On bookends and parallels

By Alasdair Wilkins

On FASPE’s first afternoon in Kraków—also my first day in Poland, the seventh new country I had visited in the previous three weeks—half our group gathered outside the Hotel Campanile to begin our tour of the city with FASPE European director Thorsten Wagner. In the preceding free hour, many of us had wandered around the beautiful medieval square, so different from the fractured modernist architecture of Berlin and, indeed, from my own expectations. (I realize now the picture in my head of Kraków had actually been of Warsaw, which one of my fellows characterized as a “concrete jungle.”)

Wagner asked us about our reactions, and I noted that Kraków reminded me of the Belgian city Bruges, the first place I had visited in my weeks-long exploration of continental Europe. The reason became clear later when Wagner explained the origins of Kraków: 12th century Poland was one of two places in Europe where new cities sprang up around the textile trade. The other region? Flanders, the home of Bruges. I had expected my journey from the United States to the United Kingdom and onto the continent—taking in Belgium, the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Germany and now Poland—to be one of traveling from west to east, but instead I had come full circle.

Bruges central square

Central square in Bruges, Belgium. (Alasdair Wilkins/FASPE)

Kraków central square copy

Central square in Kraków, Poland. (Alasdair Wilkins/FASPE)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bruges and Kraków were unexpected yet perfect bookends for my travels, united by common architecture and atmosphere that were, in turn, driven by a parallel history. Their shared genesis as medieval textile cities gave them similar appearances, but it was what happened later that preserved those aesthetics. Bruges and Kraków both enjoyed periods of prosperity and power in the Middle Ages that gave way to protracted declines as the regional centers shifted to other cities like Antwerp and Warsaw. Their status as backwaters meant that they were neglected in later modernization efforts, inadvertently saving their ancient appearances and fueling their contemporary rebirth as tourist hubs for those seeking authentically medieval destinations.

History so often happens by accident, yet the same stories do recur, and in that repetition we might see patterns that shape humanity’s one long story. Bruges and Kraków are far from identical—their histories, cultures and personalities all products of distinct local influences—yet I could intuit enough from my knowledge of Bruges to anticipate parts of Kraków’s story before Wagner shared it. From all my recent travels, I come away with two overriding conclusions that might appear contradictory but, I would argue, are complementary.

Places all have their own unique stories. Yet people are the same all over.

It’s that second point people tend to struggle with when grappling with questions about culpability and complicity in events like the Holocaust. Consider the story told at Amsterdam’s Resistance Museum, which welcomes visitors with a video that explains that some Dutch resisted, but many collaborated or just tried to get by; the exhibition then conveys the chaos and upheaval in the Netherlands that fueled so many different responses. The story is different from the one told at Olso’s Resistance Museum, which emphasizes Norwegians’ fierce fight against the German occupation and spares only a single small panel to acknowledge the existence of collaborators and profiteers.

The two countries faced distinct circumstances: The Nazis had different plans for and encountered different challenges in the urbanized, neighboring Netherlands than they did in rugged, remote Norway. But the exhibitions also reveal modern efforts to wrestle with the countries’ wartime histories, to craft national narratives that allow nations to live with themselves. Negotiating precisely how much credit one’s country can claim and how much blame one’s country must shoulder creates different details in the resulting narratives. But the overarching narrative remains fundamentally the same.

Nor can I look at these narratives entirely as an outsider, much as it might be more comfortable to do so. Since coming to Berlin and Kraków, I have begun reading The Model Occupation: The Channel Islands Under German Rule, 1940-1945 by Madeleine Bunting. The book deals with the only part of the United Kingdom that fell to the Nazis. As someone who carries a strong cultural affinity with the country in which I was born and spent the first three years of my life, I have been fascinated and moved by seeing the familiar stories of occupied Europe play out in a country I consider my own.

In the grand scheme of World War II, the role of the Channel Islands is minuscule, yet there is more than enough tragedy to go around: Some 2,200 people were deported to Nazi Germany for various reasons, 22 of whom died in captivity, including three Jewish women who would die in Auschwitz. And yet why does this suffering, no less important for its small scale, not live on in the collective memory? Indeed, I couldn’t help but note that the United Kingdom is not listed among the affected countries when I visited Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.

I don’t know the reasons behind that small exclusion, and I imply no particular offense or misdoing. It’s just another question for which I now seek an answer, and this FASPE experience has brought me a lot closer to asking the right questions. And perhaps part of the answer, at least to why the British themselves have largely forgotten the wartime story of the Channel Islands, lies in the introduction to The Model Occupation.

Bunting writes: There is another reason why the Channel Islands’ Occupation deserves to be much more than a footnote to the history of World War II. The islanders’ unique experience throws into question Britain’s most basic assumptions about her own role in the war. Fifty years after the war’s end, the echo still reverberates in contemporary politics of Churchill’s oratory that the British alone had fought—like David to Hitler’s Goliath—an evil dictatorship from beginning to end. Only Britain had sought no compromise and had ‘an unblemished record’ in standing up to Nazism. The Channel Islands do not fit this history; islanders compromised, collaborated, and fraternized just as people did throughout occupied Europe. Records documenting this were originally ordered by the British government to be closed for a hundred years, and some were destroyed. It is this history that the British people have been unable to assimilate; it directly challenges their belief that the Second World War proved that they were inherently different from the rest of Europe.

Places all have their own unique stories. Yet people are the same all over.

(5/31/2015)

 

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