[Marxism] Fwd: H-Net Review [H-Poland]: Polak-Springer on Materka, 'Dystopia's Provocateurs: Peasants, State, and Informality in the Polish-German Borderlands'

Andrew Stewart hasc.warrior.stew at gmail.com
Thu May 30 21:59:54 MDT 2019

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Begin forwarded message:

> From: H-Net Staff via H-REVIEW <h-review at lists.h-net.org>
> Date: May 30, 2019 at 10:15:26 PM EDT
> To: h-review at lists.h-net.org
> Cc: H-Net Staff <revhelp at mail.h-net.org>
> Subject: H-Net Review [H-Poland]:  Polak-Springer on Materka, 'Dystopia's Provocateurs: Peasants, State, and Informality in the Polish-German Borderlands'
> Reply-To: h-review at lists.h-net.org
> Edyta Materka.  Dystopia's Provocateurs: Peasants, State, and 
> Informality in the Polish-German Borderlands.  Bloomington  Indiana 
> University Press, 2017.  Illustrations, map. 257 pp.  $80.00 (cloth), 
> ISBN 978-0-253-02887-7; $30.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-253-02896-9.
> Reviewed by Peter Polak-Springer (Qatar University)
> Published on H-Poland (May, 2019)
> Commissioned by Anna Muller
> Oral Histories of a "Polonized" Borderland
> With Allied support, after World War II, Poland annexed Germany's 
> eastern regions, including Pomerania, Warmia, Mazuria, Eastern 
> Brandenburg, and Silesia, in return for surrendering its own interwar 
> eastern borderlands to the Ukraine. This westward geographic shift 
> was accompanied by massive forced population exchange. The German 
> inhabitants of Poland's newly annexed territories, which in Poland 
> were officially referred to as the "recovered territories," were 
> almost all expelled and lost their lands, property, and possessions. 
> Migrants from the heartlands of Poland as well as expellees from east 
> of the Curzon Line filled the void in these lands and inherited what 
> the Germans had left behind. The new Soviet-controlled regime 
> dominated what effectively was a colonizing Polish state that 
> captured the annexed borderlands, socially engineered them, and then 
> distributed lands and property as it saw fit. It did all this with 
> the ultimate goal of building a Soviet communist society. 
> Since the fall of communism and the opening of Polish state archives 
> to researchers, historians working with archival documents, as well 
> as with other written sources, have dominated scholarship on the 
> German-Polish borderlands. This left one aspect of this topic largely 
> unexplored: how ordinary people remembered the history of the postwar 
> era. In focusing on this issue, Edyta Materka's book makes a 
> pioneering historiographical contribution, even as her work is 
> largely one in ethnography. As a cultural anthropologist carrying out 
> ethnographic work with (current and former) inhabitants of these 
> borderlands, she introduces not only a new methodology to but also a 
> new way of writing the history of Poland's western territories. One 
> of the unique features of her book vis-à-vis the existing historical 
> literature is that the author includes herself as an agent in her 
> narrative and analysis. For example, Materka writes about her 
> background as a child of Polish immigrants to New Jersey in the 
> United States during the 1990s, who as a graduate student moved to 
> the Pomeranian village of Bursztyn (Bernstein) near the city of 
> Słupsk (Stolp) with her family to carry out her fieldwork. She 
> interviews her relatives and other "pioneers," the first postwar 
> Polish settlers who appropriated and "Polonized" this village and 
> larger province from the Germans after the war. Some of them were 
> communist government agents and others were ordinary farmers. She 
> also interviewed the descendants of Germans who were expelled from 
> the "recovered territories," as they come back to visit their 
> family's former homes. 
> Materka's ethnographic methodology allows her to write a history of 
> an aspect of everyday life in the "recovered territories" and 
> People's Poland that would have been quite difficult to do strictly 
> based on archival sources. (To her credit, however, she does 
> supplement her oral historical work with research in regional Polish 
> archives.) Her focus is on a particular type of informal practice in 
> these areas during the entire postwar communist era, which she refers 
> to by the Polish name, as there is no exact English-language 
> equivalent--_kombinacja_. She describes it as "the improvisational 
> process of reworking economic, political, or cultural norms for 
> personal gain" (p. 2). She demonstrates the term's linguistic origins 
> in the English word "combination," which since the early days of the 
> Industrial Revolution was an association for workers that fought 
> management for better pay and conditions, whereby the term received 
> the attributes of scheming, trickery, and resistance. According to 
> Materka, her book "attempts the impossible: to give the kombinators 
> [or agents of kombinacja] a history" (p. 5).     
