Kashubian Poles: Struggling with the “fifth column” label8 min read

This article is the third in a series of articles written by the graduates of 2018’s Solidarity Academy and re-published in collaboration with Lossi 36. Solidarity Academy is an international project aimed at inspiring and supporting the development of the young intellectuals across Europe. 2018’s Solidarity Academy focused on the borderlands of Central and Eastern Europe, taking on questions of memory, identity and remembrance. 

Under the gloomy November skies of Gdańsk, a black-and-yellow flag flutters in the wind blowing from the Shipyard, a subtle residue of long-lost times. A coat of arms with a gryf (griffin) symbol placed in the middle brings to mind the medieval castles dotting northern Poland.

None of the dozen people on the street I talked to could explain the origin of this flag. While it might have been just for the randomness of the sample, the story of Kashubia seems obfuscated and subsumed within the overall history of Poles. I learnt only later that the black colour on the Kashubian flag represents the hard work needed to farm the infertile soil at the coast of the Baltic Sea, while the gold colour symbolises the reward for such hard work. The gryf, a symbol of Pomerania – the broader region of Poland and Germany in which Kashubia is located – aptly resembles the murkiness of borders between identities, histories, and ultimately life stories.

Inside the Kashubian identity

Kashubia is predominately delineated through the widespread use of the Kashubian language. It belongs to the west Slavic family, with more than 100,000 people using it in Poland nowadays. Although its capital is Gdańsk, the historical heart of Kashubia is to be found in Kartuzy, a small town in Eastern Pomerania. With discernible history of their own, the Kashubians are now to a great extent assimilated into the Polish culture.

What historically differentiates Kashubia from the rest of the region is its resistance to the forced Germanisation which manifested itself in preserving the Catholic religion and the local language. According to Tomasz Słomczyński, editor of Magazyn Kaszuby, in the 1920s almost 90 per cent of people in the region spoke Kashubian, while the second most popular language was German.

“Once the Polish troops entered Pomerania, hence Kashubian lands, the developments in the aftermath led to a culture conflict between the Kashubians and Polish people in the interwar period, as the Kashubians felt culturally superior,” Słomczyński said. Back in the day, Kashubians saw Polish soldiers as ignorant, poor, and out-of-place outsiders unfamiliar with the Kashubian customs and tradition. They also saw themselves as being incorporated without the due recognition of their cultural and ethnic specificities into the Polish lands.

Kashubian identity struggles and “fifth column” accusations

The frailty of historical relations is epitomised in the Day of the Kashubian Flag, commemorating August 18th 1929, when the Kashubian flag was officially taken down and forbidden in public places by the Polish authorities. This act of repression, initially meant to solidify the unity of the land under Jozef Pilsudski, a legendary military commander and the first chief of the Polish independent state, was seen as an attempt to assimilate the Kashubians.

It is hard not to observe the feeling of mutual distrust, particularly strong during the communist era. Many Kashubian intellectuals were forced to work in other Polish regions as part of continuous attempts to disperse and decentralise potential dissent. This displacement was initiated by the Soviet troops in 1945 but continued during the era of communist Poland. “Kashubians were perceived as a fifth column, a foreign element which might betray and switch sides in case of German invasion,” Słomczyński said. The suspicions stemmed from the fact that during the Second World War many ethnic Kashubians were forcibly incorporated in the Nazi Wehrmacht as Volksdeutschers – native Germans.

At the same time, however, there were Kashubians who voluntarily took part in the war on the German side. There were many families where the children would participate in the war in the opposite camps due to ideological positions or mere interest – a recurring and tragic theme of many wars. Yet, the accusations of possible betrayal never held ground, as Kashubian people significantly contributed to the antifascist struggle during the Second World War. In fact, the “Kashubian Griffin” (Gryf Kaszubski) was the name of an antifascist organisation in the Pomeranian region. The view that Kashubians might be potential traitors, paired with the loosening grip of the party on social movements, enabled Kashubians to become vocal in articulating their distinctive culture and political identity.

Nationalism or identity preservation?

This eventually led to the foundation of the National Movement of Kashubians (Kaszëbskô Jednota) in 2011. According to their official website, the group aims to “develop national, civic and cultural consciousness of Kashubians, protect their language, traditions, as well as initiate scientific and educational activity for the benefit and development of local communities, national and ethnic minorities using regional language.” To Jednota, the key problem is the continuous Polonisation and Germanisation. In practice the movement advocates lowering the threshold for financing activities of ethnic minorities from public funds, as well as the introduction of mandatory language, history and geography of Kashubia into the educational curriculum in Pomerania.

