Historical Reenactment in Poland:
Where Grassroots and Institutions Collide
(my text from the Participatory Poland series
- reposted from Henry Jenkins' blog)
Medieval Knights or Native Americans: Who Was First
The first appearance of modern “reenactors” in Poland was probably the parade of 10th-century Slavic warriors, organised in 1967 to celebrate 1000 years since the founding of the Polish state. Set up by the communist government, without a fan community to back it up, it turned out to be a one-time, inconsequential event (Nowiński 2012: 76) and cannot be counted as genuine reenactment.
As Jacek Nowiński (2012: 76) says, there is no doubt among Polish reenactors about who deserves the credit as the pioneer. It was in July 1977 that the first reenactment event – a chivalric tournament – took place at Golub-Dobrzyń castle organized by the local division of PTTK (Polish Tourist and Sightseeing Society). It was headed by Zygmunt Kwiatkowski, who subsequently reigned as castellanus and organised annual tournaments until his death in 2005 (now the tradition continued by his son Piotr). Also in the late 1970s, Zbigniew Sawicki in Zawiercie started his research on Old Polish martial arts, which led to the founding of a small martial arts section in 1981 and a full-fledged club Signum Polonicum in 1986. The club now holds 7 local units around Poland, 1 in the Czech Republic, and 1 in France.
Alongside medieval knights, the indianist movement in Poland was constituted in 1977 as well. With informal activities in several places dating from 1968, its first national convention took place in August 1977 (Placek 2004), a month after the Golub-Dobrzyń chivalric event. Actually, the convention had been scheduled for 24-26 June 1976, the 100th anniversary of Little Bighorn. The plan had been thwarted by the communist authorities, but an unofficial small-scale gathering had nevertheless taken place (Placek 2004). If we count the indianists among historical reenactors, and the unofficial 1976 event as their founding year, it could be said they had been here first: one year before “the white man” Kwiatkowski set up his medieval tournament. However, they are not associated with the reenactment movement (and do not seem to be willing to), as they are focused on spirituality, ecology and new age (Seremet 2000), and not so much on material recreation of costumes and weapons.
Well documented and analysed, the development of Polish indianism is a fascinating story with truly legendary figures (see Sat-Okh). For readers of Polish, I recommend links available at http://www.indianie.eco.pl/. But with the limited word count, I will drop the thread here as nothing more but an interesting context.
The Boom and Flood of 1990s
In 1989, the Moscow-aligned socialist government was replaced by a more democratically elected one, and the People’s Republic of Poland lost its “People’s” component. The higher degree of freedom of speech allowed for independent discussion and reinterpretation of history, while freedom of association and assembly opened way for institutionalisation and professionalisation of NGOs. Organisations could now be created by the grassroots, independently of state-run and state-funded bodies. The Polish borders were opened not only to the flood of Western goods, services and lifestyles, but also to contacts with reenactment communities from other countries. With loosened economic regulations, capitalism and free trade sparked thousands of private enterprises, including commercial historical events and the rebirth of traditional hand-made crafts catering to reenactors’s needs. The development of the public Internet since 1994 (Internet w Polsce) facilitated knowledge-sharing, community building, and large-scale international cooperation. All this has brought about fundamental changes.
In 1992, Brotherhood of Sword and Crossbow held the first tournament commemorating the 1410 Battle of Grunwald – not yet in Grunwald but in Stężyca (Nowiński 2012: 77). In the same year, Jarosław Struczyński inspired the town council of Gniew to reactivate the reconstruction of its medieval Teutonic castle (Historia twierdzy) and started what later became known as one of the most successful centers of medieval and 17th-century reenactment (see Vivat Vasa). The famous international Wolin-Jomsborg-Vineta festival of Slavs and Vikings was started in 1993. 1995 was the founding year of Museum Palace at Wilanów as an autonomous institution, and of Liga Baronów, “the first Polish tournament society,” as its members declare. The Palace and the Liga joined forces several years later to become a leading museum-with-reenactment. Influenced by the huge popularity of the Battle of Grunwald, the largest Teutonic castle in Malbork joined in, recreating its 1410 siege in 2000 and on.
Since 1990,new RH groups have sprung up all over Poland: Vikings, Slavs, knights, mercenaries, 17th-century armies, Napoleonic soldiers, units from both World Wars troops and from the most recent military conflicts (even Specnaz from the Russian-Chechen war of 1999-2009). Alongside military units, there are groups recreating civilians, much fewer in numbers. Along the way, these groups had to cooperate with local authorities, government bodies, private businesses, schools, museums, universities, army units, culture centres, community houses, mass media, other NGOs etc. Collaboration would go smoothly in some cases, or lead to struggles, conflict and rivalry in others. This is what I intend to focus on in this short paper: the dynamics of conflict-and-cooperation between grassroots and institutions.
Grassroots and Institutions Collide: Local/Regional Level
Szlendak (2012: 62) distinguishes between “fairs”, i.e. commercial festivals for large audiences, and “time machines”, non-commercial events for insiders. Reenactors draw a sharp distinction between these two types. (32) This seems to be the largest bone of contention: local institutions, town / county officials and business sponsors prefer huge popular events dominated by lowbrow mass entertainment (beer, sausages, disco music etc.) where the role of reenactors is reduced to “monkeys at the zoo”.