> While Materka provides an overview of kombinacja in the literary and 
> official discourses of the era of Poland's partition, as well as the 
> development of a foundation for the practice during the Nazi 
> occupation, the focus of her analysis is its function during the 
> communist era. She examines kombinacja both as a practice and as a 
> discourse, whereby not only was it a scheming way of acquiring scarce 
> resources, but it was also a way of labeling oneself as a good/moral 
> _kombinator_ and putting down the kombinacja of one's competitors and 
> opponents as bad/corrupt. Moreover, Materka devotes extensive space 
> to examining what she calls "kombinacja stories." On the basis of 
> telling oral histories of their kombinacja, or in other words, of how 
> through tricks, swindling, and cleverness, ordinary people managed to 
> acquire more resources than they would have if they abided by state 
> rules, forged group bonds, shaped collective consciousness and 
> identity, and passed onto future generations knowledge of how to 
> survive and even thrive in a dystopian society. Materka argues that 
> kombinacja marked a "distinct way of life" rather than just a 
> practice on the margins of official politics and the formal economy. 
> It had "its own histories, discourses, cultural practices, moral 
> systems, arts, and platforms for political change." Moreover, it 
> constituted a "field that enables invisible people who have no access 
> to formal political process to alter power, capital, and labor in 
> their locality" (p. 9). 
> She presents a nuanced and multifaceted analysis of kombinacja, as 
> neither just a means of resistance on the part of a subaltern people 
> against an oppressive colonial state nor a practice through which 
> opponents of the communist system sought to undermine and overthrow 
> it--even during the particularly tyrannical Stalinist era. Instead, 
> she argues that "bending the rules became everyone's modus operandi" 
> to the point that kombinacja became an inherent part of communist 
> society and government, rather than a threat, opposition, or even 
> contradiction to it (p. 111). For example, Materka demonstrates that 
> during the Stalinist era, "kombinacja became the process whereby 
> villagers worked up to and helped actualize the state's vision of 
> socialist modernity" (p. 162). They justified practices like stealing 
> bricks and selling them on the black market, or using them for 
> private construction projects, on the basis of Soviet ideological 
> values, such as that they, as the "proletariat," were the true owners 
> of the means of production, which they were "taking rather than 
> stealing" (p. 164). Moreover, state agents at the village level used 
> all sorts of wheeling and dealing not only to make dysfunctional 
> Stalinist collective farming work somehow but also to exploit it for 
> personal gain. Interestingly enough, Materka argues that even the 
> "Polish way to socialism" exemplified the practice of kombinacja on 
> the part of Poland's eminent communist leader, Władysław Gomułka, 
> whereby he outwitted the Soviet centralist system by using it to 
> extenuate his own national autonomy (p. 111). 
> Materka notes two major results of all of this. On the one hand, 
> there was massive corruption, at various levels of society and 
> government, as people "manipulated space, resources, and labor to 
> ensure their family's subsistence needs were met" (p. 111). On the 
> other hand, there was collective identity formation based on this 
> informal practice of politics and economy: for example, "collective 
> silence about proletarian kombinacja contributed to this new process 
> of identity formation" (p. 162). As kombinacja became a way of life, 
> it is no wonder that it persisted in Poland after communism's demise. 
> Materka demonstrates that the same people who fought the Soviet state 
> now fought capitalism, which wrought unemployment, poverty, and 
> corruption in such villages as Bursztyn. Moreover, Materka also notes 
> that Polish immigrants took their kombinacja practices with them to 
> America, where they used them to get around the dystopia they 
> encountered there--for example, bureaucratic red tape and 
> difficulties of making ends meet. 
> Most of the findings of Materka's book, in particular, the role of 
> kombinacja during the Stalinist, post-Stalinist, and post-communist 
> periods, were quite common to all of Poland, or at least to the 
> Polish countryside, rather than peculiar to the "recovered 
> territories." However, in the last section of chapter 2, all of 
> chapter 3, and the last chapter on "border memories," Materka 
> examines phenomena that were quite exclusive to these western 
> borderlands. This included the settlement of these formerly German 
> regions with a diverse population, which included, in addition to 
> Poles, Kashubians, and Jewish Holocaust survivors, Ukrainians, 
> Byelorussians, and others. Materka analyzes how the state treated the 
> "recovered territories" as its settler colonial grounds. She argues 
> that while it propagated the so-called Piast myth or notion that 
> "Poles" were merely taking back their medieval lands from the 
> descendants of German colonists, in actuality, the state treated both 
> Germans and the new settlers ("pioneers") in a similar way, for 
> example, by subjecting both groups to forced labor and suppressing 
> cultural autonomy among the non-Polish groups of settlers and Germans 
> alike. Based on her interviews, Materka demonstrates that ordinary 
> pioneers practiced kombinacja, taking advantage of the official 
> "Piast myth" to justify taking German property, exploiting Germans 
> for labor, and erasing the memory of crimes and abuses they and the 
> state waged against them. However, as she also demonstrates, some of 
> the kombinator pioneers saw themselves and Germans as common victims 
> of state oppression, took a distance from the "Piast myth," and 
> refrained from destroying and erasing German heritage. In fact, many 
> settlers and their descendants privately preserved various cultural 
> relics of expelled Germans (referred to as "gothics") for the sake of 
> "ethical stewardship" and "respect for the German Heimat" (p. 108). 
