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Postcard from Poznan

This article appeared in The Herald Magazine

It is Poland’s age-old quandary: what to do about the past. Only pragmatism, Poles say, prevented Poznan’s Zamek Cesarski, the Prussian imperial castle built by Kaiser Wilhelm II at the beginning of the last century, from being demolished after 1945. When Poland, having regained its independence in 1918, was invaded by the Nazis and the area around Poznan became a part of the Third Reich – most of the rest of the country was simply German-administered – Hitler had the castle’s western wing and tower redesigned to mirror, exactly, his headquarters just a short trip down the road in Berlin.

Most buildings of its kind in Germany itself having been blitzed by the British, the place has lent its mise-en-scene to the odd film-maker down the years. The communists didn’t do very much with it – that it stood as a symbol of authoritarian rule was perhaps enough for them – but while it is now a cultural centre, housing a dance school, galleries and a cinema space, it still feels somehow empty, more strange fairytale palace than museum.

We are used to Germans treading on eggshells when talk turns to the years 1933-45, but the ethical equation is different in Poland. The Nazis killed around five million Poles. Anyone wondering whether it would be right or proper of a geared-up Polish tourist industry to hitch its wagon to some sort of Adolf Trail, will, therefore, find no easy answers. You’re not meant to feel prurient about Hitler. Pace his chambers and you just might.

All its sad, bloody, violent history has given Poland something few European countries enjoy: perhaps not so much a single idea of what it is but a definite sense of what it is not. Partitioned by the Prussians, Russians and Austro-Hungarians, invaded by the Swedes and the Ottomans, subjugated by the Nazis then by the Soviets, its sense of nationhood is inseparable from its struggle for survival. The Prussians were Protestant, the Russians Orthodox Christians. Of the five million killed by the Nazis, three million were Jewish; only a few thousand Jews survived. Catholicism – not exactly the default religion in northern Europe – makes sense. For centuries the church bolstered Polish national identity; in turn Poles have remained faithful. Religion and patriotism – an endearingly uncomplicated patriotism – go hand in hand, or at least that’s the impression. Religious attendance remains sky-high; in Poznan there’s a church everywhere you look.

The Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul has particular significance, having been founded in the year 968 by Mieszko I, the first ruler of Poland. In the shade of its Gothic silhouette – the original Romanesque cathedral was sacked centuries ago – a statue of Pope John Paul II welcomes parishioners to prayer. Old Karol Jozef declared the site to have been the birthplace of the Polish nation, and besides being a pontiff he wasn’t from Poznan but a place near Krakow, so he probably wasn’t lying.

The Prussians tried, and failed, to suppress Polish culture and language. The communists tried, and failed, to reduce the influence of the church. In Poznan the commies even “moved” the River Warta off its natural meandering course around the cathedral, for no other apparent reason than to let the Catholics know who was in charge.

Now that the Poles are self-determining, all that suppressed culture and heritage has come into its own, while the revolts and uprisings of 1918, 1956, 1970, 1980 and too many other years to mention are everywhere commemorated. Not that everyone is dancing the polka, debating folk art or pining for the days of Solidarity. Western-style consumerism caught on a while back and Poznan is proud to have the “best medium-sized shopping mall” in the world, a fairly impressive piece of modern architecture that brings everyone from Zara to Barbour, Van Graaf and Mothercare under one roof. Let it slip that you’re from Scotland and as well as telling you about friends and family who live and work there, Poles – in common with everyone else in the world who watches Hollywood films – will mention Braveheart. Having grasped their own freedom, they can’t understand why we’re so phlegmatic about ours.

It may be the ultimate endorsement of their patriotism that many of the thousands of young Poles to have sought work abroad since the country joined the EU in 2004, are now going home. In Poland low levels of home ownership should ensure a degree of protection against the credit crunch. The Polish economy is actually growing right now, fuelled partly by a construction boom, while the zloty has been getting stronger and salaries higher for some time. Paradoxically, meanwhile, for a nation that puts such store in its independence, the EU remains almost universally popular, the Common Agricultural Policy notwithstanding.

Poznan, at least, exhibits many of the signs of a city in which business is thriving. It is said that people here are even more prudent than the Scots. National stereotypes aside, the region was historically more economically progressive than other parts of Poland and in the 21st Century has become something of a financial, industrial and scientific hub. The Poznan International Fair attracts some 350,000 visitors a year to the city and in December the great and the good clocked up the air miles to fly in and discuss how to get more investment from their respective exchequers for biofuels, and other topics, at the UN Climate Change Conference.

Polish farmers might well have taken an interest. Food shortages are no distant memory, while the national diet is still very much based on staples, not least in Poznan, whose citizens are referred to in other regions as “pyry” (potatoes) – rather like Liverpudlians are named for their consumption of lobscouse, and not always affectionately. In Poznan you will discover any number of delicacies involving potato: pyry z gzikiem, potatoes cooked in their skins and served with cottage cheese; szagowki, potato dumplings cooked with flour and, um, cottage cheese; and koptyka, potato mixed with egg, wheat, and (why not?) potato flour. Everything is served with red cabbage, but if you want fleshing out a bit other traditional dishes involve lamb, wild boar and herring. It’s prosaic cuisine, but rather healthy, and no-one under 30 seems to be fat. The women are stylish and beautiful, all lustrous eyes and Slavonic cheekbones. Moreover, the absence of joggers from the city’s streets is surely a sign of rude health, not to mention the absence of corporeal guilt.

The men, you might reasonably conclude, prefer drinking and smoking to anything remotely as tiresome, but while Poznan boasts a breath-taking concentration of bars and nightclubs around its market square – the city’s universities house 130,000 students – it doesn’t feel either debauched or decadent. Apart from Polish barbers having a precipitous knack for reproducing the very worst footballers’ haircuts, modesty reigns. People are hospitable if not demonstrative, cheerful if not exuberant, and strikingly well-informed.

The market square itself, Stary Rynek, has a typically northern European toy-town quality to it, with the sort of gabled, ornamental skylines you find everywhere from the Baltic to the east of Scotland; although its centre-piece is an elegant town hall designed by the Italian Renaissance architect Giovanni Battista di Quadro. A short walk from there throws up the Baroque of St Stanislav’s Parish Church – gaudy, vulgar, exhilarating. Head west and you’ll find the German-built opera house and Teutonic, faux-medieval castle vying for prominence with Polish libraries, theatres and an excellent National Museum. All of which points to the obvious contradiction that while Poznanians just love being Polish, it’s the juxtaposition of the foreign, colonial and native that makes their city so physically appealing.

People here can be punctilious, which is possibly a German influence. They’re also fairly hidebound about rules such as forbid photography inside communist-era civic buildings and will happily stand for aeons at empty crossroads waiting for the lights to change. If this is to their detriment, at least they’re organised enough to have their new football stadium for the 2012 European Championships well underway, while those in other parts of Poland are in danger of not being ready in time. A city of spuds? One thinks not.