but not the horrific sounds of these moments; of mother’s screaming and of our tormentors laughter.”
There was silence in the hall. You literally could have heard a pin drop. After the worthy speeches commemorating suffering and loss, the sheer horror of an almost unspeakable atrocity jolted many in the room into a realisation that this wasn`t just some historical tribute but a vivid memory for someone who was still very much alive.
Dr Edith Kieswetter-Giese, whose memories these are, was one of millions of German-Bohemian refugees caught up in the whirlwind of ethnic `reordering` that would reshape a millennia of European settlement and civilisation and leave in its place a field of ruins and shattered lives that resonates powerfully into the present. There are still plenty of ruins and memories like these still haunt the survivors. Dr Edith empathised with today’s refugees fleeing conflicts around the globe, on a day on which a commemoration of Germany`s civilian deaths during and after the Second World War was symbolically linked to the UN`s World Refugee day.
Many of us who had come to Berlin to attend a long overdue commemoration of Germany`s civilian victims were not expecting much. I was resigned to having to sit through a load of politically correct platitudes and to hearing German politicians again kicking their own. President Joachim Gauck, was rumoured to have written the longest speech since he had taken office. Many who had fought so long and hard for this day of commemoration feared they were going to be in for yet another afternoon of political hectoring.
All the more surprising then that I was fortunate to be present at a day when political posturing was put to one side to allow for a genuine day of remembrance to take place. The German President led the commemoration and began by saying;
“For the first time Germany is marking an official day of remembrance for the millions of Germans who were driven from their homelands at the end of the Second World War”
He went on to give a potted but largely very accurate history of the expellees, their journey and the way their plight had been politicised by generations of politicians on all sides of the political divide stating;
“Forced displacement was largely accepted as the supposedly inevitable punishment for the crimes committed by Germans...Today I cannot think of this without a measure of shame...Why were we so willing to ignore the fact that others, the expellees, had paid so much more for the violent and cruel war than we had.”
President Gauck went on to echo a speech made by Otto Schily in Berlin cathedral to assembled members of the Erlebnisgeneration (generation of survivors) back in 1999, which had called for more openness and honesty with Germany`s eastern neighbours about not only the atrocities that took place during the war but those that followed in its aftermath. Gauck went on to note that this process was evolving and that “Germany`s past has become more and more a part of the history of Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Latvia and Hungary – and more alive in the Polish, Czech and Hungarian consciousness than in the German.” A sentiment that might sound strange to some outside observers but not to those who are more familiar with many German’s factured view of their nation’s history. All in all it was a very worthy and honourable speech and one which I`m sure he’d taken much time and care in preparing.
After the speech a kindly gentleman whom I`d sat next to during the presentation, whom I`d never met before and was interested as to why an English historian was at a German commemoration, came up to me as I took some photos of the assembled dignitaries on the podium and asked “Would you like to meet the President?”He ushered me over to where President Gauck was speaking to an assembled group of expellees and introduced me. I met an engaging and warm-hearted individual, still with the easygoing mannerism of the local pastor he had been before his calling took him to Presidential palace of Schloss Bellevue. After a brief chat on the increasing interest in the English speaking world with the fate of Central and Eastern Europe during and after the Second World War, I congratulated him on making such a worthy and dignified speech and that was a very genuine sentiment on my part.
My only regret is that it has taken seventy years for the German state and political class to give their own such a dignified hearing and that so few of them were now left to hear it.