Germany tries to ease row with Poland over museum

BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany attempted Wednesday to defuse a row with Poland over a museum highlighting the fate of Germans forced out of eastern Europe after World War Two by saying it had not yet decided who would run it.

Many Poles fear the museum will portray Germans as victims of a war they began and strongly object to the prospect of Erika Steinbach, head of the League of Expellees, being in charge.

Steinbach, from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative party, is a figure of hate in Poland because of her work representing the interests of German expellees.

The subject of the 12.5 million Germans who were expelled from Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia after the defeat of the Nazis has strained relations between Germany and Poland since the war in which 6 million Poles died.

Merkel spoke this week to Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, a special Polish envoy charged with improving relations with Germany who had strongly criticized the nomination of Steinbach.

Government spokesman Thomas Steg said no decisions had been taken and the German cabinet had to approve the appointment. He stressed that the decision would not be rushed.

“It is very important to the Chancellor that, especially exactly 70 years after Germany’s invasion of Poland, the reconciliation we have achieved is not put at risk,” said Steg.

“It’s a difficult subject that stirs emotions and feelings and it must be discussed without time pressure.”

This week, the League said it had nominated Steinbach to head a committee closely linked to the project and accused Poland of holding the German government to ransom.

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk has been quoted in the German media as saying Polish politicians would not accept Steinbach in the post.

“The blatant attempts by Poland to influence the government on the staffing of a German victims’ society is unacceptable,” said a statement from the League, which had long pushed for a permanent center documenting the expulsions.

The museum will focus on the fate of expelled Germans but will also refer to other European expulsions.

After the war, Poland’s borders were shifted west by international treaty and ethnic German communities were forced to flee from Poland, Hungary and what was then Czechoslovakia and start new lives elsewhere.

Reporting by Madeline Chambers; editing by Robert Woodward