The Oder

The Oder-Academy at Viadrina: Up and Down the Border River

Publication: 23 October 2023

NO. 50 2023



The Oder and its neighbouring areas became a European periphery, the Poland’s Western periphery and East German eastern frontier. But it was not until the political transformation in the 1980s and 1990s and the border treaty of 1991 that the way was paved for further evolution.


The Oder is one of the most beautiful rivers in Europe. For many centuries, it was a life-sustaining, abundant source of fish for people living in settlements along the river. It also served as the main artery of the Oder region and transportation route in the regions through which it flows. It was not until the nation states that it was turned into a tool of propaganda. The river became the “stronghold of the German East”, and then an “ancient Polish river”, one “reclaimed” by Poland. Germany was punished for its Nazi crimes and brutal expansionism with a loss of much of its eastern territory. The consequences were felt especially by civilians, coerced to flee their homes and relocated by force. In people’s memories from that period, the Oder is often represented as an obstacle to overcome, a barrier to cross by makeshift bridges or boats, in a hurry and in fear of the approaching Red Army.[1] Pursuant to the Potsdam Agreement, the Oder became a border river, more than ever before in its middle and lower course, and the “Oder-Neisse Line” was viewed as the symbol of a new order in Cold War Europe. On the banks of the Oder an unprecedented population exchange took place, as more than a dozen million people were resettled. All of this took place in the chaos of the end of the war and initial postwar years. Small wonder then that these lands became known among the new settlers as the “Polish Wild West”, and such is the title I selected for my book on this topic. From the settlers’ diaries we can learn that they viewed the Oder region as a foreign, culturally distant space and found it difficult to acclimatise.[2] In the early years after the war, the Oder became a tightly controlled border. The situation changed somewhat after the Treaty of Zgorzelec, signed in 1950. The coerced cordiality between Poland and East Germany, combined with mutual reserve between the Soviet Bloc countries, resulted in very limited transborder traffic as well as curbed the use of the river for tourism and transportation (with the exception of shipping coal from Upper Silesia to Szczecin and further, across the Baltic Sea to the USSR, imposed by Soviet orders).

In consequence, the Oder and its neighbouring areas became a European periphery, the Poland’s Western periphery and East German eastern frontier. The situation changed, albeit for a limited time, after the 1970s border opening. But it was not until the political transformation in the 1980s and 1990s and the border treaty of 1991 that the way was paved for further evolution. The changes were very gradual, however. In 1997, the eyes of Europeans were fixed on the Oder due to the “flood of the century”. Transborder cooperation flourished, as did commercial and cultural exchange. A good example of the latter is the “German–Polish Poets’ Steamer” – a river cruise on the Oder with the participation of Polish and German authors, resulting in several noteworthy literary pieces inspired by the river.

Two new institutions played an important role in this process: European University Viadrina in Frankfurt (Oder) and Collegium Polonicum (a branch of Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań) in Słubice, on the other side of the river. Operating in close partnership from the outset, these two institutions became the arena of academic and intellectual debate as well as the source of many shared projects for the Lubuskie Province in Poland and Brandenburg in Germany. The late 1990s and the 2000s marked a good era in Polish–German relations. Following Poland’s access to the European Union in 2004, the governments of Poland and Germany established the German–Polish year of 2005/2006 in order to further strengthen the partnership between the two countries. With a view to contributing to this valuable initiative, Professor Karl Schlögel from University Viadrina, an eminent German historian and specialist in Central and Eastern Europe, proposed a research project dedicated to the cultural landscape of the Oder region. According to Professor Schlögel, the Oder had long been marginalised due to geopolitical circumstances, and nearly vanished from the cultural awareness of Europeans, especially those inhabiting the western part of the continent. It was high time, he argued, that the story of the Oder had been retold and its environmental and cultural value appreciated. The initiative met with approval and the university in Frankfurt received funding for its implementation. Professor Schlögel created a team of enthusiasts, among whom I had the honour of counting myself.

The celebrations of the German–Polish Year in 2006 coincided with the 500th anniversary of the founding of the university in Frankfurt (Oder). In 1811, it was transferred to Wrocław, another city on the Oder, and was not reopened until 180 years later. Its name “Viadrina” is derived from Latin and means precisely “situated on the Oder”. Aware of this fact, the university authorities realised that they need to acknowledge the importance of the river during the anniversary celebrations. Thus Professor Schlögel’s project was expanded to include an international conference, which took place in Frankfurt (Oder) in April 2006, and an Oder-themed exhibition.

The exhibition titled “Oder Panorama | Panorama Odry: Images of a European River” was a substantial undertaking organised in cooperation with a body of renowned experts. Encompassing the entire river, source to estuary, it offered a visual reconstruction of the Oder with special focus on key sites and cities situated along the river. A lot of space was devoted to the consequences of setting the border on the Oder and Neisse, as well as to the process of domesticating the river by the new settlers after 1945 and the location-derived economic and infrastructural benefits for the towns along the river. The exhibition was first presented in a historic riding hall at the university campus in Frankfurt (Oder), and the opening took place during our conference. Later, the exhibition travelled along the Oder to be shown in Lubin in Lower Silesia (autumn 2006), Wrocław (spring 2007), Nowa Sól (autumn 2007), and finally at the National Museum in Szczecin (2009).

