As we have discussed on this site before, counterfactual history is a very useful, yet undervalued tool of historical analysis. When taken seriously, it offers a unique instrument for measuring the impact of particular events, decisions or personalities, by enabling historians to construct realities in which they did not exist or...
The Best Leaders We’ve Never Had? A Review of ‘Prime Minister Corbyn’
As we have discussed on this site before, counterfactual history is a very useful, yet undervalued tool of historical analysis. When taken seriously, it offers a unique instrument for measuring the impact of particular events, decisions or personalities, by enabling historians to construct realities in which they did not exist or occur. Aside from the insights this offers, counterfactuals also have an emotional appeal unlike any other branch of history, inspiring a peculiar combination of fascination, temptation and poignant frustration. Perhaps because of this emotive quality, the field is becoming increasingly popular with the public, but is still struggling to gain academic respectability. In this context, Duncan Brack’s and Iain Dale’s Prime Minister Corbyn is an laudable step forward, offering rigorous, thoughtful argument alongside popular appeal.
Breadth and depth
As might be gleaned from the title, the collection is concerned primarily with British political history. Its essays explore such topics as the Liberal Unionist split in 1886 (and whether it could have been avoided); a possible union of the UK and France in 1940; an early Brexit following the referendum of 1975; a split in the Labour Party in the wake of the Iraq War; and a nationalist victory in the Scottish independence referendum of 2014. Naturally, and perhaps most tantalizingly, it also presents a host of alternative Prime Ministers, from the obvious candidates, such as Boris Johnson or David Miliband, to more novel possibilities such as Roy Jenkins, Hilary Benn, Tessa Jowell, Ed Balls, or the titular Jeremy Corbyn—though this last scenario is something of a cheat, as will be seen.
In addition, there are three essays that break up the UK-centric material, introducing the reader to versions of the USA and Russia governed by Hubert Humphrey and Evgeniy Primakov, respectively, and to a Germany that never experienced reunification in 1990. Even without these international entries, however, the book offers an admirably diverse selection of alternate realities, which combine to make it a very entertaining read, quite aside from the strengths of the individual scenarios.
Finger on the pulse
As the editors mention in their introduction, this book is in fact the fourth in a series of political counterfactual volumes that has been running since 2003. The fact that so many texts have been published in this field in such a short period is impressive—all the more so since this volume, at least, is of such high quality. Another upshot is that the collection is remarkably current: of its twenty-three essays, thirteen focus on events from 2000 or later, with eleven of those centred on the major upheavals of the last decade.
It is clear from the topics of these essays that this is a book compiled in a post-crash, post-Brexit, increasingly polarized political climate. Chapters by Andrew Stone, Paul Richards, Mark Pack, Alexander Larman and Julian Huppert and John King, for instance, all look at various means by which the Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition government of 2010–2015 could have been more successful, or avoided altogether. A further set, by Stuart Thompson, Tony McNulty and Adrian Moss, present realities in which the Labour Party could have become a more enticing prospect in time for the 2015 election, and where Britain has therefore been spared both Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn.
Even several essays whose points of divergence are further back, such as Tim Oliver’s scenario of a 1975-Brexit, or Peter Cuthbertson’s piece on Britain’s losing the Falklands War of 1982, also shed light on these contemporary events, by presenting worlds in which their causes never arose. The use of such up-to-the-minute subject matter makes it easier for the reader to appreciate the value of the counterfactual analysis, which feels more relevant, and emotionally resonant, in a contemporary setting.
The finer points of politics
The choice of material also allows for a subtlety of approach that is immensely refreshing in this field. With considerable overlap between many of the essays, the authors are obliged to draw precise and often creative distinctions between their counterfactuals, which in turn makes them much more intellectually compelling. Most of the scenarios are appropriately small-scale, spanning only a few years and exploring in some detail the impact of often minor deviations from our established history.
Most chapters also employ quite a finely-shaded morality. While a few show realities that are unambiguously better or worse than our own, the majority deal with worlds that are simply different, inviting the reader to consider the role that inertia, vested interest and other countervailing factors might play in history. In Oliver’s chapter, for example, Britain’s relationship with the European Union remains similarly complex, and equally fraught, after its departure in 1975, and by the present day Euroscepticism has become as influential a political force as in our world, though for different reasons.
This subtlety extends even to the style in which almost all the chapters are written, with most authors committing fully to the counterfactual scenario. Most essays present themselves as a historical work hailing from the alternate reality in question, with only a small editorial passage at the beginning or the end commenting on the analysis and comparing it with what really took place. This is largely a stylistic affectation, and certainly makes the book more entertaining, but this does not impair the quality of the essays. On the contrary, it marks this book as a more mature, developed work of counterfactual history, from people clearly comfortable in the field.
The importance of this nuanced approach cannot be overstated. As we have outlined before, scholars working to tighten up the methodology of counterfactual history, such as Martin Bunzl, have stressed the need for a usable counterfactual proposition to have a plausible turning-point and plausible consequences. Without both of these elements, the acceptability and the usefulness of the scenario are compromised. This is a trap into which a large number of counterfactual works have fallen, with authors often tempted to sacrifice plausibility for a more striking or elaborate alternate world. For the most part, Prime Minister Corbyn confidently avoids this pitfall.
