Cities for Thought

Szczecin: city with seaview potential*

* The original Polish title of this article, “Szczecin z widokiem na może”, contains a pun: the word “może” (maybe) is a homophone with the word “morze” (sea) [transl. note].

It is not the case at all that Szczecin is a puzzle to Poland simply because Poland has not studied its own history and geography sufficiently and does not like puzzles. The problem is more profound. For years Szczecin was a puzzle to itself. Even today it is still not sure of itself. Of its raison d’être. Of its place on the country’s map, in the country’s history, and in its plans.

I once read somewhere that Stefan Kisielewski, on being invited to Szczecin for an author evening, remarked: “I am not in the habit of going to Germany.” A choice anecdote, perhaps, but a rather crass one ¬liner in terms of its connotations with reality.

For one thing, it reinforces the stigma of alienness (in the common consciousness, what is German is alien) and distance that removes and separates what is in any case the westernmost of all Poland’s cities from the rest of the country. There is in it also the rather overt antipathy reserved for hybrids and weirdities of undefined form and suspect character. An unwillingness to learn more about them – and then… Szczecin? Just where exactly is it, anyway? And what is it? But then again, who really cares?

Panoramic view of Szczecin
© Jerzy Undro

Allow me to indulge myself at this point in a brief personal excursion connected with my invitation to contribute to Herito. I was asked to write a sketch about “the phantom city” of Szczecin. I know, of course, that the intention behind that invitation was precisely to “de phantomise” Szczecin, but please forgive me my pedantry over the words. I am being pedantic in an attempt to define the reason for this elusive – and often unrecognised – reserve with regard to Szczecin. Szczecin the enigmatic, unknown, and somehow unclaimed as ours.

For years I have been hearing the same question in Poland’s capital: “How long does it take to get to Warsaw from Szczecin these days?” And I answer, as I have been doing for years (given that little has changed in this regard), that the InterCity makes the trip in five and a half hours. At which my interlocutor raises their eyebrows, ostensibly impressed, but at the same time surprised and disbelieving. As if it were a journey from somewhere like Kamchatka or Magadan. And as if I, with my “five and a half hours”, were trying to convince them, in the manner of Baron Münchhausen, that I flew there by cannonball.

It is astonishing, or perhaps merely symptomatic, that many people I know – including artists and journalists – have never been to Szczecin (and if they have, it was years ago, as children, on a seaside holiday, and usually in transit). And they have no plans to go there, either. Why would they?

This myth of a frontier town, as if it were on the borders of the Interior rather than a gateway to Europe, as if it were a vast distance from Rome and all civilised routes, a borderland city where – unlike in “our Borderlands, the Kresy”, where our hearts remain – there is nothing worthy of our interest or the trouble of getting there. Not only did this myth not die with the demise of the People’s Republic of ¬Poland, but paradoxically in the European Union, which brought an opening up to the world, it took on new life – this phantom, or rather indeterminate, amorphous life, in which the old perceptions and stereo¬types have fused with their contemporary, fading reflections.

Well, then, let us embark on this expedition. No more a personal excursion of my own, but a group expedition to Szczecin. Partly in order to take a look at ourselves, each other. Because on this journey our perspectives are reversed.

And we come to see that it is not the case at all that Szczecin is a puzzle to Poland simply because Poland has not studied its own history and geography sufficiently and does not like puzzles. The problem is more profound. For years Szczecin was a puzzle to itself. Even today it is still not sure of itself. Of its raison d’être. Of its place on the country’s map, in the country’s history, and in its plans.

And this uncertainty mutates into complexes. It entrenches in the city its lack of a sense of value already years old, and destabilises its identity… Destabilises it, for Szczecin – as everybody knows – “is on the coast”. And not Koszalin, for instance (Koszalin? Why Koszalin?), but Szczecin (which is in fact about a hundred kilometres from the sea) is associated throughout the country with sea breezes and beaches. And the association is so strong that fighting it is like tilting at windmills… Some time ago a respected Polish Radio Three journalist was genuinely surprised when, as a guest on her Warsaw programme from the studio in Szczecin, I mocked her description of “Szczecin’s coastal character”, convinced that she was understanding me. She, however, entirely unashamedly, told me that this was the first she had heard that Szczecin was not on the coast.