The abovementioned research project was titled “Odra–Oder: History, Present, and Future of a European Cultural Area”. Our goal was to look at the river in a complex, interdisciplinary manner. We examined the topic from various angles, including nature and transportation, river regulation and its consequences, from both contemporary and historical perspective, from the point of view of the region’s inhabitants (both those who settled here and those who were displaced), including war damage and the effort involved in rebuilding. The project outcomes present a way of looking at the river beyond national divisions and interests; instead, they constitute an attempt to reconstruct the cultural space of the Oder region in its multidimensionality and to conceptually map the Oder in the landscape of postwar Europe. Our conclusions were both presented during the conference and published in two post-conference volumes – in German (2007)[3] and Polish (2008).[4]


The Oder-Academy

On 30 April 2006, the final day of the conference, a river cruise was organised from Słubice to Kostrzyn and back again. It provided an excellent opportunity to continue the debate on the Oder – while actually on the Oder. Most of the participants agreed that there is no coherent cultural image of the river in the collective memory of the Oder region inhabitants; rather, it is a component that forms the identities of individual regions: Lower Silesia, Lubuskie Province, Brandenburg, and Western Pomerania. And although the flood of 1997 had shown clearly that the regions along the river are inextricably connected to it, by 2006 many people had forgotten about the strength of this relationship. It was a time of intense development of local identities, which progressed at a different pace depending on the region. Lower Silesians had by then developed a strong connection to their region, the Oder being an important part of it. Upper Silesians likewise felt connected to the Oder, although due to the region’s location in the upper course of the river and its marginal position, it was not considered as crucial. In contrast, in the expansive lower course of the Oder in Western Pomerania, it was necessary to face the myth of the “ever-Slavic” Szczecin and the city’s decisive turning towards the Baltic Sea. The opening of the borders enabled river passage through the Oder-Havel Canal to Berlin, which has become a favourite attraction for many boating enthusiasts. An important moment was the creation of the Lower Oder Valley National Park in Germany and a protected landscape park of the same name on the Polish side of the border. As can be seen, the river quite quickly entered the list of important locations defining regional identity. In Germany, in Brandenburg, the Oder had long been associated with the loss of western territories and forced change of borders; nevertheless, since the 1990s it has been perceived as an area of great natural beauty and a space for meetings with the Polish neighbours. The newly created Oder-Neisse Cycling Path has become a great success, attracting cyclists from all over Germany and other countries, contributing to the promotion of the Oder as a great place for active recreation. Navigation in this section of the river proved problematic, however (more on this issue will be said further).

In the middle course of the river, where Frankfurt (Oder) and Słubice are situated, the Oder region was promoted almost exclusively in Germany. The east bank of the river attracted hardly any tourists. There was no infrastructure and until 2007 passport control was still obligatory while crossing the border. Besides, few people were aware of how attractive the Lubuskie land is. Most merely passed through this green, forested region by car or train on their way to Poznań or Warsaw, with no plan of stopping.

A lot has changed in this respect over the last two decades. The Lubuskie Province, formed in 1998, dedicated immense effort to forging its brand as a region. It all began by promoting winemaking tradition and organising a grape harvesting festival in Zielona Góra. Building river harbours boosted tourism on the Oder. The phenomenon was not limited to the cities – with time, some of the villages on the river gained small harbours. Their creation was promoted by the participants of the Oder Rafting Festival (Flis Odrzański) – a rafting event on the Oder, ending in Szczecin, organised yearly from 1995. Because at the time there were no passenger ships on this section of the river, the event proved very popular and many small towns on the river applied to become stops on the route. Another means of attracting tourism were summer festivals such as Lubuskie Film Summer in Łagów or Music in Paradise in Paradyż. Interestingly, some of the inhabitants of the region struggled to accept the name Lubuskie, as they considered it an artificial name invented in 1945 for propaganda purposes. The name is derived from a medieval bishopric, whose main seat in Lubusz (Lebus) was located on the western, German bank of the Oder until the 16th century.[5] Other names were proposed, among them the Middle Oder province, but hydrologists insisted that the middle course of the river actually begins in Lower Silesia, in Brzeg Dolny. It was a time of intense debates and rediscovering the region with its cultural heritage. This issue was also of interest during the Oder project lifecycle and partly inspired the creation of the Oder-Academy.

Impressed by that first river cruise at the conference and encouraged by Professor Schlögel, I organised the first Oder-Academy in spring 2007. It involved a several-day-long boat trip on the Oder, stopping in various sites in the Middle Oder region – usually in towns, where we could meet the inhabitants to talk about the region, shared history, and future challenges. The participants were Polish and German university students, as well as experts and local activists I invited.

