Germany-Poland: Slubfurt, unreal city for some
6 August 2009
Before 1945, Germany's town of Frankfurt an der Oder and Poland's town of Słubice, which are separated by the river Oder, used to form a single town. In a bid to revitalize cross-border relations, a German-Polish association has launched a series of projects focused on a virtual municipal area that includes both towns. Not everyone is happy with this initiative.
At the "Slubfurt" local elections in June, everyone – including minors, foreigners and unregistered voters – had the right to vote. The unregulated election was possible because Slubfurt is not a real town, but a virtual one which combines the names and populations of two towns on opposite banks of the river. As a result of this political experiment, Slubfurt, which does not appear on any official maps now has its own local parliament – an encouraging testament to the will on the part of residents on both sides of the border to build a common German-Polish future.
The idea for the election came from the students of Viadrina European University in Frankfurt an der Oder, and the artist Michael Kurzwelly, who had already launched the Slubfurt bilateral citizens' association ten years ago. "I wanted to branch out from the world of art galleries, which are always attended by the same crowd and the same handful of art critics," he explains. "So I decided to create a new reality, directly anchored in urban space. And it is important to bear in mind that the parliament is not just a game, because it has to decide on essential questions for the town." For example, in the course of the first session, the parliament ruled in favour of a plan to build a German-Polish cycling track that will traverse the Oder, and the publication of a tourist guide for the town of Slubfurt. It also expressed a desire to participate in the launch of a bilingual television channel. With grants available, there is a real possibility that members of the Slubfurt parliament will see all of these projects implemented. In the meantime, they will have to wait for more official authorities to catch up with their initiative.
Germans mainly oppose the Slubfurt project
Before the Second World War, the towns of Frankfurt and Słubice were a single entity. But reuniting populations that history has set apart, is no easy matter. For an understanding of the sad reality of official cross-border cooperation, look no further than the project for a tramline to connect the two towns via the only bridge that link them. Amid the euphoria of the 1990s, a German proposition to provide better transport between Frankfurt and Słubice, prompted a Polish outcry – which was mainly orchestrated by the association of taxi drivers, who earned a significant part of their income from driving Germans who had come to shop in Poland back across the border.
Today, opposition to the project is mainly from German shop owners, who are worried that tourists who cross the river by tram rather than on foot will no longer visit their businesses. The same faction is also highlighting the results of a referendum, which they insist shows that 80% of Germans are opposed to the establishment of a joint public transport system for the two towns. This conclusion, however, should be taken with a pinch of salt because only a third of the residents of Frankurt participated in the vote. Unfortunately, some Germans take the view that they will be obliged to pay for the system that will mainly be of benefit to Poles. Similar expressions of prejudice can also be found in letters to both Polish and German local papers, many of which make cutting allusions to cultural differences, and atrocities that occurred during and shortly after the Second World War.
At this point, the project for a shared tram line seems as unrealistic as proposals that aim to bridge the linguistic divide marked by the Oder. In his programme for the recent local elections, municpal counsellor in the Slubfurt Parliament, Krzysztof Kolanowski, advocated the adoption of bilingual street signs in both towns. This would imply a major break with the current reality on both sides of the river. On the Polish side there are no visible traces of the German language apart from a few "Wechselstube" [bureau de change] signs, while in the town of Frankfurt, there are only two restaurants with bilingual menus in Polish and German. Other restaurant owners refuse even to discuss the issue.
36 European town share a border
36 European towns are split by a national boundary, and some of the best known examples are the German-Polish border. These include Guben and Gubin and Görlitz and Zgorzelec, both of which have longstanding history of collaboration on infrastructure – unlike Słubice and Frankfurt whose official representatives are not even willing to meet each other. Town councils on both sides of the Oder cannot see the point of Slubfurt, but the project is moving ahead without them. Slubfurt now has its own post code, as well as its own local newspaper and bilingual postcards – and since mid-July, it has its own municipal parliament. Traditional politicians are starting to feel undermined by this neighbourly game, which is not to their liking.
"This artist is completely crazy, and simply using the town for self-promotion. The real situation is quite different. We cannot meet with the Poles, they are just too proud," claims Volker Kulle, a politician who sits on the left of the Frankfurt town council.