While recognising the views of those, like Bob Carr,
who want Australians to take more of an interest in their country’s
history, we should also spare a thought for those who live in places
whose history weighs a great deal more heavily on them than ours does.

For example, consider the exhibition
that opened last Thursday in a former palace on Unter Den Linden in
Berlin. Called “Forced Paths”, it dramatises the plight of the millions
of victims of forced relocation in Europe during the 20th century.
But its real focus,
and the reason it has caused so much controversy, is the millions of
Germans who were expelled from areas that are now in Russia, the Czech
Republic and (especially) Poland at the end of World War II.

Once
the Soviet Union successfully repelled the Nazi invasion, it was
inevitable that it would shift the Polish-Soviet frontier back to
something like the linguistic boundary (known as the Curzon line),
depriving Poland of large chunks of Lithuanian, Belarussian and
Ukrainian territory. In return, Poland occupied territory in the east
of Germany, expelling the Germans and resettling it with Poles.

This
represented the sort of rough justice that history often comes up with;
after all, the Germans started the war. No-one suggests that the
boundary revision could or should be undone. But huge numbers of
innocent civilians suffered as a result, and 60 years later it should
be possible to consider the issue objectively.

In Poland,
however, political imperatives prevent that. The new government of
Jaroslaw Kaczynski is vehemently nationalistic – which in Poland means
being anti-German as well as anti-Russian – and has protested
against the exhibition. According to the BBC, he said “It’s important
to remember who were the murderers and who were the victims”.

Parties
of the left occasionally remember that they are committed to
international brotherhood, but the nationalistic right has no such
commitment even in theory. So a right-wing Polish government has no
sympathy for those who were expelled – even though in Germany they are also
associated with the right – and is determined to leave unquestioned the
territorial gains that the communists secured. Perhaps there’s
something to be said for ignorance of history after all.

Peter Fray

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