One of the most rewarding parts of studying in Europe is the fact that you are constantly living alongside the sites of the some of the world’s most memorable historic events. It’s hard to go further than a few steps from my Wrocław apartment building without seeing evidence of the city’s past. Whether one is walking past the numerous museums that dot the city or simply a repurposed structure that gives roots to the now firmly planted modern style of Wrocław, one need not dig far to discover something new and interesting. One of my first experiences beyond the university building itself with such a history was Hala Stulecia (Centennial Hall), which was created when Wrocław, then Breslau, was a German city in 1913. Today, the building hosts events and the surrounding grounds provide recreational space during times of warm weather. Though now considered widely a normative Polish symbol of Wrocław, this UNESCO heritage site had history that at first glance would have been overlooked.
This is but one example that is illustrated through one of the more major areas of the city, but unfortunately, not all sites carry such a positive past. The impact of WWII and the Holocaust are felt throughout Poland and perhaps the most glaring reminder of this sits only a couple hours from my host university. Auschwitz serves as a reminder of what can result when bigoted and racist extremism festers and transforms a once democratic system into an instrument of mass genocide. Today, Auschwitz serves as a museum to educate its visitors about the reality of war and the Holocaust in hopes of preventing such an act from repeating itself. The interesting part of remembrance, however, is that it is never without a political component.What is remembered and the context in which it is reflected upon is subject to change.
For instance, while my memory of Hala Stulecia is a positive experience in a Polish university city, this may not be the same for everyone. Wrocław lies within Lower Silesia and is considered a part of the “recovered territories” that were returned to Poland after WWII and though it is now undoubtedly Polish, it was not long ago that this structure and city were formally German. Competing narratives and memories such as this can be easily transformed into kindling for a political flame that can set alight the popular narrative of a location such as this. Though there is no guarantee that this issue will arise over Hala Stulecia, the example still illustrates the process in which politics can transform a seemingly harmless recreational venue into a political talking point.
Although politicization is not a new concept and will undoubtedly take form in some shape or another in any given nation, it is of particular interest now given the shifting political realities of Central and Eastern Europe. As I have mentioned before, the Law and Justice party that has been overwhelmingly overhauling the political system of Poland and one way that support is rallied is through politicization of memory and locations such as Auschwitz or other other contentious sites. Using this method as a tool has led to support of these sweeping and illiberal changes to Polish democracy. Though this method alone is not necessarily responsible for these changes, it can play a key role in the process. As these changes occur, it becomes an awkward and difficult situation as an exchange student at times.
Mass demonstrations and political debate on a wide range of subjects has become common place in Wrocław and Poland in general. As a student of political science, and a foreign one at that, the dilemma is often how involved, if at all, should one become in these conversations and demonstrations. My experiences in the U.S. certainly shape my outlook on many of the issues being debated in Poland, but as a guest in the country how involved should one be in the political sphere. While, for instance, it may seem hypocritical to be a staunch defender of democracy at home and not march or speak out for its preservation abroad, how can it also be justified to take a stand in a society and system that is not one’s own? The collision of remembrance and politics in the context of an exchange student is undoubtedly unique and the answer to these questions is likely different for each person put into such a position. One thing, however, is clear – No matter which country one may be studying in or where they call home, context is the key to understanding the difficult political issues that will need to be addressed both at home and abroad.