Thursday 23 February 2012

German Silesia - from revolution to degermanisation, by Leslie Wilson

After the First World War, Poland, which had previously been split up between Germany, Austria and Russia, was now reinstated as a nation. At the same time, the future of Upper Silesia was in question. Naturally, both Germany Poland wanted this important mining and industrial area - and those members of the Allies - notably France - who desired above all the weakening of Germany were keen that Poland should have it. There was a plebiscite to decide which nation Upper Silesia should belong to.

There was apparently a suggestion, which wasn't taken on board, that the post-war settlement should allow Silesia to be an independent nation. That might well have satisfied the feelings of Silesians. But the plebiscite gave them the choice between becoming either 'Polish' or 'German.' The polls yielded a majority in favour of remaining German (59.6%). However, in the eastern parts of the region, the majority voted for Poland. Though Germany at first assumed that the poll result would give them the whole of Silesia, eventually it was decided that a segment (containing some of the richest industrial assets, such as Kattowice) was shaved off the east of Upper Silesia, and became part of Poland. During the campaign, there was brutality and intimidation from both nationalistic parties, and several Polish uprisings, culminating, post-referendum in 1921, in a bloody battle on the Annaberg. My grandfather, who was from Lower Silesia, fought there on the German side.

It's a line in his cv, a medal hanging next to his First World War medal. 'Für Schlesien,' it says. 'For Silesia.' He died in 1968, years before I got really interested in the topic. So I can't ask him about his motivation or his experiences. I do know that - as I've said in last month's blog - he was far more 'German' than my grandmother.

Anyway, the remainder of Silesia remained German, though the Silesian language was still spoken, that odd mixture of West-slav and German dialect; it continued to be spoken all the way till the end of the war, though the official language was German. Silesia, of course, went through the traumatic experiences of the rest of Germany during the next twelve years. First there was the horror of the Inflation period, then the gradual economic reconstruction, during which time my grandparents married and had one child - only one, because my grandfather said the times were too bad to have more children. But heavy unemployment and high child mortality persisted, even in Upper Silesia.

At this time my grandfather was studying hard for promotions in the police force. He was, like many of his colleagues, a Social Democrat. The SPD (Social Democratic Party) was the strongest party for many between-the wars years in the western parts of Silesia, while the Catholic Centre dominated in the east, unsurprisingly, given the largely Catholic character of that region.

There was an increase in violent anti-Semitism during those years, and in 1920, during the Kapp Putsch, six Jewish citizens of Breslau were murdered by the Freikorps (nationalistic extremists). Jews were discriminated against in their careers, and in public life. Nevertheless, the Nazis were for a long time a minority party, whose election percentages remained in single figures.

In 1929, the Wall Street Crash tolled the death-knell of Germany's fragile economic reconstruction, tossing millions into unemployment and poverty, and hugely boosting the popularity of both the Communist and the Nazi party. Their supporters formed paramilitary organisations who fought pitched battles in the streets - one of my mother's early memories was of mattresses being put in the windows to keep the bullets out of the houses. My grandfather, then stationed in Hindenburg/Zabrze, was out there, policing those battles, trying to keep his men from joining in, because - I have read - 'nowhere in Germany were the police harder on the Nazis than in Upper Silesia.'
In the 1932 elections, the Nazi upsurge amounted to 43.5% in the Breslau electoral division, 48% in Liegnitz - both in Lower Silesia - but only 29.2% in Upper Silesia, where the Catholic Centre remained strong. The Communists were also stronger in Upper Silesia than in Lower Silesia, though they only got 17% even there. As the world knows, in 1933, Paul von Hindenburg, the president after whom my mother's birthplace had been renamed, faced with the danger of civil war, decided to invite Adolf Hitler to become Chancellor. That was in January. On 27th February the Reichstag went up in flames, and the purge of the Left began. Communist and Social Democratic politicians were dragged off to 'wild' concentration camps, many of them murdered. Hermann Goering drafted a new law - to reform the civil service. The police came under this law, and my grandfather's career was severely threatened.

