BERLIN (Reuters) - Chancellor Angela Merkel’s most striking problem at the start of her new government is not the economy, an unpopular war or the opposition: it’s a 66-year-old, 6-foot blonde in her own Christian Democrats, Erika Steinbach.
Dubbed “a red rag for Warsaw” by a leading German magazine, Steinbach has become a touchstone for Berlin’s efforts to heal the wounds left by World War Two, notably with Poland.
A campaigner for Germans forced to flee westwards when Germany lost territory after the Nazis’ defeat, Steinbach is at the center of a tug-of-war over whether she should be granted a seat on the board of a museum dedicated to their plight.
Her lobbying for the expellees, whose families make up a large chunk of Germany’s population, has raised hackles in Poland, where she has been vilified as a Nazi apologist seeking to portray Germans as victims of a war their leaders began.
Steinbach, born in German-occupied Poland where her father served in the Luftwaffe, argues Germany has dishonored the memory of the expellees too long, and once tried to make Polish EU membership conditional on paying compensation for them.
Merkel’s new coalition partners, the Free Democrats (FDP), have said they will block Steinbach’s appointment to the museum she has spent a decade trying to create, piling pressure on the chancellor to support the FDP or risk angering Poland.
However, the League of Expellees, the driving force behind the museum that Steinbach heads, insisted she must take her seat on the board, and urged Merkel this week to back their nominee during her cabinet talks in Meseberg on Wednesday.
Steinbach has won the support of the Christian Social Union — the Bavarian-based sister party of Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) — as well as a sizeable group within the CDU.
Yet to the alarm of Germany’s neighbors, she is championed by some seeking to mitigate Hitler’s responsibility for the war, and has been a hate figure among Poles since she voted against recognizing Germany’s current border with Poland in 1990.
A survey published by Polish paper Rzeczpospolita in March showed Steinbach, who has often recounted how she fled westwards with her family after the war, was the second most feared foreign politician in Poland after Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
It also showed that Steinbach, a former violinist who compared the previous Polish government to German neo-Nazis, was held in far greater suspicion than German government policy.
Her notoriety in Poland, where she has been likened to Richard Williamson, a British-born bishop who cast doubt on the Holocaust, has prompted some in Germany to observe she is better known across the border than in her homeland.
However, commentators say Merkel cannot afford to ignore her and is most likely to avoid taking a decision, leaving the board seat unoccupied in a compromise to save face at home and abroad.
Editing by Jon Hemming