A bike trip in Poland or a journey into history

In Europe, history is everywhere. Even a short bike trip anywhere on the continent can turn into a journey into history if one is so inclined.

The history of Europe is so complex and turbulent that one may doubt whether there has been any continuity in it. Yet most people have a tendency to see patterns in history even when, upon reflection, such patterns are non-existent. Europeans have been prone to see history as Logos in action; this form of popular Hegelianism seems to be an instinctive approach to the chaos of historical events.

Hegel says that God is within history and therefore in the sphere of Becoming rather than Being. For Hegelians, God is not immutable and outside of history but, au contraire, in its very centre. God has a history whose aim is the unity of the divine with the rational. Hegelianism is therefore a form of, so to speak, idealistic realism. History of humankind, Hegel says, has an aim which is identical wit the fulfilment of God’s will which is of rational nature. What is real is rational, and what is rational is real. The teleological nature of history is for Hegel beyond doubt. People may not be aware that they are being used by Reason on its way towards metaphysical fulfilment.

The cunning of Reason turns people into involuntary tools of the Zeitgeist marching towards perfection. For Hegel, Napoleon was the “world spirit on horseback”. Hegelians seem to deify history and reduce individuals into the mere material used by the world spirit to realise its aims. Both Marxism and National Socialism are forms of Hegelianism. According to Ernst Cassirer, Hajo Holborn described the II World War as a conflict between right-wing Hegelians and left-wing Hegelians.

For Polish writer Teodor Parnicki, history has no aim. There is no progress in history of humankind and nations have no destiny. From this point of view, most historians commit an error of ascribing teleological meaning to events that are haphazard and accidental. Historians are rarely able to see the history of their own country from the position of an outside observer. Most books on history are invariably anachronistic. Their authors see a pattern in history of their country which apparently leads to the times in which they live. By linking historical events in a chain of causes and effects, historians often create an impression of continuity in history of nations and states even when there is little evidence of it.

A 40 km bike trip from Wielun to Kluczbork/Kreuzburg seems to provide evidence to support Parnicki’s views rather than Hegel’s. So much suffering was inflicted on people in this region that seeing a pattern in it would hardly be justified, also on moral grounds.

I started my trip in Wielun, a small town located close to the geographic centre of Poland. Wielun was the first town attacked by German pilots during the II World War. The first bombs fell on Wielun at 4.40am on 1 September 1939. The exact time of this event is significant because it showed that the war would be waged without respect for the Geneva convention. The attack on Westerplatte, a Polish military outpost in the Free City of Danzig, started at 4.45am. Unlike Wielun, Westerplatte was a legitimate military target.

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Wielun; 4.40 am; We remember

The region of Wielun abounds in fine examples of wooden architecture. It’s rather surprising that quite a few wooden churches and other buildings survived to our times.

 DSCN1343 There is a wooden church in Wierzbie …

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another wooden church in Kadlub …

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a seventeenth-century granary in Skomlin …

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a wooden house in Aleksandrow …

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a wooden windmill in Ozarow …

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and a manor house in the same village

The manor house in Ozarow is of particular significance as a material sign of a culture which was wiped out by history. Until the II World War, the history of Poland was dominated by the szlachta, or the nobles. It would be impossible to over-estimate their imprint on Polish culture. The nobles gave Poland a chivalric character. They also prevented the country from progressing into a modern state. Under their domination, feudalism lasted longer in Poland than in Western Europe.

After the partitions at the end of the eighteenth century, when Poland disappeared from the map of Europe, it was the nobles who persisted with the idea of independent Poland, as peasants had no national awareness. Town were weak in Poland and local bourgeoisie, often of foreign origin, played a limited role in the history of the country.

When communists took power at the end of the II World War, the nobles were stripped of their lands and manor houses. The manor house in Ozarow is now a museum where one can see how the nobles lived before they disappeared from history.

The fate of another segment of the Polish society was even more tragic. The Jews started moving to Poland in greater numbers at the invitation of Casimir the Great in the fourteenth century. They usually played a role of intermediaries between peasants and the nobles. Most small Polish towns were in fact shtetls where Jews lived their traditional lives more or less in separation from their Christian neighbours. Until the partitions, they had a fair degree of administrative autonomy.

Relations with their Christian neighbours changed for the worse with the emergence of nationalism in the second half of the nineteenth century. Polish nationalists saw the Jews as a foreign body within the society. Their aspiration was to turn Poland into a modern state, although exclusively for ethnic Poles. Modernity was for them mono-ethnic, mono-cultural and mono-lingual.

When the Germans invaded Poland in 1939, they immediately imposed humiliating restrictions on the Jewish population. What they did to the Jews in Germany, they could now do to the Polish Jews with no restraint whatsoever. First, synagogues were burned and the Jews were moved into the ghettos. Separation was subsequently followed by physical extermination. The seven centuries of Jewish presence in Poland ended with the genocide and the disappearance of the Jewish culture in that country.

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a synagogue in Praszka

One can now occasionally see a synagogue in central Europe which survived the Furor Teutonicus if the Germans used it as a warehouse, like a synagogue in Praszka. Jewish cemeteries were either totally or partially destroyed. After the war, there was no appreciation of the Jewish material culture among the Poles. Those synagogues that escaped destruction by the Germans were either turned into buildings of public use or allowed to disintegrate through neglect.

The Jewish cemeteries that the Germans did not destroy are now in various states of neglect. A Jewish cemetery in Praszka has been the victim of indifference of the local population. The cemetery was vandalised by the Germans and nothing has been done to repair it during the seven decades since the end of the war. In Praszka, the Catholic Church has no to qualms to display its wealth but the shocking state of a local Jewish cemetery is no source of discomfort for the priests. Neither for the local authorities.