But people in Szczecin have tired of poking fun at tourists who think they can nip out of their hotel in their flip flops and down to the beach. Jibes of this type no longer have the status of arguments in debates on the city’s identity. The lid on the beach metaphor was snapped shut, so to speak, with a play – a comedy, naturally – about the local identity, called Którędy do morza? [Which way to the sea?] put on a few years ago by the Polish Theatre in Szczecin. It was a bit of a flop.

For jokes should be followed up with reflection. And Szczecin is – allow me an allusion to the idea behind this issue of Herito – probably the least “reflected on”, or the most “unconsidered”, of all Poland’s cities. Of course, in Szczecin itself the question of its identity has been the subject of hundreds of academic papers, articles, conferences and debates; and the word “identity” has in effect become an empty journalisticism. And since it also reeks of emotional kitsch, it is beginning to be avoided in serious debates. But does this mean that Szczecin’s identity is no longer in need of definition? Certainly not. On the contrary, it means that the keywords we were using up to now have rusted, so we need to find new ones, and our exploration of the city and orientation within it needs to be a long term process that is constantly open to new issues.

Ships, riverside market and taverns for long defined the ambience of the city
© Courtesy of website

Things are even worse in terms of Szczecin seen from the perspective of the rest of Poland. Because in this respect reflection should be built on some element of knowledge, but there is precious little knowledge about Szczecin in Poland. And what there is is founded on stereotypes: the port (ergo there must be the nightlife of a port; so the quietness of Szcze¬cin by night always comes as a surprise to visitors), the shipyards (and nowadays the problems with the former shipyards), and the German border (so what if it’s invisible these days? If there’s a neighbour there must be a boundary line). It is telling that the only subjects that filter through to the national consciousness from here, via the media and popular culture, are the marine industry (or lack of it), smuggling (oh so romantically depicted in the cult Polish film Młode wilki [Young wolves]) and the fight against crime in general (it being from the nation’s perspective a kind of Wild West). And those long ago summer memories, of course…
From the perspective of Warsaw – centrally, but also symbolically speaking – Szczecin in political, cultural and historical terms is essentially a non entity. In discussions on the identity of cities and regions it is passed over as an example in favour of Gdańsk, Wrocław, Silesia, and even Suwałki and Lublin… Its artistic life, indeed all of its achievements in the humanities, are seen, from both the centre and other cities themselves no bigger than Szczecin, as enactments of arcane rituals practised by the art loving natives – this in spite of a number of national theatre, art and music festivals, in spite of the prestige of the Contemporary Theatre (Teatr Współczesny), directed for many years by Anna Augustynowicz, in spite of the creation of the Academy of Art and the success of Forma, a publishing house wooed by authors from all over Poland, and in spite of the standing of the University of Szczecin’s gender studies centre. As such, it is of more interest to ethnographers than to art critics or sociologists.

It is characteristic that when the Tall Ships Race came to Szczecin, the mayor had to get up on the yard arm to share his success in organising it with the rest of Poland; otherwise he would not have made it onto “national television” (indeed).
For even Szczecin’s “marine culture” – in the years of the People’s Republic strongly associated with the city and one of the facets of its identity – is no longer so automatically associated with it… And perhaps not without reason. For what was real and valuable in it – art and literature about the sea, and the propagation of culture and art on ships – is now essentially in the past. And so one might have to admit, with a wry smile, that in another paradox Szcze¬cin, a city trying to shake off the sea, has on balance lost more in freeing itself from it than it has gained. At least it used to be able to pass itself off as a city of captains and seadogs (well, and of the loose women of which there are so many in every port the world over); today it can no longer do so, nor wants to, but it is not yet able to define itself without that pretence. Or maybe, who knows, perhaps the Museum of the Sea, promised for years as the city’s calling card, and now finally nearing completion, will restore some of the erstwhile splendour of this “window on the world” (as its foremost promotional slogan used to call it) and the striking, leading role it so longs for.

Recent years have seen attempts to revive the marine myth on other levels, too, not least in architecture. German Stettin was a town on the very banks of the river, and since it is not far to the sea, its quayside, cluttered with sails and fishing boats, barrels of herrings, fish stalls, and taverns, bestowed its flavour, atmosphere, and indeed – if only metaphorically – its smell, on the town.

