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  • Carolyn Kirby

Kaffee or Kawa? National identity in When We Fall

Do you drink kaffee or kawa? It’s a serious question for the characters in my novel, When We Fall, because for them national identity is a matter of life and death. And the answer to a question about ‘nationality’ is not necessarily obvious if you live in the historically shifting borderlands between Germany and Poland and your ancestry is mixed. Is it your political beliefs that make you into a citizen of either state, or taking up arms for that country, or simply a matter of how you ask for a cup of coffee?


Through the fictional story of When We Fall, I wanted to explore the questions of national identity that were thrown into brutal relief during the second world war. Those questions of identity, although less extreme, are still with us today and are perhaps more pressing now than they have been since the end of the second world war as countries around Europe struggle with the conflicting forces of nationalism and globalisation. Over the decade that I spent writing When We Fall, a novel about shifting frontiers, conflicted loyalties and mass movements of peoples, it increasingly seemed like a story for our times.


So, what makes a geographical area of land into a country? Until recent times, this question would have left most British citizens baffled because the answer seemed so obvious. A nation, they would have said, is clearly a product of geographical boundaries, and of a shared language and history that bind traditions into a unified whole. But the British, or perhaps more exactly, the English cannot help but look at the world through an islanders’ perspective. This is despite the fact that the UK has an existing international land border with Ireland and might have to draw another one inside Britain if the movement for Scottish independence is pushed to its conclusion.


In the central land mass of Europe, the luxury of an insular view of nationhood has never been possible. Here, as I found out when writing When We Fall, the population has always comprised a complex, shifting mix of languages, religions and ethnicities. No other part of the world has witnessed such frequent and violent changes to borders in order to make people fit into states. In the first half of the 20th century this was especially true of Poland which Churchill called ‘a country on wheels.’ Indeed, during the 19th century, Poland was not a country at all having been partitioned between the three great empires of central Europe; German, Russian and Austro-Hungarian. With the demise of those empires after the first world war, Poland became an independent state in 1919, but its frontiers, as land borders often are, were in some places arbitrary and controversial. In the east, Poland included swathes of land with a mainly Ukrainian speaking population; in the west the German speakers, who had been in charge of government for generations, were suddenly subject to the Polish majority.


When Hitler’s troops invaded Poland on 1st September 1939, they marched into territory that must have seemed very familiar. The grand and ancient city of Poznan had once been a prized part of the Kingdom of Prussia; it was the home town of the German war hero and Chancellor, Paul von Hindenburg; Kaiser Wilhelm II himself had opened Poznan airport (one of Europe’s first) in 1913. And so, the occupying Nazi authorities immediately set about eradicating any memory of the last twenty years of Polish independence in order to return the city to a German empire, in this case, the Third Reich. In contrast, the Polish heartlands around Warsaw and Krakow, were run as the ‘General Government,’ a slave state which existed purely for the benefit of the Reich where the population was exploited for labour and resources under a brutal military regime.


But in Poznan, the overarching Nazi plan was to ‘Germanise.’ The small but vibrant Jewish community was almost instantly uprooted and transported, initially to the ghetto at Lodz. Then, during the rest of the occupation, local Poles were also gradually expelled to the General Government. This made way for the immigration of German-speaking ‘Volk’ from the fringes of historic German rule over areas of the Baltic and the Balkans. Thousands of these ‘settlers’ with some sort of German heritage were brought hundreds of miles from the east to live in and around Poznan in properties from which Poles and Jews had been forcibly evicted. The reality was that many of the newcomers hardly even spoke German, but the myth of German ‘blood’ suited the Nazi project of continent-wide ethnic cleansing.


In Poznan, or Posen as the city was once again known, the Nazis sought to resurrect the region’s imagined German identity. The authorities set out to modernize their regained territory and make it more like the rest of Germany. New roads and modernist office blocks were built; trees and lakes were added to the landscape, street signs had Gothic lettering. The occupiers tried to expunge Polish language and traditions; Polish was banned from schools, candles were banned from cemeteries and Poles were legally obliged to step off the pavement and remove their hats if a German approached. A massive re-naming project aimed to devise a German name for every place and street in the province, a project in which my fictional SS officer, Heinrich Beck, takes a leading role. Sometimes these names were revived from maps of the Kaiser’s time. But many of the old German names were rejected as ‘too Jewish’ and the whole project was mired in difficulty because the only maps of the area that could be used by the Wehrmacht were in Polish. And the Reich’s Postmaster as well as the army objected stiffly to the confusion caused by re-naming.


This Germanisation project was not new, however. Many measures, such as the power to appropriate Polish-owned land for Germans, were a revival of Prussian policies before the first world war. But the Nazi obsession with ‘racial hygiene’ took the concept to a new level. In Poznan with its long history of Polish, German and Jewish co-existence, the mingling of the ethnic groups was deep-rooted. But the occupying Nazis made anyone in the city with German ancestors or allegiances decide formally whether to become a citizen of the Reich by registering with the Deutsche Volksliste or DVL. The DVL had four ascending levels of Germanness with corresponding privileges. In my story, Ewa, a native of Poznan with mixed Polish and German heritage, is conflicted about the choice. But by renouncing their Polish nationality and becoming Germans, Ewa and her father gain the protection of the law and are allowed to continue living and working in their guesthouse. If they had remained as Poles, they could at any time have been evicted and sent to the General Government for forced labour. Ewa tolerates her DVL status only because it provides her with the cover to work for the Polish resistance movement, the Armia Krajowa or AK. As a woman, she does not have to worry about the downside of joining the DVL which for young men was an obligation to join up for military service in Hitler’s Wehrmacht and an almost inevitable posting to the hell of the eastern front.


In order to find out more about the planned evictions of Poles, Ewa becomes a ‘settlement adviser’ one of the workforce of enthusiastic Nazi women who were recruited to help the new citizens of the Reich moving into Poznan from the east. Ewa is instructed by the German Ethnic Liaison Office to impose cleanliness and order on homes that were expropriated from Poles to be given to the settlers. Advisers were told to create a ‘Germanic’ style by replacing anything in the properties that might be seen as ‘kitsch’ such as artificial flowers or religious iconography, with plainer, more ‘masculine’ items like pinecones, and portraits of the Führer.


At the end of the war, the seismic shifts that re-shaped Cold War Europe, pushed the borders of Poland dramatically westward. A vast tract of land west of Poznan, much of which had never been Polish in any way, was suddenly declared to be part of the new Poland. So now, it was the Germans who became the victims of ethnic cleansing. Between 1944 and 1950, in the biggest mass migration that Europe has ever seen, around 12 million people fled west because they were in some way German. Many of their journeys took place in horrific conditions and at least half a million people died on the way.

And so, post-war Poland became something that it had never been before, an almost monocultural state. Before 1939, the country was distinguished by its large German, Jewish and Ukrainian minorities. Afterwards, diversity was sacrificed to an ideological consensus, shared both by Western Allies and the USSR, that nations should be defined by cultural and linguistic homogeneity.


Today, Poland seems, like other European states, to have frontiers that are logical and immutable. But living through the spring of 2020 has shown us how easy it is for countries to undergo profound change almost in the blink of an eye. And nations, even ancient ones like Britain that seem entirely stable may soon turn out not to be. In today’s world, as in 1939, who can predict with any certainty which national borders will remain unchanged in the decades to come?


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