I've told the story, with very little alteration, in Last Train from Kummersdorf. He was accused of being a 'Leftist' - which he was - and saved because my grandmother went to 'a very important person' to plead for him But I shan't write at length about that today. In 1938, my grandfather was moved to Graz, in Austria, at the Anschluss, and never returned to work in Silesia, though there were many family visits.

In 1939, a faked 'Polish raid' on a radio transmittor in Gleiwitz was the excuse for a long-planned German invasion of Poland - and those parts of Silesia which had gone to Poland were returned to German rule. In an eastern corner of that section was a place called Auschwitz.

97% of the population of Kattowice/Kattowitz were frightened enough to claim that they were really Germans - but the Nazis ignored these assertions, and made their own division into Germans; ethnic Germans who hadn't asserted their German nationality before the invasion; persons of indeterminate origin, and Poles who hadn't been 'anti-German.' It was bad luck to be in the 'indeterminate' category. Worse luck to be Jewish, of course. But the horrors of the German occupation of Eastern Europe are well-known. Auschwitz moved into its dreadful place in history. There's something else, that I only found out recently, which is that throughout Silesia monuments and inscriptions that related to the Piast duchy of the past were erased during the Nazi period.

Silesia was a major location for munitions production during the war - but also a 'safe' area, supposed to be bomb-free. Towards the end of the war, there were almost half a million evacuees living there. But in 1944, the Americans, operating out of Italy, got their bombers as far as Upper Silesia. The end was coming.

On land, the Russians had already crossed the frontier into Poland. The rape and slaughter some members of the Red Army inflicted on civilian populations were useful propaganda to keep the Germans fighting to the bitter end. They weren't just 'atrocity stories,' though. Silesia suffered its share of this when the Soviet troops got there. And its Gauleiter, Hanke, decided to make a 'heroic' last stand in Breslau (now Wrocław). To which end he drove, old people, women and children out of the city, in temperatures of -15C. About 18,000 people of them died. Hanke didn't stay to the end, however. Like most of the Nazi leadership he ratted on the people, but not by committing suicide; he left by plane before the city fell, and was never heard of again. Breslau was left in ruins.

Many Silesians fled before the Red Army, and got a cold welcome further west; some refugee 'treks' like the ones I've described in Last Train from Kummersdorf were still wandering around a year later, unable to find anywhere to stay. The diarist Ruth Andreas-Friedrich described a barefoot Silesian child in one of these miserable processions who said: 'My feet hurt.' She lifted them up and they were raw and bleeding.

This time, the whole of Silesia was given to Poland. Churchill was against it, but Stalin insisted, because he wanted territory to resettle the Poles he intended to drive out of their own homes in the Polish Ukraine and Byelorussia. The official transports were formed in spring 1946, but even before that it was the turn of German Silesians to be driven from their home. Some were taken to prison camps, where many died.

One may say that this only mirrored the dreadful crimes Germany committed in Poland, but I think that's a cop-out, because those who suffered weren't necessarily the guilty parties. Neither the children who died in freezing cold railway carriages, or the little girl with the bleeding feet deserved what happened to them. Nor, I think, had my crusty old great-grandfather from the mountains, who hated the Nazis, and, having been deported at the age of ninety, died in a displaced persons' camp in the new East Germany, refusing all my grandfather's attempts to bring him to the west, because he couldn't believe he'd never see his home again.

In Upper Silesia, it was the middle classes who were deported. The working classes remained and were largely polonicised, which caused some suffering. They were to speak Polish, not Silesian, and all German-language inscriptions were now erased, just as the German government had tried to erase all trace of the Polish past. Even gravestones had the German writing hacked off. Here's one, in a churchyard in Zabrze.

In Lower Silesia the entire population was removed.Here's one of the deportation lists.

