Centrality Need Not Be a Curse
Publication: 17 August 2021
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The centre must create an opportunity for the participants of historical debate to come to their own, a possibility of creating manifold discourses and their encounters. Controversy is not generating conflicts, but a clear way of presenting various views on a given problem and confronting them with each other, so that we avoid the trap of a homogenous, one-dimensional story which sooner or later will effectively become an ideology.
Magdalena Petryna: In 2010 Wspólnota Kulturowa Borussia celebrated the twentieth anniversary of its existence. Hubert Orłowski said about the beginnings of Borussia that you were acutely aware of the absence of social and symbolic capital in Warmia and Masuria, and so you decided to create it. How do you view this process from today’s perspective?
Robert Traba: I would rather say that our initial diagnosis was that this potential had turned too ideological. And we, for it was a group comprising a dozen people, were part of this transformation when we were growing up. At the same time our generation was historically lucky: we were blessed with the experience of 1980-81, and then of the 1989 transformation. We were doubly lucky, because independently of our efforts there arose in Poland a motive force and space for revolutionary changes, and we felt the need then to “rewrite Poland,” with our own voice, the voice used by the generation of “post-witnesses” of the war and the second generation of settlers in the Western lands – and we were ready for that. We wanted to purge the cultural capital of ideology, to make it from scratch with full awareness that our parents, who had come to where we lived from all over the place (mine from France, but generally from various parts of Poland), arrived with their load of experience and found a social memory inscribed in the cultural landscape. An important challenge for us was to creatively translate it into a new language of describing and comprehending such a place. The name Borussia contained a broader idea. Borussia is a place name, but with strongly ideological connotations, especially in late-nineteenth-century Germany; Borussianism meant militarism, Prussian centralism and nationalism. What counted for us was that it is a Latin name of a certain place on the map. Latin meaning universal, and thus relating this place to a universal message. We did not want to seal ourselves off from outside reality, we wanted to open up and decipher the world through such a double confrontation – with what had been, what our parents had brought, and what we found, in order to build our own creative interpretation from the encounter of the local with the universal.
M.P.: Zbigniew Mikołejko says that territorial identity results from individual negotiations with history. We could relate it to what Borussia does, couldn’t we?
R.T.: Yes, but many people asked us in this context why we called ourselves “Wspólnota,” a community. There were suspicions that we wanted to somehow appropriate it again, to make it ideological. In fact, what we meant was common or joint action, which need not mean identical. After almost twenty years I expressed it post factum in the book Historia – przestrzeń dialogu (History – space of dialogue), where I argued that looking at history and the past should be discursive, that we should not succumb to the temptation of arbitrarily decreeing “thus it should be,” “thus it should not be.”
M.P.: This is the fundamental assumption of open regionalism: we look at the existing reality critically, with a certain distance, and we allow a multiplicity of voices.
R.T.: Some went even further and claimed, overinterpreting Hubert Orłowski’s remarks, that we succumbed to a Postmodern nihilism and we wanted to erase differences, Westernizing ourselves and forgetting about the capital produced by the local population, Warmians and Masurians. Such a charge appeared in Tomasz Zarycki’s article published by Kultura i Społeczeństwo (Culture and Society, 2005). This is a classic sociological overinterpretation where you conveniently bend reality to the theory. Cultivation of this extant capital, which sometimes was coloured ideologically – sometimes Polonized, sometimes Germanized or in other instances treated instrumentally; if needed, people pulled a Warmian out of a hat in order to say: we were, are and will be here – was developed in dialogue with no other than Hubert Orłowski, a Warmian. He was very concerned not to lose sight of what really was a continuation of a culture which did not produce such permanent treasures as Gothic churches and castles, but still was an integral part of this region of Poland.
It may sound paradoxical, but what we aimed at was deciphering and describing the world, trying to define it through a specific place. The way to that led through confrontation with the tangible and solid, with what we had around us. It seems to me that in this way one can tell an interesting story about universal problems, including the history of Europe. We avoid the trap of uniformity and artificially created Europeanisation which is in fact largely devoid of any content. We can refer to certain meanings and therefore, in my opinion, more clearly express certain aspirations, ideas and so on.
M.P.: And this is why Borussia’s area of interest gradually expanded from Warmia and Masuria to Central Europe?
