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  • Writer's pictureStephen R A'Barrow

The Fairytale of the 'Regained Territories'

I know the Third Reich is always top of all history curriculums and just as popular these days is refighting the Second World War via on-line computer games. The History of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, Prussia and the intricacies of Central European history are rather more complex and harder to absorb. As I mentioned in my book and in various blogs most countries teach their history through the means of carefully selected national curriculums. Curriculums that aim to make their nationals feel good about themselves, perhaps with the occasional reference to national misdeeds of the past but not too many and certainly not more than their neighbours. The publishing industry is awash with what I term the ‘warm glow of history’ publications; books people buy and read to make them feel good, or at least better, about where they hail from. The only glaring exception both in terms of their national curriculum and their publishing industry are the Germans, who appear to have become so used to self-flagellation that it’s become a ‘national instinct’.

What I find fascinating is not just how divergent German and Polish attitudes have become but are continuing to diverge about their respective national identities. The Germans seem keen to bury not only their history but their national identity. Even during the 2006 World Cup held in Germany there was a debate about whether it was acceptable to hand out let alone wave a German flag (unimaginable anywhere else in Europe). A certain level of patriotism, most people would agree is good thing. There is nothing wrong in having an affinity for and or wanting to preserve cultural traditions and achievements gained over generations. A patriot loves his country; however, a nationalist thinks his country is better than everyone else’s and more often than not wants to see his/her country’s reach beyond its current territorial boundaries.

History is about facts and perspectives. Professional historians are taught not only to look for what a historian has written about but also what he has failed to write about – what he has consciously or subconsciously left out. One of the best historians in the English language and perhaps the most informed British historian on Poland, Norman Davies, I admire even though I doubt we would agree on very much. His honesty however is disarming when he admits to ‘negative feelings about everything German… (and of) decades passing before the revulsion (my italics) subsided. ‘ That’s honest and puts what he writes about Poland and Germany in some perspective. He was honest enough to then write a joint history of the great city of Breslau (Wroclaw) with a specialist in German history, Roger Moorhouse. But ultimately, I agree entirely with Davies’s statement that ‘I do not think it is possible for apolitical historians to write apolitical studies…and I agree completely that complete objectivity is unattainable. ‘ To that end I always recommend people interested in any period of history or with history in general to read as many factual history books from as many perspectives as they can.

To that endeavour I will now go on to outline a tiny bit (with a couple of maps) of why Pomerania, Silesia and East Prussia were part of a German orbit with German populations not for a mere hundred or two hundred years but centuries before the first Europeans arrived in the Americas and as President Roosevelt was all too plainly aware when in a paraphrased response to Stalin first raising the suggestion that Poland’s borders might move as far West as the Oder Neisse he retorted if that were allowed to happen then no doubt the British would restate their claim to the United States. Churchill had visited Silesia for the Kaiser’s birthday celebrations before the First World War and knew the region well enough to know the regions German history ran back to its formal cessation to the Holy Roman Empire in 1335 (defacto in 1318 and that most of the regions imperial town charters date back at century before that). Pomerania’s German history reaches back even further to the early 12th century. That’s a history of between 600-800 years and at least 30 generations (by modern historical definition). But now I’ll turn my attention in a little more detail, with a few extracts from my book, to the history of German settlement east of the Oder Neisse.

Prussia began as a Crusader State founded by the illustrious and infamous Order known as ‘The Teutonic Knights’. A.J.P Taylor once stereotyped the Prussians as; “Loving nothing more than to emulate the French and massacre the Slavs”. But the early Prussians were not a Germanic tribe; they were the object of the early crusades, not the actual crusaders. The Prussians were a heathen Baltic people, whom the Teutonic Knights came to conquer and convert. Only in the coming centuries, after the conquest of the eastern Baltic, did the German settlers come to call themselves Prussians.

The Teutonic Order’s colonisation was first and foremost a Papally inspired and sanctioned Christian crusade of conversion, not a quest for Germanic racial supremacy, Lebensraum (living space) and the extermination of the people of the territories they conquered. Albrecht Von Buxhoeven’s subsequent invasion of modern day Estonia with his Schwertbrueder (Knights of the Sword — which later merged with the Teutonic Knights) was undertaken with an army composed almost equally of Germans and converted Livonians. Tribes that were conquered and accepted Christianity were left in possession of their lands and were conscripted by the Order as fighting troops. Latin and German were the languages of administration, as the Baltic languages, like the early Celtic languages, were unwritten. As Desmond Seward aptly described in his book The Monks of War, “Prussians were initially forbidden to live in German villages only because they were poor farmers who did not use the heavy German plough. Intermarriage was prohibited because too many natives remained pagan, not to avoid diluting German blood. In the Samland region Prussian chieftains were thoroughly assimilated becoming indistinguishable from German nobles, whose daughters they married, building manor houses and adopting coats of arms. By the end of the thirteenth century Prussian Balts and Pomeranian Slavs were being admitted to the Order… the brethren’s prejudices were religious and economic, not racial. They were Catholic Christians first, Germans second”.