Meanwhile, new Silesians arrived, the people from the new Russian territories who were given the choice between becoming Russian or moving - or no choice at all. Traumatised and homesick, though these people were, glad to find themselves moving into the often comfortable homes the Germans had been expelled from - right down to furniture, crockery, and bottled fruit and jam- many of them never really settled down in Silesia, always afraid that the Germans would return and they would be be driven out again. The next generation, happily, is more settled.

And what does all this mean to me, personally? As a teenager, my school history books declared that Silesia, like Poland, had been invaded by Germany during the War, and that the Germans who were deported had been semi-criminal carpet-baggers. I knew this wasn't true. When I told people where my mother came from, people looked blank, so I gave up, and said my grandfather lived in the Rhineland.

But I can remember my grandmother weeping about family members 'driven out in the middle of the night, into the snow.' And I used to look at my toys and make mental lists of which ones I'd take, if we in our turn had to flee. That has given me, in adulthood, sympathy with the refugees and asylum-seekers so vilified in current society.

Many Germans, even, look askance at you if you say your family comes from Silesia - perhaps because of a pain they can't deal with. And I do wonder why people can't deal with what is, after all, simple historical truth? Silesia was my mother's birthplace, and my family's home. Now other people live there and it's their home. I totally accept that, but the country is nevertheless part of my identity. Why should I pretend otherwise?

In 2009, I finally visited Silesia, having wanted to for years. But I'll write about that next month, to stop this one getting as long as War and Peace.

At the moment, I'm reading Paul Berry and Mark Bostridge's biography of Vera Brittain; this is because I've just re-read Testament of Youth, and I wanted to know what someone else thought of her.


Sue Purkiss said...

The history of this part of Europe is so complicated, Leslie. I've tried very hard to get my head round it, but I haven't managed it yet! Thanks for this. So sad, that your great grandfather lingered on in East Germany in the hope of seeing his homeland again.

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

So well explained, Leslie - and very sad. A part of German history I'd missed out on.

Linda B-A said...

It's so difficult to imagine what it must have been like for your poor great grandfather and your family. To have reached such a great age and to have been removed from your home is tragic. I found your post both illuminating and heartbreaking - particularly your comment about deciding, as a child, which toys you would take with you.

Leslie Wilson said...

Thank you! Well, it's only a fragment of the awful suffering of that time - but it's real..

alberridge said...

I hope you're going to keep these coming, Leslie. Count me among the many who knew next to nothing of all this, but you're not only putting flesh on the bones, you're making them live.

This line brought a lump to my throat: 'It's a line in his cv, a medal hanging next to his First World War medal'
You're right, that's how it's been. It's wonderful you're bringing this particular chunk of history out of the box and letting us see it for the very human tragedy it clearly was.
Thank you for sharing it.

F.Wood said...

My mother and her family were from Silesia. I would love to know the best way to search for ancestral information. It seems so hard to find. this site is simply lovely to read.

kimberlitejamesbay said...

Thank you for sharing. My husband's parents were also from Silesia. The other family ended up in Poland and had to change their last names. Can you recommend how we can find family Genealogy? Thank you.

Rob G said...

My Grandparents Fritz and Marta Much lived in Oels. My Oma walked to Wiesbaden in the west with an Handcart and three children (The eldest with Polio). I heard stories of them hiding in a deserted Factory and hearing the screams of women being raped. They spent time as a family in a Concentration camp and my mother recalls having all their head shaved.

While this was going on my Opa was with the German army in the east. When defeated he also had to hide in bushes and Haystacks to get home to the west walking at night to avoid capture.

It took a further three years for my Opa to find his wife and children. They left a Farm and various other property and rebuilt in a small Village called Barstadt in Taunus. He always kept a small jar of Silesien soil as his "Small piece of home" My family are still trying to reclaim the property in Poland.

Sue Purkiss said...

What a terrible story, Rob. Thanks for sharing it.