R.T.: It did arise from this fundamental first assumption: act locally, think universally, which is the essence of open regionalism. And it also meant encounters, well-intentioned confrontations with the closest neighbours and those more remote culturally and geographically: Germans, Russians, Lithuanians, Belarusians. When we went to Kaliningrad in 1992, we experienced a culture shock. It was a terra incognita – lying just ninety kilometres from Olsztyn. Despite the small distance we suddenly found ourselves in a completely different world. And from there our horizon began to expand. The culmination is the Olsztyn House of Erich Mendelsohn, which for me, after leaving Borussia – that is the Board and the Foundation, but not the magazine – is the implementation of an idea adopted by the second generation of my successors.
M.P.: The new generation adopted the idea of new regionalism. But it seems to me that in the public debate, in the general awareness, it is not particularly visible. It was blossoming in the 1990s, the period of quest for little homelands, by then went into hiding, so to speak.
R.T.: I agree, but this is a much larger problem, for it seems that aside from that first bout of enthusiasm in the 1990s, open regionalism has never been strong. Instead, we had a type of regionalism represented by the traditional form of societies, regional movements, which boast many great achievements in the nineteenth- and twentieth-century Polish history, but in essence are rooted in their own space, very strongly invoke folkloristic themes. What we meant was a shake-up in the minds, a rethinking of oneself, the region, Poland, Europe. Several years of such really active creating open regionalism, filling it with new content, resulted in the fact that this period was defined by poignant slogans, such as “rewriting Poland” or “the rebellion of provincial Poland.” In his excellent work Polska do wymiany (Poland should be replaced with a new one), where the developments in Polish literature of the last twenty years were described in terms of sociology of literature, Przemysław Czapliński is guided exclusively by central narratives and completely ignores those created in the peripheries: in Sejny, Olsztyn, Szczecin and so on. I think the problem is within us, the people writing and analysing these phenomena. We sideline them, we do not appreciate the things that happen outside the mainstream-television-awards image of Poland created by the media.
The point of reference which made me realize this was a trip to izby regionalne in Warmia and Masuria. There are about twenty of them, but I visited only a few. Their potential, potential of the people gathering relics of the place they belong to in their home and surroundings, and the impact of such small, non-professional institutions is much larger than it seems to us. It is a broader phenomenon, not only Warmian and Masurian. We do not describe it, we practically ignore it. I say “we” from the perspective of an analyst, not their co-author. There is an interesting discrepancy between the popular, visible, but superficial mass culture we are preoccupied with and the one created at the grassroots. I think it is a very important phenomenon and I believe it will return in the shape of open regionalism. Perhaps we will approach this development more seriously then. For there is something new there, something which we do not yet recognize and cannot describe. Every nation has a cultural canon, the same lists of mandatory reading for every pupil, figures on pedestals, matters which are continually invoked. But at the same time it seems to me that the meaning of open regionalism is contained in the formula “history as the space for dialogue,” that is enriching the central canon. Not only the region is the point of reference here, but also social, cultural and other groups.
M.P.: We ask about everything that was not included in the canon.
R.T.: Enriching the canon seems very important to me today. Remaining at the regional level, I would like the canon to include also the values and symbols from the regions. The French historian Emmanuel La Roy Ladurie wrote a history of France from the perspective of the minorities. It is a fantastic idea! History written not by the centre, Warsaw and Krakow, but through what happened in the peripheries. When I realized the analytic potential of such an approach, I also noticed to what extent regional memory is adjusted to the central canon. In such a multicultural region as Warmia and Masuria, in the sense of many centuries of tradition, it is natural that those figures are remembered which conform to the Polish national canon, shoving to the margins the figures which are equally great or even greater, but not belonging to it. Although this is understandable, from the point of view of political culture, of the daily relations, of shaping social awareness, it is no less important to recall and be aware of other realities that surround us every day. Warmia and Masuria are no exception in this respect. A universal example is integrating the story of the Polish Jews into the history of Poland, so that they ceased to be an unknown, peculiar minority.
M.P.: But what should be done for the central canon to open itself? You said once that a certain emancipation from the centre is necessary if the regions are to be empowered. By what are the conditions on the part of the centre?
R.T.: Good question. Have you arrived at any conclusions when you pondered it?
M.P.: I started from the most obvious clue: when a community, or a nation, to use a broader term, feels weakened, threatened and attacked, the canon has to be strengthened and therefore close itself up. But, of course, this clue leads nowhere. Poland has been enjoying freedom for twenty years. Also the fear connected with joining the European Union and the predicted “loss of national identity” has passed. But we do not see the canon opening up.
