Germany’s Wild East: Constructing Poland as Colonial Space
By Kristin Kopp
University of Michigan Press, 2017
This fascinating historiographical work focuses on fiction, film and cartography in an attempt to understand how Poland was represented in German culture from the middle of the nineteenth century up until the years leading up to the Second World War.
The first chapter examines Gustav Freytag’s popular novel Soll und Haben (1855), the inspiring story of how an industrious young man of good German stock made his fortune in the East. While journeying in this part of the world, he encounters a fair few Poles and they seem to him to be a simple, peasant people. Rather primitive and crude in their ways, like (say) the Indian tribes of the American West.
There are similarities between Soll und Haben and Das Schlafende Heer (1904), although Clara Viebig’s engaging Ostmarkenroman (yes, it is part of a whole genre), the subject of chapter two, was written half a century later. It is a stirring tale of a family of heroic German farmers who settle in the East, where they spend their days attempting to create system and order out of a chaotic, messy landscape. As well as dealing with the rowdy locals, bless, ‘em.
This foray into fiction culminates in chapter three, where Theodor Fontane’s Effi Briest (1895) is discussed as ‘an invasion narrative’, that is: an attack on the centre (Germany) from the margin and the periphery (here China and the Slavic East). Thinking about this, it would seem that the fact that Poland lay on Germany’s doorstep was both a boon (no need to go traipsing all over the world to build an empire) and a source of anxiety (teeming Slavic hordes may invade over Germany’s border too). I found the discussion here enlightening, both as regards Effi Briest (one of Thomas Mann’s favourite novels, incidentally) and current concerns around migration today. These same worrisome tropes surface now. You have fear of invasion and contagion. An almost ecstatic anxiety of getting swamped by aliens. The loss of identity and culture.
Of great interest also is chapter four, where Kristin Kopp turns to cartography. Here she presents a survey of various German atlases and maps from the interwar years. We can see that land lost to a newly independent Poland is still represented as in some sense German: it is perhaps Volksboden (on my understanding: land where a significant German minority resides) or Kulturboden (land that has been cultivated, shaped and developed, by German hand or culture: a curious notion, this, that land itself can possess a national identity).
Finally, an analysis of Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen follows in chapter five: Lang’s epic sees a Germanic noble swanning about amongst Slavic savages.
There is only one reference to Hitler in the book (where he argues that Danzig – present day Gdansk – is a German city; a claim of Kulturboden, I’d say) but his presence is implicit throughout. Because this is the culture that created him, and not only him but a people prepared to follow his lead. Hitler’s love of Karl May novels, his comment that ‘the Volga will be our Mississippi’, the notion of Lebensraum: it all grew out of this culture. The Nazi policy of Generalplan Ost, with its intention to create German settlements in the East, is simply a logical extension of these ideas.
Incidentally it is curious that there is no mention of Mark Mazower’s Hitler’s Empire in the book, because Germany’s Wild East is consonant with Mazower’s main thesis, which is that Nazi Germany colonised Europe as Europeans had colonised Africa.
The publisher’s description of description of Germany’s Wild East is here.