Tom Riley9 Comments

LUKAS PODOLSKI AND THE COMPLEX IDENTITY POLITICS OF UPPER SILESIA

Tom Riley9 Comments

The top ten Larger Urban Zones in the European Union are London, Paris, Madrid, the Ruhr, Berlin, Barcelona, Athens, Rome, Hamburg and Milan. Perhaps surprisingly, the eleventh, with a population of 2.7m, is the industrial agglomeration around Katowice, currently in the process of trying to re-brand itself as Metropolia Silesia (GZM). It was here, in an area still dominated by coal and steel, that the current poster boy of German football, Lukas Podolski was born in 1985.

A two-year-old Podolski moved to Germany with his parents at the height of Poland’s economic crisis, and was granted German citizenship on account of his family roots in Gliwice, which, as Gleiwitz, had been part of Germany until 1945. Like Miroslav Klose (who was born in the historic Silesian city of Opole), he chose not to represent the country where he was born and whose language he speaks fluently. Klose has said of his identity that it’s better to describe him as a European rather than a German or a Pole. Podolski has said that he has ‘two hearts beating’ in his chest.

Because of its industrial heritage, Upper Silesia is home to many people of German, Polish and Jewish descent, but the character of the region is still strongly defined by Silesian language and culture. There is a big debate as to whether Silesian is a language in itself or a Polish dialect. Either way, it can seem unintelligibile to Polish speakers and contains a strong German influence. Unlike the vast majority of Poles, Silesians tend to speak Polish with a thick local accent. We could compare Podolski’s Polish with Steven Gerrard’s or Craig Bellamy’s English.

Since the collapse of communism in 1989 there has been a Silesian revival, with locals now more likely than ever to define themselves as Silesian rather than Polish. This is partly because of a feeling that the region has been neglected by the government in Warsaw, despite contributing more than their fair share to the nation’s economy. We could easily draw comparisons with Catalan, Basque or Scottish nationalism. These debates have recently found their way into the national political arena and the football terraces.

Silesia was overlooked as a host city for Euro 2012, despite being the official home of the Polish national football team, all of whose major games in the past fifty-odd years have been played at Stadion Śląski, and despite having the best transport infrastructure in the country. This is understandable when we consider the twin aims of raising the profile of potential tourist destinations Gdańsk, Poznań and Wrocław, and improving the rest of the country’s transport infrastructure. With this in mind, perhaps the more disappointing decision was to overlook Katowice’s strong bid for European Capital of Culture in 2016. Wrocław was chosen instead, having already been declared a host city for Euro 2012.

Recently Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of the opposition Law and Justice party, argued that anyone who declares Silesian nationality on the census is doing so as a way of cutting themselves off from Polishness, probably as a ‘camoflauged German option.’ The move backfired spectacularly when over 800,000 declared Silesian nationality in the 2011 census, as opposed to 173,000 in 2002. On top of this, fans of Ruch Chorzów (who along with local rivals Górnik Zabrze are historically one of the two most successful clubs in Poland) regularly display banners, ‘To My Naród Śląska’ (It’s us, the Silesian Nation) and ‘Oberschlesien’ (German for Upper Silesia).

Podolski has nothing to lose from emphasising his Polishness, and a lot to gain. As one of the most marketable footballers since David Beckham, he has been quick to seek endorsements as we can tell from a visit to his website, which is translated into German, Polish and English. Some Poles may view his decision to play for Germany as a betrayal, especially after his two goals in Germany’s 2-0 defeat of Poland in Euro 2008 (which he made a point of not celebrating). In this there are echoes of another Silesian striker, the great Ernst Wilimowski, who famously scored four goals in a match for Poland against Brazil in the 1938 World Cup before defecting to Germany during the Second World War, after which (like many Silesians) he was never allowed to return.

Silesians are still viewed with suspicion by some Polish nationalists, who see their attempts to gain greater political autonomy as part of a hidden German agenda. Perhaps this is not surprising when we consider the role of the Silesian Autonomy Movement (RAŚ) in reviving 1. FC Katowice, who as 1. FC Kattowitz were one of the founding members of the Polish football league in 1927, when they were widely regarded as an ethnically German team. This already fairly complex scenario is further complicated when we remember that Ruch Chorzów, whose roots are linked with the cause of Polish nationalism in the 1920s, are now closely identified with the fairly recent idea of a Silesian ‘nation’.

Ironically, the most high profile Silesian to identify himself with Poland and Polishness is the Górnik Zabrze fan who chose to play for Germany. If Lukas Podolski’s move to Arsenal is a success, something which may depend on that club’s ability to keep Robin Van Persie, it could provide a real boost for a region badly in need of a higher profile. Teams from the agglomeration dominated club football in Poland during the communist years (winning 25 of 42 league titles). In 1989, the top three teams were Ruch Chorzów, GKS Katowice, and Górnik Zabrze. Since then, no team from the agglomeration has won the league. The decline of a great football powerhouse provides a fascinating backdrop for the rise of one of its most successful players. Considering the region’s complex history, the fact that he plays for Germany doesn’t come as a huge surprise.

You can read more from Tom at The Ascent of Manchester.

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