X-Post: Jasiński on Polak-Springer, 'Recovered Territory: A German-Polish Conflict over Land and Culture, 1919-1989'

Chris Fojtik's picture
Peter Polak-Springer
Łukasz Jasiński

Jasiński on Polak-Springer, 'Recovered Territory: A German-Polish Conflict over Land and Culture, 1919-1989'

Peter Polak-Springer. Recovered Territory: A German-Polish Conflict over Land and Culture, 1919-1989. New York: Berghahn Books, 2015. xxi + 280 pp. $100.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-78238-887-6.

Reviewed by Łukasz Jasiński (Muzeum Miasta Gdyni, Museum of the City of Gdynia) Published on H-Poland (July, 2018) Commissioned by Anna Muller (University of Michigan - Dearborn)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=51191

An In-depth View on Language, Propaganda, and Architecture in Polish-German Relations during Borderland Conflict

A tangled web of Polish-German relations in the twentieth century has been one of the main areas of scholarly interest in both countries. Despite a significant number of publications and scientific projects dealing with relations between these two states, there are still areas that require in-depth studies in terms of both microhistory and wider examinations dealing with crucial political events and social phenomena. Peter Polak-Springer’s Recovered Territory: A German-Polish Conflict over Land and Culture, 1919-1989 is an attempt to combine regional history with broader political and social analysis. Polak-Springer focuses on reconstructing the history of Polish-German rivalry over the Upper Silesia region, which, after the end of World War I, became a new borderland, torn by rivalry between the reborn Polish state and both the Weimar Republic and, after 1933, the Third Reich. The author conducts a reconstruction of nationalist movements in two parts of Upper Silesia supported and even championed by central and local authorities, which aimed to prove that only one of the protagonists had a right to Silesia.

Polak-Springer presents a transnational history of irredentism as popular culture and its promotion at the grassroots. Through a wide variety of examples, he covers Polish-German disputes and conflicts not only over the territory itself but also in the sphere of symbols, language, and culture. He also presents this rivalry as based on a wide scope of propaganda mechanisms and tools, which often were rooted in nationalist approaches that aimed to prove either that Upper Silesia could only be treated as a fully German land or that it was a perennial part of Polish territory. This book, however, is not simply limited to mere description of propaganda campaigns conducted in Upper Silesia by Poles and Germans starting from the end of World War I and ending with the collapse of Communism in Poland. Instead, Polak-Springer shows how two nationalist-rooted camps did not only compete against each other but also interacted, showing a great deal of similarities in such areas as culture, architecture, language, and political rallies.

The chronological frame of this book is 1919 to 1989. These seven decades were marked by many events to which the author refers: for example, three anti-German uprisings in Upper Silesia, which broke out between 1919 and 1921; the division of Upper Silesia between Poland and Germany, followed by political and social rivalry over this region; World War II and the German occupation of Poland; the end of the war and expulsion of the German population from Poland in 1945; and the politics of Communist authorities toward Upper Silesia and its inhabitants. Every event is here a subject of analysis from the prism of conflict over land, culture, and actions conducted by the two protagonists, which aimed to prove their “exclusive rights” to this region.

Polak-Springer divides his book logically into five major chapters and a short epilogue. The chapters are arranged in chronological order focusing on the origins and course of the conflict over Upper Silesia between 1871 and 1939, border rallies as a method of mobilization of supporters between 1922 and 1934, Polish attempts to acculturize Upper Silesia as a typical Polish province between 1926 and 1939, German attempts to “re-germanize” this land between 1939 and 1945, and expulsions of Germans and the politics of “re-polonization” of Upper Silesia conducted by Polish Communists between 1945 and 1956. The epilogue focuses on brief reconstructions of the German minority in Silesia and consecutive waves of migration to West Germany, as well as propaganda campaigns conducted by authorities in Warsaw until 1989.

The author bases his book on significant research in Polish and German central and local archives. He conducted research in such different Polish archives as the Central Archives of Modern Records in Warsaw (Archiwum Akt Nowych w Warszawie), the State Archives (Archiwa Państwowe) in Katowice and Opole, and the local Archives of the Institute of National Remembrance (Oddziałowe Archiwa Instytutu Pamięci Narodowej) in its Katowice and Wrocław branches. In Germany, he conducted research in the Federal Archive in Berlin-Lichterfelde (Bundesarchiv Berlin Lichterfelde) and the Political Archive of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Politisches Archiv des Auswärtigen Amtes) in Berlin. He also used documents from the Russian State Military Archive (Rossiski Gosudarstvennyi Voennyi Arkhiv) in Moscow, as well as articles from the Polish and German press, and Polish, English, and German publications.