No country for straw men
There are one or two exceptions, however—including, sadly, the final two essays dealing with the Jeremy Corbyn premiership of the title. The more eyebrow-raising of the two is easily Tom Harris’ chapter, in which Corbyn proves to be an unparalleled disaster as Prime Minister. After winning the 2020 general election, he attempts to force through an ill-conceived and thoroughly unpopular hard-left legislative agenda, alienating his citizens and much of the rest of the world and inflicting immense damage on Britain’s infrastructure and its international standing, before his government is ousted by a heroic alliance of the Queen, the Conservative Party and the upstanding British populace.
To say that this apocalyptic narrative is unconvincing is putting it mildly. The extremity of Corbyn’s left-wing programme, and the chaos of his premiership in general, seem unlikely. Given the extent to which his politics have softened, in presentation at the very least, since his appointment as Labour leader, there seems little chance that he would attempt half this programme even if he were elected. This characterization of Corbyn and his government reads as a slightly crass caricature, one constructed by the author purely so that it can then be discredited. The version of the Labour leader presented here seems grounded in popular media depictions, especially those that appeared at the start of his leadership in 2015, and there is little attempt to convince the reader of any deeper plausibility to the scenario.
Indeed, the chapter has more in common with several fictional representations of corrupt or dysfunctional government than with real political life. To a large extent, it can be viewed as a lightly-sketched fusion of the original House of Cards serial and the 1988 television series A Very British Coup, which proposed a counterfactual based on a Labour victory in the 1983 election. In fact, this chapter, and the Prime Minister it describes, would have worked far better as an exploration of a 1983 Labour government; the party’s manifesto for that year advocated many of the policies pursued by Corbyn here. This would have had the additional benefit of keeping the essay focused on an alternative past, rather than a hypothetical future. Instead, the essay attempts to shoehorn Corbyn into the fictional Harry Perkins’ shoes, as though the past two years had not happened, and fails to justify the exaggeration.
The other essays at the back of the book fare little better. Francis Beckett’s vision of a Corbyn premiership is more novel and interesting than Harris’, but scarcely more convincing as a counterfactual analysis. Andy Mayer’s depiction of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister, meanwhile, feels more cartoonish than the others combined, with its screenplay format, inclusion of fictional characters (notably Martin Tucker, a communications director with an infamous father) and extensive use of future, rather than counterfactual, history.
Back, not forward
This last may be the root of most of the weaknesses of these entries. A focus on the future sits uneasily in a collection of counterfactual history, leading to conclusions that tend to be both more speculative and more controversial. It also seems to encourage a preoccupation with the style of the proposition over its substance, to the point that the reader almost loses sight of the argument. As such, these essays largely fail to meet the standards expected from a decent counterfactual scenario, as set out by Bunzl and other more reflective practitioners in the field.
These slight missteps attract attention only because they are in such a minority, however. Almost all the essays in this volume prove to be stellar examples of counterfactual history done right, marrying plausible argument and presentational flair in a way that is still far too rare in this discipline. As a whole, therefore, Prime Minister Corbyn is an insightful, entertaining and acutely relevant book, and is enthusiastically recommended.
Feature image references
‘Vice President Hubert Humphrey, circa 1965’, provided by the Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons.
‘Evgenii Maksimovich Primakov, Russian Foreign Minister’ by Robert D. Ward (1997), via Wikimedia Commons.
‘Hamster shopping’ in East Germany: The Open Border and its Problems
The introduction of visa-free travel on the border between the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and Poland on 1 January 1972 was met with scenes of optimism and celebration in communities throughout the border region. As mentioned in a previous post, the border between these two communist states had been established along the Oder–Neisse line in the late 1940s, and had immediately been sealed. The hordes of Germans who had been expelled from those German territories transferred to Poland had been cut off from their former homes, while regions and even towns had been divided in two. This situation had persisted for two decades, until negotiations in the early 1970s had led to an agreement to open the border again.
Multitudes of East German and Polish citizens took advantage of their newfound freedom of travel: an estimated 6.7 million of the former and 9.4 million of the latter in the first year alone . Over the following few years, East Germans, particularly the younger generations, took pleasure in sampling the more diverse and liberalized Polish culture, and numerous cross-border friendships, economic partnerships, cultural collaborations and even marriages resulted .
Less tangibly, the increased personal contact that all this entailed began the overdue process of correcting negative impressions and counteracting prejudice. Indeed, the East German government claimed that this had been the main aim of the border opening .
This aim, however, quickly proved beyond either the ability or the will of the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED) to achieve. The ‘initial euphoria’ that greeted the border opening proved short-lived, and the remainder of the 1970s saw mounting tension between East Germans and Poles .
A ‘shopping paradise’?
To a large extent, this tension was stoked by the economic activities of Polish visitors to the GDR, which provoked mounting popular anger as the decade wore on. Some of this anger related to the smuggling and black market dealing conducted by a minority of Poles, taking advantage of the price differential between the GDR and Poland . Far greater outrage, however, was provoked by less illicit practices, chiefly the form of cross-border shopping trips known as Einkaufstourismus (shopping tourism).
