Tuesday, 6 August 2013

My Own Private Grunwald

The Battle of Grunwald (1878) Jan Matejko




For the average Pole the Battle of Grunwald verges on the status of Arthurian legend. It took place during July 1410 and was perhaps the most significant of all central European medieval battles. As a major continental showdown it was promoted like a heavyweight fight, drawing in religious warriors from all over the world, even being postponed at one point to allow time for late-arrivals to make it. Its famous depiction by the Polish nationalist painter Jan Matejko (1878) is an epic of tumultuous, bloody pageantry. As peacock headdresses and fine bear furs flap in an inferno of falling bodies, St. Stanislaus looks on fondly from a golden perch. Liberty Leading the People this is not: the saints of this battle keep a safe distance while soldiers get the dirty work done. The one-eyed warrior-hero of the Czech Hussites, Jan Zizka, can be seen putting the boot into a hapless Teutonic Knight. The most important attendees were, however, the leader of the Teutonic Order, Ulrich von Jungingen, who can be seen being butchered by wild Lithuanian peasants, and the two great rulers of a soon-to-be-united Poland and Lithuania, Wladislaw Jagiello and Vytautus the Great.

The Teutonic Order was a kind of crusading, Christianising Mujahedeen of its day which, with Papal endorsement, had recently massacred the pagan Prussians. Then, just to drive the point home, the Order banned the survivors from having children. Its architects had also recently finished building the world's largest castle (then and now) in Malbork. This on land the Knights had previously been invited on to by a Polish duke. Never ones to miss an opportunity, and having dispensed with the Prussians, they moved on to the nearby Lithuanians, the skirmishes against whom became a kind of sport of European "Christendom". Vytautus of Lithuania, however, was re-baptised Catholic and a powerful political union between Lithuania and Catholic Poland began to form.

The Battle of Grunwald achieved it's now-mythic reputation because of the depth of the Teutonic defeat. For a long tradition of east-looking Catholics the Polish Republic (and later Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth) came to symbolize the last bulwark of religious tolerance, and by extension Catholic civilization. This was, of course, a fantasy. According to Norman Davies:

If the Catholic Republic were truly the Haven of Toleration, it could only have been so by virtue of the presence of numerous dissenters; but if the dissenting community was really so numerous that it had to be tolerated, then the Republic could not have been solidly Catholic.[1]

Davies notes the buried heterogeneity at the heart of the powerful Catholic republic, one which was only gradually expelled during the 19th and 20th centuries. On the one hand was the unshakeable Catholic church, a constant of political, social and cultural life; on the other, "constant evidence for numerous varieties of religious non-conformity, sectarianism, schism, and heterodoxy."[2] The image of Poland as bleakly homogeneous, Catholic and white is a product of a very modern process of social engineering. In 1772 Poland-Lithuania was 33% Uniate (Slavonic Rite), 10% Russian Orthodox, 9% Jewish and only 43% Roman Catholic. Indeed the destruction of Polish "noble tolerance" went hand-in-hand with the slow destruction of its unique model of "noble governance".

The mythic equities of the Polish kingdom - a benign, well checked-and-balanced monarch answerable to and elected by the nobility (the so called złota wolność or 'Golden Freedom') - had their principal historical use as a weapon of Polish nationalists. Ironically enough, this peculiarly chivalric anachronism, a world of benevolent paternalism and eccentric tolerance, was adopted as the source of national pride by those who believed most staunchly in the romantic myth of a Catholic Poland. The legacy of a deeply heterogeneous amalgam of social groups was transformed into an image of ethnic and culture purity during the long years of partition. While Davies observes the continuities between the Polish republic and more modern conceptions of limited government, private property, and the rule of law, thus inserting it into a European enlightenment lineage, it is actually the discontinuities that fascinate.

The uniqueness of local Jewish culture is evidence of how the country cultivated its religious minorities. The Jewish museum in Kraków is a painful catalogue of surviving relics of Galician Jewry, the "traces of memory" of a unique culture now entirely wiped out. Some of the most moving photographs reveal the carved animal inscriptions left on what are now ruins by former Jewish inhabitants. This unique practice exists today only where its imprint has not faded from still standing ruins in the quiet Polish countryside.

As with the republic, so with its bloody, mythologized birth: Grunwald held equal fascination for Polish nationalists, Nazis and communists. The Nazis used the Teutonic Order as an example of the great export of civilization to the east, while for Russia the victory was used to promote the unity of Slavic peoples against the Germanic foe. Its legacy for Poles is literally written all over the country: there are streets named Grunwaldzka from Poznan toWrocław

Grunwaldzka, Bydgoszcz, after a "heavy one"

My own Grunwaldzka was a dual carriageway down which traffic to Torun and Szczecin hurtled at vicious speeds. It cut between the old Bydgoszcz canal and the snaking river Brda in a dull, flat monotone. In this way it mimicked the gaping vastness of rural Poland, through which it eventually cut. (The name Polska is even said to derive from the Slavic pole, meaning field). For drivers this seemingly barren landscape of decaying apartment buildings blended into the rushing background.

