German memory and identity
On both sides of the Oder-Neisse

Jorunn Sem Fure

Paper presented at the conference "Postkommunismens Antropologi", Copenhagen 12. April 1996

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Collective memory
Environmental context-dependent memory
Conflicting claims to the same land, Germans as the loosers
Reden die Steine des Breslauer Doms Deutsch?
Visible presence of the past
Memorial markers
Two alternative German memories

Collective memory

The French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs has delivered an important contribution to the understanding of the complex phenomenon collective memory. Like his teacher Durkheim, he rejected pure psychological explanations for human behaviour, and sought to discover the social conditions or mechanisms that structured individual perception and in this case; memory.

Our memories remain collective, however, and are recalled to us through others even though only we were participants in the events or saw the things concerned. In reality, we are never alone. Other men need not be physically present, since we always carry with us a number of distinct persons.

For Halbwachs, the main social categories or groups that generate collective memory are the religious community, social class, and the family. All of these three are of relevance when studying the Silesians on both side of the Oder-Neisse. In addition also the nation must be considered, as membership of a national group was the prime criterion for expulsion after 1945 and legitimation for a Polonization campaign among the non-expelled Silesians in Western Poland. The expellees, however, did not loose membership in the German nation, but the breaking up of local communities (Heimat im Vaterland) made geographical background the most important organizing principle for activity within BRD and for the cultivation of collective memory (the Landmannschaft organisations with Bund der Vertriebenen as the umbrella).

That common geographical background more than class or any any social category became so important for the organized life of the expellees underlines the second element in Halbwachs theory; the crutial significance of the socio-material environment, or objectivated memory: Lieux des Memoire.

Johs Hjelbrekke has defined this concept as:

  1. An objectivated entity, either in the form of an institution, rituals or persons, as King Håkon during the occupation of Norway, and/or an object of material character (does also include landscapes, cities, villages, buildings etc.) that
  2. is given a symbolic content through the shared interpretation of a group and which
  3. main function is to generate and reinforce the collective memory of this group.[2]

A connection between social groups and the physical surroundings is a vital part of any groups selfdefinition. Even urban nomads and comsmopolitans find some landmarks to return to, a certain cafe, a book shop, a familiar railway station or building. For diaspora people like the Jews, a vision of Israel as a physical landscape is essential even when they have no possibility or wish to go there.

...every collective memory unfolds within a spatial framework. Now space is a reality that endures: Since our impressions rush by ... we can understand how we recapture the past only by understanding how it is, in effect, preserved by our physical surroundings. It is to space - the space we occupy, traverse, have continual access to, or can at any time reconstruct in thought and imagination - that we we must turn our attention.[3]

Whether diaspora is a chosen or forced condition is crutial for the geographical roots of collective identity. The etymological meaning of the Greek verb diaspeirein is a natural spread (of a culture) like seeds from the same organism. Later it became to mean uprooting of communities by coercion and the formation of groups that had a well-defined identity in their homeland. These groups maintained their identity among host-cultures and kept an image of the homeland and a desire to return alive.[4] Cultivation of an image of the lost landscape is in many cases the basis for reproduction of collective memory and group identity.[5]

The third element in Halbwachs's theory of memory is the meaning of and construction of social time, the most evident example being different religious groups using different calendars, but also for other categories of social groups time is defined differently by the way the same historical events are remembered, memorized and interpreted. German, Polish, Chech and Jewish historical memory in Silesia thus have different interpretations of and ways of periodizing Silesian history.

The following text will consentrate on the Lieux des Memoire of Silesia and see how memory is reactivated by reinstatements, by cultivation in absentia and how the question of German identity in Poland today is linked to the question of visibility and cultivation of Lieux des Memoire of the German minority.

Environmental context-dependent memory[6]

What kind of mental capasity or prosess is involved in remembering, does it resemble the cognitive prosess of percieving present reality, make sense of it and act accordingly? How do external and internal factors, like time and space and social setting and political conditions influence this prosess?

In the following we shall reflect upon the role of physical surroundings, or environmental context-dependant memory.

