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Looking back 600 years

Barry McNamara
10/07/2010
Around these parts, there is little opportunity to celebrate the 600th anniversary of anything, so when the chance arose to do so abroad, Monmouth College’s Bill Urban took advantage.

Urban, MC’s Lee L. Morgan Professor of History and International Studies, flew to Poland, where he attended a conference organized to celebrate the history, traditions and politics of the 1410 battle of Grunwald/Tannenberg/Z˙algiris. The September event included half-hour talks by the “foremost experts” on the battle.

“I was invited because my books on the Teutonic Knights have been appreciated by experts and translated into Polish, Lithuanian, Swedish, Hungarian, Italian and Russian,” said Urban. “Two people at the conference told me how much they appreciated reading something written for the general public rather than only for other specialists.”

Urban assumes this was the first conference “organized jointly by Poles and Lithuanians.”

“So I had to go – it is a perfect example of my long argument that the past should remain in the past, and that people should moved forward instead of looking back in anger,” he said.

The first part of the conference was held at the former grandmaster’s castle of Marienburg, a huge fortress designed to impress visiting crusaders. In fact, it was never taken during the Middle Ages. Though reduced to ruins in World War II, it has been carefully restored.

“One afternoon, we were taken by bus two hours to the battlefield, where we were carefully told that the display indicating where the armies had lined up would be brought up to date according to more recent scholarship,” said Urban. “That was good because one of the participants, Sven Ekdahl – an old friend – had done that research.”

The second part of the conference was held in the old Polish capital of Cracow, inside Wawel Castle. That was where Urban spoke on the importance of the battle today.

“It’s very different from its past symbolic significance,” said Urban. “Grunwald has little to say to the politics of 2010, and while 100,000 people gathered at the battlefield in July, they were there to watch the reenactment, not to make a statement about Polish nationalism. I found this a good development, similar to the reenactments of Civil War battles in America. I must not have offended anyone, because nobody stood up during the discussion period to present a long, passionate, alternative view of my talk, as was the fate of a few presenters.”

Urban spent part of the summer of 1973 in Cracow on a Polish language program and recalls visiting Marienburg and Grunwald.

“Then, in 1994, the very year in which ‘Schindler’s List’ appeared, I had taken students to Cracow and Auschwitz,” said Urban. “In contrast to Communist austerity and puritanism, and the post-Communist transition period, Poland is a modern western country in every way.”