Nation and Loyalty in a German-Polish Borderland: Upper Silesia, 1848—1960 by Brendan Karch

For over a decade, historians of Central and Eastern Europe have begun to highlight how the subjects and citizens of states in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries did not always neatly subscribe to the identities projected onto them. State actors—bureaucrats, educators, and politicians—often attempted to impose an official national or imperial identity on everyday people who, in many cases, responded with disinterest or disagreement. Historians of the multi-peopled Habsburg Empire, in particular, have charted the interactions between so-called national activists and imperial subjects to develop the concept of national indifference. This indifference meant that the national project of creating fixed political identities based on principles of common culture and ancestry, was not always accepted nor bought into by everyday people. Just as importantly, indifference also revealed that bi- and multi-lingual peoples could situationally switch between national categories, often with their own benefit in mind. Building off of, but also in some cases diverging from, this literature is Nation and Loyalty in a German-Polish Borderland: Upper Silesia, 1848-1960 by Brendan Karch. Karch, a professor of Central European history at Louisiana State University, examines the history of the largely agrarian western stretch of this borderland region detailing its rule by Prussia, the German Empire through Weimar and into Nazi Germany, and its partial absorption into communist Poland. He argues that “national activists and state bureaucracies failed, despite zealous efforts, to compel Upper Silesians into becoming durably loyal Germans or Poles” (4).

In this important contribution, Karch examines both a lesser-known region (the more industrial eastern part of Upper Silesia has received more scholarly attention) in Central Europe, and also provides valuable new analytical tools for assessing the historical role of nationalism. Despite the limitations of national actors imposing a fixed identity on Upper Silesians throughout this period nationalism in this region neither was defeated nor did it incur terrible consequences. Instead, as Karch argues, there “arose [a] feedback loop, in which national radicalism and national skepticism reinforced each other” (5). Following previous works on this interaction, Karch is interested in detailing the processes whereby national activists ratcheted up calls for greater national affiliation and activism, as well as the ways in which ordinary Upper Silesians often demurred in response. This is where Karch’s work offers two important analytical interventions into understanding how nationalism operated in mixed population regions: a focus on loyalty instead of identity, and going beyond national indifference to look at instrumentalism.  Karch asserts that national identity is too essentialist and stable of a concept, a sentiment that has ironically been accepted by those scholars who have explored the socially constructed and mythical nature of nations. Karch writes, “Loyalties, in contrast, can be more easily described as partial, mediated, or contingent. They can be peeled back to reveal the processes that created them, and they remain open ended and incomplete, or at least always subject to revision” (14).  While nation states did ultimately emerge as the de facto political unit in Central and Eastern Europe in the wake of the Second World War, this did not mean that every citizen of postwar Poland or (West or East) Germany had been innately Polish or German in identity all along, or that their loyalty would remain constant to these states. To assume the opposite would be to accept the essentialism and primordialism of the nation that social construction theorists have been deconstructing for decades. Furthermore, Karch argues, a focus on loyalty adopts “a more democratic model for examining the rise of nations”, one based on the choice of the individual rather than the ascription of a national activist (15).

Second, Karch puts forth the concept of instrumental response to the nation instead of indifference or ambiguity. National indifference, Karch suggests, is too large a concept that does not clearly define the motivations or processes by which an individual chooses (or declines to) an affiliation with a national community. Instead, following Weberian sociology on rational choice, Karch employs categories of “a value-driven stance toward nationalism, typically embraced by activists, and an instrumental stance toward nationalism, embraced by a large cross-section of Upper Silesians” (18). Activists viewed the nation as moral and innate, while many Upper Silesians responded with a rational weighing of risks and rewards mediated by many factors including social class, language, religion, politics, and personality. In both of Karch’s analytical interventions—national loyalty over identity, and instrumentalism over indifference—he emphasizes the fluidity and dynamism of these ongoing processes. Even so, he never loses sight of the growing power and violence of nationalism in Europe in general, and in this German-Polish borderland region in particular.