The list of typical problems with institutions includes:
- Sanepid (sanitary and epidemiological service) inspecting the condition of storing, making and serving food in historical camps. Law makes no distinction here: even if you cook food on the open fire, you should meet the same requirements as a top quality restaurant in a city (Szlendak 2012: 35).
- Tax Offices looking for cash registers and financial documents for all small-scale trade (35).
- The police and VIP security acting hostile against armed reenactors.
- Unwillingness of institutions to collaborate with informal groups that are not officially registered as an NGO (36).
- Local officials (mayors) trying to monopolize the “services” of local reenactors and turning against them when they dare to cooperate with an adjacent county (Nowiński 2012: 93).
- Local officials seeing reenactors as dangerous rivals in the field of culture and entertainment as they can organize events of higher quality and at a lower cost than the town hall and its cultural institutions (Karwacki 124).
- Analogically, museums tend to be jealous or condescending towards reenactors, who can set up interactive “temporary museums” seen by the audience as better than the traditional museum experience (Szlendak 2012: 61)
- Local politicians using reenactment events for self-promotion, election campaign or propaganda, which evokes disgust and embarrassment on the part of reenactors. (Szlendak 37)
On the positive side, there are many examples and spheres of grassroots/institution cooperation:
- Reenactors frequently appear in schools with “living history” lessons, usually without any financial gratification (Szlendak 2012: 48; Nowiński 2012: 100).
- Jomsborg-Wolin settlement in collaboration with the local Employment Office offers temporary jobs and vocational training for the unemployed (Nowiński 2012: 87).
- The idea of Jomsborg-Wolin reenactments had come from the business sector, with the Danish companies Danfoss and Grundfos “selling” the concept to the local authorities (Nowiński 2012: 87).
- The medieval Grunwald March, with its route across several counties, has inspired the creation of an inter-county funding scheme uniting 8 jurisdictions (Andrzejewski, qtd. in Karwacki 2012: 133).
- The immensely popular reenactment of the Grunwald Battle of 1410 has led to the establishment of the Battle of Grunwald Museum in ‟the middle of nowhere”: a very poor rural area with no significant institutions or businesses whatsoever.
- A unit of winged hussars affiliated with the Gniew castle has long been officially commanded by marszałek (province marshal) of Pomorskie voivodeship, enjoying the support of the local government in the country and abroad (to be discussed under Inter/National below).
Generally speaking, small towns and villages (e.g. Wolin, Malbork, Grunwald, Kołobrzeg) tend to be much more interested and involved in cooperation with reenactors, making historical events a significant aspect of their promotional image (Szlendak 63). Cities with rich and diverse culture&arts background do not see reenactors as a valuable asset. Still, cooperation between reenactors, city halls and institutions happens, e.g. with the Warsaw Uprising Museum.
The 2000+ Upscaling
As of 2011, having analysed a number of reports and databases from scholars and practitioners (including the huge registry created by Robert Bagrit), Nowiński (2012: 78) estimates the number of RH groups at about 500, with the total number of reenactors at 100.000. He admits to wide error margins, but there is no doubt that active reenactors should be counted in tens of thousands, and spectators of RH events in millions each year. In consequence, “thanks to mass commercial events and their media coverage, the audiences no longer perceive reenactors as weirdos, but as people doing a specific job” (Szlendak 2012: 32, translation mine).
In 2000+, the ever-growing numbers, experience, level of organisation, and massive public appeal have raised the RH movement from local to regional to national and international level. Large-scale events are now attended by MPs and government officials, with the most high-profile celebrations are visited by Prime Minister or President of Poland. Reenactors are invited to TV shows with nationwide broadcasts. TV and film celebrities are hired by reenactment events to play the roles of central historical figures (e.g. Daniel Olbrychski as King John III Sobieski in the Battle of Vienna /1683/ celebration held in Kraków in 2008). Lobbying organised by reenactors has brought about changes in gun control legislation, and is very likely to to influence the ceremony of receiving foreign guests by President (see below). On the other hand, the most successful and prestigious events are being taken over by political or corporate powers, completely sidelining the reenactors, some of whom no longer want to participate.
Grassroots and Institutions Collide: Inter/National Level
2010 was a milestone: huge reenactments celebrating the 600th anniversary of Battle of Grunwald in which Polish and Lithuanian forces had crushed the German-Teutonic knights and their allies, and 400th anniversary of Battle of Kłuszyn (Klushino) that had been an amazing victory of Polish winged hussars over a huge army of Russians supported by Western mercenaries. This time, both reenactments had a strong support from the state, including the government and president, the National Bank of Poland, and public TV stations. What had started in Stężyca in 1992 as grassroots activity with about 20 knights and a small local audience has grown to the 400.000 of visitors to the fields of Grunwald in 2010 (Nowiński 2012: 78).