However, it is folly to believe that sheer bloody barbarism towards one’s enemies was practiced by only one and not all warriors during this period. From the crusades to the Levant by the Franks, the Christianising ‘Reyses’ of all and sundry to Central and Eastern Europe, as well as the countering raids of the pagan Baltic tribes, none were averse to torture, rape and pillage. Crusaders who were taken prisoner were usually led to a sacred forest grove and roasted alive in their armour as a sacrifice to the pagan Gods—oak trees were a particular favourite sacrificial place. No quarter was given or expected between pagan and Christian, as was the case in the endless battles between Christians themselves, whether these were between Catholic members of the Order and the Polish crown, or between Catholics and Orthodox Christians. After the battle of Tannenberg, between the Order and Poland, the Poles took a large number of prisoners including knights and proceeded to torture and behead many.

The way the Order is presented in modern Poland is something akin to a satanic cult. The true legacy of the Order, and the role it played in moulding Prussia, is better summarised by Seaward in his excellent book on the crusades, on the true nature of ‘the monks of war’ and particularly on the settlement of the Baltic coastal regions and the legacy this presented; “The settlement of Prussia (beginning in the early 1200’s) was the outstanding colonial achievement of the Middle Ages, the most successful economically. Nearly a hundred towns and a thousand villages were established under the brethren’s auspices… Most Prussians were reduced to serfdom, though steadily Germanised. Marshes were drained, sea walls built, forests cleared, and sandy soil conquered by the heavy German plough. Customs duty was levied, but there were no inland tolls on the well-kept roads or the rivers, which were patrolled by the brethren. Understandably, there was little brigandage. By the Fourteenth Century, Prussia had the most contented peasant freeholders in Europe… The Knights had learnt the value of commerce in the Levant and kept a fleet of merchantmen. They copied Templar banking methods, bills of exchange being accepted at larger commanderies. They enforced a uniform system of weights and measures and minted their own coinage…. they obtained papal permission to trade, exporting grain in vast quantities …and also yellow amber, much prized for rosaries, of which the Order had a monopoly. In addition, the Order exported silver, timber, salt, cloth, wax, furs, horses and falcons...Every landowner, whether German noble or Prussian chieftain, held his land from the Order in return for military service. They also all had to pay annually with a bushel of grain, with another for every ‘plough’ of land… It is this uniformity of law and administration, co-coordinating foreign policy, internal government, church affairs, trade and industry, which gives substance to the claim that Prussia was the first modern state”.

Map of Crusade state of the Teutonic Knights – Late 14th Century

Map of the Holy Roman Empire of the German nation 1499

Just because Prussia became a Polish fiefdom from 1466-1657 did not make these territories nor its people any more Polish than Poland became German during the purchase of the Polish crown in 1697 by the Saxon Wettin dynasty. Any more than Britain became French after the Norman conquest or France English during the occupations of the Hundred Years War. Or for that matter than England became German during the rule of the Welfen Hanoverians from 1715 during the Georgian era.

All great European nations like to paint a picture of a one or even two thousand year unbroken rise to nationhood. However, most historians would agree that the nation state did not become a political reality until the late Eighteenth Century. Before this time, European states were a collection of multinational kingdoms ruled, more often than not by foreigners. Being of the same ‘nationality’ as the majority of the subjects you ruled over was not regarded as an important prerequisite. The idea of striving for ethnically and linguistically homogenous nation states, as opposed to expanding one’s own dynastic holdings, irrespective of what kind of people they contained, was anathema to the ruling houses of Europe, right up to the time of the French revolution and beyond. France is a case in point, a nation that is often held up to be the epitome of the nation state, yet it was far from homogenous at the end of the Eighteenth Century with an incredible diversity of languages: people spoke Basque in the South West, Italian in the South East, Occitan in the Central South, and in the Northwest Breton and Flemish in the northeast, whereas along the Central Eastern border the majority spoke German. The unification of France did not occur until the outset of the Nineteenth Century, during the Napoleonic era, when the centralising desires, emanating from Paris, began a process of radical Francophonisation of the entire country including the establishment of one legal code.

