Never thought there could still be a vivid existing context where you can “feel “ the presence of the spirits of the world wars as if they were still inhabiting our world, and see everything they brought along in a social context where heterogeneity has given rise to homogeneity , where conservatism is a pillar and culture is a constitution.
Gdansk, which was once an autonomous self-governed territory before the events of the Second World War, is Poland’s principal seaport and one of its biggest tourist destinations. Spending only one week there was adequate enough to alter the perspectives I have upheld towards the history of Central and Eastern Europe. A simple walk in its humble streets is enough to show you the path this city has been through. Interestingly enough, you can read the history through its streets; you would find medieval buildings on your right, bricked constructions from the communist era on your left, and less than 10 meters further you would find yourself walking over a 17th century port bridge yet still surrounded with contemporary modern facilities and water fountains.
Forthrightly speaking, I find it a bit absurd that In most of the talks and discourses we carry about the history of the world wars, all too often that attention is directed towards current global powers and economic giants, instead of bringing up names of geographical spaces that are still affected by what has happened in the past; as Poland in general and Gdansk in particular.
In the early days of October, I, along with 15 of my classmates were fortunate enough to complete our course of comparative business history with our professor Daniela Felizini, in one of the most essential historical institutions of Gdansk , known as the solidarity museum. This museum was far beyond ordinary, in fact the historical value of it lies within the role that Gdansk has been entitled with, in the folded pages of history, as a protagonist of the polish trade union, the civil resistance movement and other opposition movements of communist Eastern Europe. The construction of this museum was strictly related to the notion of “militarization of Europe “in the era of the Second World War, as it served as a former WW2 shipyard. Behind its name, however, lies a momentous plot twist in the story of the communist past. “Solidarity “ stands for the solidarity movement; which sparked on the 14th of August 1980, and was de facto a harsh slap in the face of the communist rule, with almost every second member of society joining and every small and large scaled factory in the country closing its doors and striking. Unlike what’s falsely perceived, the strike wasn’t only fueled by the sick economic state of the workers (low incomes, lack of goods supply…), but mainly by a question of “democracy”. Unbelievably, in two weeks’ time, the strike diffused into every neighbourhood of Poland; which has, for the first time, forcefully brought the communist political party, to sit on a table of negotiations, and eventually give consent to priority demands of the workers in the country as the construction of trade unions and the acknowledgment of the right of the labor force to strike.
The solidarity museum wasn’t our only destination as we have carried out several other visits as we went to the Second World War museum, the immigration museum, and the Stutthof concentration camp.
Woefully, after having done these visits, I have become aware of the fact that most of my understanding of the history that has shaped this part of the world has always been shaped by narrow perspectives, and was somehow limited to ink on paper and almost nothing more. Undoubtedly, all these visits have added to my acknowledgement of the past, but the visit to Stutthof concentration camp, a place so raw yet so real, was immensely awakening; the silence was so loud you could hear nothing else. I felt like I have been awfully distant from “comprehending” the catastrophic tragedy of the Holocaust. Stutthof was in fact the first Nazi concentration camp set up outside the German borders in World War II, in operation from 2nd of September 1939. It was also the last camp liberated by the allies on 9th of May 1945.
Story told short, visiting Gdansk doesn’t really teach you history, but instead it invites you to live in its course, and eventually brings you one step closer to truly grasping its meaning and its relevance in framing our current world. It’s true what they say that winners write history, but as long as we don’t look beyond the lines they write, we will always be in danger of losing out on so many chapters that are pivotal in constituting the story of our world!