German Foreign Minister: We Must Talk About Nazi Crimes Against non-Jewish Poles

Heiko Maas calls for changing the 'culture of remembrance' ■ Polish embassy in Germany says Berlin discussion of WWII too narrow, Polish victims 'completely forgotten'

Germany's Minister for Foreign Affairs Heiko Maas at Auschwitz, August.
Jarek Praszkiewicz/AP

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has called for changing Germany’s “culture of remembrance” in relation to World War II to include non-Jewish Polish victims of Nazi crimes.

The call for change addresses Polish criticism that discourse about the war focuses too narrowly on Jewish victims.

At an international conference entitled “A century of Germany’s Poland policy: Tradition – the betrayal of all civilized values – understanding – partnership,” which was held Thursday in Berlin to mark the 100th anniversary of Poland’s independence, Maas recognized Germany’s responsibility for causing the suffering and murder of non-Jewish groups alongside Jews, as well as admitting that Germans were underinformed about the non-Jewish victims.

>> Poland’s centennial celebration was stained by fear and hatred ■ Opinion: Despite anti-Semitism fears, Poland’s Jews refuse to hide away

“The unspeakable crimes that Germans committed against and in Poland during the following six years are, to this day, a source of shame for us,” Maas said, adding that “we also have to admit that even now we do not pay enough attention in Germany to the crimes against Poles.”

As examples, he noted Germany did not know enough about “the almost complete destruction of entire Polish villages in order to create ‘Lebensraum’ for German settlers” and the “almost complete destruction” of Warsaw after the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, as well as the “attempts to take Polish children away from their parents and integrate them into German families.”

He added that Germany and Poland were planning to change the culture of remembrance and work together to trace the fates of victims of German war crimes in Poland, as well as Holocaust survivors.

Maas’ statements are in line with the current Polish government’s policy, which in recent years has emphasized Polish victims of the Second World War and struggled to bring awareness of the Poles as victims of Nazi war-crimes.

Polish ambassador to Germany, Andrzej Przylebski, said that German discussion of WWII and it’s victims has been too narrow, focusing solely on European Jews, such that Polish victims of the German occupation were “completely forgotten or downplayed.” He added that the current discourse presents the matter “as if Hitler was primarily or exclusively concerned with the murder of European Jews.”

Maas hugging his Polish counterpart Jacek Czaputowicz before their meeting in Harmeze near Oswiecim.
AGENCJA GAZETA/REUTERS

According to Przylebski, Poland was the biggest loser of the WWII in Europe, and he called German policy toward Poland in the last century “catastrophic.”

His speech was quoted by the Polish news agency Wiadomosci, the Associated Press and on Germany’s public international broadcaster Deutsche Welle.

The conference focused on Polish victims of World War II. According to Polish researchers, 3 million Poles (in addition to the 3 million Polish Jews) were killed by the Nazis.

The German historian Prof. Stephan Lehnstaedt uses the term “genocidal violence” in relation to Germany’s treatment of Polish citizens at the beginning of the war. Lehnstaedt says that from the first day of the war, September 1, 1939, the SS was given full authority to eradicate the Polish intelligentsia. He added that by the spring of 1940, 60,000 Polish citizens had been killed.

According to Lehnstaedt’s research, at the beginning of the occupation the murderous German agenda was focused on the Polish nation and the Catholic Church, not the Jews. He emphasized that Germans today are unaware that Polish Jews were not the only victims of the Nazis, but that Poles, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, and Belarusians living in Poland had also been victims.

In an interview with Deutsche Welle, Lehnstaedt said that Poland is home to some 40,000 former prisoners of German camps, most of which never received any sort of reparations. He called for a rectification of the situation, and said that it is an ethical and historical obligation. He called the lack of recognition for these victims, 70 years after the war, a “scandal.”

His statements reflect the Polish demand for comprehensive reparations from Germany for damages caused during the war, an issue that has come to the fore in the public and political discourse of Poland.

The Polish historian, Pawe Machcewicz, former director of the Museum of the Second World War in Gdansk, called for the erection of a monument in Berlin for the Polish victims of the Nazis. He added that he is aware of the concern that such a monument would prompt other groups to demand similar recognition, yet he believes it is justified, morally and symbolically, due to the extensive scope of the “murder of the Polish nation.”

He added that such a gesture could be instrumental in facilitating German and Polish reconciliation. Another idea that came up during the conference was to create museums devoted to German-Polish relations – one in Berlin and a second in Warsaw.