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Until the First World War, Praszka was a border town on the border between the German and Russian empires. In the interbellum period, it was the border between Germany and Poland.

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The river Prosna, otherwise quite insignificant, once separated two countries and cultures

The II World War ended with the Allies moving Poland’s borders westwards. Poland lost its eastern lands, with Wilno and Lwow, but gained Silesia, Pomerania and the southern part of East Prussia. The German population of these lands either fled before the advancing Red Army or was expelled by the Poles after the war. It was arguably the largest case of ethnic cleansing in history.

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A vandalised column with German inscriptions in Kluczbork

Polish authorities were determined to eliminate the signs of German presence in the incorporated German territories. Books were burned, cemeteries were destroyed and the names of towns and villages were changed into Polish names. Those Germans who chose to stay and accept Polish citizenship were forbidden to speak German. Yet another culture, the culture of Germans in central and eastern Europe, disappeared from history.

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an abandoned house in Gorzow Slaski/Landsberg …

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… another abandoned house in Uszyce/Uschutz

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dual place names in the Opole/Oppeln region

Since the collapse of communism in Poland, the German minority has the right to cultivate its language and culture. Villages where Germans constitute 20 per cent of total population have now dual signs in German and Polish. Cemeteries in such villages have monuments erected to commemorate the victims of the II World War which is an euphemism for the German soldiers who lost their lives fighting on all fronts of the I and II World Wars. It is an irony of history that Wehrmacht soldiers have monuments in Poland. If they were victims of the war as well, who were the perpetrators?, one may wonder.

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A monument to the fallen German soldiers in Olesno/Rosenberg

Germany and Poland are now on very good terms but the past still weighs on people’s minds. The II World War was so traumatic, that it shaped the post-war history of both countries. It was the Stunde Null, a point of dramatic change both in Poland and Germany. Upper Silesia in particular exemplifies well the scale of the change. Before the war, it was the land inhabited by Germans, Silesians of mixed ethnicity, Poles and Jews. The expulsion of Germans after the war means that Poles are now in the majority.

Upper Silesia was once perceived by Germans and Poles as a battleground of ethnic groups, cultures or even civilisations. German nationalists saw it as an eternal struggle of Germandom and Slavdom. The best example of German chauvinism, as it was articulated in literature, is Gustav Freytag’s novel Debit and Credit (Soll und Haben). The novel is openly anti-Semitic and anti-Polish. His other target is landed nobility. Freytag was born in Kreuzburg so he knew first hand what it meant to live in a borderland inhabited by ethnically mixed population.

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Kluczbork/Kreuzburg

His portrayal of Jews and Poles is caricatural and both these groups are described in racially-charged terms. Needless to say, Freytag displays total ignorance of the matters he describes. There is no trace in the novel of any familiarity with the history of Poland or the Jews in eastern Europe. Blinded by chauvinism, Freytag chose to construct an imaginary place where ethnic hatred dominates people’s lives.

Look you,” continued Anton ; ” in one wild hour I discovered how my heart clung to this country. Since then, I know why I am here. For the time being, all law and order is dissolved ; I carry arms in self-defense, and so do hundreds like me in the midst of a foreign race. Whatever may have led me individually here, I stand here now as one of the conquerors who, for the sake of free labor and human culture, have taken control of this land from a weaker race.

Here is an old warfare between us and the Slavonic tribes; and we feel with pride that culture, industry, and credit are on our side. Whatever the Polish proprietors around us may now be — and there are many rich and intelligent men among them — every dollar that they can spend, they have made, directly or indirectly, by German intelligence. Their wild flocks are improved by our breeds ; we erect the machinery that fills their spirit-casks ; the acceptance their promissory notes and lands have hitherto obtained rests upon German credit and German confidence. The very arms they use against us are made in our factories or sold by our firms. It is not by a cunning policy, but peacefully through our own industry, that we have won our real empire over this country, and, therefore, he who stands here as one of the conquering nation, plays a coward’s part if he forsakes his post at the present time.”

Freytag’s novel would now most likely be dismissed by a reader with a smile or a shrug of shoulders but the ideology behind it is quite sinister. Soll und Haben was a bestseller for decades after its publication in 1855 and the worldview it represents was quite common among the German public before the II World War.

Heinz Piontek, who was also born in Kreuzburg, is one of millions of Germans who lost their Heimat after the war. It was a traumatic experience and Piontek expresses the feelings of many of them when he says:

I have not been back in my Heimat since the end of the war, because it is no longer my home. My Heimat has always been, and still is, the Upper Silesian district town Kreuzburg with its rural setting; In my time, it was a border town because the German-Polish border was only twenty kilometers away from Kreuzburg. That this city is no longer called Kreuzburg, that it received a Polish place name in 1945, is related to the great historical changes that I accept as a historical fact. It does not prevent me to return to Kreuzburg, Silesia, return to the East – by virtue of my re-membering, whenever I want.

Yet an another option is possible. Ethnic nationalism caused so much havoc in the history of Europe that it would be desirable to focus on what unites people rather than divide.

Silesia abounds in signs that people of different ethnicities, languages and confessions were able to live peacefully together or even combine contradictions in their own personal lives. It’s surprising to see the same wooden churches on both sides of the former border. The Wielun-style wooden churches are quite similar to the churches in the Olesno region.

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a wooden church in Uszyce …

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… and another one in Boroszow/Boroschau

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Many Silesian towns had both Protestant and Catholic churches, like those ones in Pitschen/Byczyna.

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At the cemetery in Byczyna, there is a grave with both German and Polish inscriptions …

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… and another grave has a German inscription on one side and a Polish one on the other side

Extreme nationalism was a scourge of Europe and, hopefully, it belongs to history. In which direction the history of the continent will actually move is another matter.

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