Monument to Sedina, the campaign for the retrieval of the symbol of Szczecin lost during the war revived the discussion on the restoring of the German heritage of the city
© Roman Czejarek collection,

After the war the first mayor of Polish Szczecin, the Poznań architect Piotr Zaremba, moved the city back from the riverfront. The space left by the ruins of Stettin in the wake of the Allied bombardments was transformed into a boulevard, or more accurately a high speed road and tram link. For decades Szczecin turned its back on the water, which later became an issue in many debates and deliberations. None of them seemed to lead anywhere, but in post transformation Poland the topic returned. The water front was revived, now known as Podzamcze – the Old Town on the river front. And though the townhouses built along it to house cafes, restaurants and bars offend many because they bear but an arbitrary resemblance to their historical forms and their façades are ostentatiously decorative, even artificial, the process of returning to the water – to the river, and in effect to the sea – has undoubtedly begun in Szczecin. Soon even the highway along the riverside is to be transformed into a promenade. But, some sigh, will it not simply all be a façade, like the whole of this “new” Old Town, essentially merely a cover for the city’s emptiness and lack of belief in itself, in its own originality and difference?

These doubts are justified, especially given that Szczecin’s “marine” character lies not so much in the costume in which it wants to play its role as in the economic reality and, quite simply, in the state of the river along which ships sail into Szczecin, specifically because today it is so shallow that many, especially large ones, are simply unable to moor up along the city’s quay. And deepening it is a huge undertaking.
But it was not only the water that the city turned its back on all those years ago; it also rejected its history. The path Szczecin has taken to date in discovering itself is interesting. Polish Szczecin, the successor of German Stettin and heir to its complex vicissitudes since the most distant past. Szczecin the multicultural centre for centuries – with input from the Slavs, Germans, Danes, Swedes and even the French, who ruled it briefly under Napoleon. There is even a Russian thread, for as few outside Szczecin know, Szcze¬cin was the birthplace of Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt Zerbst, better known as Empress Catherine the Great. Szczecin the Pomeranian, truly original in this tradition – and kudos to any Pole who happens to know, off the top of their head, the name of a single one of the dukes that ruled it. And last but not least, post war Szczecin – once again, though differently again, assembled from a kaleidoscope of different cultural, ethnic and political elements.

And then there is pagan Szczecin, won briefly for the Piasts by Bolesław the Wrymouth [in the early 12th century – transl. note], and Szczecin the capital of Western Pomerania, ruled by the Gryfita house, a Slav dynasty but fully assimilated into the German culture, long hedging its bets between the Marches and Poland. This was the Szczecin that lost its independence in the 17th century and with each succeeding century grew increasingly Germanic. In an ironic twist of fate such as are legion in history, in the 20th century, after Poland regained its independence, Stettin became an arch enemy of the newly liberated Polish state – to its economic detriment. Small wonder, then, that in 1932 Hitler carried off an unquestioned victory here. And as this Stettin began to rebuild its economic position under the Third Reich, thanks to the Nazis’ militaristic plans, this animosity towards Poland became the basis of its existence.

It was a city with this history that it was granted Poland to reclaim. This is a fact worth remembering before drawing analogies between Szczecin and Wrocław or Gdańsk. Both of the latter, while unquestionably German for centuries, had a rich tradition of ties with Poland chronologically closer to our times. There was something to draw on. In Szcze¬cin – which remained a political bargaining card whose fate hung for a relatively long time in the balance (which meant that in 1945 there were still tens of thousands of Germans living there, many of whom remained into the mid 1950s) – there was no such tradition.

It is hardly surprising, then, that in this city awarded Poland by the Allies as recompense for the Eastern Borderlands, work began on creating one, in which strong emphasis was placed on the role of the Slavs in its history. This involved the construction in the ideological space of a strange bridge between the 10th/11th and 20th centuries, a bridge draped with a banner reading: “Szczecin ever Polish”. In academic works, literature and newspapers, and on the political forum, the Gryfitas, as avowed Poles, extended their support to the latter day Pioneers resettled here from Greater Poland, Vilnius, Lviv, and the ruins of Warsaw. Even the religion of the Baltic Slavs – the magic horse from the island of Rügen, Swaróg and Swarożyc, Triglav, and the pseudo Svetovid [Slavic deities – transl. note] – served the People’s Poland as an ally in the struggle for the Polishness of Szczecin and the Western Territories.

In spite of its rather kitschy folkish overtones, this pagan Slavic current in culture was very valuable to the new people of Szczecin, who were rebuilding and creating their city essentially from scratch, in times that were uncertain and remained politically unstable for many years. Small wonder, then, that they lived here with a sense of instability, impermanence. The thought that the Germans would want to return and reclaim Szczecin, a fear deliberately sustained by the authorities of the People’s ¬Poland, stifled many initiatives and precluded any angle on history other than that of the war given rights to the city, founded precisely in its ur Slavicness.