Jednota gathers many people of Kashubian descent in Poland but also all over the world. One of them, Sebastian Sierka, is currently living in the United Kingdom. “What you know as Pomerania for us was once Kashubia. For the rest of the world, Pomerania is a part of Poland, but in essence, it has always been a part of the Kashubian land,” Sierka explains. “In North and South America, Kashubs are known either as Poles or as ‘Pomeranos’. It reminds me of the story with America – for the natives, indigenous people living there, it was never known under such a name.”

To some, Jednota is a nationalistic organisation with an aim to eventually secede from Poland. To others, it is only a structure with a potential to preserve Kashubian identity. The truth is somewhere in between. Jednota is an organisation with modest support among Kashubians. According to Słomczyński, only 7.6 per cent of the Kashubian population identify themselves as Kashubians only. While there is certainly a greater number of those who are sympathetic towards the activities of Jednota, its overall impact on the Polish authorities and the Kashubian population remains moderate.

Memory, language politics and the Kashubian diaspora

As in the case of many small ethnic groups whose territory was partitioned through history, the Kashubian diaspora is scattered across the world. Two major migration waves occurred during the 19th century. Though the first wave in the first half of the century was mainly induced by economic reasons, the second one was a result of the Franco-Prussian war and the following Kulturkampf, the policy of German assimilation.

Historically the stronghold of the Kashubian diaspora is in North America, especially Canada. According to the website Kaszub.com, it is believed that more than several millions of people of Kashubian descent now live in the country. The centre of Polish settlements in Canada is Wilno, located in Renfrew County in Ontario. Wilno, founded in 1858, is the first and oldest Polish settlement in Canada.

To Sierka and others from Jednota, the European Union legal system opened up some opportunities for the Kashubians, as Poland was forced to institutionalise their minority status; nevertheless, they still believe that the fall of the Berlin Wall was actually detrimental to the group. “During the communist era, I was forbidden to speak Kashubian at school. For my mother it was completely different – she did not know Polish before she went to school. This whole oppression made us even more adamant in keeping the language alive, whereas in today’s times of freedom and ‘do-what-you-like,’ people don’t care about protecting our authentic values,” Sierka explains. “All my Kashubian neighbours who used to speak Kashubian up until 1989 would speak to me in Polish afterwards. We have to stick to our roots and tradition.”

The futility of hard cultural distinctions between Kashubia and Poland

Regardless of all the historical and cultural trajectories that differentiate Kashubians from other Poles, the overlaps remain evident. It would be unjust to depict a story of an alleged Kashubian-Polish tension, given the fact that Kashubians are recognised as an ethnic minority and are incorporated into the Polish state. Polish president Andrzej Duda visited the Kashubian region in 2018 and expressed his gratitude for Kashubians’ contribution to Polish history. “There will never be Poland without Kashubia,” the president said.

Kashubian customs, although slowly eroding with the unremitting gust of time, remain discernible. Most of them can be found in the mysticism of folk culture with specific neo-pagan elements. Kashubian painting on glass, carvings, animal heads, and characteristic musical instruments are a trademark of Kashubian culture, pointing to the spiritual specificities of the group. Yet some of these elements are intertwined with local Christian customs and thus contribute to the broader cultural tradition of the Pomeranian region.

Looking at all of these elements, one needs to ask the question: where can the boundaries of Kashubian cultural identity be drawn? Perhaps seeking a clear-cut answer would only affirm the porosity of borders as socially constructed, rebuilt, and (re-)negotiated. The mere existence of Kashubians in the now-Polish land demonstrates how futile it is to insist on clear demarcations when it comes to cultures and lands. For, in Shakespeare’s terms, not only time is what “is out of joint,” but space is continuously reassembling. As Andrzej Dudziński, an artist and director of many films about Kashubians, observed, “the borders resemble the mark of how beautiful the complexity of this world is. As such, the memory of them should be nurtured, not as an attempt to discern oneself from the others, but to acknowledge the bloody and troublesome history that lead us to appreciate the differences instead of fighting over them.”

Balsa Lubarda is a doctoral student at the Department of Environmental Sciences and Policy, Central European University, Hungary, and an early career research fellow at the Centre for Radical Right Analysis. His research focuses on far right environmentalism in East Central Europe. He writes on ecological democracy, far right and nationalism in post-socialist Europe.