The Thing Is, It Never Starts With Violence
Before the war, Wroclaw was called Breslau, and between 1202 and 1945 the city was controlled by everyone but Poland. The boundaries of Poland had been carved into a myriad of pieces, and ruled by so many different Emperors, Czars, and Kings, it’s hard to keep track of it all. But back in 1933, Breslau was part of the Weimar Republic, a failed German government that spanned the 15 years between the King of Germany’s reign and Hitler’s.
It was in March of 1933 that Breslau voted for the Nazi party in staggering numbers. In a multi-party system, 48% of voters were on board. The third strongest turnout in all of Germany. Twelve years later, that same regime dropped hundreds of thousands of explosives on its own soil in the single most devastating war and genocide in recorded history. Breslau would be one of the last strongholds.
In January of 1945, as the Eastern Front collapsed and the retreat swept west, the civilians were forced to evacuate the city. Most fled to Dresden, only to be bombed flat two weeks later. Even then, the Nazis leveled whole streets in Breslau to make a landing strip in the city center, readying for the coming attack. For a while it looked like they might keep a hold of the city. Sprawled over a series of islands in the middle of the Oder River, its natural moat made an excellent point of defense for things like bows and arrows. But not against the Soviet troops and tanks that surrounded it on February 8th.
By the 13th, the Siege of Breslau commenced with the Soviet army dropping artillery shells into the city without pause. On May 6th, the Nazis ran up the white flag, just two days before the unconditional surrender of all German forces, and the war in the European theatre came to an end.
I came to Poland to study several of its historic events. One being a spate of witch trials in lower Silesia along the Czech Border, and that’s what brought me to Wroclaw in the first place. I didn’t come for World War II. I was prepared to research anything but that subject. As an amateur historian and historical ficiton writer, I have what is known as WWII fatigue. And yet, I can’t escape it and its divisive ideology that spurred unparalleled acts of cruelty. Not at home in the US and not in Poland either, where I walk the streets of Wroclaw, the heaviness of its past hanging over the city like an invisible layer of fog.
On my first day in Wroclaw, I’d convinced myself that my apartment was haunted by a loving grandmotherly ghost. There was no denying some kind of presence in my space, like how it feels when you come home and you know someone else is there too, and it was a warm energy tinged with a little bit of desperation. Since then I’ve wondered if it’s not a grandmother, but a man who loved and longed for someone fiercely. I have gone so far as to wonder if he died in my living room.
Perhaps after scrolling through hundreds of photos of the Siege of Breslau, I was desperate for some kind of romantic redemption. I’m sure somewhere in history, the bitter and callous cynics would’ve sat me down and pointed to the piles of rubble and scoffed. Fuck your romanticism, they’d have said. They asked for it.
As a society we’ve asked for a lot of things, not understanding the package it might arrive in. Or we agree with a philosophy because we can’t quite make out the undercurrent coursing through it. On the surface it seems to solve our biggest problems. Most of the time we’re wrong in what we ask for, how we understand, and what’s really going on, but not so much as to lose our confidence in the general order remaining intact. In that way, we’ve come to rely on the steadiness and predictability of civilization. But sometimes, we get it so wrong that there’s no going back.
Since the war ended, the small ruined square has become a flower market awash in every conceivable kind of bloom. Bees hovered around the bouquets in the high June sun. The same square was packed with brown wooden stalls selling grilled oscypek cheese and amber necklaces and lace doilies. You could sit in front of the these former bombed out buildings under and the shade of big square umbrella and drink Zywiec by the litre.
74 years ago, armored tanks rolled through there, right where I stood to take my copy of this picture. To be honest, I don’t know what has compelled me to do it. To stand there and imagine what it must’ve been like then. What would I have done in the face of it all? The same thing I’m doing now. Because as unbearable as it has been for me to think about, my own government is sliding further into autocracy with every passing minute. Did we know everything we were saying yes to? Some of us certainly did, and I would imagine that some of the citizens of Breslau did as well. When the dust settles from our decisions who knows what will remain?
At the end of the war, Poland readied itself for another round of remapping, learning the new set of borders it could call its own. Ironically, part of the deal that granted them their independent statehood again included expelling the Germans from the western part of the country, Silesia in particular. Even the ones who had been there for generations, in a sort of what-comes-around-goes-around move. One could reason that they must not have minded leaving it all behind. After all, hadn’t they voted to expel the Poles just a few years prior? Then carried on as business as usual when it was time to expel the Jews. Then the homosexuals, the clerics, the gypsies, the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Clearly it was an ideology that 48% of them had embraced.
But therein lies the trick of math, and why no system of voting is ever fair. 48% did say yes, leaving a 52% majority wanting anyone but Hitler, voting for the lesser of the many evils on the ballot. Maybe a multi-party system was worse.
I pondered this as I faced St. Mary Magdalene church from this corner, now rebuilt on all sides in the hulking, cold-war communist style. At my back the street was lined with rows of apartments, simple warehouses with windows and crumbling balconies with corrugated metal bolted to the rails. Functionality for the masses. A bank on my right suffered a similar fate in its bones, but was recently reskinned with a more modern looking facade. The cathedral’s roof had been restored, and the bell towers were no longer two chipped teeth. Only the small priory was lost forever.
During the campaigning before our own ill-fated election, I remember raising the alarm about the right wing candidate. A chorus of shouting went up among my friends and colleagues, Holocaust historians, political science professors, psychologists, writers and artists, and people like me who had a long history of surviving narcissism in their own lives and families. This will not end well. We have seen it all before. Then came the rebukes that the worst would never happen again, even though it already had in differing forms. The Former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Cambodia and Vietnam. All authoritarian genocidal nightmares. All undertaken since 1945 and the rallying cry of Never Again.
The thing is, it never starts with violence. I’ve come to regard the inner workings of narcissists and fascists in the same way as pedophiles. They all seek personal gain through destruction. None of them care about who they damage, or how deeply, so long as their needs are met and they maintain control. And all of them do it through the same process: Grooming. A series of micro aggressions, small ways that cross your boundaries and tear down your defenses. Things that make you feel just a little gross and outraged at first, a testing of the water, and the mildest form of pushback is met with the crazy-making aftereffects of gaslighting. Then comes normalizing. Then another step over a bigger boundary. A slow dismantling of the entire system until you find yourself alone in a cold basement with your panties around your ankles, bewildered at how it all came to this. How could you be so blind? So stupid in the face of it all.
I’ve walked in that square. I’ve seen the cathedral. I’ve been on the street that just 74 years ago, almost to the day, was piled with dead soldiers. Their bodies twisted unnaturally in various stages of rigor mortis. It’s a famous photo of the Siege of Breslau, and it was snapped along a quiet lane next to the University. On that same street the scholars discuss Goethe, and drink cheap piwo in the rundown cafes, and now there are lines of trees growing along the sidewalks. Of course I restaged that photo too, but I couldn’t bring myself to post that reality. I feared that it would be a sort of admission that this, too, will come again, and we’d have no one else to blame. Hadn’t we, too, asked for it?