Shopping rapidly became the main reason for crossing the border by citizens of both states. The Poles, eager to sample the ‘shopping paradise’ of the GDR, took to it particularly enthusiastically. Goods favoured by Polish shoppers included women’s and children’s clothing, luxury foodstuffs and alcohol (particularly beer), and these priorities remained consistent throughout the decade .
Though these items may have been more readily available in the GDR than in Poland, however, the peculiarities of the socialist economic system meant that they were in limited supply on both sides of the border. Both economies were marked by inflexible central planning and a concentration on heavy industry at the expense of consumer products. While SED First Secretary Erich Honecker and Edward Gierek, First Secretary of the Polish United Workers’ Party, had come to power with the intention of improving the provision of consumer goods, the situation was only in the early stages of its redress when the border was opened. Competition for scarce commodities in these ‘shortage economies’ was therefore fierce, even among their own citizens .
Einkaufstouristen from Poland put GDR markets under still greater strain, and were perceived by the populace as threatening ‘economic interlopers’ . This was of particular concern in the border region, which, as the area containing most of the major tourist destinations, bore the brunt of the economic impact.
Epithets old and new
The popular anger prompted by what were seen as the excesses of Polish ‘shopping fever [Kaufwut]’ was expressed in a ‘surprisingly vocal’ manner, becoming increasingly commonplace in the mid-1970s . A growing number of letters and citizens’ petitions sent to SED offices consisted of complaints about Polish buying habits and arguments in favour of a ‘closed national economy’.
Many complaints related simply to the inconveniences and shortages arising from Polish Einkaufstourismus, including such criticisms as: ‘the Poles buy up everything: the shops are full of people, and all you hear from them is Polish’, or indignant reports of Polish shoppers queuing hours before opening time in order to gain an advantage over the locals . As early as 1972, workers in Görlitz, a split town directly on the border, were complaining that: ‘some Polish citizens are not behaving as proper guests of our state. This can be seen in their increasingly obvious hamster shopping [Hamstereinkaufen], and in their occasionally rude behaviour towards shop assistants’ .
These frustrations were evident in a protest poem written by a worker at a factory in Dippoldiswalde in 1980:
I’ve just been to the Central Warehouse, There was nothing on the shelves, not even a mouse. The Poles and their kin were crammed ceiling to floor, While all the dumb Germans stood Outside the door. And at the Old Market, what did I see But all the Czechs on a shopping spree. They’d filled their pockets right up to the brim But still they watched dumbly – the Germans so dim. And on the bus home as I made a retreat, A Russian sat down on the opposite seat.
Often, however, these sentiments were also infused with ethnic slurs based on the stock concepts and stereotypes of traditional anti-Polonism. The activities of Polish Einkaufstouristen were viewed by many East Germans as vindications of these historical prejudices. Comments along the lines of: ‘the Polish swine are too lazy to work. That’s why they’ve got so much time to buy out everything here’, reveal a fusion of old and new prejudices informing this xenophobia. In a similar, but cruder, vein, Poles were described as ‘dogs’, ‘damned vermin’, a ‘swarm of locusts’ and the less dehumanizing, but nonetheless prejorative, ‘Polacks’ .
East German shopkeepers and customers interacting with Poles became more antagonistic, with officials recording numerous examples of their ‘insulting Polish tourists to their faces’ and even ‘screaming abuse at them’, and of arguments breaking out in shops and restaurants. In some cases, these conflicts led to physical assaults .
These and other outbursts serve as examples of what Jonathan Zatlin terms the ‘conflation of ethnicity with economy’ in the minds of many East Germans—that is, they ascribed the problems caused by Einkaufstourismus to innate racial and cultural differences, rather than to weaknesses in the economic system of either state .
In some cases, however, the Polish shoppers gave as good as they got. Some behaved in a demanding or overbearing way in shops, and occasionally became insulting, aggressive or even violent when told they could not buy certain restricted goods. Sales staff in the border region grew increasingly demoralized, and many began calling in sick or even applying for transfers to avoid interacting with Polish customers .
A missed opportunity?
In the event, the open-border period was short-lived, with the SED unilaterally restoring full travel restrictions in October 1980. This was primarily due to the Solidarity crisis that developed in Poland, and the SED’s fear that ‘counter-revolution’ could spread to the GDR. Nonetheless, it seems likely that the economic tensions played a role in the party’s decision. At the very least, they left relations between East Germans and Poles frostier than before in many respects. A substantial number of East Germans responded to the border closure either with relief, or with the opinion that this should have been done sooner to prevent further ‘buying out’ of shops and supplies .
The prejudices, both old and new, that had arisen in response to Polish Einkaufstourismus persisted throughout the 1980s, and undid at least some of the reconciliation fostered by the border opening. While German–Polish relations would eventually improve, it would not be under the auspices of the communists and their ‘socialist brotherhood’.
All translations from primary sources have been done by the author, with varying levels of fidelity to the original.