R.T.: Yes, but your description is based on a rational view of reality, while we know very well that reality is composed of actual events and the (transposed) facts which we have in our heads. Sometimes two different realities exist, intertwined and having an impact on each other, but not necessarily rationalising what we want to see. Rationally I agree with you. But despite the rational indications to the contrary, there are many social, economic and political fears about our national identity and its dissolving in Europe. Of course, we can say to ourselves that this is absurd. But if this absurdity regards several million Poles, it is simply a social fact which must be acknowledged. And secondly, I will refer to the example of my involvement in the debates on the so called policy of openness to history or to memory, in the version which took place in 2004-2007. Very early on we saw an attempt to reduce the story of Poland and its history to a homogenous picture of “we” versus “them,” heroism and sacrifice versus critical patriotism. We saw a rapid comeback of something which reminded me of certain intellectual clichés we were inculcated with in the Communist schools. It is ironic, for the political forces which created it were quite different. The mechanism of our identifications with the nation is dominated by a homogenous picture of Polishness. In my view, the centre (government) which implements a historical policy could assume that there are many stories, that we do not need to arbitrarily build a hard, one-sided picture, which is, of course, completely false. It is important to have common symbolic points of reference which identify us and differentiate us from “others.” This is neither wrong nor painful. But it is essential that it does not petrify into something untouchable, that we do not fall into the pitfall of mythologizing and then demythologizing. The centre must create an opportunity for the participants of historical debate to come to their own, a possibility of creating manifold discourses and their encounters. Controversy is not generating conflicts, but a clear way of presenting various views on a given problem and confronting them with each other, so that we avoid the trap of a homogenous, one-dimensional story which sooner or later will effectively become an ideology. I am afraid of this tendency, of this claiming the exclusive right to defining “Polishness.”
M.P.: So the centre has a very specific role to play.
R.T.: I am not opposed to the central model. Perhaps it sounds paradoxical in view of my long-time civic involvement. We often forget that the state is composed of several actors: the government, which I elect, the local government structure and the institutions and organisations called non-governmental. The state comes into being in the dialogue between these actors. In 2007 I organized a Polish-German-French conference in Berlin on historical policy. Professor Chris Hann, a great anthropologist, said something which surprised me. His British experience shows that much more important and expected is the central discourse which defines the state through the government and not through civic organizations.
M.P.: One could say that it is specific for Great Britain.
R.T.: Perhaps, but we must remember about it. The greatest non-governmental organization in Poland is Radio Maryja. We must be aware of that, without ironic smirks. If we treat the symbolic battlefield as the struggle for hegemony in the cultural realm (following Pierre Bourdieu), we must acknowledge that Radio Maryja is a very important actor. Endorsing many discourses by the government is of great significance. Therefore, this centrality is not a curse, but it must be wise and recognize that the impulses of other social agents may be refreshing. This must be taught in a democracy, as well as mutual respect among the various participants of the social game.
M.P.: A good example of historical policy are the joint efforts of the foreign ministries of Poland and Germany aimed at creating a common history textbook.
R.T.: It is a model example of historical policy. The ministers decided to follow the French-German example and do something similar in the Polish-German dialogue. And they said: we trust the experts, we pass the implementation to them and we do not constrain them in any way.
M.P.: Thanks to the central impulse a publication is created which is very important for the pluralistic view of memory and history. But it seems a tortuous task. I wonder if it is possible to write such a textbook in a way that would result in a dialogue instead of two parallel monologues.
R.T.: First of all, it is not that we suddenly sit down and write a textbook because we were “commanded” to. Nothing happens ex nihilo. Behind the writing of the textbook is the almost forty-years’ experience of the Joint Polish-German Textbooks Committee. Without this experience it would be an impossible task. The biggest misunderstanding is the belief that we write a textbook concerning the Polish-German relations. It has to be clearly articulated: what is being written is a normal textbook, part of the curriculum. The Polish-German component regards the authors and supplementary content. When an example of religious wars will be needed, we will take it from German history, and rightly so; when speaking about the Reformation, we will say about its origins, but also about Polish religious freedom; the day-to-day reality of occupation might be illustrated with the example of Poland divided by Germany and the Soviet Union. It is all about such details.
