The small Bavarian city of Landshut sits on the Isar River about an hour northeast of Munich. It’s an absurdly pretty place, with the blue and pink buildings on its main street so pristine that it looks like a postwar reconstruction. But it’s not: Landshut wasn’t big enough to be a target of the Allies’ strategic bombing, and it lay out of the way of any advancing army. This does not mean that the war left no traces. I broke a long drive there one night twenty years ago, and in the morning, as I walked toward the city center, I noticed a sign that pointed me to a path along the river. Mahnmal, it said—memorial—but what I saw when I followed it wasn’t at all what my earlier visits to memorial sites in Hamburg and Berlin had led me to expect.
Hidden in the trees I found a three-sided hut of whitewashed brick; inside was a bronze map of Europe in which Germany was given its 1914 borders, including much of present-day Poland. Above it a plaque bore an inscription that began, “1939 lebten 18,7 Millionen Deutsche in den Vertreibungsgebieten”—In 1939 18.7 million Germans lived in territories from which they would be expelled—and it went on to say that between 1944 and 1946 they were thrown out, displaced, murdered, or went missing. Twelve million, the plaque added, would live to arrive in Germany, and other tablets listed some thirty provinces, regions, and countries as their places of origin. A few were as close as Silesia, others as distant as the Volga, but the map with its old borders suggested that many of those places should by rights be German still. There was a wrought-iron wreath, made of several loops of intertwined wire, fixed to the ground in front of all this. Or no, not a wreath, for it was pronged with metal briars that made it into a martyr’s crown of thorns.
I’d never seen anything like it, though I knew what it commemorated. Millions of ethnic Germans—Volksdeutsche—had been expelled from Eastern Europe in the aftermath of World War II and resettled in the West. In their new homes they formed fraternal societies and insisted they had a claim to their old ones; their sense of aggrieved nostalgia played a major part in the conservative politics of Bavaria in particular. We suffered too, the Landshut memorial claims, we too were victims. I got out my notebook to scribble down the inscription, and a man walking by with his dog looked at me oddly, as if wondering who I was. It all made me…
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