Frederic’s River

Uwe Rada, Oder. Biography of a river, College of Eastern Europe, Wrocław-Wojnowice, 2015.

Wodra, Oder, Odder, or Viadrus for Latin scholars (the last name was not particularly successful, it only gave name to a 16th century college, resurrected in 1991 on the wave of Euroenthusiasm), in the past centuries the river did not arouse great passions, did not inspire an epic poem or a symphony. “The Oder is a noble peasant woman. Calm, pacing / its land with an assured step. Limestone and coal dust / sometimes settles on her dress,” wrote Paul Keller in his collection called Fables about German rivers, published in 1912, in the age of nationalism’s puberty. But even if the Oder did become, like the Rhine, a cradle of fairy tales, epic disasters, and romantic yarns, would it be easier to write a “biography of a river?”

The term “biography” is highly poetic in this context, probably used here due to the fact that the more logical “hydrography” has been reserved for an exact science. Obviously, it is not a history of an inland glacial trough, its course remaining more or less stable for 10,000 years (“the flood of the century,” which visited Lower Silesia a dozen years ago, was the only significant event in the last century: not much for a river), but of the role played by the Oder (or any other river; our reflections are more concerned with a new historiographical trick than with collections of fast-day poems or journeys of bulky barges) in the political history, economy, and culture of the surrounding lands and nations, often divided by its main current.

It is a great idea, to some degree reaching back to the 19th-century “positivist breakthrough” in historiography, its masters proposing that all factors which determined the fate of nations should be given due respect. The influence of rivers was greater when communities inhabiting their banks lived a more settled life—and if there were few alternatives for barges, rafts, and canoes as means of transport. Rivers were the backbones of medieval kingdoms, and Herodotus starts his History with a description of great rivers. However, with the increasing number of horses, carriages, and land routes, the rivers disappeared—so to speak—under the bridges, perhaps retaining their importance only for hunters, millers, strategists drawing lines of defense, and diplomats dreaming about new borders.

Such is the case of 20th-century Central Europe, where rivers are important only in hunting, warfare, and bureaucracy: you can imagine an anthology of recollections from the landowning world before 1914, then a book about the battle of Kock on the Wieprz river, the battle of the Bzura, defenses along the Vistula line, and finally, during the Potsdam negotiations, on demarcating the border on the Oder and Neisse. From the point of view of a historian of Central Europe, rivers after 1945 might as well not exist at all—indeed you could name many works on the second half of the 20th century without a single name of a river appearing.

Uwe Rada, a German journalist and historian, fills the gap as much as he can: in his “monographic review,” as his book Oder. Biography of a river should be called, he devotes separate chapters to the literary image of this watercourse running from the Sudetenland to Szczecin, its role in the medieval struggles between Slavs and the German Empire, in the drainage plans of Frederick the Great, and in the negotiations of the Big Three. Such an approach allows us to understand the significance of this thin, dark-blue line on the maps. The chapter on literature admittedly smacks of a seminar work “The theme X in the works of Y,” and the essay about “The Oder in the era of nationalisms” shows mainly the rhetorical usefulness (by the way, in this case quite poor compared to the Rhine and even to the Vistula) of border rivers in the era of mobilization of the masses. Still, the essays about everyday life on the Oder and its economic importance are brilliant, they show the circumstances when the “dress of a peasant woman” was sprinkled with limestone and coal dust: the turn of the 20th century was a period when the Oder route served as a transport axis for the Wilhelmine Reich.

Usually, the busiest area is the juncture of literature and politics, but the Oder proves to be an exception here: in the days of German biggest nationalist frenzy the mob’s attention was focused mostly on the hateful French, the people loudly demanding “Wacht am Rhein.” After 1945, the Oder became a “river of silence” or perhaps a “river of hypocrisy:” despite the officially decreed friendship between the people’s Poland and the socialist GDR, border guards on both sides of the river opened auto- matic fire first and asked questions later, as late as in the spring of 1946 President Wilhelm Pieck assured his people that the cities on the right bank of the Oder would soon “again be found under German administration,” while in the 1970s the comrades from Warsaw resorted to such actions as building pompous monuments to the victories of Mieszko or published ridiculous albums on the Oder intended for the German reader, the message of which could be summarized as follows: “Ha, we have returned to our cradle, see what we have taken from you!” This situation is brilliantly captured by Marek Prawda, a historian of the region: “The post-war Western thought in Poland and the study of the East in Germany could be defined as two parallel monologues.”

A victim of this mendacity was even the only novel in which the Oder and the “life of the river” are the main protagonists, that is Der Kahn der fröhlichen Leute (The barge of merry men), a picaresque romance by Jochen Klepper, published in 1933. This collection of non-political yarns with a happy ending was quite popular in Nazi Germany, but nine years after its appearance it’s author committed suicide together with his Jewish wife. And when in 1950 it was decided to turn the book into a film, the East German communists, not wanting to poison the relations with brotherly Poland as a wave of nostalgia could have easily strengthened revisionists sentiments, found a truly wise solution—shifting the plot of the film on the Elbe River.

