Can Germany Help Central Europe Confront Its Dark Past?: ‘…You Show Us How to Kill the Jews, and Now You Want Us To Be Sorry?’
The home of the German Historical Institute in downtown Warsaw is a handsome, 19th-century neo-Renaissance residence with arched doorways and a tranquil, cobbled courtyard. It is one of the few structures in Warsaw that the Nazis didn’t raze during their 1939-45 occupation of the Polish capital. “Ironic, isn’t it?,” says Katrin Stoll, a young German researcher there. “A building the Germans didn’t manage to destroy and now we’re here.”
Supported by Germany’s ministry of science and education, the institute was established in 1993 to promote collaborative research, scholarly discourse, and exchanges between Germany and Poland, with a particular emphasis on the dictatorships and violence of the 20th century. It houses 14 historians and researchers—two-thirds of whom are German, the others Polish—whose publications at the institute include more than 75 books and hundreds of shorter studies.
In its high-ceilinged, patrician halls, the institute hosts an impressive range of conferences, lectures, and panel discussions; the topics never stray far from the events that compelled the Yale historian Timothy Snyder to label these territories—Central Europe from the Baltic coast to the Black Sea—as the “bloodlands” in his 2010 book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (Basic Books).
Eduard Mühle, a German historian and the institute’s director, takes pains to explain the institute’s purpose. Mühle is acutely aware of the awkwardness of Germans, of all peoples, appearing to “tell the Poles how to do it.”
“We are modest participants in Polish historiography,” he says. “We’re working together with Polish colleagues and helping them put Polish history in a European context. We share in their discussions and try to bring over ideas, concepts, and trends from German academia. German historiography has something to offer, but it has to be done cautiously, with the past in mind.”
Yet some of the institute’s topics are prickly ones for Poles and their neighbors, like the Baltic states and Ukraine. Stoll, for example, studies the fate of Polish Jews in 1946-7 Poland, after the Germans capitulated. The subject is a sensitive one here, as anti-Semitism was rife in postwar Poland, prompting vicious pogroms in some parts of the country.