Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Poland's Absent World War I Memorials: Introduction
By Rodney Earl Walton

Absent Polish Memorials: Overview

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Soldiers of the Eastern Front: Polish, Russian, Austrian
Shouldn't Their Sacrifices Be Remembered?

During World War I much of the critical Eastern Front fighting took place in what is now Poland. With the centennial commemoration of the Great War nearly upon us, some Roads to the Great War readers may be wondering why it is so difficult to find a tour of the conflict's Eastern Front battlefields. After all, the Eastern Front produced some of the most dramatic consequences of the war.

Visiting the war's Eastern Front, however, is no easy task. Whereas the visitor to the Western Front has available excellent English-language guide books, no such guide books are available for the Eastern Front. Attempting to follow the movement of the armies with World War I-era maps is difficult because the roads have changed and, in many areas such as East Prussia, the names of the towns have been changed from German words to Polish words. Other problems include the lack of historical battlefield preservation, the absence of qualified guides, the vast distances, and the multiple languages required. Consequently, tours of the Eastern Front are virtually impossible to find.

Modern Poland, where many of the most significant battles of the war occurred is a case in point. One of the most striking differences in Poland is the lack of readily observable soldiers' cemeteries, particularly in the Carpathian sector (southeastern Poland). As military historian John Keegan has noted, those familiar with the Western Front have come to see graveyards as the "chief heritage" of the First World War. The massive British Commonwealth cemetery at Tyne Cot (Passchendaele, Belgium) serves as an example of a Great War burial site that remains frequently visited to this day. The Eastern Front, however, was quite different. Keegan noted that "few Russian...soldiers were ever decently interred and many German and Austrian soldiers killed on the shifting battlefields of the Eastern Front simply returned to earth."

Poland ignores battlefields seen as significant by the rest of the western world. Poles celebrate battlefields largely ignored by the rest of the world, but they have no major memorials to the stupendous battles of the Great War fought on their soil. Why is this?

Poland's de-Germanization policy following World War II impacted battlefield commemoration. Most of the battlefields discussed in this series lie within the regions pried loose from a defeated Germany by the Soviet Union and presented to Poland. Beginning in 1945, Polish authorities in these "Recovered Territories" began a policy of "de-Germanization" (which they referred to in public documents as "re-Polonization"). As University of Pittsburgh history professor Gregor Thum has pointed out, the goal of this de-Germanization was to cleanse western Poland "of all traces of their German past." All visible evidence of a German presence was ordered "removed from public places, streets and squares, public buildings, and even residential buildings." German historic monuments were eliminated. The new territories were cleansed "of all cultural traces of their German past."

"In the Fireline," Russian Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia
(Photo by REW)

I believe that this policy has outlived its usefulness and is no longer appropriate for a modern economically integrated Europe. Poland, in any case, is probably the most accessible of the major Eastern Front countries for foreigners. In Poland (unlike, say, Ukraine) the Latin alphabet is used and a visitor can rent a car to drive himself. In the ensuing series, I am going to point out some of the most notable deficiencies of historical recognition in Poland and suggest some sites for commemoration. Tomorrow, we will look at Tannenberg.

The material presented in this series is from my article, "Collective Memory in Contemporary Poland and Pre-Independence (1918) Warfare: An Early 21st Century Foreign Traveler's Observations Concerning Polish Battlefield Memorials," Review of European Studies 5, no.2 (June 2013). It is easily accessible online, free of charge, at:



  1. I am Excellent article.
    As expected, it's pretty much "All Forgotten on the Eastern Front" in 2014. Poland, my father's land, must take its share of the blame. As custodians of the WW1 Eastern Front territory, Poland has done nothing to honor the non-Polish dead or provide any information for tourists. Last year a friend and I submitted a proposal to have a monument built for the fallen of all armies and communities in the Eastern Front. It got to Donald Tusk's minister for monuments, who rejected it. Someone needs to ask: in the EEC in 2014, why is a death in the Eastern Front worth so much less attention than one in the Western? There are some good reasons, and many bad ones. One hundred years on, all those dead deserve better.

    1. I am a generation further removed from you in that my grandfather immigrated to the US in the early 20th century to avoid conscription into the Russian army. From my point of view, the de-Polonization policies of Germany, Russia, and the Habsburgs were very severe. The partitions of Poland had such a traumatic effect on the Polish people that they are reluctant to acknowledge the history of other people on their lands. Indeed, before the partitions, the abuses of Sweden were patent. In addition, the true Poles were abandoned by their WW2 allies to the Soviets. Can you imagine memorializing a war where you were forced to fight Pole against Pole?