Such entangled situations brilliantly illustrate the almost tectonic tensions along the line Ostrava–Opole–Wrocław–Frankfurt–Szczecin. Writing histories of border rivers proves to be an idea worthy of patenting and Uwe Rada has been enthusiastically exploiting it, for he has also written a book about the Neman (The Neman: A History of a European river, Borussia, 2009) and a work on the Elbe, not translated into Polish yet. If I were not confident that Rada’s publishing plans reach many years into the future, I would myself volunteer to write something similar about two rivers running slightly more to the south, but equally striking and at the same time much more turbulent both in the literal and historical sense. Would the history of the Dniester (and perhaps especially of the quasi-state it has given its name to) not be useful to European readers? Even less known, yet equally stormy, is the story of the Drina, made famous by Ivo Andric, running across the Balkans and until today forming one of the few natural stretches of the border of the unnatural Bosnia. Many Serbs perceived her an “inner-Serb” river, which should unite rather than divide: “One day, one day, God willing, the Drina will no longer divide Serb brothers…” This kolo from the times of Gavrilo Princip can still be heard, arranged for a synthesizer, in many a cafe. And what about the Black Drim, flowing between the lands of Albania and Macedonia? And what about the Drava, were the last tragedy of World War II took place, as far as I know described only by Józef Mackiewicz? And perhaps the smallest of the border rivers, the Sheshupa? What about the swift rivers of Karelia and unhurried streams of Siberia? What about the Amu-Daria? Indeed, humanistic hydrography has a tremendous future.

This remains true notwithstanding the fact that almost half of the biography of the Oder is of a quite different nature than the historical part. As this proportion is also repeated in the literary life of the Nemen and the Elbe, it is perhaps because of the author’s journalistic background or due to some secret clauses of the publishing grant. Rada offers us journalistic reports on the life by the Oder today, clearly organized around one single thesis: On the banks of the Oder within the borders of the European Union, largely thanks to generous subsidies, neighborly trans-border normality is thriving.

This thesis is true, but even the truest theses are harmful to such stories, for they make them painfully predictable. Even the most ardent Euroenthusiast may have trouble with wading through all the uplifting stories about renovating a medieval old town, about busy cross-border traffic, or about Polish and German students delightedly sharing their tales about identity under the caring guidance of facilitators running the courses; and a reader with some skeptical bent finds a striking stylistic resemblance between these enthusiastic phrases from 2015 and those from 60 years before.

Perhaps I am being unfair; perhaps such an antidote is useful after several hundred pages about assaults, sieges, resettlements, poets dying young, and floods ravaging the pastures along the Oder. The Oder and related titles are definitely worth of our attention for two reasons. I already spoke about one of them: the author creatively renews the category of “micro-history.” After books about the history of a town or a family residence (with perhaps the longest tradition), after histories of seas (Ferdinand Braudel with his monumental Mediterranean Sea in the era of Philip II immediately comes to mind here), islands, and pilgrimage routes, after biographies of a single hero wandering the paths of history (a textbook example of this kind of tale is of course The return of Martin Guerre by Natalie Zernon Davis)—after all this, time has come for a reflection on the role of rivers and mountain ranges, or perhaps even sea currents. Has anyone written a history of the Gulf Stream yet?

Biographies of Central European rivers deserve our attention for one more reason: they reveal how much we are still attracted by diversity and variability, how we treat diversity as an inherent value.

I deliberately refrain from using the ideologically loaded term “multiculturalism,” sticking to “diversity.” And I by no means blame the author for this fascination, for I myself often write about small nations and small languages of Central Europe. But I wonder if the nostalgia for multinational Europe—Jagiellonian, Habsburg, but also, as you can see from Uwo Rade’s book, Wilhelmine (sailing arm in arm along the Oder were Prussians, Hamburg merchants, Wasserpolacken, and Jewish lumberjacks)—is not sometimes turning into a peculiar sentimentality, which is a poor servant of reflection. We long for rivers of many languages, as testified by a fragment of an essay by Jerzy Stempowski, a classic for Polish humanists: “In my native valley of the middle Dniester,” recalled the exiled man, writing in Bern under the penname Paweł Hostowiec, “landowners spoke Polish, peasants spoke Ukrainian, officials spoke Russian with an Odessa tinge, merchants spoke Hebrew, carpenters and joiners—as Philippians and Old Believers—spoke Russian with a Novgorod tinge, pig farmers spoke their own dialect. Besides, in the same area there were still villages of minor nobility speaking Polish, villages of minor nobility speaking Ukrainian, Moldovan villages speaking Romanian […]. On top of it, all these shades of nationality and language were in a partly liquid state. Sons of Poles often became Ukrainians, sons of Germans and French often became Poles.”

All this is true—but the Transnistrian world at the turn of the twentieth century, described by Stempowski, was like a rapidly uncoiling spring or a firecracker with its fuse almost burnt out. Nationalisms exploded and politically motivated championing of folklore was often practiced on the ashes. An unequalled master of this game was the Soviet Union, “the home of one hundred nations,” although the lesser and slightly more benign despotisms, from Yugoslavia to Communist Czechoslovakia, were equally eager in showcasing regional folk bands, samples of cheeses, and dialects. But Gleichschaltung ruled behind the scenes and hatred was ripening beneath—hatred which, for example along the said Drina, ultimately came to the fore. Such experiences arouse skepticism towards thoughtless praises of the “multi-culti,” even ones as innocent as the poster promoting the Erasmus program, where a swarthy Spaniard is fraternizing with a strawberry blonde from Scandinavia and a black-eyed Greek girl is casting an eager look on a Belgian boy reading a book. What formula would most effectively support— without sheepish enthusiasm and subsidies—the multiplicity of languages on the banks of European rivers? I propose it as food for thought in the coming summer, when canoeing with the flow of the Krutynia (East Prussia!), the Sheshupa, or the Sava. Or perhaps even the Oder.

Wojciech Stanislawski

Wojciech Stanislawski is a historian and a columnist. His main topics of interest include Polish intellectual history in 20th century and nation-building processes in Bosnia, Macedonia, and Kosovo. Until 2017 he was the editor of Plus Minus, the weekend edition of Rzeczpospolita daily. Recently he joined the Polish History Museum. In 2016 he published the translation of Solomon Volkov’s Magical Chorus: A History of Russian Culture from Tolstoy to Solzhenitsyn.

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