In my current book project, I use local national indifference, borderland regionalism, and Catholic politics in Upper Silesia to question the assumed appeal of ethnically homogeneous nation-states for Central Europeans. Nationalism on the Margins explains the long-term failure of nationalist activists to turn a borderland population into loyal Germans and Poles, from 1848-1960. The setting for this work, Upper Silesia, was inhabited by a heavily Catholic, bilingual population. Starting in the late nineteenth century, these Upper Silesians became caught in the crosshairs of national struggle. German and Polish activists escalated national strife in the region, ultimately using mass violence to advance their utopian goals of ethnic homogeneity. Upper Silesians weathered extreme political instability, subject to the rule of Prussia, the German Empire, the League of Nations, Weimar Germany, the Second Polish Republic, Nazi Germany, and communist Poland.
Yet, throughout this strife, the majority of Upper Silesians proved resistant to activists who tried to nationalize them. Local citizens instead navigated a century of mass politics, world wars, mass murder, and expulsions by intentionally crafting their own national ambiguity. By passing as loyal Germans or as loyal Poles under extremist regimes, many were able to escape the worst excesses of violence. Nationalism on the Margins is thus simultaneously a story of radical nationalism on the territorial margin of two states, and a story of the marginality of national loyalties to the identity of most Upper Silesians.
The main goal of this work is to provide a causal link between these two stories, to show how national radicalism and indifference reinforced each other. Even as Polish nationalism made political inroads around 1900, many who spoke Polish avoided long-term commitment to the movement. Their apathy prompted frustrated activists to adopt increasingly harsher measures and rhetoric after World War I to convince locals of their supposedly innate national identity. With each turn towards more extreme nationalism in the 1920s-1940s, German and Polish identities became less attractive to Upper Silesians, who began hedging their bets against regime change by holding on to their bilingual, Catholic communal ties.
This apathy toward the national cause only further convinced activists of the need for forcible racial separation. By 1933 some Polish nationalists lauded Hitler’s rise as a harbinger of racial division. An ultimately disastrous feedback loop developed in which nationalist activists, frustrated by popular apathy, advocated increasingly illiberal measures to achieve their visions. Nazi and postwar Polish policies repressing language use in Upper Silesia proved remarkably analogous in their aims and methods. These measures from both regimes only further distanced locals from national loyalties, prompting greater frustration and radicalism from activists. National indifference was thus not only an effect of radical nationalism, but also, simultaneously, a cause.
As a local study of one city and its surrounding county, Nationalism on the Margins paints an intimate portrait of activists’ efforts to divide a real, bilingual community into two “imagined” national ones. Contrary to academic wisdom, it shows that in the blood-soaked German-Polish border, the local targets of national radicalism were often unlikely to join either side. The book draws its sources mainly from a single mid-sized city (Oppeln in German, Opole in Polish) and its surrounding county, offering a comprehensive view of the local social fabric. Archival records and newspapers from Oppeln/Opole form the basis of evidence.
This intimate scale shows how pre-existing communal ties had to be dismantled and remade in order to create national loyalties. Alternative options for group loyalty, such as Catholicism, trade unions, regional movements, and socialism, are all addressed. Since national apathy rarely leaves a historical record, much of the source material comes from nationalist activists. Their successes and failures are revealed in local newspapers, youth and leisure groups, neighborhood parades, priestly sermons, election patterns, village politics, and communal violence.
My work joins a growing literature which dismantles the assumption that nation-states in modern Central Europe were founded upon democratic self-determination. Bilingual residents, when put in a position to choose either the German or Polish nation, avoided choosing either. This resistance suggests that nation-states in Central European borderlands developed in large part not through mass support, but rather through an illiberal reaction to national indifference.
While much of the existing literature draws on Habsburg lands, my work tells a distinctly German story, for only in Germany did the contrast between progressive democratic politics and illiberal nationalist violence reach such extremes. While unique in its historical trajectory, Upper Silesia provides fruitful grounds for comparison to other European regions on issues such as religious resistance to national integration, the role of plebiscites in national self-determination, or variations in Nazi persecution.
This last topic – regional variation in Nazi repression – forms the basis for an article published in Central European History in March 2013. Upper Silesia became a zone of special protections for Jews in Nazi Upper Silesia during the early years of the regime. All Nazi anti-Semitic laws were declared null and void from 1934-1937, and Jews held onto their government positions and basic civil rights. Jews and “Aryans” were even allowed to marry in Upper Silesia after the 1935 Nuremberg Laws. The protections had their origins in the 1922 Geneva Accords, a bilateral Polish-German treaty signed under League of Nations guarantee. The treaty extended Poland’s protections for ethnic, linguistic, and religious minorities to German Upper Silesia until 1937.
Even after Germany had withdrawn from the League in 1933 and Poland abrogated its League minority protections in 1934, Jews continued to receive special protections in Nazi Upper Silesia. As I argue, Nazi motivations can be traced to the German minority in the near abroad. At a time when Hitler favored good relations with Poland, German mistreatment of its Jewish (or Polish) minority in Upper Silesia would have given a pretext for Poland to persecute the German minority across the partition border, presaging a decline in bilateral relations. Thus, Nazi officials in Upper Silesia protected Jews at home in order to protect Germans abroad. As I conclude, this case suggests that the broader functioning and norms of interwar Europe’s minority protections outlasted, under special conditions, the decline of League of Nations authority in the early 1930s. A PDF version of the article is available for download.
Nationalism on the Margins: Silesians between Germany and Poland, 1848-1945
My dissertation examines the inability of modern nationalist movements to divide Upper Silesians into stable and discrete groups of Germans and Poles. Through a century of ethnic nationalism, warfare, and political violence in this German-Polish borderland, committed nationalist activists struggled to convince ethnically ambiguous, largely bilingual, and nationally apathetic local citizens to forge enduring national loyalties. Upper Silesians’ tolerance for local ethno-linguistic diversity prompted frustrated activists to adopt increasingly illiberal and violent measures to achieve utopian visions of homogeneous nation-states. At the same time, by intentionally crafting their own national ambiguity, many Upper Silesians avoided the violence and ethnic cleansing of the 1940s, remaining in their homes even as millions of German citizens were expelled from lands ceded to Poland after World War II.
Focusing on one city, Oppeln/Opole, and its surrounding county, this study investigates the texture of national relations at the basic level of communities. Nationalism emerged as but one option for local citizens to define their political and social loyalties, and competed against alternative regional, confessional, and class-based movements. Before 1890, repressive Prussian measures against the majority Catholic population unified the region in religious dissent by appealing to multi-ethnic unity, not difference. Polish efforts to unwind this Catholic solidarity after 1890 succeeded in nationalizing elections, but failed to divide local societies along national lines.
World War I and the subsequent plebiscite radicalized many activists while simultaneously convincing the nationally indifferent of the dangers of singular national loyalty. After the partition of Upper Silesia, a widening gap developed between interwar activists in German Upper Silesia and locals seeking socio-economic integration while avoiding national declarations. Nationalist anger at continued indifference to their projects resulted in increasingly racialist and illiberal policies, first by the Nazi regime and then the postwar Polish government, to stamp out widespread bilingualism and ethnic ambiguity. These policies were unable to enact the long-term national division of local communities. Upper Silesians endured through violent, radical nationalism by intentionally crafting their ethnic mutability and remaining indifferent to Polish and German nationalization efforts.
The full dissertation is available as a PDF download (2.6 MB).