Garrison Stories: Poland in the Imagination of Twentieth Century Western Soldiers

  • Abstract:

    The myth of Eastern Europe stems from many sources, but study of the myth makers has focused primarily on politicians, philosophers, writers and other intellectuals. This focus overlooks many other groups of myth makers, including soldiers. Soldiers make up a vital resource for studying the myth of Eastern Europe. Military personnel make up a large percentage of “visitors” to Eastern Europe in both war and peace, and their memoirs, memories, and perceptions of Eastern Europe decisively shape the perception of “over there” when they return home. Even more importantly, soldiers’ imaginations about fighting in Eastern Europe help to shape the popular imagination of the region in a way that intellectuals do not. Most Westerners, particularly Americans, are not exposed to academic works of history or sociology, and don’t particularly think about Poland in general. Soldiers are a major exception – their overseas service and concern with international security help to make them at least aware of foreign countries. Common Western perceptions of Eastern Europe – it’s endless spaces, the cold, the unending hordes of Russians, and the poverty of its people – largely stem from the experience and imagination of Western and Central European soldiers in the region. I will examine the changing military myths about Poland during the twentieth and early twenty first centuries by briefly surveying military literature, memoirs, and blogs from Western Europe, Central Europe, and the United States, starting with Austrian and German soldiers stationed in Partitioned Poland. I will examine how Poland is remembered and portrayed by soldiers from outside the region. After looking at the Fin-de-Siècle, I will move quickly through the World Wars and Cold War, before looking at common representations of Poland among American soldiers today. In the last fifteen years, Poland has become a very positive place in the imaginations of American soldiers thanks to the country’s perceived firm support of the US during the Iraq War and recent tensions in the Ukraine. Increased NATO interest in Poland, Ukraine, and the Baltic States has resulted in an increasing Western military presence in Eastern Europe, and a correlating growth of military myths about the region. This is a preliminary look at how soldiers experiences and expectations shape Western imaginations of Eastern Europe, but shows that there is much potential in an approach grounded in military imaginations.