A monumental crisis as the Germans in Poland pay homage to the Fatherland

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The Independent Online
AT FIRST sight, there seems nothing controversial about the new war memorial in the Polish village of Dobrzen Wielki. The inscription, in German, says: 'To the fallen of both world wars. To the victims of injustice and violence. May the memory of their deaths no longer divide us but encourage us to live for a common future.'

This could be taken as a tribute to Poles who suffered under the Nazi tyranny and to Germans who fought for their fatherland but were by no means fanatical fascists. However, there is one problem: next to the inscription stands a concrete monument on which are carved the figures of soldiers in Nazi helmets, marching forward with guns aloft.

The monument was erected by members of Poland's ethnic German minority, which was suppressed under four decades of Polish communism and is only now reclaiming its identity. In the past year, similar monuments have been erected all over Upper Silesia, the area transferred from Germany to Poland in 1945. The monuments, mainly in the Opole region, have outraged Poles, who lost 6 million dead in the Second World War. 'For a Pole, the soldiers in the monument look like Nazi aggressors marching to destroy Poland. But for a German, the soldiers look like honest German patriots marching to fight Stalin and the Bolsheviks on the eastern front,' said Danuta Berlinska, a Polish specialist on the German minority issue.

On one German war memorial, she said, a Pole had scrawled in a curious blend of Polish and English slang: 'Polska dla Polakow. Niemcy, fuck off od Polski' (Poland for the Poles. Germans, fuck off out of Poland). And an ethnic German had scrawled back: 'Poles, remember that you are guests in Silesia.'

Ethnic German activists upset Poles even more last January when a German-language magazine, Schlesien Report (Silesia Report), published the first verse of the anthem Deutschland Uber Alles. The Polish Prime Minister, Hanna Suchocka, visited Upper Silesia in March to ease the tensions. 'Although some conflicts of a nationalistic character appear here and there in Silesia, there is generally no ethnic question. Instead there is a common opportunity to benefit from diversity,' she said. However, in a rebuke to the most radical German campaigners, she added: 'I expect the renunciation of actions which undermine the authority of and confidence in the government of the Opole region.'

The problem is a legacy of the Second World War. Largely at Stalin's insistence, a large tract of eastern Germany was awarded to Poland, while a similar tract of eastern Poland was awarded to the Soviet Union. More than 10 million Germans were expelled to the west, and towns like Oppeln, Breslau, Bromberg, Danzig and Stettin acquired Polish names: Opole, Wroclaw, Bydgoszcz, Gdansk and Szczecin. In Upper Silesia, the Germans were replaced by Poles from eastern areas, such as Lwow, which were then under Soviet rule. For the Germans left in Upper Silesia, it was a catastrophe. They were forbidden to use German in public life, and they regarded the Polish newcomers as poor and uncivilised. Johann Kroll, an elderly German activist in the small town of Gogolin, said: 'Children are always told about the Jewish Holocaust, but we Germans had a holocaust here, too.'

Mr Kroll drives a car whose back window is adorned with a German sticker, 'Ich liebe Ober Schlesien' (I love Upper Silesia). On his front door hangs the sign 'Gruss Gott' (Welcome). His town, like others in the Opole region, looks uncannily like an ordinary town in southern Germany, from the railway station to people's homes. Gardens are immaculately tidy and filled with wooden or plastic gnomes, just as in parts of Germany. Almost every house has a satellite dish, so that people can tune in to German satellite television stations.

Mr Kroll fought in the Wehrmacht in the war, serving in places as far-flung as Bordeaux and the Crimea. In no sense does he consider himself a Nazi supporter; he just thinks that the Germans of Upper Silesia have never had their tragedy properly explained. 'We really had three wars here. The First World War, the Second World War and then the expulsions after 1945. The majority of German Silesians in the Wehrmacht died on the Russian front. Surely we have a right to pray for our fallen comrades?' he said. 'When we old ones are gone, in 10 or 20 years, it will be all over here. Unless the children are taught German, they will all be Polonised. We old folk speak German, but the young don't speak it so well.'

The Polish government is making an effort to help the Germans. Out of 622 schools in the Opole region, 230 now teach German as a second language, Mrs Berlinska said. Some schools offer German as the mother language, but there is a shortage of trained teachers, with the result that instruction is sometimes given by Poles whose grasp of German is inadequate.

Just how many Germans remain in Upper Silesia is a matter of debate. Mrs Berlinska divides the 1 million people of the Opole region into three groups: Polish Silesians, Silesians with a strong sense of German identity and Silesians without any national consciousness, Polish or German. The third group speaks a Silesian dialect of Polish with many German borrowings. It is known in Polish as Slaski (Silesian) and in German as Wasserpolnisch (watered-down Polish).

Mrs Berlinska estimates that about 300,000 Silesians can be considered as Germans, but she points out that only about one in four of them actually speaks German. Many Silesians are tempted to think of themselves as Germans, partly because the experience of Polish communism made them look at post-war Germany as a paradise of affluence and freedom. In the past two years, at least 40,000 Silesians have acquired German passports, although they have not emigrated to Germany.

In Germany, the millions of people expelled from what is now western Poland form a vocal but not very powerful pressure group. Some would like to reincorporate Upper Silesia into Germany, but the government in Bonn has officially recognised the post-war border with Poland.

For Poles, it has been a shocking experience to see war memorials go up that display Prussian eagles and iron crosses. But for the Silesian Germans, this has been the simplest way to express their long-suppressed identity. 'We are a suffering people here. We have had a difficult life,' Mr Kroll said.

(Photographs omitted)