‘Intelligent Failures at the Frontier’? Failure in Academic Life
Like any would-be academic, I have a fairly intimate relationship with failure. As journalists Alexander Clark and Bailey Sousa put it in their recent article on the subject, ‘failure is everywhere and nowhere for academics’ . Academic research sits at the unfortunate intersection of what is essentially freelance work and creative writing, and the potential failures of both, as well as those inherent in the research process itself, are constant companions. Despite its mundanity, however, failure rarely feels normal, not least because researchers are particularly poor at talking about it. Of course, for me (and hopefully a few others), some forms of failure loom larger, and are harder to admit to, than others.
(Non-)failures in research
Many apparent research-based failures are not necessarily problems at all, but cues to reorient and approach a problem differently. A dead-end in a line of thought; evidence that does not seem to lead to any meaningful conclusions; difficulties in connecting ideas; these can all be viewed as examples of what Amy Edmondson refers to as ‘intelligent failures at the frontier’. Such failures, she insists, are inevitable in any imaginative or experimental work, and are in fact a sign that the research process is working as it should . It may be a bit much to argue that academics should welcome them, but there certainly is a need for more honest and thoughtful assessment of failures when they occur. This would entail acknowledging them (rather than hiding them or trying to spin them as successes), as well as thinking about how to use them to move forward .
There are of course significant emotional obstacles to overcoming the prejudice against what seem to be non-results. More generally, academic culture across the disciplines is biased in favour of ‘positive’ results, with failures ‘relegated to the lab books, the drawers and the trash bins’, rather than published or discussed in any public setting . This is less the result of editorial decisions than of self-censorship by researchers . This is not quite as problematic in the humanities as in the sciences, perhaps, but it is also harder to spot while we are still working through sources.
This suppressive tendency is made worse by the fact that researchers rarely see any evidence that other writers—their peers, their elders or the intellectuals of the past—have experienced the same problems. Other people’s work is usually encountered only as a finished product, without any of the drafts, false starts or periods of inactivity that led to its creation. The only place in which these are visible, therefore, is in their own work .
Failures on the CV
Professional failures are similarly ubiquitous, yet invisible. Most scholars, students and veterans alike, inhabit a realm in which success depends on maintaining a constant stream of research output, but in which rejected articles and failed job or grant applications are daily realities. Again, however, these are rarely discussed, with researchers aware only of their own frustrations.
Shahidha Bari half-jokingly suggests that academics make some effort to correct this by putting together a list of their ‘least distinguished educational achievements’, identifying hers as a D at GCSE PE . In my case, it’s a dead heat between the C I received in one of my AS History modules (which may have been due to my answering a different question from the one I had marked) and the 52 percent I earned in a German translation exam in my final undergraduate year (staying up the whole night before an exam to cram does not work, at least not at university level).
In a similar vein, a number of academics and other thinkers have also proposed publishing ‘failure CVs’, or even including a ‘failures’ section in their main CV. These list such non-achievements as ‘awards and scholarships I did not get’, ‘rejections from academic journals’, and the beautifully formulated ‘dreams I’ve had and lost on the finish line’. In setting out both sides of their careers, the triumphs and the disappointments, in this way, the authors of these CVs hope to remind others of the ‘missing truths’ of academia: that setbacks are an utterly normal part of both research and professional life, and that luck and resilience play as much of a role as innate ability .
Failures of spirit
However, while interesting, and possibly even inspiring, failure CVs are limited in the types of failure they can address. They can do very little, for instance, to reassure those who fail by giving up, by succumbing to writer’s block, or by not trying in the first place. No register of failures has yet included ‘risks I never took’ or ‘writing projects I never started’; on the contrary, every item on a failure CV represents a task or piece of work successfully completed, even if it was subsequently rejected by someone else. Melanie Stefan notes wryly that the average failure CV will be ‘six times as long as your normal CV’ —but how much more worrisome is it when neither CV is particularly long?
Failure to write, or to finish writing, is a different form of failure altogether, one governed by a different state of mind and requiring different, perhaps more personal solutions. It is easily the most prominent and disruptive failure in my own academic life. Indeed, it was the inspiration for this post—which, appropriately enough, has taken me an age to complete.
At the root of the problem, at least in my case, is the way in which some researchers understand and approach the writing process, particularly their inability to shake what might be termed the myth of the ‘tortured artist’. This is a popular conception of writing as the product of innate but erratic creativity, rather than workmanlike craft—in short, as a talent, not a skill. Writers with this misconception enter the field and drive themselves to distraction (or into slumps) waiting for inspiration, rather than working steadily. This myth has been denounced, and proudly disproved, by musician Matt Farley, who has written over 18,300 songs over his career and views artistic creation as a job and a skill to be refined, rather than an inherent quality that one might possess or lack .
A writer’s susceptibility to this myth is closely linked to their possession of what psychologist Carol Dweck has termed a ‘fixed mindset’, as opposed to a ‘growth mindset’. These are terms coined by Dweck to describe the two principal approaches she observed in school students to their work. Dweck concluded that students who believed that their intelligence could be developed (those with a ‘growth mindset’) generally outperformed those who believed intelligence to be a fixed attribute . The growth mindset is comparable to what psychologist Angela Duckworth calls ‘grit’: that is, the willingness to view achievement in any field as the product of steady, determined practice, and the overcoming of challenges, not simply the fulfilment of pre-determined potential . Those with the latter mindset (myself very much included) tend to view failure as a final, irrevocable judgement on their ability, rather than a temporary obstacle or an opportunity to learn and refine their skills. Unsurprisingly, failure, and even the fear of failure, loom far larger in their minds as a result.