But once it became possible in the free Poland – Poland in Europe – to look back to a past untrammelled by ideology, and Szczecin began to reclaim its German past, this process became extremely dynamic. As early as in the mid 1990s Stettin began once again to be spoken of with empathy and even sympathy. The memory of its people and places was restored. An attitude of respect was relearned towards the graves – or rather their remains – in the Central Cemetery, one of Europe’s biggest and most beautiful, and towards the inscriptions being uncovered from beneath the Polish plaster façades…

In time, however, this fascination with the past began to escalate dangerously out of proportion. The young generation of Szczecinians began to see this Stettin as their city – so much so that it began to give the impression of the loss of all sense of reality. The sepia postcard city, the German city with the French style layout of its streets and squares, the city of neo Sezession townhouses, was beginning, slowly but increasingly surely, to erase from memory not only the early Szczecin of bygone centuries (the Gryfita heritage is today low on the list of Szcze¬cin’s local historical interests), but also the multicultural heritage of the intervening centuries and the post war Szczecin built by the parents and grandparents of these same young Szczecinians. Even the Szczecin of most recent history is passing into oblivion. The events of December 1970 and August 1980 in Szczecin (Szczecin’s own August Agreements were actually signed a day earlier than the more famous ones in Gdańsk) never gained a permanent, socially appealing myth of their own. And though the planned Museum of Breakthroughs has been charged with re establishing one, this is evidence more of official remembrance than of a quotidian presence. And while for several years now there has been a tangible trace of this myth in the form of the Angel of Freedom monument on Solidarności [Solidarity] Square – where else? – the Angel itself is an unusually ugly, kitschy monument whose crippled form seems to underscore the lack of a clear, confident awareness of who the people of Szczecin are and what they want to be.

One marked example of this confusion – and hunger for identity – has been the successive battles over Szczecin’s monuments. Successive, because the Angel itself was the subject of battles, fluttering down to Szczecin only after previously accepted projects, both more artistically interesting and bolder in message, failed to gain acceptance.

But before all of that the city was proud and joyful to reclaim its Colleoni, the Renaissance equestrian statue of a condottiero – or rather its copy – from Warsaw, where it had ended up after the war. Appeals were published in the media and donations collected from the public to have it returned to Szczecin. And return it did, not to a museum, but to one of the city’s squares, thus becoming a rather curious material and emotional heritage substitute. For what is a Venetian knight doing in a Polish city with a German past? And not merely a knight, but a condottiero! As if his condottiero identity was a reflection – unintentional, and hence somewhat grotesque – of the way in which ¬Poland reclaimed Szczecin (after all, those lands were referred to as the Reclaimed Territories).

The battle over Sedina, one of the best-known monuments in Stettin, elevated under the Third Reich virtually to the status of the city’s symbol – was launched later, and is still raging, partly because now the battle lines have changed, and with them attitudes to the whole initiative.

Sedina – a woman with a sail, surrounded by a crowd of other allegoric figures – was intended as a symbol of Stettin’s Hanseatic merchant past, but German expansionism was also inherent in her gunmetal form. Some time during the war the monument vanished. It is thought that the Germans melted it down for their war effort, but Indiana Jones types still believe it was taken away and hidden somewhere, though no one knows where. The search must simply go on in the belief that it is not in vain.
A few years ago a realistic proposal was put forward to return a reconstruction of Sedina to her plinth. Once again, the media supported the public enthusiasm, and the merchant community declared their readiness to finance the project. This time, however, things turned out differently than in the Colleoni case. A dispute between the merchants and City Hall (over finances, of course) suddenly turned into a debate on the sense of Sedina’s return. When City Hall pulled out of the plan, the more determined advocates of her restitution lit candles at the spot where she had once stood, but the flames only served to heat up the atmosphere of the debate. The cult surrounding this German monument outraged many people in Szczecin, and for the first time in years overtones of antipathy towards its German tradition and the “fetishisation” of some of its more controversial symptoms became palpable in both the media and the public debate.

And suddenly it transpired that Szczecin was not as unanimous in the way it views its past as it seemed. One might have thought that Szczecin had come to terms with its German yesterday in the works of its historians, in politics, in literature (to allow myself the liberty of recalling my own books and those of other authors, such as the novels of Inga Iwasiów), and above all in the hundreds of popular publications, from coffee table books, through the many monographs on particular districts of the city and factories, to pamphlets devoted to particular spots and individuals. Could it be that this passion in publishing and research for rediscovering the Stettin in Szczecin was nothing more than a show of political correctness?