Some knowledge or memories are related to a spesific time and place, others are mere abstracted experience from repetitive actions or impressions. The first type is more inclined to be context-dependent, and the latter more convertible. Absense from a place where certain events took place and distance in time often make the past elusive and dim, but a reinstatement can trigger a flow of memories not likely to appear elsewhere. Not only episodic memories are brought back to consciousness, but also long forgotten abstract experience, skills, habits, routines, emotions, smells and capacities are easily recalled and revitalized, like the shift of language. It can often be observed how people change their language when moving from their rural home environment to professional academic circles.

In the autobiography of Horst Bienek, he reflects upon these long-term reinstatement effects. As writer of fiction based on personal childhood memories, he hesitated several years before he actually revisited the location of his childhood, Gleiwitz in Upper Silesia. He waited till his Gleiwitz novels were finished, because he feared that a physical confrontation with the city would ruin his ability to remember in the way he had done from a distance.

Die erinnerte Wirklichkeit hat sich in dieser Zeit verwandelt...J etzt bin ich dabei, meine erfundene Wirklichkeit mit der wirklichen Wirklichkeit zu vergleichen. [7]

He wanted to freeze his memory of how things had been then, a feeling that many exiled Silesians have, that makes them postpone or even give up the idea of revisiting their homes out of fear for loss. After the real loss of Heimat, a Wiedersehen might add the loss of illusions of memory.

Reinstatements in the context where the sources of memory where produced does in some cases expand memory and bring the past closer to the present. In Bienek's encounter with his old living place, his description of what he actually sees merge with refered memories in a way that makes the past extremly livly. A fat, sweating man sits at the kitchen table and Bienek expects him to get up and hit him because he has been out too long, 40 years without telling. Long forgotten and supressed hatred to his father who deserted his family during the war, came to the surface again by seing a man sitting where the father used to sit.

In some cases people might unconsciuosly search every face of the bypassers, expecting the people of the past to emerge in the streets or houses they used to inhabit.

Bienek observed catholic priests performing the same rituals in the same churces as he remembered, dressed in the same cloaks, but the individuals behind the roles where strangers, and in the moment they opened their mouths and spoke a strange language, they confirmed that change was more significant than continuity.

Most of the German memories of the past in Silesia are written or told by such persons who never had the opportunity to remember the past in its context. They didnt even have the corrective of regular contact with those who stayed, like other emigrants often have. Wihtout possibility to go there or to get uncensored news, memory of the pre-1945 periode had no possibility to be an integrated part of later lifeexperience, and a frozen or static, often idealized picture of how thing where could be the result. ( I will in my later work try to elaborate on the contrast between the lost rural stability of the old German life in the east, and the modern industrial life without roots in a traditional Heimat that is so often a theme in Vertriebenen-literatur.)

To a certain degree, the social context was sought to be kept intact by the organized life of the Vertriebenen, but former village communities, extended families, congregations and other closely knit social groups were dispersed all over Germany, and even if they managed to stay in contact by regular Heimat-Treffen, they no longer constituted an every day functional unit with everyday interaction. What made them stay together was the common experience of loss; of home, loss of context. Staying together in organized or private groups gave them a place where a common referential framework from earlier years was relevant. Collective memory based on personal experience is of relevans for a decreasing number of people, it does not in the same way form a basis for recruitment among younger generations of "Silesians" to the various Vertriebenen organizations (except for a new trend of finding family roots, but only for individual purposes).[8]

Conflicting claims to the same land, Germans as the loosers

The discontinuity between the social groups and their surroundings was expressed by Kurt Ihlenfeld:

Und es kam Bewegung in die Wagenreihe, und plötzlich war das ganze Leben des Dorfes in dieser Wagenreihe eingegangen, und man wusste nicht, welches nun eigentlich das Dorf wäre: ob die Häuser..oder die Wagen..denn die Menschen waren aus den Häusern in die Wagen hinübergegangen.[9]

Those who avoided expulsion where exiled in their own home, in the meaning that the social and political and often also the physical context changed radically over a short periode of time. Clisches like home was not my home any more is common in memories of those who experienced the shift of power from German control to Russian occupation and Polish civil administration in the Oder-Neisse lands:

Schon in diesen Tagen spürten wir, dass die Heimat immer fremder wurde. Selbst dass äussere Anlitz der Landschaft war us nicht mehr vetraut.[10] s.62.

In the following Text the author elaborates the causes of this feeling, and the loss of the positions of an owner, both as an individual and as a member of a group is important. The ownership is taken over by a nation he finds inferior, and the immediate Verwüstung, the prosess of destruction and return of the Jahrhundertlanger Pflege in Feld und Flur to the uncultivated raw natur is related to this shift. It is if the landscape is deprived of meaning and value once ownership change from his nation to the other nation as a result of being unable to defend it by arms.

This contrast between the advanced cultivation of the land by Germans and the immediate ruin and bewildering that occurs as soon as Poles get their hands on the plough is also described by a refugee who remembers the wiew from the transport train before and after the border was passed. On the Polish, former Posen, side he saw unbestellten und verwüsteten Felder, after having crossed Oder-Neisse he observes bestellte Felder...hier wurde gearbeitet.11

In these lines are reproduced one of the old motives and arguments for German expansion and Siedlungspolitik from Friedrich der Grosse to Hitler, and also often used by revisionists in the 50s and 60s. Only those who are able to bring out the best from the soil are entitled to own it, and the axiom stating German superiority in this is never questioned:

Oberschlesien war immer meine schöne Heimat - heute ist alles so verwüstet, es ist nicht viel mehr los, aber es bleibt für mich die schöne Heimat Oberschlesien.[12]

These words was spoken with passion by Frau Brigitte (Brygida since 1945), as we drove along the countryside road from Annaberg to her and her husbands home in Derschowice / Zdzieszowice. Frau B. did not see the same landscape as I did, she saw the landschape of the past, before it was verwüstet, ruined, before the small farmhouses were deserted either by people who emigrated to Germany or to the nearest towns. Since Poland took over her village, there had taken place, in her eyes, a general process of decline from a previous golden age; Die gute alten deutschen Zeiten. In 1995 she spoke of her life as if she had been living in a forreign country since 1945, and most of the new neighbours (from former Polish eastern parts) were referred to as echte Polen, meaning forreigners.

Both those memories of Verwüstung in the Vertriebenen - literatur and Frau B's use of the word are according to the common strereotypes very much in use in the 20s and 30s connected solely to the presence of Polish economy, and linked to a general opinion of Poles as lazy, disorderly and careless for material and cultural values. To the refugees it never occured that the miserable shape of the land they passed could be a result of war actions, shortage of man power and a general social chaos caused by the German war campaign.

Neither did it occure to Frau B. that the run-down economy in Poland might be explained by the ineffective communist system all over eastern Europe and not a specific result of Polish Schlamperei.

Reden die Steine des Breslauer Doms Deutsch?

The social and political history of the city was rewritten, manipulated in a way that should make its new inhabitants feel they belonged to a city with old Polish (Piast) traditions, and the German and Jewish memories were wiped out. They were cultivated outside Breslau, one example is the publication of the Jahrbuch von der Universität in Breslau, where the purpose is to continue the intellectual traditions in absentia, and a flow of books describing both the visual and spiritual and sosial life of pre-1945.[13]

But the physiognomy of the city, compared to old fotographs leaves an impression of continuity and bears litle witness of the terrible and almost total destruction that the nazis themselves were responible for. [14]

Thus, the historical buildings are present in the city, but social memory of the life that was lived among them before 1945 is not very present. A substantive part of the population in Breslau today have lived their past elsewhere, many of them in Lemberg (German) - L'wow (Polish) - L'wiw (Ukrainian). The paradox is that of a city with lots of visible memorials, and little human or social memory relating the present population to the physical manifistations of the recent past (before 1945).

Marianne Terjesen has called Breslau a city that no longer exists, suggesting that the change into Wroclaw made it a new place for new generations to fill with new memories, and rather a reincarnation of a Polish Lwow that also no longer "exists".[15] But the name Wroclaw also has a tradition, and if one proceed further back in history, certainly one will find Polish streams of tradition and memories connected with the city too, memories that were whiped out and forcefully forgotten during the Germanization that started in the 1890s and escalated in the twelve years of National Sozialism.

In 1989 the Jewish cementary was granted protection as a cultural, historical and arcitectural important place, but there are very scarce resources for restoring it, and the synagogue is still in a poor condition. It is a big ruin lying in the midle of Breslau in a backyard, no signs reminds bypassers of the Jewish life connected to the building or to the night it was destroyed (9.10.1938).

German architects and other great sons and daughters of the city are increasingly brought to public attention, the study of germanistics is one of the most popular today at the university of Wroclaw, and the book shops are swelling with historical literature from the German past. Commersialized memory has become an industry in Poland, and the previous denial of German traditions is replaced by a new reorientation, but the rich life of the Breslau Jewish community seems still to be a forgotten memory (Edith Stein, who converted to Christianity has had a certain revival).

Visible presence of the past

It seems to be a common human habit to make the fysical surroundings reflect ones personality. The way people arrange their private space, their homes or workplace, is a signal to outsiders about who we are or who we want to be, in the same way as the body is arranged, dressed, painted, exersised and presented. The degree of independence in relation to trends, notions of good taste and the opinion of others can vary according to individual autonomy or affiliation with a social group.[16]

In the same ways as individuals or families put their mark on their fysical surroundings and appearances, social groups will seek to express themselves in fysical symbolic ways. Buildings of national importances such as parliaments, courts, theaters, are consciously thougt out by chosen architects with this representative function in mind. If cultural inheritance is unclear it need to be made clear, like the design programme in the Lillehammer Games, where the goal was to find estetical, simplistic and undisputable extracts of Norwegian cultural images, trying to present the essence of Norway and the Norwegian way of doing things to the world.

If an interior of a home can be said to give evidence of the owners personality, style, taste, classbackground, gender, age or at least what he is trying to show off to a visitor, can the fysical make up of a capital be said to reflect the selvimage, priorities or ideology of a state? Or can the visual apearrance of a Silesian village be said to reflect its former German past, or does it reflect the entangeled multicultural traditions, the unestechical Soviet-inspired functionalism being the latest contribution, in ways that make the search for pure or arteigen expression of national culture an impossible enterprise.

In the heated struggle between Germans and Poles in Upper Silesia in the plebicite years, the image of a Polish versus a German run farm was often used as an argument for German leadership. The well-run farm, the healthy livestock, the estetics of gardens and interiors, cleanlyness and tidyness was attributed to the German catalogue of virtues, while the Poles was described as lazy, ineffective and irresponsible.

Historical, political and econimic conditions that increasingly favoured the German population was not made relevant.

Even today such arguments are widespread among Germans in Silesia. Gogolin, a small city in upper Silesia where the Germans emerged as a majority after 1989, and had the elected mayor in 1994, is a place that clearly differs in a very visible way from other places in the same region. The houses are painted (usually houses of concrete in West-Poland are not), the pavement in the mainstreet has no holes and irregularities, the small market place is decorated neatly with flower. The lokal restaurant, shops, the buildingstyle of the school and private houses all give assosiations to Germany. To my remarks about this I got two different responses.[17]

The vice president of the SKG gave me a long lecture about traditional working ethics and Leistungsfähigkeit, thrift and order, all virtues he claimed to be predominantly German, and prevailing in Gogolin through 40 years of communism and Polish economy.

The other person, 30 years younger, former Mayor in Gogolin, modified this explanation by referring to the big concrete factory that actually as one of very few made a good profit among the gigantic plants inherited from the socialist economy. He pointed to the income it gave the community, making it able to deal with important infrastructural problems as well as give priority to estetical upgrading of public spaces.

In addition to immaterial features of German culture that are being revitalized in the Opole region like language and literary, historical and folkloristic traditions, the notion of superiority in econimic affairs is important for German self presentation.

Fysical culture, churches, memorials take up a prominent place in the process of reestablishing German lifestyle and identity in Silesia.

There are three distinct functions or meanings that we can read out of this:

Fysical culture represents a German past, it can be read as manifistations of the work and life of the predecessors, or as Deutschtum in a physical form. Memorials, houses in certain architectural style, cemetaries with German names ect. are keys to social memory, independent to and supportive to individual memory.