This is exacerbated by the success that a majority of writers enjoy at lower levels of education with this sort of approach; at least up to the end of secondary school, and possibly well into undergraduate study, immature, untamed talent is enough. ‘It isn’t that they never failed,’ as journalist Megan McArdle puts it, ‘but at a very early age, they didn’t have to fail much; their natural talents kept them at the head of the class. This teaches a very bad, very false lesson: that success in work mostly depends on natural talent.’ When these high achievers enter academia, or any number of other writing-based professions, they find themselves competing (either explicitly or inside their own heads) almost exclusively with others who were also ‘at the top of their English classes’ . The transition is brutally abrupt, and many lack the intellectual or emotional preparation to adjust to the new playing field.
This feeling also insidiously invades our writing process. As McArdle notes, ‘if you’ve spent most of your life cruising ahead on natural ability, doing what came easily and quickly, every word you write becomes a test of just how much ability you have, every article a referendum on how good a writer you are.’ Some writers find this feeling paralyzing; for others, it is merely crippling, and the cause of extensive procrastination. Indeed, the only thing separating many successful writers from the failed also-rans is that for the former, ‘as the deadline creeps closer, their fears of turning in nothing eventually surpass their fears of turning in something terrible’ .
Occasionally, this feeling leads writers to (semi-)deliberately sabotage their own work, in order to give themselves an excuse for what they believe is their inevitable failure. My vain attempt to stay up and revise the night before my translation exam, for instance, would be classified by social psychologists as an act of ‘self-handicapping’. It was, in essence, a trap that reinforced my own exceedingly fixed mindset: I was able to attribute my failure in the exam at least partly to my lack of sleep and the generally unforgiving circumstances, rather than my own ability. Of course, had my results been a little less feeble, I could have put this down to my ‘exceptional ability’ to succeed in spite of these disadvantages. At least I dodged that particular bullet .
These anxieties are now being discussed more frequently, though normally in connection with fiction writing and other obviously creative endeavours. Academic writing is considered a more dispassionate activity, and probably ought to be, but for me, at least, the distinction is hard to acknowledge, and still harder to believe in.
The search for solace
If there is a point to be extrapolated from all this, it is that academics need to talk about failure more often. Academia is already an isolating career, especially in the humanities, and reminders from others that setbacks in research and professional life are commonplace, and not all-consuming, are crucial in order to avoid adding to that isolation.
Failure to write, as opposed to failure to get published, is harder to share, not only because it is more embarrassing to confess, but also because it feels as though comparisons with other researchers are less useful, their experiences less transferable . Nonetheless, this form of failure is certainly not as rare and uniquely personal as it feels, and also needs demystifying.
If, in addition to this, talking more openly about failure allows academics to be more optimistic about it, to see the silver lining more readily, so much the better. This is unlikely to be easy for many, though; I at least am rarely able to make that particular leap. However, that would be a welcome bonus, rather than a necessity. Being productive about failure is less important than accepting—emotionally as well as intellectually—the fact that everyone does fail.
National Redefinitions Amid Shifting Boundaries: The German–Polish Border in Context
Unsurprisingly, the establishment of the new German–Polish border at Potsdam in 1945 had a lasting and inflammatory impact on relations between the two peoples. More profound, however, was the way in which it shaped the internal political and social development of both Poland and the emergent German Democratic Republic (GDR). The border played a central role in the redefinition of (East) German and Polish national identities—or, more specifically, territorial understandings of both nations—in the immediate postwar period, reconciling them with new geopolitical realities. In the process, it contributed significantly to the communist seizure of power in each state.
The immediate postwar period was characterized above all by the immense material and psychic damage caused by the Second World War. Having suffered the loss of their nation-states, along with most other personal and social frameworks, both peoples found themselves in a state of ‘physical, political, and moral chaos’ by the start of the postwar period. In the face of this chaos, most ordinary Germans and Poles were concerned above all with re-establishing a normal life as quickly and painlessly as possible—an aim that also entailed the reinvention of national identities on both sides.
This process of reinvention was inexorable, and the communists could not have held it back had they wanted to. In the event, however, both communist parties sought to harness it for their own political ends, shaping their national discourses in order to boost their popular legitimacy and aid the consolidation of their power. To bolster these efforts, the communists also strove to suppress the alternative narratives developing in the early postwar years.
In both states, in short, this period was marked by the communists’ attempts to construct usable national identities that would also be accepted as authentic by the populace.
One of the more obvious ways in which the new (East) German and Polish identities were forced to differ from the old was in their geography. As a result of the final border arrangements, neither state was able to benefit from territorial continuity with its non-communist predecessor. The area that became the GDR occupied less than a quarter of the territory of the prewar German Reich, and needed to adjust to revised borders with Poland in the east (along the Oder–Neisse line) and the newly founded Federal Republic of Germany in the west. Poland, meanwhile, found itself shifted westwards, gaining German territory in the west while losing slightly more to the Soviet Union in the east.
