The return of a nightmare

Fifty years after their expulsion from Poland, the Germans are back. What are they after? And why?
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The Independent Culture
Admittedly, it does not look like a prize piece of property to argue over. A plain one-storey house, a brick shed, a couple of fruit trees. Ducks and geese wander forlornly across the frozen village pond; at one end of the village a huge stork's nest sits in solitary splendour in the fork of a tree; in the village stores, the selection of goods is almost as basic as in Communist times. In the village of Mosina, in north- west Poland, poverty is the rule. Most farmers can barely make ends meet - and they fear that things are getting worse.

But at least the land is theirs - or seemed to be, until recently. Jerzy Gawel and his family have lived in Mosina, south-west of Gdansk, for 50 years. They have no other home. Before 1939, however, Mosina - then known as Mossin - was part of Germany. The man who lived in Gawel's house as a child 50 years ago wants the farm back. The demand, and others like it, has opened up a can of political worms.

The letters from 60-year-old Heribert Wehry are suavely threatening. Wehry, an agricultural engineer from Paderborn in western Germany, sent copies of pre-war maps to bolster his claim to the property, which he left when he was five years old. In a four-page letter to the local mayor, he refers to international law - the Hague, the United Nations, Bosnia, you name it - and to the "painful but necessary" changes in law that Poland must make, including the "restitution of property to the Germans", if it wishes to be considered for membership of the European Union.

All of which might be dismissed as a bad joke - a green-ink letter written by a malicious eccentric - were it an isolated case. But it is not. Some of Wehry's demands for restitution are on pre-printed, bilingual forms. When I telephone Wehry, his wife says that he does not talk to journalists. But one thing is clear: thousands of such forms, distributed by an association of German expellees, have been filled in by those who were driven out in 1945. Now that the Communists are gone, they have a chance of getting their hands on their property once more. Jerzy Gawel, whose father rebuilt the house from ruins after 1945, feels bewildered: "I'm just a little pawn." His 75-year-old mother, Natalia, is nervous. Wringing her hands in front of the house the German wants her to lose, she says: "They said we shouldn't be afraid - but who knows what will happen next?"

This is unfinished business, as far as the Germans are concerned. In 1945, the Western Allies agreed to pick Poland up and dump it to the west, so as to keep Stalin happy by giving him more lebensraum. The Oder-Neisse line - named after the two rivers that mark the post-war Polish-German border - made little objective sense. But nor did much else at that time. Poland lost a quarter of a million square miles in the east, and gained swathes of German territory in the north and west in return.

The expulsions remained a raw German wound. A post-war West German school history book referred to "terrible suffering, such as the world no longer considered possible in the 20th century". Grotesquely, the reference was not to Auschwitz, nor to any other aspect of Nazism, but to the painful expulsion of Germans from their homes.

There is what might be called a Serbian quality to this German sense of victimhood: an awareness of their own (real) suffering, and a determination to ignore the suffering of others. Put the ultimate crime of Auschwitz to one side for a moment. Put to one side six years of routine brutality against Poles - who were "more like animals than human beings" in Hitler's view.

Even if one addresses only the narrow question of ethnic cleansing, Germany started the ball rolling, only weeks after the invasion of Poland in 1939. In the words of Thomas Urban, the German journalist and historian: "More than a million Polish citizens were affected. Most of them were dragged out of their beds at night; they could only take the bare necessities with them in their rucksacks, and had to head for the east in cattle trucks."

Anna Pertek was 12 years old when the Germans arrived in the village of Przyrowa, just across the border from Mosina into pre-war Poland, in 1939. She is close to tears as she tells a familiar story from that time: "They took the village teacher and shot him. He was such a good man. They took him, they took the priest. They murdered them all - and we're supposed to forget it. We should - but it's difficult." The remaining inhabitants of the village were forced out, minus their possessions, so that Przyrowa could become a "decent", Pole-free zone. As far as Anna Pertek is concerned, the Germans who were thrown out six years later had it easy. But that is not the way it seems to the Germans.

Some are still keen to pick at the old historical sores, however, under the guise of sorting things out. The German parliament, the Bundestag, complained last year of the "great injustice in violation of international law" suffered by the expellees, and insisted that Poland must change its property laws if it wished to "help overcome the consequences of war and expulsion". Poland exploded with anger at what it saw as a deliberate provocation: the Polish parliament retorted with an almost unanimous condemnation of the "dangerous tendencies" of the Bundestag resolution. The new social democrat chancellor, Gerhard Schroder, wants to stay sweet with the powerful lobby of the Federation of Expellees: he will give the keynote speech at the Federation's 50th anniversary celebrations for the Federal German Republic in May.

For many Germans, the renewed interest in the eastern territories is mere nostalgia. Bookshops across the country are full of lavishly illustrated books depicting the woods, lakes and broad shady avenues of the former German lands of Pomerania and east Prussia. At an official level, too, Germany is not keen to be seen as the Big Bad Wolf of the region.

There is a loophole, however. Agricultural land in Poland is cheap - and Germany insists that, under EU rules, Germans and others must be allowed to buy Polish land freely. As far as the Poles are concerned, that is equivalent to the point in a Monopoly game where one player owns hotels on Piccadilly, Park Lane and Mayfair, while another owns nothing but a mortgaged Whitechapel and Old Kent Road. From that point on, the game's ending is predetermined. The Poles feel that the Germans are rich and getting richer. The Poles are poor and - especially if they lose the property that they still hold - doomed to get poorer still.

Some are unbothered by the property claims and by the non-stop stream of German visitors. Thirty-eight-year-old Leszek Kicinski speaks warmly of the family who once lived in his home in Mosina, and who regularly come to visit, bringing gifts for the children. "They're very kind. We've been to stay with them in Hamburg several times. If we don't write, they ask us, `Have we said something to offend you?'." Others are glad for the extra income that German visitors bring.

For others, however, this is the return of a nightmare. In some respects, Poland is increasingly anchored in the West. Next month it joins Nato; in a few years' time, it looks set to join the European Union. In Mosina, however, Anna Pertek feels only angry despair. "We don't trust the Germans, and we never did," she says.

"They'll take us - not by war, but by money. I don't want anything from them - I just want them to leave us in peace. But they'll come anyway, and they'll get it all for free."