A similar evolution can be seen around the largest fortress built by Teutonic knights, the Malbork (Marienburg) castle. It had shunned reenactors throughout the 1990s, but since 2000, the 1410 siege of Malbork became an annual event. In 2010, its popularity was heavily boosted in conjuction with the 600th anniversary of Battle of Grunwald. In 2011, it was part of Wielki Teatr Historii (Grand Historical Theatre), the most expensive grant project ever funded by National Center for Culture, coordinated by famous host of historical TV shows Bogusław Wołoszański, and broadcast nationwide.
Nevertheless, both these events suffered from institutional hegemony, with control over management and battlefield taken over by state-run administration, TV channels and corporate sponsors. Many medieval groups no longer attend the Malbork or Grunwald events, feeling that it is not “theirs” anymore, as reenactors have no real influence on what the event looks like. They still remember the speech of Jerzy Buzek, who talked about the 600 years of Grunwald and 30 years of “Solidarity” (political movement he had been part of) in a single breath (Szlendak 2012: 68). Even Szymon Drej, the head of the Malbork castle which is the main organiser of the siege, says he is not happy with the way things have turned, but does not see a way out (as cited in Nowiński 2012: 88-89).
On the other hand, we have examples of reenactors’ lobbying that have influenced decisions of the parliament and President. A bill passed on 5 January 2011 modified the Act on Weapons and Ammunition, specifically addressing the phenomenon of historical reenactment and permitting the use of gun replicas and blank shots. Also grant programs released by government bodies (e.g. the National Center for Culture) now list reenactment events among those that qualify for public funding. A grassroots campaign “Hussars before the Palace!”, initiated by winged hussar reenactors in 2012 to officially introduce armor-clad hussars to stand guard before the presidential palace at public ceremonies, scored a one-time achievement on the Flag Day, 2 May 2013 (Kresy.pl), and according to its leader, Marek Jakubiak, is likely to succeed in establishing it as a tradition.
The famous and uniquely Polish cavalry, winged hussars, has made a few international appearances with a political undertone:
- Jarosław Struczyński and the Gniew hussars made a humorous public appeal to the Swedish king, asking him to return all goods plundered in Poland during the Swedish 1655-1660 “Deluge”, now remaining in Swedish museums.
- These same hussars visited the EU parliament in Brussels on 22nd November2011.
- Two hussar groups were at the center of Polish Days in Vilnius (Lithuania) in November 2012.
In the summer of 2013, the 330. anniversary of the glorious victory of King John III Sobieski over the Turks was to be celebrated by the ride of 20-30 hussars from Kraków (the former capital of Poland) to Vienna (Austria) followed by participation in the Vienna celebration. The plan failed: not enough funds had been raised, and Vienna authorities did not grant permission for a parade on horseback. Still, small-scale rides and coordinated hussar events took place across Poland (www.wieden330.pl).
The Closing Story
I would like to end this report with the story (told by Szlendak 2012: 9) of cpt. Tełowski of 63. Infantry Regiment, who was posthumously decorated with the Order of Virtuti Militari (the highest Polish award for heroism on the battlefield). His wife, having emigrated to Australia, on her deathbed decided that the Order should be returned to Poland, to the same 63. Regiment stationed in Toruń. However, such a unit no longer exists in the military. But there is a reenactment group related to it. With the involvement of the Polish Ministry of Defense and the Australian embassy, not to mention local officials and the Tełowski family, the order was transferred to the reenactors, and is now displayed by their commander on public occasions. This is how the heritage of the Polish army lives on in a reenactment group, with official recognition and endorsement from state institutions and descendants alike.
Such was the journey of Polish reenactors: from the first medieval tournament set up in 1977 by a local tourist organization to the winged hussars standing guard before the presidential palace in 2013. Szlendak (2012: 10) contends: “This movement is going to transform from hobby-driven volunteers into a full-fledged professional group”. I have no doubt that this has already happened.
Karwacki, A. 2012. ‟Ewaluacja rekonstruowania.” In: T. Szlendak (ed.). Dziedzictwo w akcji. Rekonstrukcja historyczna jako sposób uczestnictwa w kulturze. (109-140). Narodowe Centrum Kultury: Warszawa.
Nowiński, J. 2012. ‟Rekonstrukcje jako instytucje.” In: T. Szlendak (ed.). Dziedzictwo w akcji. Rekonstrukcja historyczna jako sposób uczestnictwa w kulturze. (71-108). Narodowe Centrum Kultury: Warszawa.
Placek, M. 2003. Dominanty światopoglądowe w polskim ruchu indianistycznym. MA dissertation: Uniwersytet Śląski.
Seremet S., 2000. Spotkania na indiańskich ścieżkach. Asymilacja duchowości Sun Beara w Stowarzyszeniu Żółwi. MA dissertation: Uniwersytet Warszawski.
Szlendak, T. 2012. ‟Uczestnicy, odbiorcy i miejsca, gdzie się spotykają.” In: T. Szlendak (ed.). Dziedzictwo w akcji. Rekonstrukcja historyczna jako sposób uczestnictwa w kulturze. (7-70). Narodowe Centrum Kultury: Warszawa.