In both cases, the new borders did not conform to those in the popular nationalist imagination, yet were non-negotiable. The communists therefore had little choice but to incorporate these changes into the new official national narratives they were constructing, to justify them and, just as importantly, to bridge the gulf between the old and new territorial understandings of their respective nations.
Establishing an official narrative
The official interpretation propagated by both communist parties characterized the new border as a crucial first step towards peace and reconciliation between the two states, after the outrages committed during the war. East German propaganda repeatedly referred to the Oder–Neisse line as a ‘peace border’, established in order ‘to make a new German attack [on Poland] impossible and to give the Polish people a secure western border’.
Communist propaganda within Poland, meanwhile, incorporated an additional argument attempting to justify the border shift in historical terms. In this intepretation, the Polish annexation of former eastern German territories was in fact a reclamation of lands traditionally belonging to the Poles, which had previously been seized by the Germans during the Polish partitions in the late eighteenth century, or in some cases earlier. The postwar border settlement was therefore an opportunity to redress the balance.
This notion was reflected in the names given to these territories in Polish propaganda: the ‘Recovered Territories’ (Ziemie Odzyskane), which was reflected in the name of the ministry responsible for the region; and the ‘Piast lands’ (Ziemie Piastowskie), a reference to the Polish state that existed from the tenth to the fourteenth centuries, and whose name was invoked to suggest that this was a mere restoration of the status quo ante.
This official interpretation met with meagre success, however, and despite the communists’ insistence to the contrary, the border change and expulsions engendered a great deal of anger, resentment and in many cases revanchism among Germans.
‘Sitting on suitcases’
The border shift was accompanied by the expulsion by Polish and Soviet authorities of around six million ethnic Germans from the ‘Recovered Territories’. These expulsions had more than logistical significance. As has been discussed before, they formed the centrepiece of a programme of national homogenization, pursued by the Polish communists in an effort to boost their nationalist credentials in the eyes of the wider populace, and craft a new Polish identity that acknowledged the communists as the architects of the reconquest of an indigenously Polish region.
For those personally involved, however, the resettlements were marked by immediate, personal losses: of their houses or farms; of most of their property; of their homelands; and in many cases of their extended families. Their understanding of the deportations was also dominated by their traumatic experiences of the often brutal and violent way in which they were carried out.
Many expellees took decades to adapt to their new homes and nation-states—assuming that they adapted at all. This was exacerbated by the uncertainty surrounding the permanence of the Oder–Neisse border in the immediate postwar years. A large proportion of resettlers, both German and Polish, initially operated under the assumption that the border shifts would be reversed, and that they would soon be permitted to return home. This belief, in turn, left the resettlers disinclined to develop the border region economically, or in some cases even to unpack their luggage.
The potential harm this uncertainty could cause, to the resettlers’ emotional wellbeing as well as to their efforts at national integration, was recognized by the German communists at an early stage, with party functionaries speaking out against the ‘illusions of sitting on suitcases [Auf-den-Koffer-Sitzen] and waiting to return to the old neighbourhood’ to which it could give rise.
Relocation and (re)integration
A dissonance therefore developed between the understanding of the expellees and the wider population of what the border change meant, and of the precise nature of the injury that had been inflicted. In both states the expellees’ experiences and outlook were different enough for them to constitute a distinct memory community, separate from their respective national groups, whose interpretation of the border shift was at odds with the official version.
It was in the interest of both communist parties to eliminate, or at least to suppress, this threat to the integrity of the new national collectivities that they were trying to construct. In each state, the border, the resettlers and their memories and experiences of deportation all needed to be woven into the new national narrative, and all needed to be reconciled with the varied and counterproductive popular responses to these developments. The expellees were therefore expected to integrate into their new residences as ‘ahistorical beings, officially forbidden to keep memories of their homeland alive or preserve their cultural and intellectual heritages’.
The methods used by the communists were generally crude and coercive, their aim being to achieve at least nominal integration as quickly as possible. To this end, the border was sealed once the population transfers had been completed, and the communists imposed a taboo on any public discussion of these matters, to say nothing of any demands for border revision. This extended even to the omission of any mention of the population transfers from GDR history textbooks.
As far as the official national narratives were concerned, therefore, the integration of the resettlers proceeded swiftly and easily. Before the end of the 1940s, both communist parties had declared it a success, and stopped compiling separate statistics on the expellees. They were simply absorbed into the populations of the (East) German and Polish nation-states, while the Oder–Neisse border was hailed as one of the inviolable borders defining these new states, as well as the most effective guarantor of peace between them.
A review of Martin Mevius’ ‘Agents of Moscow’
As we have discussed before, the link between nationalism and communism has often been misconstrued by historians and social scientists alike over the past quarter century. While the two are theoretically incompatible, in practice they are often mutually dependent, and no communist state has ever been able to dispense with nationalism entirely. Until recently, however, the field was dominated by accounts of communist suppression of nationalist ideology, and the subtleties of the relationship were largely ignored. In this respect, Agents of Moscow stands out as an innovative and well argued step forward.
