The Great War and Polish Memory. Architectural Forms of Commemoration and the Myth of a New State
1918 was a seminal year in the history of 20th-century Poland – the country which, together with other Central and Eastern European states, gained independence as the Great War drew to an end. At the same time, the Great War does not appear to occupy a special and privileged place in Polish cultural memory. As a matter of fact, overshadowed by the trauma of World War II it is anything but an important site of memory. In the field of visual arts and literature the period 1914-1918 did not bring works which would be either formally ‘modern’ or would account for the tragedy of the war. It might well be stated that the eruption of modern means of expressions which were used by artists and writers to narrate the experience of the Great War – the phenomenon that can be observed in art and literature of many post-World War I European states – did not leave any substantial traces in Polish culture. On the contrary, if the Great War was represented in Polish art, it was done so in a highly traditional and academic fashion. What one may find surprising is not only a special conservatism of formal means applied to textual and visual narratives about World War I. What also calls one’s attention to is the semantic operation conducted in Polish post-World War I culture: the substitution of the Great War memory with the memory of 1914-1920. This extension of the conflict by two more years made it possible for the new Polish state to divert the social attention and concern from World War I to the on-going fights for Poland’s eastern border. It was the latter that became a climax – not only in Polish public discourse but also in war art and literature. While the rest of Europe was, at that time, erecting the tombs of the unknown soldiers that died in the Great War, Poland was erecting the tomb of the unknown soldier that died in the Polish-Ukrainian war. The present article wishes to investigate some selected works of literature, art and architecture from the period 1916-1926 so as to illustrate the above-mentioned processes of the use and abuse of the meaning and memory of the Great War – all in order to create a new culture of memory for a new state.
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