But for those of us who lived there, flitting hurriedly across its surface, or scurrying down its smashed and jumbled pavements, it was something we were forced to confront. We got to encounter its weathered, cracking frontages in detail, the remains of an attempt at 19th century grandeur. It had its own cast of unique characters. One scraggly gang would rush up and down its length talking hurriedly, the stale odour of piss and sweat trailing after them. I would wonder about what strange internal hierarchy brought them together - an old woman and two younger men - and what rules governed their loudly debated unity. It seemed as if the very lack of external motive - be it work or travel; family or friendships - glued them to the place. This gaping sore of a place had become an entire world to them. It was a universe of barricaded shop fronts and tattered, forgotten roadworks with its own, unique internal pressures. Simply getting to the chemist's once a week had become an act of extraordinary deliberation.

By contrast, a slathering, muggy spring had brought a perennially topless guardian to the foot of Granicna, a supposedly rough street that branched off Grunwaldska and on which my girlfriend lived. Quite what earned Granicna its reputation as a bad spot, apart from its lack of pavements and creepy dearth of street lighting, I don't know, but perhaps it was this leathery guardian that kept its demons at bay. He leant, one arm in a crutch, against the wall of my girlfriend's 1920s apartment building, cigarette fixed to his lower lip. Devoid of Gunwaldzka's urgent thrum, he would lean against that wall all day, slowly baking himself. He had, I felt, accepted a purposelessness that the pissy gang up on Grunwaldzka refused, though he was just as constrained by its borders. His face, stuck in repose, was like a slowly melting shoe. Those consigned, in their own way, to four wheels would never be aware of, and certainly never predict, his slow, watchful existence.

The view from Siobhan's window. Taken by Siobhan.


Then there were the scrap collectors. You might glimpse them between the rows of parked cars or slipping quietly down some alley. They attained semi-invisibility, slipping from one muddy burrow between houses to another. For some reason alleyways around the world seem to nurture, even cultivate, old scrap, like moss in gutters. A few times whole families of scrap collectors jogged nimbly past me, gripped by the gravitas and seclusion of their task. But usually they worked alone: middle-aged men the colour of a tanning belt. One old woman who never removed her lilac rain mac. As they slipped past loitering kids and gossiping dog walkers, they encapsulated for a moment the sense of a second world concealed in the crust of the first, surfacing only briefly and speaking quietly of its poverty.

Poland has experienced GDP growth rates of 4-6% ever since it joined the EU (excluding the 2008 slowdown), and it has become the EU's fifth-largest economy. It is a vital source of cheap labour for German capital. Yet its per capita GDP remains just 48% of the EU average. Bydgoszcz itself experienced 15% unemployment rates in 2011. The massive transfer of employment from manufacturing to services which has typified "modernising" postsocialist economies has proved inevitably traumatic. In 1988 nearly 50% of Bydgoszcz's labour-force worked in the manufacturing industry; today that number is closer to a third.

Yet Poland has also had to deal with a unique inheritance of its own, based on the highly regional division of its economic development. The Polish economy has never been dominated by a single centre in quite the way London does the UK. A complex web of inter-regional and inter-urban trade networks makes it resemble a federal country like Germany, but of course lacking the famous infrastructure. Its violent partition into Prussian, Russian and Austrian protectorates after 1795 did little to help integrate an already ailing national economy. The destruction of Warsaw by the Nazis in 1944 also hardly helped the re-industrializing, post-war economy to find a focal point. This has accentuated the divisions between a highly mobile but small middle class and an increasingly constrained working class.

Partly as the result of an accelerating process of suburbanisation and urban flight by wealthier denizens, large tracts of the post-industrial urban landscape have remained grossly polluted and unusable. Poland's housing-stock is the second-lowest in the OECD.[5] Combined with terrible transport links (it takes nearly three hours to cover the 100km from Bydgoszcz to Gdansk by train) and "roads worse than Chile", this has served to make both the relatively poor and very poor increasingly immobile and precariously positioned. "Disparities within ULMAs [the OECD's term - urban metropolitan labour market areas] are wider than any other expression of inequality in Poland."[6] This intra-urban inequality, in which small and medium cities are trapped in a downward spiral, trumps even the traditional wealth gap between rural and urban. Poverty is more common in the smaller towns but more severe in larger cities. The Polish economy of the last ten years is stark evidence for the claim that growth does not necessarily equate to decent job creation and generally rising prosperity.

Siobhan and I were once foolhardy enough to look for an ice cream on Grunwaldzka. Elsewhere in the city Polish lody and convincingly decent Italian-style gelato were readily available, but a cloudy beer hangover had deceived us into thinking we might find something similar locally. That Saturday morning, the second-hand clothes outlet, which famously sold tracksuits and diamond-studded faux-leather trousers by weight, was already closing its doors. A sombre monopolovy was selling pickled herring and a few sad looking ham sandwiches. A churned up, violent grey sky sank its teeth into the day; the air was heavy and warm with moisture. A prim looking older lady, her bright purple hair curled immaculately, stood patiently waiting for her dog to finish weeing. We wandered up to our local Biedronka where the late-morning drinkers were gathered with cans of beers labelled simply 'Strong'. Ahead the viaduct was just visible on the road's curve. As we passed the old drinkers, increasingly hopeless, the lights in the distance changed. We heard the traffic belch and lurch forward, the smell of petrol in their wake.

                         

              


[1]    Davies, God's Playground I, 126
[2]    ibid., 126
[3]    Bideleux & Jeffries, A History of Eastern Europe, 187
[4]    ibid., 189
[5]    OECD: 2011 Policy Review of Poland, 15
[6]    ibid., 12

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