Down the Rabbit Hole: History and Alternate Reality Games
Your secondary school history teacher shows your class a poster they have unexpectedly been sent by a museum in Pennsylvania; the poster displays both a web address and a QR code. Following either link leads you to a website discussing a recently discovered ‘bizarre document’ dating back to the US Civil War, and which contains a string of writing that appears to be in some sort of code. Banding together with your classmates, you decrypt the document, and become embroiled in an investigation that encompasses puzzle-solving, historical fact-finding using the museum’s collection of digitized primary sources, and the hunt for a mysterious jewel.
Anti-intellectualism at the Heart of British National Identity
‘I think people in this country have had enough of experts’, proclaimed prominent Leave campaigner Michael Gove in a live Q&A session during the recent Brexit debate in the UK. This statement became the most notorious example of what Dominic Shellard, Vice-Chancellor of De Montfort University, criticized as the ‘pernicious anti-intellectualism’ that characterized—and impoverished—much of the debate. Shellard also expressed the concern, shared by a number of academics, that the Leave campaign’s victory was at least partly due to its use of such anti-‘expert’ rhetoric.
A Review of David Rieff’s ‘In Praise of Forgetting’
The belief that it is always better to remember than to forget is ingrained in most societies, such that it has essentially become an unquestioned truism. We take it for granted that societies piecing themselves back together in the wake of war or great injustice have a moral obligation to remember these traumatic events for all time, and rarely entertain the possibility that forgetting has the potential to play an equally productive role. Historians are particularly guilty of this, despite having more reason than most to know better.
Martyrology and Motherhood: the ‘Polish Mother’ in Postwar National Identity
Devastating as the Second World War undoubtedly was for the whole of Europe, virtually no country was subjected to greater or more traumatic destruction than Poland. These traumas would take decades to process fully, for the Polish state and its populace. Indeed, the war had created such an immense and violent disruption to everyday life that, in its aftermath, physical reconstruction was of necessity accompanied by a wholesale ‘reconstitution […] of the national discourse’ as well.
This process of national rebuilding centred on the twin focal points of family and religion, which together offered the means to develop a comprehensible, therefore comforting, interpretation of the war and its meaning for the Polish people. Poland’s wartime experiences were folded into a centuries-long story of national martyrdom and redemption, during which the national idea had been protected and sustained within the structure of the traditional Catholic family. In this narrative, the idealized and heroic figure of the Polish mother was celebrated with particular fervour, and became one of the cornerstones of the emergent postwar identity.
A nation of martyrs
The Poles had long relied on ‘religiously infused national martyrologies’ as a well established element of their national identity. This had its origins in the early nineteenth century, shortly after the partition (rozbióry) and occupation of Poland by its various neighbours (Prussia, Austria and Russia). The Polish nation’s suffering as a result of partition was compared to the suffering of Christ, with Poland even described as ‘the “Christ of nations”’.
Alongside this cult of martyrdom, however, nationalistic accounts of the partition era also stressed the resilience of the Polish people. Far from dulling their sense of national unity, the partitions had galvanized their patriotic zeal and fighting spirit, and left them determined to regain their independence. The various struggles against the occupying powers—most famously the revolts against Russia in November 1830 and January 1863—were viewed as worthy sacrifices to the national cause, all the more so because they were unsuccessful. This fight, and the willingness of Poles to give up their lives for it, was the means by which their nation would eventually be ‘redeemed’ and restored.
This ‘messianic vision’ persisted throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and by the time Poland was indeed reformed in 1918, it had become an integral feature of Polish nationalism, ready to be utilized in times of national crisis.
This image of suffering and meaningful sacrifice was often combined with a maternal metaphor, centred on the archetype of the Polish mother. The mother owed her prominence to the fact that during the partition period, the Polish nation had no public face—the political and public spheres were dominated by the three occupying powers. It was therefore the private sphere that became the safeguard of Polish national consciousness, one of the only remaining spaces in which the ‘sense of Polish nationhood’ could be preserved and transmitted to future generations. In this view, Polish mothers occupied a position of unique significance. It was their responsibility to pass on this national awareness to their children, and to support their husbands and sons in the struggle to liberate Poland. Naturally, they was also honoured for their ability to manage the household singlehandedly while the men were away. Bluntly put, it was the fate of Poland’s sons to die for their nation, and the obligation of its mothers to let them, ‘to endure everything and admire’.
This was exemplified in a famous poem by Adam Mickiewicz (himself a renowned spokesperson for the Polish nation), composed shortly before the ill-fated 1830 uprising:
O Polish mother, if the radiant eyes
Of genius kindle in thy darling’s face
If even in his childish aspect rise
The pride and honour of his ancient race;
O Polish mother, ill must be his part!
Before the Mother of our Sorrows kneel,
Gaze on the sword that cleaves her living heart—
Such is the cruel blow thy breast shall feel!
Though peoples, powers, and schisms a truce declare,
And though the whole wide world in peace may bloom,
In battle—without glory—must he share;
In martyrdom—with an eternal tomb.