Despite the large number of sources on which this book is based, Polak-Springer remains under control of his sources in terms of both analysis and narrative. The narrative, containing many facts and individual examples, is interesting and coherent. The author also incorporates photos and scans of postcards that further emphasize his main themes, such as the organization of propaganda rallies by both Poles and Germans, and the treatment of architecture as a symbol of domination over Upper Silesia.

A significant merit of the book is undoubtedly its broad scope of social and political actors. Polak-Springer presents not only theoretical works of academic centers and scholars from both countries but also such actors as various borderland leagues, regional governors, political party leaders, and organizations that represented Polish and German national minorities. This multi-perspective approach enables him to go far beyond mere historical description of political events, to emphasize, which I already mentioned, the similarities and differences between ways in which the main political and social actors on both sides of the border used various propaganda methods to mobilize their supporters.

Throughout the book, Polak-Springer unveils similarities between Poles and Germans. He rightly shows that the two sides used similar patterns of proving their “exclusive right” to this borderland territory. Particularly interesting in this context is the use of architecture by both. Modern administrative buildings erected in the center of Katowice (Kattowitz), serving in the 1930s as a capital of the voivodeship, the main regional center, were to be proof of the Polish character of this town, which was officially to flourish under Polish rule. On the other hand, Germans, by erecting monumental buildings in Bytom (Beuthen) and Racibórz (Ratibor), wanted to stress that Silesia was a perennial part of their territory, and treated these buildings as proof of German cultural superiority. This motive of a German sense of economic and cultural superiority is one of the aspects that the author analyzes carefully. He correctly notices and emphasizes the fact that this old sense of superiority was confronted with entrenched  anti-German stereotypes among Poles. To make things worse, these antagonisms were given a new energy after Adolf Hitler gained power in Germany. Polak-Springer gives a handful of similar examples, such as attempts by both Polish and German scholars to prove historical, economic, and ethnological terms. Through such examples, he proves that a borderland conflict based on nationalism and irredentism is based on actions and reactions, despite the fact that usually both sides use similar methods of mobilization of their supporters.

An interesting case that Polak-Springer includes is the use of museums and musealizations in creating a myth of exclusively Polish or respectively German character of Silesia. He describes here a history of the Silesian Museum in Katowice and the Upper Silesian Museum in Bytom, which were used as tools of the peculiarly understood “politics of memory,” showing respectively fully Polish or fully German roots of this borderland. What is more, the Katowice museum was closed by the Nazis in the wake of the German occupation in 1939, as symbolic evidence of German domination over this territory. This focus on museums in terms of Polish-German relations in the twentieth century is innovative.

Polak-Springer emphasizes not only the big historical and ethnological issues but also the situation of ordinary inhabitants of Silesia, who had a mixed Polish-German identity or felt themselves simply as locals, without possessing any general national identity. He includes individual cases of people who opposed forced actions of giving Upper Silesia a one-dimensional Polish or German “face” without taking into account its complicated origins and character. This individual approach enables readers to understand how political actions influence the life of inhabitants of different regions.

The book does have some weaknesses. Perhaps the author should have focused more on postwar propaganda actions officially described as “regaining Polish Silesia.” Although the title indicates that the time frame this book covers is from 1918 to 1989, it focuses mostly on the prewar era and World War II. The postwar years are treated as a kind of supplement to the main narrative. In my opinion, the years 1956-89 are described rather briefly and require more attention. By painting a broader panorama of Polish-German relations after 1956 and destalinization in Poland, this book could have been even more in-depth and interesting.

All in all, Polak-Springer took up a serious and demanding challenge. He gives a multi-perspective analysis combining big history and politics with local experiences. Thanks to his broad research and high-quality analysis of resources, he provides a book that gives readers an opportunity to get to know the complicated and wide-ranging Polish-German conflict over Upper Silesia. Hopefully, this book will be an inspiration for other scholars to write such books concerning other borderlands, such as the Pomeranian region.

Citation: Łukasz Jasiński. Review of Polak-Springer, Peter, Recovered Territory: A German-Polish Conflict over Land and Culture, 1919-1989. H-Poland, H-Net Reviews. July, 2018. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=51191

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.