Eighty years since the start of World War II – recalling a commemorative ceremony at Nieszawa, Poland
By Mark Wegierski
On August 29, 2004, just before my departure from Poland (after a three-month stay) I attended an important ceremony at the small, historic town of Nieszawa – which lies near the Vistula River, about 200 kilometers north-west of Warsaw, in the Kujawy-Pomorze (Kuyavia-Pomerania) region or voivodeship (wojewodztwo). It was a sunny and rather hot day, almost 65 years since the start of World War II. Currently with about 2,200 residents, the town has been in existence since the 15th century. Before World War II, Poles and Germans had lived side-by-side in Nieszawa for centuries. During the time of the Partitions (1795-1918), when Poland was under the occupation of three foreign powers, the town lay close to the border between Prussia/Germany and Czarist Russia. With an independent Poland reborn in 1918, the town became a county seat (miasto powiatowe), and attracted some illustrious residents.
Nieszawa is the first municipality in Poland to unveil a monument to both Polish and German victims of the Second World War. Like all cities, towns, and villages in German-occupied Poland, Nieszawa suffered extensively at the hands of the Germans. Many of the town’s Polish residents – especially its intellectual and political leaders -- were either executed outright, sent to concentration camps, or conscripted locally for slave-labor. In April 1945, in the aftermath of war, those Germans who had chosen to remain (mostly women, children, and old people) were murdered (by drowning in the frigid waters of the Vistula) at the instigation of the Communist security police.
In the early 1990s, the parish priest of Nieszawa, Father Wojciech Sowa, a highly educated and cultured man, began to lay the groundwork toward the eventual construction of the monument. The monument is a testimony to voluntary, people-to-people initiatives between once-hostile nations, which are often the best road to any meaningful reconciliation.
The ceremony on August 29 was the culmination of many years of endeavor. The ceremony began in the over 500-year-old church of St. Jadwiga, with a Remembrance Mass followed by a Lutheran service. There was then a procession to the shores of the Vistula, to the very spot where the murders had taken place in 1945. Subsequently, the crowd gathered around the actual monument, also near the shores of the Vistula, and various sonorous speeches were given. Nieszawa was represented by its then-current Mayor, Andrzej Nawrocki, and there were representatives of the county (powiat) such as Janusz Chmielewski, the Chief Executive of the County Council. Along with most of the town’s current residents, Dr. Gustave Bekker (a German expellee whose father had been murdered near Nieszawa in 1945), Stephan Hilsberg, a member of the Bundestag, and Julia Hilpner, a Cultural Attache of the German Embassy, as well as over 250 other Germans – World War II survivors or their descendants -- were at the ceremony. It was Dr. Bekker who had initiated and carried forward the idea of the monument, as part of his long-time activism on behalf of German-Polish reconciliation.
That the Roman Catholic Church takes up such activities of reconciliation is entirely apposite. Indeed, the inscription on the monument reads (in both Polish and German): “we forgive and ask for forgiveness.” In response to a German Lutheran initiative in 1965, the Polish Roman Catholic Hierarchy, in its “Letter of the Polish Bishops” (November 18, 1965) had uttered that magnanimous phrase.
Five million Christian Poles had perished during World War II (as well as three million Polish citizens of Jewish faith, part of the Holocaust’s six million dead). Although Stalin’s regime was clearly genocidal toward Poles in 1939-1941, at least three million Polish Christian deaths during World War II can be attributed directly to the exterminatory policies of Nazi Germany – rather than, for example, military casualties. Also, even before the outbreak of the war, the Polish minority within the Third Reich was severely persecuted, and few survived.
The Polish-German conflict was exacerbated further in the aftermath of the war by the Stalin-mandated shift of Poland’s boundaries westward – while Poland lost huge territories in the east to the Soviet Union, it gained considerable lands in the west at German expense. In Stalin’s conception, these would bind Poland forever to a pro-Russian orientation, because of Polish fear of German revanchism. The new boundaries were also coincidentally roughly similar to those of early medieval Poland. Much of the German population had fled with Hitler’s retreating soldiers before the arrival of the Soviet armies, whose behavior toward German civilians was savage. Some of the Germans who had remained may have felt that they had behaved comparatively decently during the war, and so would be shielded by their Polish neighbors from persecution. Nevertheless, the boundary shift created its own imperative, as destitute, homeless Poles streamed in from the East, and the expulsion of the German population was seen as rightful retribution. It was also abundantly clear that – whatever reservations some Poles might have had about the expulsion of the civilian German population -- Stalin himself wanted the expulsions to happen. Much of the brutality which accompanied the expulsions should be properly credited to the Communist security apparatus, a significant portion of which did not at that time consist of Poles.
Another factor to be considered is that the civilian German population was indeed probably comparatively better treated than the Polish nationalist resistance against Soviet Communism. In fact, a civil war raged throughout Poland until the late-1940s. It has been all-but-forgotten that over 100,000 Poles died resisting Soviet Communism after 1945. Furthermore, tens of thousands of Polish resistance fighters (who had fought against Hitler since 1939) were rounded up and sent to the Soviet Gulag, from which most of the survivors were not released until 1956.