Great Britain was no exception. The legacy of the Norman Conquest meant that the royal family and the nobility continued to speak French until 1362. Britain did not begin its path towards nationhood until after the War of the Roses and the accession of Henry VII in the late Fifteenth Century. Even then, it was not without numerous violent ‘interruptions’ as pointed out by Norman Davies, in his neutrally entitled book, The Isles, which explains how ceaseless dynastic disputes, the ‘Celtic fringe’, and countless wars delayed the centralisation of power, and how even the terms of reference for the nation were, and to some extent remain, confused. Davis lists sixteen definitions describing Britain from the Roman era to the present, including: the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (Fifth Century to the Tenth Century), The Commonwealth and Free State of England, Wales and Ireland (1649 to 1654) and the contemporary United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

It is nevertheless always the refugee of autocrats and dictatorial regimes in more modern times bent on annexation, expropriation and genocide to dehumanise their enemies and portray them as ‘non-historic peoples. ‘ And no group are cast in that light more (since the formal dissolution of Prussia in 1947) than the Germans who inhabited this ancient kingdom.

One has to wonder how long a people have to inhabit a territory to be regarded as ‘historic’ when hardly any of Europe’s modern populations can claim to be truly indigenous. Romania is an interesting case in point; Romania being the only European nation to retain much of its ancient multicultural heritage, not having fallen prey to mass ethnic cleansing in the aftermath of the Second World War. Its President Klaus Iohannis, along with the Siebenburger Saxon (read German) minority, are still described as being ‘Germans’ even though their ancestors date their origins in the region back to the early 12th century.

In the end when talking about the ethic, cultural and geographical reordering of Central Europe following the Second World War, the Germans continue to play down their loss as a consequence of the war in the hope of normalising relations with their Polish neighbours, whilst the Poles play up their loss, so as to safeguard and sanitise the manner of their gain. That does not create a sound basis for future reconciliation and leaves their respective audiences largely ignorant of the facts.

Much was made of Poland’s meagre acquisition and the war-ravaged nature of swathes of the annexed German territories. While this was true of parts, if not all, of southern East Prussia and tracks of Pomerania and Eastern Brandenburg, where the fighting had been at its most ferocious, much of Silesia had remained unscathed by the war. Prosperous towns such as Glatz, Reichenbach, Waldenburg, Schweidnitz, Hirschberg and much of the region running along the Czech border were left intact. More importantly the hugely valuable industrial areas in Upper Silesia, which produced more coal and iron ore than all of France, had not been destroyed.

The Soviet Foreign Minister, Molotov, told his Polish colleagues that the areas they were gaining at Germany’s expense were at least ten times more economically valuable than those they were losing in the East. Churchill told the London Poles much the same, arguing that the areas they were gaining were far more valuable than those they were losing. Poland’s loss was not so much economic but cultural. The Eastern territories had been home to the great Landed Estates of the Polish aristocracy and were where many of its grandest castles and country estates lay, it had been the birthplace of many of its greatest writers and poets, such as Adam Mickiewicz and Juliusz Slowacki. Lwow and Wilno were the largest Polish cities after Krakow and Warsaw, and dreams of a grand and expansive Jagiellon Polish Empire to the East — to remind Poles of the nation’s glory days during the Sixteenth to Eighteenth century — had to be abandoned. The ancient Piast past of a Polish Empire in the West, dating back to a time before the Norman conquest, would have to be ‘rediscovered’ by nationalist historians of the communist era.

