Obituary: Theodor Oberlander

David Childs
Sunday 23 October 2011 08:33

WHEN Theodor Oberlander spoke in public it was music to the ears of East German Communist propagandists. He served as Minister for Expellees, Refugees and War Injured from 1953 to 1960, in two of Konrad Adenauer's coalition governments. His strident tones provided excellent copy for not only Neues Deutschland in East Berlin, but many foreign newspapers, like the Daily Express.

Oberlander was appointed Professor for Agricultural Policy at Danzig in 1934 at the young age of 29. At the same time he was made Director of the Institute for Eastern European Questions in Konigsberg; he also led the Bund Deutscher Osten, which attempted to control the German minorities in Eastern Europe in the Nazi interest. He had joined the Nazi Party a year before.

Called up for military service in 1939, he was appointed professor at the German-run Prague University in 1940. As an expert on Eastern Europe he took part in the sorties of the notorious German special units in Russia. Later he was active on the staff of the anti-Stalinist, Russian Liberation Movement of General Andrei Vlasov, the Soviet defector, which fought briefly alongside the Germans towards the end of the Second World War. Oberlander was lucky to end the war in the West and, after a period as an American prisoner of war, started a new life in Bavaria. He joined the Free Democratic Party (FDP), a mixture of genuine liberals and more nationalist- orientated elements, which became Germany's third party.

In 1950, however, he left to help establish the Bavarian branch of the League of Those Expelled from their Homeland and the Dispossessed (BHE), or refugee party. As its chairman in Bavaria he was appointed State Secretary for Refugees in the Bavarian government in 1951. Campaigning as the GB/BHE, All-German Block/ BHE, the refugee party gained 1,617,000 votes in the 1953 federal elections. This represented 5.9 per cent and it was awarded 27 seats in the Bundestag. Adenauer presided over a coalition; Oberlander was one of the 19 ministers.

West Germany faced a colossal refugee problem. Millions had been expelled from traditional German territories beyond the Oder-Neisse line, millions more from the Sudenland and Eastern Europe. Thousands arrived each month from the Soviet Zone. Most had not been Nazis and could not understand why they had been forced out of their homes. Most were destitute. They represented a potentially dangerous element in German politics.

The main parties felt that refugee affairs were too important to be left to the GB/BHE: they built up their own aid organisations and voted massive assistance in housing, welfare and employment. In elections in 1957 the GB/BHE saw its vote fall to 4.6 per cent, and failed to gain representation in the Bundestag. But Oberlander had already defected to the CDU.

In 1960 Oberlander was forced from office. The East Germans accused him of being the "butcher of Lemberg" (Lvov), of having organised the massacre of Jews and Polish intellectuals there in 1941. He denied the accusations but was tried in absentia in East Berlin and sentenced to life imprisonment.

He remained a member of parliament until 1965 and kept up his lecturing on refugee issues. But he was out of touch with the new spirit of the times.

Theodor Oberlander, politician: born Meiningen, Germany 1 May 1905; died 12 May 1998.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments