After the Uprising

The Greater Poland Uprising in the German politics of memory of the Eastern March (Ostmark) in 1919-1945

Olgierd Kiec

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The memory of the Greater Poland Uprising was, and still is, celebrated, mainly on a local basis. The cult-like status of the soldiers who sacrificed their lives, the veneration of veterans, the memorial statues and plaques, the names of streets, the patrons of schools and military units, the professional historical research and portrayal of the uprising in plastic arts, literature and cinematography – all of these elements have shaped the regional awareness of the Greater Poland residents. This statement refers both to the Polish and the German memory of the uprising. The Polish one, however, is still alive and has been celebrated for a 100 years, while the German one started to fade after 1945. The main reason was the border changes after World War II. A fundamental area in which the battles with the Polish insurgents constituted an essential part of the regional politics of memory was the Eastern March, the territory was largely taken over in 1945 by the Poles by means of displacing the German population; the remaining fragment of the March became part of the German Democratic Republic, which also provided poor conditions for celebrating the memory of the uprising in the 20th century.

The Eastern March, or Ostmark, is a term referring to medieval German conquests and colonisation, used in reference to borderlands that had to be treated in a particular way due to the threat of external attack or the irredentism of the conquered population. It came into common use in the 2nd half of the 19th century when modern nationalism was evolving. The term covered all the eastern provinces of the Prussian Hohenzollern monarchy; the same term started to be used in the Austro-Hungarian monarchy and in Bavaria as well. The main feature that allowed for the classification of a specific province as a part of the Eastern March was a high share of national minorities. In the case of the Prussian monarchy, Poles formed the largest minority. Not only were they the most numerous group, but they were also in visible opposition to the German rule, which was a reason for permanent political confrontation. Thus, if we assume that the presence of the Poles was the most important feature of the Eastern March, then its scope may be limited to the areas of the Poznań province, the West Prussian province, the East Prussian province and Upper Silesia. Although the Eastern March was considered to occupy a broader territory including Western Pomerania, Lower Silesia, Brandenburg, Mecklenburg and Saxony, these areas were not where most of the Polish-German battles with a national background were fought. Given these circumstances, the capital city of the Eastern March could only be Poznań, the centre of the Polish national movement in the Prussian Partition. It is Poznań where the famous nationalistic German Eastern Marches Society (Deutscher Ostmarkenverein), which the Poles called the H-K-T, was founded.

Not all of the towns and villages of Greater Poland and Pomerania, however, were annexed to the reborn Poland in 1919-1920. The places that were left outside of the Second Polish Republic included Piła, Złotów, Wałcz, Trzcianka, Międzyrzecz, Babimost, Kargowa and Wschowa. They were annexed to a new Prussian province called the Frontier March of Posen-West Prussia (Grenzmark Posen-Westpreussen). The main task of the new administrative unit was to keep the heritage of the two lost provinces and to maintain the local Germans’ identification with the traditions of the lost territories of Greater Poland and Pomerania, and at the same time to show disapproval for the territorial provisions of the Treaty of Versailles and to establish the prerequisites necessary to revise the Polish-German border. The objectives of the Frontier March, formulated as above, contributed to the maintenance of an irrational territorial structure until 1938. The province was composed of three parts, separate from each other, but adjacent to the Polish province of Poznań from the north, the west and the south. Choosing the capital city of Grenzmark was also problematic, because the only bigger town in the march was Piła (Schneidemühl), populated by slightly more than 20000 people. 

In the interwar period, the Frontier March faced numerous problems. With its artificially set borders, scarce population, economy dominated by agriculture, high forestation rate and absence of larger cities particularly an academic city, the Frontier March experienced a permanent outflow of inhabitants who had trouble finding work and who did not want to be identified with an artificially formed region deprived of any significant historical monuments or significant historical events. Another factor that threatened the Frontier March’s position was a competitive vision of a frontier region, presented back in 1919 by the authorities of Frankfurt-on-Oder. Frankfurt was the capital of one of two administrative districts forming the province of Brandenburg (with the district of Potsdam as the second one). After the reconstruction of Poland and the determination of the new borders, the Frankfurt district, which covered towns such as Landsberg-on-Warta (Gorzów Wielkopolski), Gubin, Forst, Cottbus, Kostrzyn and Sulechów, became a frontier area, unofficially called the Middle Eastern March (Mittlere Ostmark). It was the Frankfurt officials’ ambition to make their town the main centre of the entire middle borderland area between Poland and Germany, the place that would fill the hole between Western Pomerania and Lower Silesia. Frankfurt-on-Oder did meet all of the conditions even though it was a large city with numerous representative buildings that could house offices, it was an important communication node (road, rail, river transport), it had secondary schools, a theatre, a library, monuments and a historical tradition dating back to the Middle Ages. A particularly important role was played by Viadrina university (1506-1811), portrayed as a bridge between the West and the East, attracting students from Slavic countries.