Germany’s loss was a massive economic blow and meant the severing of the cultural and historical link to Prussia, as if amputating Prussia from Germany would somehow free her soul from the spirit of militarism and National Socialism, to which Roosevelt and Churchill believed her to be so irredeemably wed. Stalin got what he wanted: the Germans and Poles at one another’s throats — potentially for eternity— and off his back; both their eastern ambitions thwarted. To that end, both nations shared a common fate at the hands of their ‘liberator’. However, in relation to the way the ‘transfers’ were carried out and the balance sheet of losses and gains, there are marked differences in the Polish and German experiences. Polish refugees, who survived the horrors of Nazi as well as Soviet occupation and the murderous rampages by Ukrainian militias, were able to bring their livestock and more of their belongings than their German counterparts. Film reels of the time show the eastern Polish refugees arriving with furniture, travelling with their traditional cooking stoves and one family even arriving with a piano. When they arrived, they were able to go ‘house hunting’ and take over fully furnished homes. There are accounts of families arriving into homes with food on the table and stoves warm to the touch. A Polish refugee from eastern Poland arriving in Silesia wrote; “I arrived in Liegnitz… a rich city emptied of its population. Clean to the point of appearing recently polished… The city lay open… you could take an apartment, a villa or a house, abandoned by a doctor, a banker or a general. One could also set a house on fire…This abundance of wealth, from which one could take as much as one pleased, but which literally had the value of diamonds in a desert, made many people lose their reason… Even I, who came from a family of doctors, lost my natural equilibrium at seeing centuries of such accumulated wealth — what then would the poor peasants from the backwaters and the mud huts, who in their lifetimes had known little less than backbreaking toil and pitiful earnings make of all this…Out of the top floor windows they (Soviet soldiers) threw all manner of precious items into the street below for their amusement: Crystal vases, fine crockery, sculptures. Everything shattered as it hit the asphalt. Everything they could lay their hands on, chairs, sofas, everything, flew out of the windows…”.

Decades after the fact, the Polish writer, Stanislaw Nowicki, wrote of his home in Breslau, confessing; “I lived in a German house, in which generations of German children had been born, and the older generations had blessed. I slept in a German bed, looked upon German paintings on the walls, bathed in a German bathtub, ate from German bowls and plates, played with German swords, wrote with a German quill pen and ink, leafed through German books… Even when I came to take my school shirt from its hanger, I saw the inscription ‘Steuernagel’ gleaming back at me. That was the name of the Doctor, who had previously lived in my apartment. He had done nothing bad towards me… and I lived in the middle of his worldly possessions… Sometimes I was gripped by anxiety and shouted: Jesus and Mary! We are living in the midst of stolen things”.

Eventually the Polish Ossolineum library from Lwow (Lemberg) was transported to Wroclaw (Breslau), along with the statue of the Lwow poet Aleksandra Hrabiego Fredry. Comparatively, the German university library of Breslau, a city that had produced among the largest number of Nobel Prize winners of any city in Germany, was pulped, and the public statues to its cultural icons were melted down. The Germans arrived in the West to bombed out ruins, lived in the open, or if they were lucky, in Nissen huts, and were fortunate to arrive wearing a pair of shoes and the clothes on their backs. Many Germans held on in the east believing against all the visible signs that their plight could not be permanent, whilst some Polish politicians believed they could get still more and push Poland’s borders even farther west as far as the Elbe river, incorporating Berlin, Rostock and Dresden. Thankfully, the idea of making Berlin a Polish city was truly a morsel too great to swallow, and whilst Poland’s borders had to wait forty-five years to be formalised, they would go no further west.

During the debate about what Poland’s future borders should be, the Polish war hero, General Anders, had said, with some prescience; “Poland should not claim what it cannot economically administrate”. The consequence of dispossessing so many Germans and replacing them with so few Poles had devastating consequences for the fabric of the infrastructure, housing, and cultural heritage of the areas they acquired; much of the annexed territories simply rotted. The fear of a revanchist Germany, backed by its '’Imperialist Anglo-American Allies’, was kept alive by cold war Communist propaganda. An expression was coined that the Poles waited with their suitcases packed ready to head back east, ‘just in case’ the Germans came back. The Polish writer Zdzislaw Mach aptly described the situation in his study of Poland’s annexed western territories, Unwanted Towns, which case-studied the lower Silesian town of Liebental (Lubomierz). He documents the effects of neglect and disconnection over two generations of Poles, who lived in this German town with ‘suitcases packed’, ready to leave at a moment’s notice, and to whom the history, culture, and architecture of the town was not only alien, but also a matter of indifference. Even factoring in the negative effects of Communism in the east, Mach compared the pitiful state of the towns in the annexed territories with those in the Polish heartlands and stated that there was no comparison to the dilapidated state of the towns of Lower Silesia.

The consequences of removing entire populations, who had built and enriched the development, expansion and culture of these towns over generations, and who were keenly acquainted with the land, its soils, rivers and seasons, was devastating. The new inhabitants came into an alien land, with no knowledge or appreciation of what they encountered, and above all with no attachment to it. The Communists made a bad situation worse by talking of the architecture of oppression and occupation; as a result, much of the region’s architectural heritage was either torn down, or left to rot, in particular the ancient castles, palaces and stately homes owned by the ‘fascist’ Junker class.


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