The eighteen months of work of the project group, and above all of the thirty experts, did not produce a single controversy around defending the national point of view. The communities of teachers and historians are sufficiently mature to avoid Polish-German arguments concerning the choice of events, the essential structure. For example, there was a problem with defining the twentieth century, but the dividing lines went between various historical schools and not the so called national interest of the two countries. Such standard of discussion was achieved thanks to the use of two categories (important also from the point of view of unlocking the centre) of teaching history: controversiality and multiplicity of perspectives. The fact that we have different historical experiences, various perceptions of events, is priceless in teaching history. For example, the problem of the forced resettlements has arisen in Germany and Poland. The Germans describe them mostly as Flucht und Vertreibung, that is escape and expulsion. In Poland we speak about deportations and forced resettlements. In the textbook we may adopt the following formula: in Germany these developments are defined in the way in which it is articulated in the Constitution and legislation, while in Poland it is spoken about differently, which resulted from this and that. In this way we are not authoritatively telling the student how he should call these developments. We are telling him: try to understand, criticise if you have a different opinion. But, first try to understand. Ironically, what is a historical burden on our mutual relations, especially in the nineteenth century and in the first half of the twentieth century, has a great potential for a didactic description. You can point out differences. I will stress it again: there is no fear of avoiding the dark side of history of both parties. I see this textbook as a chance for a better mutual understanding. The practical difficulty with writing it stems from the curricula requirements in Poland and in the sixteen German federal lands.
From the perspective of the teacher and student the added value will undoubtedly be the possibility of transmitting the same content in Poland and Germany, which will somewhat expand the knowledge especially of the German pupils. After the war history was Westernized in Germany. In his comment to the Appel de Blois (2008) Timothy Garton Ash said that what we most need now in Europe is knowledge. It seems horribly obvious, but it is the right answer to the question of making historical dialogue a reality. Indeed, we do not know certain facts and widespread interpretations, and the textbook is intended to fill this gap, to show that sometimes we remember certain things selectively.
M.P.: Yet another project realized by the Historical Research Center of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Berlin, in cooperation with Oldenburg University concerns the mechanisms of remembering – I am thinking about the Polish-German places of memory. However, the essence of the project is not their description and reconstruction, but their deconstruction – what is it supposed to consist of?
R.T.: We will have an opportunity to read more than one hundred texts on this subject, quite soon, I hope, that is by the end of 2011.
First of all, when describing mythologized phenomena, one has to be aware of the pitfalls, for all these artefacts, figures, places and events from Polish-German history are heavily loaded ideologically. The first thing that we stressed very strongly is the understanding of the term “a place of memory.” In contrast to Pierre Nora, who invented the whole idea of lieu de mémoire (but never defined it, for such was the dynamic of creating his great and pioneering work), but also in contrast to Etienne François and Hagen Schulze, who published a book about German places of memory and defined them as a metaphor, we try to define our places of memory as historical phenomena. In this way we want to emphasise that they are rooted in concrete historical and social conditions, in the so called event history (histoire événementielle). We invoke the term Beziehungsgeschichte, invented by Klaus Zernack, which I translate as “history of mutual impact.” On this basis we want to describe above all the mechanism of mythologizing memory. How did it happen that a skirmish of a few hundred warriors at Cedynia (972), in fact of no historical significance, exists in our minds as the event which is the founding myth of Communist Poland (by setting it next to the fighting on the Oder River in March 1945)? We want to draw attention to this mechanism, its conditions, factors, social and political situations which created the need to invoke a given event. Of course, constructing the modern national identity usually begins in the early nineteenth century. Hence, such a strong emphasis on deconstructing the process of social remembering of historical developments. We want to avoid the pitfall of remytholigisation.
M.P.: The third volume, devoted to parallel places of memory, will be particularly interesting.
R.T.: It may, perhaps to the largest extent, make us aware of the process of creating ideological constructs, the specific nature and universality of bilateral places of memory. I will illustrate it with the pairing of Cedynia and the Teutoburg Forest. On the one hand a skirmish of a few hundred warriors, on the other hand a truly great Roman-German battle in 9 A.D. In a certain period of history they both have a similar function: through mythologizing the event they serve the consolidation of one’s “own” nation. Our task is to show the mechanisms turning both battles into founding myths of two states. Different events with very unequal potential, but serving similar functions, are the basis for reflection on the mechanisms which are at work here. Generally speaking, analysing and describing Polish-German places of memory may result in an interesting story about the thousand years of the Polish-German relations, a picture of Poland and Germany seen from the neighbour’s perspective, and inscribed in the history of Europe. But this story is not a description of events, rather a tale about how we interpreted these events in the domain of cultural memory, and not in scholarly books intended for a few hundred readers.
M.P.: This project is also methodologically important.