It signalizes forms of ownership. The new regime after 1945 nationalized the economy and abandoned private property. Especially Germans where exposed to expropriation of property and replaced in private and public sector by Polish workers.

Before 1918, private ownership where seen by the Prussian government as a crutial precondition to demographical strenght, and the economic policy was aimed at favouring German settlers and establishing business, while discriminating Poles. (Balzer, og Brozat)

If the Germans in Silesian in the 90s cannot make dispositons of the land by virtue of belonging to the state- constituting nationality, they can (after privatisation) own parts of it as private persons, (widespread use of strawmen, who buys land and real estate in Poland for BRD- investors.) and as a collective they can seek political influence and try to regain "ownership" to their own history, by raising memorial markers in the environment.

Adding a visible German flavour to the economic development and the estethical reconstruction of the post-communist society is an important part of German activity in Silesia since 1989. The purpose is to provide a link between the work of the fathers and the comming generations by the dynamics of tradition, making the German "region" visible within the Polish state. ( In Silesian Regional Institute in Opole a research project has just started, where one looks at the pattern of mobility and interactivity between the Silesian region and the Germans neighbourhoods, businesses, joint ventures: how many cars from the BRD enter a certain village per week, what do they buy? (especially popular are services like hairdressing, car-repairs, commodities like certain food stuff etc.). How much money do they spend, how does this demand change the supply etc.?

Memorial markers

What are or should be the memorial markers of Deutschtum in Upper Silesia? As I visited Gogolin, one of the first signs of German lived life was an inscription on a house, telling the story of a massacre on German sivilians following the occupation by the Red Army. At least there was a German past in the village. Outside a shop I heard two old women talking in German; the agents carrying Germanness was also a present reality.

The memory of the massacre was probably kept in the minds of these two women as part of the historical memory of the small city. The sign on the wall made the memory fixed in time and space, independent of individual memory, it will remain there after every contemporary eyewitness is dead, if not the totalitarian tidal wawe will hit back and offer the community a new version of the past events. The German names of the victims may be Polonized, and the Red Army exchanged with Wehrmacht.

DFK, Deutsche Freundschaftskreise is a network of organizations that had existed already before 1989, more or less informal and illegal. After 1989 the name and the concept was taken as an organisational model and applied on different administrativ levels, the smallest unit, Gemeinde being seen as the most important level, where the sense of Deutschtum in a setting of face to face relationships in villages and towns are wiewed as the prime unit of community.

In the years since 1989, the network has expanded in number and activity (tall, ca 200 units.). One of the prime concerns of the leaders is to attract and hold on to younger members. In Zembowitc, a village in Opole region, the DFK in 1995 bought a real estate to house their activity. One of the ideas was to attract the youngsters:

Sobald es bei uns noch schöner eingerichtet ist, werden sich hoffentlich auch die Jugend und Kinder stärker and unsere Organisation gebunden fühlen.[18]

After 50 years of invisibility, the process of becomming visible is becoming a matter of much debate and activity. The building or buying of real estate to provide a setting for German activity is a controversial theme. For the Germans in Zembowitc an own house would hopefully increase or promote community feelings in the younger generations. It would also provide a place for Germans form Germany to visit. The thougt was to get visible, set up a framework, a door with a German sign on to convince both insiders and outsiders that there is a visible and viable Deutschtum in Z.

The controversy rests on a notion of Germaness as something spiritual, a feeling of communitiy independent of material manifestations:

Ich bin der Meinung, dass sich die DFKs der jeweiligen Gemeinden mit wirklicher Kulturtätigkeit beschäftigen sollten, und nicht damit, protzige Bauten zu erreichen, die damit ohnehin Leer stehen.[19]

The fear in this resonnement is that an empty buidling with German insignia will make German "invisibility more visible". In some places like Siemanowitc a German cultural house with several activities is run quite successfully (Schlesische Wochenzeitung), but in smaller places, the demographic basis for such investments is too small, or the recruitment to German activities among younger and often non-German speakers is difficult.