> Certainly, one of the strongest chapters of this book is the one on 
> Stalinism, where Materka demonstrates how collectivization in 
> Bursztyn forced peasants into kombinacja in order to be able, on the 
> one hand, somehow to meet the unrealistic productivity quotas of the 
> state and, on the other, to feed their families. The weakest of the 
> chapters is the last one, titled "Border Memories," in which Materka 
> writes on her journey from Berlin to Silesia with her German friends, 
> who are visiting their former Heimat. Particularly in the first part 
> of this chapter, she emphasizes the anti-Slavic racism of these 
> Germans and notes how they were "laughing at Slavs" to the point that 
> she herself became offended and did some kombinacja of her own to 
> distance herself psychologically from them (p. 201). She refers to 
> their anti-Polish biases as the "Heimat myth," which, in 
> contradiction to the "Piast myth," dictates that the "recovered 
> territories" remain German. While certainly in the rest of the book 
> the author does a great job in analyzing the nuances of the agency of 
> class, gender, minority groups, and individuals, in this chapter she 
> makes some statements that risk coming across as a specimen of 
> ethnic/national categorical thinking. For example, the author's 
> statement that "Germany paid dearly for the Holocaust but never for 
> racism against the Slavs" can be questioned not only on grounds of 
> validity (for example, in light of the postwar expulsions of Germans 
> from Eastern Europe, including to forced labor in the Soviet Union) 
> but also in that it seems to treat "Germany" as a category of 
> analysis (p. 198). Another questionable statement she makes is that 
> "all of these everyday conversations and slanting of memories and 
> contexts [among the Germans Materka travels with] revealed to me 
> [her] the careful, and almost intuitive, crafting of the German 
> historical narrative that positively spins the German settlement of 
> the east and victimizes the postwar expulsion" (p. 200). However, 
> there is certainly no one "_German_ historical narrative" but rather 
> nationalist and post-nationalist discourses on the former "German 
> East"/Poland's "recovered territories." Moreover, the small group of 
> people she interviewed for this chapter can at best represent only a 
> certain position within what is a broad spectrum of thinking among 
> Germans on this issue. Nevertheless, this last chapter of the book 
> also has its more positive aspects, such as Materka's explicit 
> condemnation of the expulsion of Germans; her demonstration that the 
> memory of the borderlands remains divided among Germans, Poles, 
> Kashubians, and other ethnic groups; and her assertion that the 
> "Piast myth" and "German Heimat myth" are both flawed, 
> backward-looking, and utopianist historical narratives. 
> To her credit as an anthropologist, Materka engages with some of the 
> most important English- and Polish-language historical works on the 
> "recovered territories." However, some of the most recent and 
> important English-language historical scholarship on this topic was 
> not consulted, perhaps partly due to schedule conflicts with the 
> book's production--for example, she does not consult T. David Curp's 
> _A Clean Sweep? The Politics of Ethnic Cleansing in Western Poland 
> _(2012),_ _Hugo Service's _Germans to Poles: Communism, Nationalism, 
> and Ethnic Cleansing after the Second World War_ (2013), or my 
> _Recovered Territory: A German-Polish Conflict over Land and Culture, 
> 1919-1989_ (2015). Materka's analysis of German-Polish borderlands 
> could also have used some engagement with the German-language 
> scholarship, which, since the nineties, has been pivotal in shaping 
> the historiography of these regions, for example, the work of Peter 
> Loew, Andreas Hofmann, Philipp Ther, and Jan Musekamp (she does, 
> however, engage with that of Gregor Thum). 
> However, none of the imperfections noted above weakens the book's 
> argument or diminishes the importance of its scholarly contribution. 
> Materka has produced an eloquently written, exciting, and 
> meticulously analyzed ethnographic history that marks an alternative 
> to the vast majority of strictly archival-based historical literature 
> on the German-Polish borderlands. Within the field of Polish history, 
> this book is also an important contribution as the first extensive 
> work on the critical role of informality in the politics, society, 
> and economy of People's Poland. In historicizing kombinacja, 
> Materka's work is the first to conceptualize and analyze what is 
> indeed a pivotal aspect of Polish culture and identity: in fact, one 
> can hardly truly understand Poles and Poland without a grasp of this 
> concept. The work will be of particular interest to those with a 
> background in Polish history and Polish-German borderlands, but it is 
> also an important read for anyone interested in the history of 
> communism, the Soviet Empire, and the post-Soviet transformation 
> period. 
> Citation: Peter Polak-Springer. Review of Materka, Edyta, _Dystopia's 
> Provocateurs: Peasants, State, and Informality in the Polish-German 
> Borderlands_. H-Poland, H-Net Reviews. May, 2019.
> URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=53403
> This work is licensed under a Creative Commons 
> Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States 
> License.

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