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Film depicting Germans as WW2 victims fires debate

BERLIN (Reuters) - A television drama portraying Germans as victims of atrocities as they fled Eastern Europe at the end of World War Two marks a new step in ending a German taboo on lamenting one of the biggest refugee movements ever.

“Die Flucht” (English title: “March of Millions”), a two-part film by public broadcaster ARD that concludes on Monday, had the highest ratings of the year on Sunday as more than 11 million viewers watched the first instalment.

While the German government hailed the film that sparked a belated national discussion about the mass expulsions 60 years ago as an important milestone, the issue is one that worries the country’s eastern neighbors.

“Any attempt to revise the history of World War Two needs to be watched carefully. I hope the process in Germany will be stopped,” Polish Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski told a news conference in Warsaw on Monday, in reply to a question.

Until recently there was little discussion about up to 14 million Germans who fled the Soviet army or were expelled after the Allies agreed their eviction from Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Some 2 million civilians were killed or died.

The exodus began in 1944, when many fled westwards ahead of Nazi Germany’s looming World War Two defeat. Millions more were forced to leave after the war when Poland’s borders were shifted west by the victorious Soviet Union and Western Allies.

Culture Minister Bernd Neumann led a chorus of cheers in Germany about the film, which also shows Soviet troops shooting children and raping women. He called it a cinematic achievement.

“No one wants to offset one side’s suffering against the other,” said Margot Kaessmann, a German Protestant church leader as a debate erupted over why Germans have long been silent.

“But reconciliation will only be possible when those guilty acknowledge their crimes and victims get a chance to tell their stories,” added Kaessmann, whose family were among the refugees.

DODGED ISSUE

Mainstream leaders, especially on the left, have dodged the issue of German suffering, fearful it would be seen as diverting attention away from Nazi horrors inflicted upon Europe.

“It was a national trauma and 60 years later, it was time to make a film seen from the victims’ point of view,” said Jan Mojto, a Slovak national and head of Munich-based EOS film, which co-produced the film.

Mojto, whose similarly provocative film “Dresden” a year ago about controversial Allied firebombing of the German city also got high ratings and was sold to 95 foreign countries, is hoping “March of Millions” will be as popular abroad as well.

But Marek Cichocki, foreign policy adviser to Polish President Lech Kaczynski, defended his country’s concerns.

“Obviously there are people in western Poland who have been made to feel uncertain about property questions,” Cichocki told a German TV talk show on Sunday, referring to fears among some Poles of German attempts to reclaim houses or land.

A Berlin museum about the expelled Germans that opened last year also sparked controversy. Polish leaders said it was an attempt by Germans to portray themselves as victims of a war they started.

“The problem in our view is not that the issue is being discussed, but how,” said Cichocki. “It focuses on individuals but blots out the bigger picture. It’s disturbing that so much emphasis is on individual (suffering), not the broader history.”

But Welt am Sonntag newspaper called the film carefully balanced. “Germans are treated as both criminals and victims. It doesn’t pass judgment but rather depicts all the horrors. That’s a prudent approach because there are no obvious answers.”

Additional reporting by Natalia Reiter in Warsaw

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