In the prosess of restoring buildings and memorials as markers of memory and mobilizing symbols for the present German community, former inhabitants play an active part and add important symbolic and finanzial capital, seeking a convergence in the interests of the Vertriebenen (recreate the past) and the Verbliebenen (improve the present situation and plan for the future). Some of the projects briefly to be mentioned:

Regional cooperation: friendship/partnership agrements between Silesian Towns and German town, often initiated by people with resources who are expelled from the first and lived after 1945 in the latter. Everything from practical and financial developmental help with water-electrisity etc (Ratibor) to symbolic projects like the church bell from Kreisau that ended in Minden 1944, and the people in Minden collecting funds to make a new copy 1995.

Other projects financed by Vertriebene and half official funds: Restoration of the Peace Church in Jauer, the Gerhard Hauptmann house in Agnetendorf.

National level: German authorities finance and send senior teachers to cover the need for German teachers in Polish schools. (Die Programm-Lehrer, ca. 200 pr. 1995), they also finance and stimulate education in German for Polish teachers.

This is done according to the friendship agreement between the two countries 1991, that also has initiated a lot of other projects, common for them is German financial dominance.

Two alternative German memories

Brygyda and Norbert - Zdzieszowice, Upper Silesia (a married couple, around 65)


In the way she presented her memories to me, she tried to single out the constants of her life on the one hand and the changes on the other hand. The constants were the landscape, her marriage, her childhood memories, all with a clear German flavour.

The changes (all for the worse) were attributed to the Polish annexation; badly run economy, declining social life, empty gost-houses, her children being Polish speaking, old neighbours gone and strangers replacing them.

All her life could be interpreted as a long and brutal process of alienation and deprivation of everything familiar and valuable. As she realized that Germany would never return, she regretted that she hadn't emigrated like the neighbours. As the political change came in 1989, she found it to late, her children showed no interest in learning German, the participation in German cultural life was not attractive, except for German masses celebrated in the Annaberg chapel, where Germans from the surrounding villages met and talked German. ( I observed more than 400 persons,,average age of 60-70, all wiht German prayer books, 1.11.1995) She kept herself to the private sfere as always. Asked if she and her husband spoke their common mothertongue again in the private, the answer was no.

Norms, ideals, values of the childhood, a German "we",

had been fundamentally challenged and destroyed and replaced by the Polish "them" with new ideals, values, national norms that was introduced in 1945. Unsere Leute, the Germans, were fewer and fewer, and Die echten Polen, the real poles, with whom she had nothing in common, had taken over her home.

This conflict was fundamentally unbridgeable and represented the tragedy of her life.

Strategy: defensive -private retreat- isolation.


His childhood resembled her, they were neighbours, both lost their fathers in a bombing of the local factory and their mothers signed declarations of loyalty to the Polish authorities in order to avoid deportation. Attending school after 1945 made him adopt to the new reality, learn Polish, start a professional life (book keeper, easier to learn numbers when he didn't understand the language in the school) Norbert had shared the same "we" as her, gone through the same prosess of alienation, the difference was the strategy and the interpretation of history. He adopted, learned the new rules of the game without violating his personality and individual norms and values. He spoke with ironical distance to both German and Polish totalitarian periodes he had lived through.

Traditions of bilinguality, multicultural society was presented as nothing principal new, only the totalitarian experience he percieved as a historical exception.

When asked about the name of the village before 1945, Norbert responded Derschowitc, Brygyda Oderthal. That was the name introduced in 1933 by the national socialists in order to make Slavic influences less apparent, and to convince the inhabitants in this periphery of the Reich of their true Germaness. ( Upper Silesia was not included in the administrative unit Generalgouvernement, but directly included in Reichsgebiet). Brygyda was convinced and still is. The German historical past that supports her German identity goes no longer back that her own childhood, a periode of very forceful Germanisation under a totalitarian regime.

Norbert had a historical memory that extended beyond his personal memory, and his identity included traditions of bilinguality and the traditional multicultural central- europäische atmosphere of the region. Derschowitc was a the old name of his home, a slavic name with both German and Slavic spelling and pronounciation, typical for Upper Silesia.

Which of these, or any other versions of history, and if historical memory at all is going to play a future role within the German community in Poland and their cultural and political activity, remains to be analyzed, and is part of a dissertation project started in mai 1995 called: "On both sides of Oder-Neisse: A study of Germans in Silesia and Silesians in Germany".