Szczecin and Stettin

So eager were the new Polish rulers of Szczecin to eradicate the traces of German Stettin that not even the dead could be left in peace  The very gravestones of the old city were smashed. This according to Jan Musekamp, who has written a fascinating book “Zwischen Stettin und Szczecin” on the transformation from 1945 onwards. Unlike Danzig/Gdansk, Stettin was a wholly German city before the war, an important port for inland Berlin and a frequent destination for Berliners making for the seaside. As the city is mainly on the west side of the Oder envisaged as the frontier river, it wasn’t clear that Stettin would pass to Poland. Only after the Treaty of Potsdam later in 1945 did this become clear and even then, with the Soviet army in control of the port, rumours flourished that it could become some kind of free port like Danzig/Gdansk or that a final peace treaty would see Stettin restored to Germany.

Musekamp describes the complicated process and the actors involved. How the German population fled in the last stages of the war, then partly returned, how two competing local governments, one Polish and one German were set up, how the Soviet  army regarded Stettin as part of defeated Germany and dismantled its industry and dispatched other booty from the port which employed German labour paid with German currency. The Polish local authorities’ objections to Soviet army dismantling only gradually gained weight. But the problems were still huge. Great efforts were made to expel the German population and replace them with Poles. But critical skills were in short supply on the Polish side and some Germans had to be retained for a while to help rebuild the city and ensure that it was provided with power, water and sewage disposal. Poles from former Eastern territory transferred to the Soviet Union were encouraged to come to Szczecin, but only about 15 per cent of the new population originated from there according to Musekamp. And the new arrivals from elsewhere in Poland were a mixed bag often with little in common – people from rural areas in search of work but unused to city life, many young people without families who perhaps lacked the critical skills needed, more dubious people in search of the rich pickings available in the abandoned weakly controlled city and who perhaps did not intend to become long-term residents.

The Polish authorities made the best use they could of Szczecin’s once Slavic history but this was a long way back before the Prussians, before the Swedes, before the Danes, and the arguments for Slavic continuity seem weak and contrived. It was a city without a history or rather with a repressed history. Since the restoration of capitalism this has changed to some extent. There are books of photos of the former German city in the bookshops and some mention of the Prussian past and Prussian artists, other cultural figures and industrialists. But the main historical exhibition on the history of the city was closed while we were there. Although Szczecin is now somewhat more relaxed about its German past, it still felt as if the city only grudgingly admits this period and downgrades its importance.

Another important factor which I haven’t as yet read so much about in the literature is the rising power of the Stalinist bureaucracy as they consolidated their hold on Eastern Europe in the late 40s and early 50s and how this interacted with and sometimes impeded “Polandisation”.

Walking around the city there are few if any signs of the German past although there are now some tourist signs in German. There are still, however, a large number of buildings from German Stettin and an architect would easily see the hand of Prussia.

All in all, a fascinating although terrible history where the German population had to leave their lives and property, bearing what they could carry, often 20 kg, sometimes 50 kg, the family photos and a few items of clothing, often robbed on their way to the frontier, although Stettin’s Germans at least did not have far to travel unlike the sad exiles from Königsberg and places further east. some innocent, many indifferent, and some guilty of the German atrocities in the east, which ensured scant sympathy for their plight.

It’s a strange thought to think of a city in a one’s own country becoming a foreign place, familiar but utterly unfamiliar, losing its history, its memories, its cultural associations, the quirks of its local language to be preserved only by ex-residents associations for a while, who are now largely dead and gone. But the suffering of these people was swamped by all the other horrors of the war.