But before this could take place, it was necessary to face multiple challenges. The first cruise in 2006 was organised only on the Polish side of the border since stopping on both sides required special permits – while the Oder was in the European Union, Poland had not yet joined the Schengen Area. I applied for the permits in Warsaw and Berlin several months before the planned event. Then we had to schedule the exact venue, day and hour for border control. As a pioneering project, the Oder-Academy met with a lot of good will on the part of officials; still, there was a lot of red tape. I am describing these circumstances in order to stress the incredible change that occurred within the following year. During the next Oder-Academy in spring 2008, we had no such problems, as Poland had already become part of the Schengen Area. We were free to navigate the river in its entirety.

At the time, there were no passenger ships on the Oder due to the aforementioned border controls and very unstable water level in the border section of the river – during drought it would drop so much as to render navigation impossible. For the 2006 cruise, we hired a very special vessel from Gorzów on the Warta – the ice-breaker Kuna (Marten) converted to a cruise boat. Her owner and captain Jerzy Hopfer claimed her to be the oldest ice-breaker still in service. Built in Gdańsk in 1884, she was first serving under Prussian-German flag, then under the English one, and finally the Polish one. In the mid-1990s, there were no funds for her renovation, so she was to be scrapped. Jerzy Hopfer, then freshly retired, decided to buy her and after many years of laborious work the Kuna returned to water. The passage along the Warta from Gorzów and then up the Oder to Słubice took a whole day and incurred additional cost, but there was no choice. Not only had Captain Hopfer added new equipment for our comfort, but he also turned out to be a true mine of river information and wonderful storyteller. The Kuna became the flagship of the Oder-Academy. It should be mentioned that she was a small vessel with maximum capacity of forty passengers. We usually sat outside since the only room below deck – the captain’s quarters – could barely hold everybody.

In 2007, the Oder-Academy started in Eisenhüttenstadt and ended in Szczecin. In 2008, we started in Głogów and finished in Frankfurt (Oder). I organised both events in partnership with lecturers and students of the European University Viadrina and Wrocław University of Science and Technology. In 2009, the Oder-Academy again visited Szczecin and upon our arrival the exhibition “Oder Panorama | Panorama Odry” opened at the National Museum.

One of our guests was Uwe Rada, German journalist and author. At that time, Rada was working on a book on the history and heritage of the Oder and the life on the river.[6] One of its chapters is dedicated to the universities along the river, including the Oder-Academy as a special initiative aimed at building mental bridges across the Oder and bringing people from both sides of the border closer. As a result, the Oder-Academy went down in history and its organisers became the pioneers of water tourism in the Polish–German borderland.


Since that day, a lot has changed on the Oder and in the Middle Oder province. The Lubuskie province now attracts tourists with its natural beauty, history, monuments, cultural events, and cycle paths. The tourism potential of the river itself has also found appreciation. Eight Polish and German municipalities in the Oder region applied for funds together and built two cruise boats well adapted to the challenges of the passage. Thanks to this, since 2014 it has been possible to take a boat trip in the middle section of the river. The tendency to marginalise the Oder and its virtual disappearance from the European collective consciousness have now become things of the past.


Translated from the English by Aleksandra Kamińska



[1] See Beata Halicka, ‘The Oder-Neisse Line as a Place of Remembrance for Germans and Poles’, Journal of Contemporary History 2014, vol. 49 (1), pp. 75–91.

[2] See Mój dom nad Odrą: Pamiętniki osadników Ziem Zachodnich po 1945 roku, ed. B. Halicka, Universitas, Kraków 2016; B. Halicka, Polski Dziki Zachód”: Przymusowe migracje i kulturowe oswajanie Nadodrza 1945–48, Universitas, Kraków 2015.

[3] Oder–Odra; Blicke auf einen europäischen Strom, Hrsg. K. Schlögel, B. Halicka, Peter Lang Verlag, Frankfurt am Main 2007.

[4] Odra–Oder: Panorama europejskiej rzeki, ed. K. Schlögel, B. Halicka, Wydawnictwo Instytutowe, Skórzyn 2008.

[5] B. Halicka, ‘Od biskupstwa do województwa: Spacer ulicami Lubusza [Lebus] w poszukiwaniu korzeni ziemi lubuskiej’, in: Lubuski palimpsest: W kręgu kultury i literatury polsko-niemieckiego pogranicza, ed. Marta J. Bąkiewicz, Oficyna Wydawnicza Uniwersytetu Zielonogórskiego, Zielona Góra 2017, pp. 27–42.

[6] Uwe Rada, Odra: Życiorys pewnej rzeki, Kolegium Europy Wschodniej, Wrocław–Wojnowice 2015.

About authors

Beata Halicka

A cultural studies scholar and professor at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań. Since 2013 she has been working at the Polish-German Research Institute at Collegium Polonicum in Słubice. Her research interests include: problems of nationalism and forced migration in Europe, Polish-German relations, identity issues in border regions, as well as culture and the politics of memory. For her book entitled “The Polish Wild West. Forced Migration and the Cultural Taming of the Rhineland 1945-48”, she was awarded the Identitas Prize 2016 in the category of best historical book of the year.


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