Who Are the Poles? OR Jestesmy Polakami – Ja Wir Auch

I was once witness to an argument I regarded and regard as pointless and anachronistic. Was Copernicus a German or a Pole? The argument generated quite a bit of heat but not much light. As I say it was pointless. Here’s why.

I remember an elderly aunt once showing me an old atlas. It was a fascinating book, a Newnes School Atlas from 1935, a glimpse into a vanished past.  She still used it as her everyday reference atlas, not having realised the extent of the frontier shifts in eastern and Central Europe that followed the Second World War.

One of the historical curios in this atlas was the Free City of Danzig. My aunt knew of Danzig as the place where the War had started with the shelling of the Westerplatte Fort. She had also heard of the Polish city of Gdansk with the Lenin Shipyards, birthplace of Solidarity. For many years she didn’t realise that Danzig and Gdansk were the same place.

That so many Polish cities have more than one name is a testimony to the multi-cultural nature of Poland, in all it incarnations until 1945. In 1945 nationalism, Communism and geography came together in Poland in a way that was most fortuitous for the regime and which has left marks on the politics of the country that remain to this day. Poland in 2013 has borders that are close to those of the Piast kingdom of the early Middle Ages. It is largely ethnically homogeneous unlike the Piast kingdom which encouraged German speakers to settle in Silesia, most of whose towns were founded in accordance with German law, a fact that official histories published before 1989 tended to gloss over. 

There are, in today’s Poland, smallish minorities of Byelorussians and Ukrainians, smaller handfuls of Lithuanians,   Germans,  Armenians and Slovaks but these are practically invisible to the naked eye. In 2013 to be Polish is to speak Polish as a first language and, at least to some, to be a Roman Catholic.

This narrow view of Polishness, indeed of nationality in general, is not, however, a useful prism through which to view the world before 1800 and no use at all in grappling with the complexities of the pre Partition Polish state.

So what of Danzig? The city of Gdansk was for most of its history part of the Kingdom of Poland  a Hanseatic port city at the delta of the Vistula, the backbone of the country and its major export route. It was, for a century and a half after 1308, incorporated into the state of the Teutonic Knights, whose rule was actively resisted by the largely German speaking rulers of the city, (an inconvenient fact  ignored in Nazi textbooks) but returned to Poland in the Treaty of Thorn/Torun with the remainder of West Prussia in 1466. This followed a request to the Polish king to free Danzig from the oppressive rule of the Knights.  

The next three centuries were the Golden Age of Danzig. This ended with partition and incorporation into Prussia, a century later into a united Germany. This was a disaster for the city, as it was for Torun and Bydgoszcz. Having been  Poland’s main Baltic port it was reduced to a provincial backwater.  Poles continued to feel nostalgia for the days when Gdansk  was a Polish port. and it is mentioned in Book Four of Mickiewicz’s romantic epic Pan Tadeusz, in the context of a toast drunk in the famous Danziger Goldwasser.

Wódka to gdańska, napój miły dla Polaka.
„Niech żyje!” krzyknął Sędzia w górę wznosząc flaszę.
Miasto Gdańsk, niegdyś nasze, będzie znowu nasze.
I lał srebrzysty likwor w kolej, aż na końcu
zaczęło złoto kapać i błyskać na słońcu

When Poland reappeared on the map of Europe in 1918 it seemed logical that Gdansk /Danzig would be included within its frontiers. But this was an era of national tensions and the treaty makers baulked at including an overwhelmingly German city in Poland and it became  a Free City under the League of Nations. This accelerated the city’s decline as the Poles developed the small fishing village of Gdingen, on the small strip of coast they were granted at Versailles, into the modern port of Gdynia, these days the least visited but arguably the most interesting of the three cities (with Gdansk and Sopot/Zoppot that make up the Tri-City (Trojmiasto). When Gdansk returned to Poland in 1945 it was effectively a new city, its German population having been expelled to make way for settlers from other parts of Poland.

So what does all this mean? Essentially this. Being part of Poland was good for Danzig (and Thorn and Bromberg), good for their German populations. The Germans were good for Poland, whose middle class was mainly German and Jewish, the Poles being either nobles, often impoverished by inheritance  laws that saw estates broken up into smaller and smaller parcels, or peasants. The German (and the Jewish) contribution to the development of Poland was significant and they were loyal subjects of the Polish King. This is why the father of the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer,a wealthy Danzig merchant, left the city in disgust after the second partition of 1793 that saw the city become part of Prussia. Such an action  is inexplicable in terms of the nationalist categories that dominated much twentieth century.thinking.

So when the question is asked, was Copernicus a German or a Pole we can answer of him as of many others – he was a German speaker and loyal subject of the Polish king. In other words he was both – and what’s wrong with that?

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