In our first blog post of 2020, Karolina Wątroba discusses the “spectral presence” of Poland in German literature and suggests that attention to this presence, central to much of our undergraduate teaching yet often unremarked, can help us consider intercultural entanglements more generally.

Studying and then teaching German at Oxford as a Polish immigrant, I have always been struck by the fact that the undergraduate curriculum does not feature much discussion of Poland and Eastern Europe beyond the facts of the two world wars. And yet in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the period most undergraduates choose to study, many speakers of German lived in territories which extended far into what is now Poland, a country partitioned — in 1772 partially and from 1795 to 1918 fully — by Prussia, Habsburg Austria, and Russia, and occupied by Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia during WWII. Germanic and Slavic populations coexisted in this part of Europe earlier too; medieval territorial expansion of the Teutonic order was later instrumentalised to fuel both Prussian claims to colonial expansion overseas and Nazi politics of the ‘Lebensraum’.

Some historians even speak of a German colonial presence in Poland. According to Sebastian Conrad, a historian at the Freie Universität Berlin and author of the most widely read and most up-to-date introduction to German colonial history, it isn’t always possible – or indeed helpful – to distinguish between imperialism and colonialism, especially in the case of Germany’s role in Eastern Europe. This is partly because, Conrad argues, the political and cultural discourse surrounding Eastern Europe and overseas colonies was strikingly similar in Germany in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and partly because the realities of German colonialism overseas were radically heterogenous anyway, playing out differently in places as diverse as four separate parts of Africa, a range of islands on the Pacific, and the Chinese port city of Jiaozhou.

The first time I encountered the spectral presence of Poland in German culture at university was in a novel deeply entangled with the German imperial/colonial presence in Poland. One of the landmarks of German realism, Theodor Fontane’s Effi Briest (1895), is largely set in the fictional coastal town of Kessin, partly modelled on Swinemünde – or Świnoujście, as I know it, since it is now a Polish city located exactly on the border with Germany. Like real-life Swinemünde/Świnoujście, Fontane’s Kessin is a borderline space, controlled by Prussia, but far removed from the urban centre of Berlin and marked by the unsettling presence of Slavs. Kristin Kopp’s remarkable book, Germany’s Wild East: Constructing Poland as Colonial Space, reads Effi Briest as a novel of ‘inner colonialism’, which juxtaposes the Oriental fantasies of German overseas expansion – encapsulated in the memorable figure of the Chinese ghost – with the very tangible reality of Prussian control over huge swathes of Eastern Europe. When Major von Crampas – a half-Pole – seduces Effi, he threatens the stability of the Prussian social and cultural system in ways that Kopp persuasively links to the German fear of a ‘Slavic flood’ and ‘reverse diffusion’ of Prussian colonisation.

Postcard from Swinemünde around 1900

As I moved through my degree, I encountered more and more authors and books with links to Poland. The bestselling German novel of the nineteenth century, Gustav Freytag’s Soll und Haben (1855), is set almost entirely in present-day Poland. The same is true, of course, of Günter Grass’s Die Blechtrommel, published nearly a century later in 1959. Freytag and Grass were both born in what is now Poland, and it seemed that every literary epoch I studied included authors who were either born or lived for a time in present-day Poland: Baroque poets Andreas Gryphius and Christian Hofmann von Hofmannswaldau; Johann Gottfried Herder and Anna Louisa Karsch in the eighteenth century; Romantics E.T.A. Hoffmann and Joseph von Eichendorff; Expressionists Alfred Döblin and Ernst Toller; post-war writers Christa Wolf and Uwe Johnson. Seen in this light, German culture can only be properly understood once we pay attention to the fact that Central and Eastern Europe used to be a multilingual, multicultural, and multireligious region for centuries – with Germans, Slavs, and other peoples living together or at least alongside each other, sometimes more or less peacefully, and sometimes as enemies. Much of the cultural history of Germany played out in big Central European cities – Breslau/Wrocław and Danzig/Gdańsk as much as Hamburg and Nürnberg – and borderline regions, such as Schlesien/Śląsk and Masuren/Mazury. It is also a painful history of wars, occupations, partitions, expulsions, and economic migrations, one that to this day determines the reciprocal cultural perceptions of Germany and Poland.

So how can all this inform our teaching more broadly? Paying attention to the porous border between Germany and Poland over a millennium of European history allows us to put the current political division of this part of Europe into context. As Navid Kermani’s brilliant book of travel essays Entlang den Gräbern. Eine Reise durch das östliche Europa bis nach Isfahan (2018) makes clear, German cultural identity has been shaped by its relationship to its Eastern neighbours, and has heavily influenced that region in turn. Even more broadly, Todd Kontje’s excellent monograph Imperial Fictions: German Literature Before and Beyond the Nation-State (2018) is a timely reminder of the entanglements of local, national, imperial, and global allegiances that have always made up German culture – his sweeping account moves from the Middle Ages to the present day. Germany’s imperial/colonial presence in Eastern Europe has parallels in other parts of Europe too, especially – as Sebastian Conrad points out – in Habsburg Austria and British rule in Ireland.

These issues could find their way into the undergraduate syllabus in various contexts: for example, students could be introduced to Kopp’s incisive close readings of key passages on Poland and Slavs in Effi Briest; Kermani’s book could be taught alongside Goethe’s Italienische Reise, Alexander von Humboldt’s writings on Latin America, Frieda von Bülow’s writings on Africa, and W. G. Sebald’s travelogues; and the history of the German-Polish relations could be highlighted in survey courses on nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature in the context of German imperial history and colonial activities overseas, as they are discussed in Conrad’s and Kontje’s studies, among others. A finer focus on the fraught history of the German-Polish cultural relations can become a gateway to a reflection on multicultural entanglements, inequalities, and interdependencies more broadly, which – needless to say – we badly need in our own cultural moment.

Karolina Wątroba is a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at All Souls College, Oxford


Sebastian Conrad, Deutsche Kolonialgeschichte (Munich: C.H. Beck, 2019 [4thedition]); also available in Sorcha O’Hagan’s translation as German Colonialism: A Short History (Cambridge: CUP, 2012).

Navid Kermani, Entlang den Gräbern. Eine Reise durch das östliche Europa bis nach Isfahan (Munich: C.H. Beck, 2018).

Todd Kontje, Imperial Fictions: German Literature Before and Beyond the Nation-State (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2018).

Kristin Kopp, Germany’s Wild East: Constructing Poland as Colonial Space (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2012).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s