Perspectives on Poland: The Hitler Tree

The tedious story of the Hitler Tree has been doing the rounds of the international media for several weeks now. What interests me is the story of the story: why was this obscure piece picked up by every major news network and what does this tell us about perceptions of Poland?

If I may recount the story as painlessly as possible, it goes something like this: Jasło is a medium-sized town in the deep south of Poland. Like all medium-sized towns it has an appetite for new traffic roundabouts and was looking forward to installing a little gem of rotational vehicular management when somebody pointed out that a tree would have to be cut down first. The kind of people who are against cutting down trees formed a group and started writing letters to the mayor. Eighty-one-year-old local tree hugger Mr. Kazimierz Polak mentioned in his letter that Nazis had planted this particular tree in 1942 to celebrate Hitler’s birthday. There was the administrative equivalent of an awkward silence. Mr. Polak had seriously confused a lot of people. “So…” I imagine the mayor saying carefully, “You want to save the tree because it celebrates Hitler’s birth? Adolf Hitler, right; the one whose troops enslaved our country and, by the way, burned this town to the ground in 1944?”

After a certain amount of back-peddling, mental juggling and, presumably, kicking Mr. Polak sharply in the shins, the tree brigade took the position that the oak was innocent and shouldn’t be held accountable for crimes against humanity what with it being very young at the time and, well, a tree. This is where the story starts to get confusing. Catching the scent of a quirky Hitler story, journalists all over the world began salivating over their keyboards. Reporters flocked to the scene so they could be filmed talking about the tree with said tree in the background in case viewers had forgotten what one looked like. British and American newspapers and news channels carried stories that inevitably focused on the Hitler angle. For Brits and Americans there is a creepy fascination when we see something intimately connected with the Nazi apocalypse in Poland. For Poles, who live with the faded remains all around them, it’s just another mundane sadness. The real story was of no international consequence and rather boring, but the morsel of Hitler glamour made it irresistible. The real story is “Ludicrous Attempt to Save Tree;” the story of the story is “You Can’t Lose If You Mention Hitler.”

One of the things that always astonishes me about Poland is that Germans can walk down the street without being stoned to death. I’m not saying they should be, I’m just amazed that they aren’t. Polish and German politicians regularly engage in viscous verbal fisticuffs, but ask any German who has spent some time in Poland and he’ll tell you the average Pole on the street is a paradigm of friendliness. The Polish experience of governments is that they don’t represent the people. I’m guessing they extend this view to the government of other nations. In other words, a German is just a poor slob like you or me and has nothing to do with the actions of German governments past or present. For Westerners this is incomprehensible. That’s what fascinates us about stories like the Hitler Tree. We want to hear that the townsfolk of Jasło took to the streets with burning torches and tore the tree down with their bare hands in some violent cathartic orgy. The reality is not even close, and that’s why the West really doesn’t understand Poland.

By the way, somebody recently took the trouble to examine photos of Jasło in 1945 rather than relying on the memory of an octogenarian and the tree isn’t there.

Read more by Jamie Stokes at The Polandian.

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