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Germany and Poland square up in row over war

Berlin and Warsaw are locked in a political row over plans to appoint a German conservative MP accused of playing down Nazi war crimes to run a new museum dedicated to the plight of Germans forced out of eastern Europe after the Second World War.

The dispute, which threatens to jeopardise recently improved relations between the neighbours, centres on the figure of Erika Steinbach, a leading MP in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling Christian Democratic Party and head of her country’s Association of Expellee Germans. Mrs Steinbach has come to be regarded as a hate figure in Poland because of her support for the plight of 12.5 million of her countrymen who were kicked out of eastern Europe after 1945. She has been accused of playing down Nazi war crimes and of trying to portray German expellees as mere victims.

The 65-year-old blonde, Teutonic-looking politician has been ridiculed for her stance in the Polish press, with one leading magazine depicting her on its front cover in jackboots and a black Nazi SS uniform with Swastika armband.

Despite vociferous Polish protests, Mrs Steinbach has insisted on being given a senior post on the board of a new Berlin museum that will record the plight of German and other European expellees. She has the full backing of Germany’s two million-strong expellees’ association.

Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, Poland’s special envoy on German affairs and a former foreign minister, summed up Warsaw’s objections to Mrs Steinbach’s planned appointment. “It is as if the Vatican had decided to give the Holocaust-denying Bishop [Richard] Williamson the task of overseeing its relations with Israel,” he said.

Mrs Steinbach, who has in the past objected to Poland’s EU membership and voted against recognition of its present-day border with Germany, was digging in her heels yesterday, accusing Poland of taking an “aggressive stand” against her nomination.

The row has become an embarrassment for Ms Merkel. Her government has gone out of its way to improve relations with Warsaw after enduring a disastrously acrimonious period which ended when the centre-right leader Donald Tusk became Prime Minister in late 2007.

Mr Tusk has told Ms Merkel that his government has reservations about the expellees museum and Mrs Steinbach, but looks at it from a “distanced but friendly” standpoint. The issue represents a tricky balancing act for Mrs Merkel.