Although the Polish Communist Party tried to use the Polish Bishops’ Letter to stir up Polish nationalist feeling against the Church, it undoubtedly played an important role in the 1970 normalization of relations between Poland and West Germany, including the recognition of the new Polish frontiers (the so-called Oder-Neisse/Odra-Nysa border) by West Germany.
As far as the future of German-Polish relations, there are at least three factors that weigh heavily on it.
First of all, there is the inherent asymmetry of relations between one country whose economy is ten or eleven times larger than that of the other, and whose population is more than twice as large. In such a situation of economic contrast, many Poles express the fear that the Germans will simply be able to “buy up” Poland. There is also a troubling asymmetry between the very robust advance of German minority claims in Poland – driven of course by the superior German economic position -- and the unfortunate situation of Polish minorities in the East, especially in Ukraine and Belarus.
Secondly, there is a climate in Western Europe (as well as in North America) today where the vast extent of Nazi Germany’s evil against Slavic countries and peoples is curiously de-emphasized. This leads to a situation where some Germans may feel that, while they are obligated to defer to other groups, they are allowed to express pronounced disdain for the Poles. Indeed, the motives for some Germans’ condemnation of Poles as hidebound reactionaries are rather suspect.
This leads to the third main point, the problems with the establishment of the European Union. As a country with pronounced traditionalism, nationalism, and conservatism, Poland may indeed be ill out of sorts with the kind of European Union envisaged by the French, German, and Benelux socialists. Polish critics of the European Union sometimes refer to it as “the Fourth Reich” (i.e., a covert vehicle for German hegemony over Europe), or as a new “Soviet Union” (i.e., a bureaucratic socialist nightmare).
The admission of the Eastern European countries into the EU, however, has, it could be argued, changed the dynamics operating in its structures, so that the possibly dystopic outcomes presaged by the dominance of Western European “progressives” have become less likely.
It is sometimes fascinating to watch how long-held animosities are impacted by the massive transformations and transmogrifications through which most Western societies have been wrenched in the Twentieth Century. For example, the reasons for which some ethnic groups are held in disdain have shifted from an ostensibly “traditional” to an ostensibly “progressive” basis. So-called “Eastern Europeans” are often considered today as “backward” – irredeemably “unprogressive” – and as suitable targets for “enlightened” re-education projects. The underlying feeling is that people “from there” – “holding those sorts of views” – simply cannot be permitted to hold responsible positions in society.
The Polish nationalist perspective on Germany is rather ambiguous. On the one hand, there is the fear of an aggressive, economically superior Germany. On the other, there may be some recognition that Germany is today much different from what it was before and is indeed facing – like most Western countries -- an impending demographic and socio-cultural crisis. Surveying the Polish political spectrum, one finds convergences and divergences in attitudes toward Germany that cannot be predictively tied to partisan affiliation. The pre-World War II National Democracy movement, now frequently pilloried by the politically-correct Left in Poland, was in fact dynamically anti-German. In the 1930s, the Polish National Democrats perceived with clarity the dangers of Hitler, and argued for a close alliance with Czechoslovakia. Among most “progressives” today, the Polish National Democrats have an unwarranted reputation as Nazi sympathizers. Although the National Democrats certainly had pronounced elements of anti-Jewish disdain, they were also among the most courageous anti-Nazis in occupied Poland and suffered disproportionately to their numbers for the resistance they mounted. On the other hand, one finds among some sectors of the Polish politically-correct Left today, an exaggerated Germanophilia – views which are sometimes expressed in Adam Michnik’s Gazeta Wyborcza, the largest and most profitable mass-newspaper in Poland.
As far as possibly helpful elements in German-Polish relations, one might be the recognition by Poles of the conceptual possibility of the existence of a German “conservative anti-Nazi” outlook during World War II and its aftermath. It seems clear that in a situation like today, where German conservatism, nationalism, and traditionalism is largely proscribed by “political-correctness,” whatever German national feeling that remains will have a tendency to seek expression in pathological forms, or to desperately seek current-day political legitimacy by blackening the Poles through “progressive”-sounding condemnations. In fact, in most Western countries, it could be argued that it is precisely by giving political scope and legitimacy to authentic conservative traditions that various Nazi-like aberrations of the fringe can be reduced.
As far as the German view of Poles and Poland, there must be a resistance to falling into unreflective anti-Polish and anti-Slavic stereotypes, regardless of whether or not they have an ostensibly leftist, “progressive” provenance.
That the German-Polish dialogue has been led by the Christian Churches is not at all surprising: it is precisely the Christian ideal of forbearance and forgiveness that can be an answer to ever-spiraling cycles of hatred, resentment, and crude vengeance.
(Partially based on the author’s article that originally appeared in Chronicles (Rockford, IL) (April 2005), pp. 37-38.)
Mark Wegierski is a Toronto-based writer and historical researcher.