Yet even in the broader Szczecin consciousness Yesterday is part of Today. Not so long ago a plebiscite held by the Szczecin supplement of the Gazeta Wyborcza daily saw Piotr Zaremba voted the Szczecinian of the millennium, but hard on his heels came the German Oberbürgermeister Herman Haken, to whom the city owes its urban expansion and architectural layout, with its landmark Chrobry Embankments (Wały Chrobrego), once the Hakenterrasse.

So has the past had its day? And was the fashion for Stettin more a fad than a stable, authentic trend? I don’t know. The spirit of politics is once more hovering over the contemporary debate about Szczecin, invoked by the prevailing mood across the country. Not without reason did the dispute over the Gratitude monument in the city centre rear its head with significant force with the discussion on Sedina. To whom this Gratitude? To the liberators, of course. Meaning the Red Army. The monument is heavy and clunky, and years were spent stripping it of all its symbols with negative connotations (first and foremost the star from the top), with the result that it today looks like an obelisk in honour of an unknown civilisation with no sense of taste, and is more an eyesore than an adornment. But many of the city’s residents put the – justified – question of where the Polish Szczecin has its roots, if not in the blood of its conquerors?

We must add at this point that among the silent victims of Szczecin’s memory are its Polish soldiers. One of the bloodiest battles fought by the First Polish Army was the forcing of the Oder at Siekierki, near Szczecin. Yet the vast cemetery there, with its beautiful Mother River monument, is not the focus of particular cult today; in fact, it is passing into oblivion. One might remark bitterly that Szczecin’s patriotic emotions are more moved to honour the Warsaw Uprising than the thousands who died so close to home.

The Oder River embankment © Jerzy Undro

But let us return to the spirit of politics, which has once again turned the city into a battlefield over the present emerging from the past. I nevertheless suspect that it is an ephemeral spirit. Over the years Szczecinians have learned to live here, where they live. Local patriotism is very strong, despite considerable criticism of the local authorities, bitterness, and fairly frequent attacks of the provincial complex. But on the other hand, it’s not far to Germany – for shopping, but also for culture (Berlin – its real capital is just a stone’s throw away), and Germans don’t have far to come to Szczecin either; though alas, mostly just for shopping, and sometimes nostalgic trips. But conflicts about the past, though a good topic for the media, are not really a mass sport these days. The city has come to terms with the trauma of not winning the European Capital of Culture 2016 title – though this itself is proof of how much there is in Szczecin still to be thought through (including the local culture model).
And so life here is a little as if in limbo, in mid step, in mid word. Between a foreign past and an undefined future… Having said that, there is also pride in the rustling sound that is Szczecin, and this enables people to laugh at the official promotional spelling dreamed up for the town’s name – designed to be phonetic, but in fact artificial and confusing. Something like “Stsetsin”. It is bandied about on banners, trams and posters “to make it easier for foreign tourists to pronounce the word ‘Szczecin’,” according to the originators of the idea. Only the actual effect is to confuse the tourists and give the locals a good laugh.

But there is another side to life, too, one that blithely passes over the difficulties in articulation of the city’s peculiarities, in both the real and the symbolic spheres. One that arranges its daily affairs in a way that would have seemed unreal before Poland’s accession to the EU –buying homes across the border, in Germany, for instance. Because life there is peaceful, the house cheaper, and from somewhere like Loeknitz or – o, tempora! – Bismarck it’s actually closer to the centre of Szczecin than from many of the city’s new outskirts. Where now are the fears that “the Germans will buy us out”?

Only when the disputes over what Szczecin is and should be like surface again, provoked by politics or the economy (for Europe is seeing turbulent times), will history – that tedious, much chewed over subject here – undoubtedly claim its own, and demand another redefinition of the meaning of Szczecin, as a value rather than ballast, in all its richness of narratives, universality of questions, and need for answers to them.

Szczecin today seems to be a city with an outlook on maybe. Maybe it will be beautiful and rich (the Floating Garden – Szczecin 2050 project), maybe it will eventually gain a direct rail link with Berlin, maybe in talking about its history we will be able to stop threatening each other with Germans and invoking as support Duke Bogusław X, who meant well (for Poland) in marrying Anna Jagiellonka. It’s funny, but also thought provoking, that he’s also a very popular guy in German history.