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Exodus, Expulsion, Explication: Collective Memories of Silesia as a German-Polish Frontier Zone

Citation: Jefferson, Steven (2016) Exodus, Expulsion, Explication: Collective Memories of Silesia as a German-Polish Frontier Zone. Doctoral thesis, University of London.

Steven Jefferson PhD Thesis Final Feb 2016.pdf

Creative Commons: Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0

This thesis addresses the traumata associated with Poland’s frontier changes in 1945, within a collective memory paradigm. These events include expulsions from German territories incorporated into Poland, and population transfers between Poland and the USSR. The thesis addresses two components: a central trauma complex, and the resulting collective memory discourse. Being a matter of historical record, the statistical details and chronology of these events are seldom contested, although they have often been instrumentalised by various stakeholders. Instead, the relevant collective memory discourse has focused on the production of broad, often exculpatory, narrative frameworks designed to explain a set of largely accepted facts. Accordingly, my thesis is primarily focused on this collective memory discourse. As an active phase, dominated by stakeholders with a high level of emotional investment in the narration and memorialisation of the relevant events, this collective memory discourse is currently undergoing a transition to the domain of History as a scholarly pursuit. This transition is best symbolised by the fact that, as of 2016, for the first time since 1945, all restrictions on the acquisition of agricultural land and forests in Poland’s former German territories, by Germans, will be lifted. Thus, for surviving expellees, the right of return, in conjunction with the potential to purchase any formerly held real estate and landholdings, will become a de jure reality, marking the end of the region’s long postwar period. Arguably, therefore, one can now engage, at a retrospective, analytical level, with the relevant collective memory discourse without being drawn into it. In order to navigate this complex discourse, I have developed a number of analytical and conceptual tools, which I hope may prove useful beyond this project. In this sense, this thesis can be viewed as a proof of concept. Chief among these tools are a novel working definition of collective memory as a discrete phase in the historification and mythologizing of traumatic events, and a three-level model designed for the consistent analysis of narrative texts, artefacts and cultural productions. By tracing the relevant collective memory discourse through a number of 4 disparate fields, including political myth-making, historiography, toponymic practice, cartography and literature, I have been able to test these analytical and conceptual tools to breaking point, often benefiting from the resulting heuristic gain wherever lived complexity defies simplistic analytic idealisation. To ensure a focused exposition of the theoretical framework and the sources analysed, this thesis is primarily centred upon Lower Silesia and the following broad research questions: what geo-socio-political power dynamics resulted in Poland’s postwar frontier changes and the associated traumata, and how were they justified at the time? How have historians reacted over time to Poland’s postwar frontier changes, and the humanitarian consequences, as well as to contemporary framework narratives relating to these events? How has the toponymic re-inscription of Poland’s former German territories influenced the relevant collective memory discourse, and to what extent have cartographic representations of postwar Poland been influenced by changing geo-political configurations? How have the prevailing socio-political conditions in postwar Germany and Poland constrained literary contributions to the relevant collective memory discourse? And, finally, in what ways, has literature contributed in turn, to the relevant collective memory discourse and the establishment of hegemonic historical narratives? This thesis presents a number of specific findings, the most significant of which is that political contingencies can result in a surprising deflection of collective memory discourse into seemingly unrelated fields, and can trigger a ripple effect, which has the ability to globalise collective memory discourse under certain circumstances. Similarly, my analysis of shared topoi in the works of German and Polish historians and literary authors demonstrates that, far from generating its own framework of reference based on specific traumatic events, collective memory discourse is exquisitely sensitive to broader socio-political narratives. In addition, I contend that mainstream historical narratives tend to simplify, for example, through the imposition of a chronology on multidirectional memories, and by focusing on homogenizing accounts of the collective at the expense of 5 individual narratives. In contrast, literature and local cultural performances often resist such simplification, thus preserving complexity. Viewed in this light, the pursuit of Cultural and Literary Studies addresses a clear problem within, and usefully augments, traditional historical scholarship. By carefully analysing a subset of Polish and German literature, historiography and cultural artefacts produced in response to the traumatic events in question, my thesis seeks to trace the transition from highly localised stakeholder-led collective memory discourses to hegemonic historical narratives developed and maintained in the service of broader geo-political agendas.

Creators: Jefferson, Steven and
Subjects: Culture, Language & Literature
Divisions: Institute of Modern Languages Research
Collections: Theses and Dissertations
  • 1 February 2016 (submitted)


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