What made Piła and Frankfurt-on-Oder different were their experiences of the years 1918-1920. Piła was a town located in the hinterland of the front where battles against Polish insurgents were fought, and a place where many German Grenschutz soldiers were recruited. Although Bydgoszcz was the main centre of German resistance, it was Piła, handed to the Polish authorities in January 1920, where most German public officials who administrated the Grenzmark province were from. The main advocate of creating the Frontier March was Friedrich von Bülow, President of the Bydgoszcz administrative district, who also acted as President of the entire Poznań province after the occupation of Poznań by the Polish insurgents (until January 1920). Bülow was an experienced person who had previously worked in Schleswig, where the Germans were confronted with a Danish minority. In 1920, he moved from Bydgoszcz to Piła, where he organised the new province, Grenzmark Posen-Westpreussen, formally created in 1922. This is also when he occupied the highest position in the Frontier March - he became the Supreme President. 

In July 1926, during a visit to Wschowa, which was the most distant poviat of his province, Bülow made a broadly commented speech, in which he set out the goals he assumed in his programme. He emphasized that the residents of the Frontier March had won their land, not with a voting card, but with “flintlock and machine gun”, which made them full of “Eastern March spirit” (Ostmarkengeist), which is not to be found in other provinces, including East Brandenburg. The “frontier spirit” was, however, very different from the spirit present in North Schleswig, where the Germans competed with the Danish, said Bülow, referring to his experience as an official before World War I. He claimed that on the northern border, two Germanic nations fight against each other, while in the east, the Germans and the Poles are two separate worlds, divided by an unsurmountable gap. It should, however, be borne in mind that Piła, despite it being a capital city, was a rather small, remote town, which was rather unattractive for local Germans. On the other hand, the unnaturally extensive and fragmented province did not allow for reference to a coherent historical tradition as a basis for its regional identity. Thus, Bülow with even greater pressure referred to the memories of the recent fights against the Poles, using them as a simple and convenient tool for the mobilisation of the Germans in the area he was responsible for.

The pursuit of regional politics of memory on the basis of recollections of defending the “small homeland” from the Poles was obviously not an artificial construction, but it referred to common stereotypes that had existed earlier, and after 1919 were confirmed in German literature on the Greater Poland Uprising. A famous example was the first extensive publication, a memoir, describing the battles fought by a German Grenschutz battalion from Bydgoszcz on the northern front by the Noteć river.  Its author was Karl Stephan, who wrote his book in the summer of 1919 in Bydgoszcz and published it with the help of the Bydgoszcz town council; the next edition was released in the same year in Piła. The very title, “the Deadly Battle of the Eastern March” (“Der Todeskampf der Ostmark”) depicted the nature of the conflict with the Polish insurgents as a ruthless battle for maintaining the homeland won back through the long and arduous work of several generations of German settlers. According to Stephan, the rebellion of the Poles in 1918 was a surprise, because the Germans had not considered them a fully shaped nation, and, besides, several decades of peaceful cohabitation with Polish subjects “serving” the Prussian monarch and four years of their loyal military service in the Emperor’s army seemed to have stifled any forms of resistance. Thus, Stephan did not spare critical words against the Poles, accusing them of killing off the injured Germans, mistreating the prisoners and, from mid-February 1919, permanently violating the terms of the cease-fire. The identity of the Germans from the northern part of the Poznań region was shaped in the context of fighting against such a brutal and malicious enemy. The publication was to be a source of knowledge for future generations, which had to be convinced that “being a German is being a warrior.”

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