Nation and Loyalty is meticulously researched, drawing upon extensive archives, newspapers, memoirs, and secondary sources as it charts the rise and radicalization of national politics up to and through the two World Wars. After the growth and popularity of a national Catholic party (the Center) in the German Empire in the late nineteenth century, Polish national activists—newspaper editors in particular, as well as some priests—responded, with limited success, by  achieving greater Polish national loyalty than before the First World War. As Karch argues for both World Wars, the aftermath of the war was actually more traumatic in Upper Silesia than the war itself. This was due to the politically charged and occasionally violent context of the 1921 plebiscite, which ultimately saw portions of eastern Upper Silesia folded into Poland and the western area absorbed by Weimar Germany. The plebiscite was a test for the League of Nations and for the national activists in the region who had previously argued that national identity was inherent, before recognizing that loyalty was a matter of choice—a vote. Upper Silesia continued to be unique and consequential in interwar Europe, thanks largely to the wide protections given to minorities in the region under the 1922 Geneva Accord, including Jews in the German partition until 1937. This protection allowed for greater national instrumentalism among ordinary Upper Silesians and forced tolerance on state actors. The response by both Nazis and Polish nationalists was a more radicalized and racialized sense of national belonging, as well as popular violence. The catastrophe of the Second World War saw the destruction of much of the region’s capital, Oppeln/Opole, and its Jewish inhabitants, but the vast majority of the population of Upper Silesia remained during the period of mass expulsions—even if many of these people had passed as German under the Nazi regime. Polish officials verified many Upper Silesians as Polish citizens, but tens of thousands of them would migrate to West Germany during the Cold War, thus exercising an instrumental response to nationality once again. Karch concludes, “Upper Silesians reveal the very instability of national categories imposed upon them” by activists and states, and the overall “fragility” of the national project (306).

This is a rich and conceptually rigorous study that exposes many of the shortcomings of the thinking of national activists and academics alike who have accepted the flattening, all-encompassing nature of the category of national identity. Karch succeeds in doing so by reminding the reader of the multiple and shifting loyalties of ordinary Upper Silesians amidst the tumult of the last 150 years. Given the nature of available sources, there are times, especially early in the study, when we hear more from the activists and not the everyday folk of Upper Silesia. This limitation, however, is more than made up for in later sections when the ‘voice’ and loyalties of the people of Upper Silesia are measured both through votes (the plebiscite, in particular) and personal accounts. Karch describes the fascinating case of Polish sociologist Stanislaw Ossowski who visited an Upper Silesian village of some 3,000 people in August 1945 and estimated that only ten were ardent Polish nationalists. The rest, Ossowski concluded, used or practiced Polishness in everyday life, but maintained other practical affiliations and identities.  Karch writes, “Being a Pole in an ‘adjectival’ sense, as Ossowski termed it, suggested wearing national loyalties as a light cloak, rather than as a steel-hardened casing permanently enclosing one’s identity” (266). Ossowski’s thesis of practicing Polishness in a small village recently absorbed into postwar communist Poland dovetails perfectly with Karch’s notion of national loyalty and gives us the perspective of ordinary Upper Silesians who had survived the extreme events of the first half of the twentieth century.

Nation and Loyalty illuminates the complex history of Upper Silesia and, in the process, challenges us to reassess fundamental understandings of identity and nation. Karch is cautious about saying how much the dynamics of Upper Silesia would apply in, say, Berlin and Warsaw. However, his richly developed analytical concepts of national loyalty and instrumentalism can clearly be applied to other borderland regions and indeed across the globe. His method and narrative engages convincingly with the fluidity of identity and the continuous nature of choosing sides and allegiances—even with the most radical pressure applied by states and activists. Building off of valuable recent studies on borderlands and the multi-peopled Habsburg Empire, Karch situates his account in a German-Polish region and provides a significant historical and methodological contribution to the field of Central European history.


Brian Gebhart earned his PhD in Modern German history from Stony Brook University. His research looks at the role that early twentieth-century German historians played in supporting imperialism in Eastern Europe.


Nation and Loyalty in a German-Polish Borderland:  Upper Silesia, 1848-1960
By Brendan Karch
Hardcover / 346 pages / 2018
Publisher:  Cambridge University Press
ISBN:  9781108487108


Published on January 16, 2020.


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