— Adam Mickiewicz, ‘To the Polish Mother’ (‘Do Matki Polki’, 1830)
Mickiewicz’s verse casts the unspecified mother as a vessel for the grief of the entire divided and defeated Polish nation. Her son, likened later in the poem to Christ, suffers and dies in service to Poland, and as a result, her own torment is elevated to the level of divine passion. If her son is depicted as both Christ and Poland, she stands in place of the Virgin Mary, mother to (and mourner for) both.
This poignant blending of national and religious imagery was already a signature feature of Polish nationalism by the partition era. Polish national identity had been bound up with Catholicism in the popular imagination since at least the late seventeenth century. Very quickly, however, the Catholic Marian cult (that is, the cult of the Virgin Mary) had taken centre stage in Polish devotions. The Virgin Mary had been considered almost the patron saint of the Poles for centuries, since King Jan Kazimierz dedicated Poland to her and consecrated an icon of her as the ‘Queen of Poland’ in Częstochowa in 1656. ‘Patriotic prayers’ were commonly addressed to her, and the Częstochowa icon in particular had become the object of pilgrimage and widespread reverence.
The symbolism surrounding the Matka Boża (Mother of God) in the Catholic Church made her an especially suitable emblem of Polish motherhood. She was perceived as ‘the nurturing, concerned mother who saves her children from evil’, on the one hand, and on the other as ‘a leader of a mighty army of faithful who will do battle with evil’. This dual role, along with the ordeals she was believed to have endured as the mother of the martyred Christ, made her an especially sympathetic ideal for Polish mothers to aspire to.
The postwar perspective
In 1944/45, the martyrological view served as a template of sorts, through which the Polish people could come to terms with their experiences of the war. According to this model, the Nazi and Soviet invasions of Poland were simply the latest in a long line of instances in which the country had been ‘attacked, pillaged and parted by its more powerful neighbours’. As before, Poland had been tried and tormented—and, as before, its people had risen to the occasion, resisting the occupiers, sacrificing their lives and their freedom when necessary, and ultimately emerging on the winning side.
The Polish mother was lauded as, if not the architect, then the enabler of this victory. Throughout the war, the nationalist rhetoric claimed, ‘it was Polish wives, mothers and grandmothers who guarded the traditions, provided the social infrastructure, […] and told their men folk where their duty lay’. This narrative overshadowed all others relating to women’s involvement in the war, not least their participation in the resistance movement. In this paradigm, their most significant contribution to the liberation of Poland had been in their willingness to sacrifice their husbands and sons for the cause, and to allow their grief to serve as the focal point for that of the entire nation. The more complex and ambiguous experiences of women during the war, which did not necessarily square with this account, were therefore sidelined.
At this stage, however, Poland had little interest in real Polish women or their diverse perspectives. It was the emblematic Polish mother on whom it called: as nurturing and as protective as the Mother of God, with an equally weighty and tragic burden to bear for her country’s sake. Appealing to her and celebrating her sacrifice, as they had done many times before, allowed the Poles to move into the postwar era by ‘celebrating the nation, its suffering and its recovery’.
Poster Boy for the Profession? My Research in Graphical Form
I should mention at the outset that this isn’t going to be a standard post, but a shameless piece of self-promotion. As the title suggests, I’ve recently designed a research poster summarizing my PhD project, which I plan to exhibit at a competition at University College London this week, and later at the annual conference of the British Association for Slavonic and East European Studies (BASEES) in early April. Since HTTP is planning to devote more posts to our writers’ research, I thought I’d put the poster up here as well, just to kick-start that process…
Academic posters may be less prestigious than conference papers or publications, but are still an extremely valuable way of presenting research. Working on mine has proved a fantastic way for me to hone my communication and presentation skills, and has increased my knowledge of graphic design and desktop publishing a thousandfold. By forcing me to be concise (not something I’m used to), and to boil down my ideas to the bare minimum, it’s also encouraged me to look at my project from a refreshingly new and creative angle. At this point in my second year of doctoral study, that’s definitely something I needed.
All that aside, designing a poster is simply more fun than slaving over an essay, thesis chapter or conference paper – with a far more colourful and (ideally) more engaging final product.
This particular poster concentrates on the premise of my research, rather than the findings – largely because I probably won’t have any findings for a while. It’s essentially a condensed version of the introduction to my thesis, and outlines the historical and theoretical background to my topic, what research questions I’m hoping to answer, and how I’m planning to answer them.
If you’re interested, feel free to click the thumbnail below for the full PDF version of the poster. Should your curiosity propel you even further, the images and references are all linked to their original sources… Enjoy!
Posts by author
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As we have discussed before, the link between nationalism and communism has often been misconstrued by historians and social scientists alike over the past quarter century. While the two are theoretically incompatible, in practice they are often mutually dependent, and no communist state has ever been able to dispense with...
Your secondary school history teacher shows your class a poster they have unexpectedly been sent by a museum in Pennsylvania; the poster displays both a web address and a QR code. Following either link leads you to a website discussing a recently discovered ‘bizarre document’ dating back to the US...
‘I think people in this country have had enough of experts’, proclaimed prominent Leave campaigner Michael Gove in a live Q&A session during the recent Brexit debate in the UK. This statement became the most notorious example of what Dominic Shellard, Vice-Chancellor of De Montfort University, criticized as the ‘pernicious...