sehepunkte 16 (2016), Nr. 7/8

Peter Polak-Springer: Recovered Territory

Only a decade ago, anyone interested in the history of Upper Silesia but limited to English-language material would have quickly hit a wall. There were, to be sure, published primary sources, mostly generated by international organizations during periods when the region was at the centre of international controversies. Remarkably, however, there was scarcely any anglophone historical scholarship dealing with what was arguably the most coveted and contested borderland of twentieth-century Europe. Much progress has been made on filling this vacuum in recent years. A critical mass of historical studies of Upper Silesia is now available in English, complementing an increasingly rich literature in German and Polish. Peter Polak-Springer's new book is an important contribution to this trend. Indeed, with its tight focus on the thirty-odd years in which Upper Silesia experienced an especially dramatic series of regime changes, Recovered Territory might be recommended as the best single introduction to the region's recent history and its implications for our understanding of nationalization in 20th -century Europe. In addition to being an impressive piece of research, the book is also clearly written and engagingly presented, with maps providing crucial orientation and a large number of images illuminating the discussion of various landmarks.

Polak-Springer's analysis follows a fairly straightforward chronological trajectory, beginning with background on the history of Upper Silesia up through the First World War, when the region was part of the kingdom of Prussia and (after 1870) the German Empire. This is largely a story of gradual Germanization, though also of strong intermittent resistance to it. The other four chapters deal with the interwar period, the Second World War, and the first decade after the Second World War. During each of these periods, the area on which the book is most intensively focused - the industrial region around Katowice - underwent a change in state sovereignty. In 1922, following a referendum held to determine which state should be awarded Upper Silesia, the eastern half of the plebiscite zone was incorporated into a revived Poland. In 1939, the Nazi invasion brought this territory back under German rule. Germany's defeat in 1945 ushered in renewed Polish governance, this time coinciding with the establishment of a Communist regime. Upper Silesia thereby offers an unusual combination: on the one hand, a contest between simultaneous and geographically adjacent nationalizations (of German and Polish Silesia during the interwar period); on the other, the serial nationalization of the same space and largely the same population with successive changes in sovereignty.

The resulting dynamic is more complicated and intriguing than what by now is a familiar narrative of a particular population inexorably adopting a particular nationality, a narrative pioneered by Eugen Weber's classic Peasants into Frenchmen. Polak-Springer's story is still similar in some essentials. Based on extraordinarily diligent mining of regional and local state archives as well as periodical sources, it is fundamentally a top-down account of how the German and Polish states tried to anchor their rival claims to a borderland. In part, these efforts involved a nationalization of the built environment. Taking inspiration from Gregor Thum's recent study of the transformation of Breslau into Wrocław after 1945, the author examines how each state used monuments and public buildings to put a distinctively national stamp on the region, especially the urban centres of the industrial district. A fascinating part of this process was how regimes evaluated the susceptibility of particular landmarks to national reinterpretation. While many monuments and some buildings were seen as irredeemably connected to one national idea and thus faced demolition with a change in sovereignty, many other civic buildings proved more elastic in their national signification and were simply re-branded as German or Polish as the context demanded. Monumentalist neoclassical modernism, notoriously amenable to the needs of almost every ideology of the 1930s, also proved especially supple in accommodating the demands of rival nationalist projects.

Like Upper Silesia's built environment, Upper Silesia's inhabitants faced repeated evaluations of their national suitability. And similarly, some were deemed unassimilable, leading to the forced emigration of tens of thousands after each change of sovereignty. But most of the population, along with their folk customs and dialects and the archaeological heritage of the region, were simply given a different national gloss. The whipsawing shifts from Germanization to Polonization, back to Germanization, and back again to Polonization - all in the span of a quarter century - understandably generated some scepticism, even among the officials and activists leading the campaigns. Was this re-labelling purely superficial? How could one be sure that people were really becoming German or Polish? Active participation in events such as "border rallies", which were organized on each side of the interwar frontier and that persisted, in various forms, through the German Nazi and Polish Communist periods, were meant to provide visible proof of popular national commitments. But Polak-Springer shows that local involvement in such events was often grudging, and those who did participate may have been attracted as much by opportunities for sociability as by national enthusiasm. Indeed, the anonymous and ephemeral nature of these rallies may have the features that actually made them appropriate metaphors for national identity in the region.

The book concludes with a brief but fascinating discussion of the most recent attempts to create symbolic meaning in Upper Silesia's built environment. Just as Germanization and Polonization often involved the creative reinterpretation of the same individuals, landmarks and events, so recent efforts to cultivate a distinctive sense of regional identity have drawn on familiar "German" or "Polish" points of reference, re-fashioning them into emblems of an underlying Silesianness that has ostensibly defied and transcended every wave of nationalization. Indeed, around the same time as the publication of Recovered Territory, an impressive new Silesian Museum was opened on the northern outskirts of Katowice. Carved out of a former coal mine, the museum has in many ways embraced this new narrative of regional particularism. Whether this trend toward Silesianization proves more durable than previous programs of Germanization or Polonization remains to be seen.

Rezension über:

Peter Polak-Springer: Recovered Territory. A German-Polish Conflict over Land and Culture, 1919-89, New York / Oxford: Berghahn Books 2015, XXII + 280 S., 28 s/w-Abb., ISBN 978-1-78238-887-6, USD 100,00

Rezension von:
Jim Bjork
King's College, London
Empfohlene Zitierweise:
Jim Bjork: Rezension von: Peter Polak-Springer: Recovered Territory. A German-Polish Conflict over Land and Culture, 1919-89, New York / Oxford: Berghahn Books 2015, in: sehepunkte 16 (2016), Nr. 7/8 [15.07.2016], URL:

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