R.T.: It means opening up to a pan-European debate about memory. We should recall that after Pierre Nora’s work came out, in the early 1990s, at least seven overviews of national places of memory were published: German, Austrian, Italian, Danish, Dutch, Luxembourgian and Swiss. So our project of bilateral places of memory is situated within the central historiographical discourse concerning memory in Europe. We enliven this discourse with the Polish-German experience, describing the universal mechanisms of perceiving history through bilateralism (as in the case of a region). The bilateral context will perhaps allow us better to comprehend the mechanisms of remembering the nations’ past, because we are confronted with a substance which is tangible and at the same time essentially European in its context. Events from Polish and German history are part of great European historical processes, they brought about many events which were highly significant for the whole continent. Perhaps they are not known in today’s Portugal, Greece or Spain, but may be very useful in tracing historical mechanisms.
M.P.: Many assumptions, actions by Borussia and your scholarly undertakings are very similar, but they evolved down the years. How did your methodology change during all this time?
R.T.: I am not a classic product of an academic career. The internal dialogue between what I was doing in Borussia and my scholarly work was very important for me. At first I acted intuitively. The Borussia society came into being, and later we began to organise various workshops, conferences, meetings, which arose from a spontaneous need of our generation and community, the inspiration of the place and time. An extraordinary experience which helped me to shape my methodology was the Borussia magazine, publishing not only historians, but also literary people and scholars from other disciplines, and not in the “hard” version of academic lectures, but in the essayistic formula, acting as an impulse to deliberation and reflection. It was a laboratory from which my Gesamtkunstwerk was born (at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow it has its embodiment in historical anthropology): applied history. I understand it in two ways: on the one hand as a certain model or proposal for the functioning of history in the public domain, as a fragment of social dialogue, and on the other hand as an academic discipline. I will begin from the latter. We live in a world which has become very dynamic in the field of social communication. As historians we have access to completely different sources than before. Gone is the traditional role of the teacher as the master or guide, possessor of the philosophical stone, of exclusive access to knowledge. This knowledge is now drawn from the globalised virtual space. History in its academic form is to help in the employment of the new sources, in confronting the new forms of the presence of history in public life, in finding ways of analysing and describing them. At the same time, it is to show how to handle the new types of historical transmission, to indicate what new forms of interpretation – for museums, the internet, communities – should be created. A graduate with such a comprehensive vision would possess a skill appreciated by the labour market. It regards not only historians or graduates in Polish studies, but also people who have a professional knowledge and the ability to think critically, along with the need to participate in the second form of history’s presence, that is its social functioning. The aim is not to turn history into the central point of reference in social life. But since we are doomed to the public presence of history, through remembrance, tradition and so on, it is worthwhile to have in it a companion which will teach us and make us sensitive to diversity. Such is the practical effect of my dialogue between my non-scholarly and scholarly preoccupations.
 The society Wspólnota Kulturowa “Borussia” was founded in Olsztyn in 1990. Invoking the multicultural heritage of the former East Prussia, it works towards building the culture of dialogue and tolerance, and helping to create the civil society. The cornerstone of Borussia’s agenda is the idea of “Northern Atlantis”, that is discovering and helping to create the metaphysics of Warmia and Masuria, and “open regionalism”, that is building a network of contacts and relations making it possible to create a New Europe on the basis of personal experience and the specific nature of regions and nations.
Since 1991 the society has published the magazine Borussia. Kultura. Historia. Literatura as well as books of fiction, essays and history of Central and Eastern Europe, with a particular emphasis on Eastern Prussian themes. More information on www.borussia.pl.
 Robert Traba, Historia – przestrzeń dialogu, Warszawa 2006.
 Hubert Orłowski – Professor of German Studies at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, literary historian, essayist, translator. He is preoccupied mostly with German literature and Polish-German relations and cultural contacts, transcending commonplaces and deeply rooted prejudices. His works include Słownik twórców kultury niemieckojęzycznej (1997), Polnische Wirtschaft. Nowoczesny niemiecki dyskurs o Polsce (1998), Warmia z oddali. Odpominania (2000). He is the editor of the publishing series “Poznańska Biblioteka Niemiecka” (Poznań German Library), which so far comprises over 30 works of eminent German scholars in Polish translation. Recipient of many awards in Poland, Germany and Austria. Co-founder and honorary member of Stowarzyszenie Wspólnota Kulturowa “Borussia.”
 Erich Mendelsohn (1887-1953) – world-famous architect, born in Olsztyn, where he realized his student project of a funeral house; neglected for many years and falling into ruin, in the late 1990s the building became the venue of an innovative project carried out by Borussia.
 Przemysław Czapliński, Polska do wymiany. Późna nowoczesność i nasze wielkie narracje, Warszawa 2009.
 Small regional museums (translator’s note).
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