Some 50 miles east of Berlin lies the Polish town of Cedynia. Since the 1960s, on every 24th of June it is the scene of a festival commemorating the Battle of Cedynia, which took place there in 972 CE. Reenactment aficionados replay the battle in mediaeval costumes, there are open air concerts, and blacksmiths and potters display their trades.
The battle itself, then, took place over 1000 years ago, between the forces of German count Odo I and Polish warlord Mieszko. Odo was as a vassal of German emperor Otto I. His attack on Mieszko’s lands was against the wishes of the Kaiser, as Mieszko himself, the first documented ruler of Greater Poland, also paid tribute to the empire. Odo was unable to beat his Polish opponent and the battle ended in a truce. A year later, Otto, the old emperor, would lay down a judgement settling the matter, but the conflict was only fully resolved when Mieszko married a German noblewoman some seven years later.
But why does this ancient and forgotten battle (at least until after World War Two) get so much attention now? The reason is Cedynia’s situation on the Oder river, part of the famous Oder-Neisse line.
When Stalin demanded that Poland should be shifted westwards at the end of World War Two, this happened at the expense of German territories like the easternmost part of the Prussian province of Brandenburg. The town of Cedynia (which was called Zehden until 1945) became Poland’s most westerly city. All German-speaking citizens were deported from the area, and the town became the new home of refugees that Stalin had chased from the east of pre-war Poland.
The selection of the Oder-Neisse line as the new Polish-German frontier had a long diplomatic aftermath. The GDR accepted the new border as soon as 1950, but the Federal Republic (or West Germany) didn’t formally agree until 1970. The German reunification treaty of 1990 again acknowledged the border specifically, hoping to assuage Polish fears of German expansionism. So, in the 1950s and 60s, it is understandable that Poland’s communist regime was not quite certain of the status quo of its new western frontier. Politicians knew perfectly well that the area had been German for a long time, and the state did its best to justify its claims on the territory. Clearly they weren’t fully convinced that the atrocities inflicted upon Poland by the Nazis during the war were justification enough for some compensatory annexation.
So, Polish politicians started looking for any historical sources that could justify their
claims to the territories between Poznan and the Oder-Neisse line. They hit pay dirt with the works of famous Ottonian chronicler Thietmar of Merseburg (975-1018). Thietmar was born a few years after the battle, but his own father, Siegfried, had participated in it. This story fitted the Polish narrative perfectly. Here was proof that the land in question had been Polish previously, and that a Polish commander had also successfully defended it against German aggression.
At the occasion of the battle’s 1000th anniversary in 1972, the Polish state built a huge concrete monument on top of a hill near Cedynia, overlooking what may have been the battlefield. It depicts a huge Polish eagle, sitting on top of a sword. The eagle and the mosaic showing the battle became the site of the annual remembrance ceremony ever since.
Since the demise of communism, the political flavour may have left the festival but the city of Cedynia is happy to continue the remembrance ceremonies. These days, they are a cross between a mediaeval show and a rock festival. Even though politics are no longer part of the proceedings, it wouldn’t surprise me if the nationalist and anti-German rhetoric of Poland’s ruling PiS party leads to a new emphasis on the political aspect of this ancient battle. A Polish victory over a German army and the successful annexation of German territory after the trauma of World War Two are probably too good a story to ignore.