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Save these houses: a new report highlights the threats to one of Europe's least-known legacies of historic buildings: the country houses of Silesia.


One of the strangest and most macabre of museums was installed almost a century ago in the town house of a branch of the von Richthofen family in Schweidnitz in Silesia (Fig. 2). Assembled by Baroness Kunigunde von Richthofen, it celebrated the triumphs of her son Manfred as he rose to fame as Germany's leading fighter ace during the Great War. Here were displayed the victory cups made to commemorate most of Von Richthofen's 80 victories in the air--the highest score of any fighter pilot in the conflict--together with photographs and objects salvaged from downed machines: broken propellers, machine guns and fabric ripped from the airframes bearing cockades or serial numbers and other souvenirs. A final surreal touch was given by the room being lit by a chandelier ingeniously made from the rotary engine of a downed Royal Flying Corps aeroplane--for most of his victims were British.

Just as Sir Albert Ball, once mayor of Nottingham, kept the memory of his son, Albert Ball, VC, Britain's first famous fighter ace, alive after the war (there are relics in Nottingham Castle Museum and an interesting monument in the grounds), so the Baroness developed the museum after Manfred's still controversial death in April 1918. In 1933 (significant date) the museum changed from being private to public (Hermann Goring, who later commanded Richthofen's squadron, failed to turn up for the opening). Richthofen was also commemorated in Berlin, where he was rebuffed, with aeroplanes he had flown, including an Albatros biplane painted his trademark red, being displayed in the army museum in the baroque Zeughaus or Arsenal (today the Deutsches Historisches Museum).

If it is considered admirable to be skilled and resourceful in shooting down enemy aeroplanes, then 'The Red Baron', Manfred Freiherr von Richthofen, was, like Ball, a remarkable and brave young hero. But he is not celebrated in his native land today. This is not just because of Germany's admirable rejection of her military past, which makes both wartime heroism and her World War I history problematic (although a recent film called Der rote Baron was based on his life: a pity that it was both inaccurate and terrible), but also because the exhibits have disappeared. The aeroplanes and much else in the Zeughaus were destroyed by Allied bombs during World War II and the contents of the Richthofen Museum simply vanished after Lower Silesia was overrun by the Red Army in late 1944. Were they destroyed? Or are they now hidden somewhere in Russia, along with so much else?

At least the mid-19th century Italianate villa in Schweidnitz, now called Swidnica, still stands and is in reasonable condition. However, most of the houses of the old Silesian aristocracy and landed families are now in a parlous state, if they survive at all, for Silesia is no longer German but Polish. The land was once part of the ancient kingdom of Poland; later it became part of the kingdom of Bohemia, then a province of the Habsburg Empire before it was seized by Frederick the Great of Prussia in the middle of the 18th century. Silesia, with its capital Breslau, now Wroclaw, became an important and prosperous part of the German empire. And then, in one of the terrible population movements that took place after World War II, some three million Germans, both Protestant and Catholic, were expelled as the boundaries of Poland were shifted westwards. They were replaced by two million Catholic Poles, themselves ejected from Poland's eastern territories seized by the Soviet Union.


Those evicted included families such as the Von Richthofens, who had been in Silesia for centuries. Their country houses were pillaged and looted, first by the Red Army and then by the new immigrants, who naturally had no interest in or respect for the artefacts and culture of the nation that had invaded and occupied Poland so brutally in 1939. Similarly, the Polish authorities, who took such care to reconstruct the ruined centre of Warsaw, were only interested in restoring buildings with ancient Polish associations. So the country houses that had belonged to the Silesian aristocracy were taken over for communal or official use by the Communist government and, inevitably, neglected and spoiled. Nor were matters improved by Communism's end, for many of the houses that were not too ruinous or in multiple occupation were then bought by speculators who often made matters worse. Today, of the several hundred houses that survive, less than 5% seem to have found a long-term future and are being restored.

This estimate is given in a new publication, Silesia: The Land of Dying Country Houses, published by saw Europe's Heritage, the admirable body who recently helped expose the threat to the historic buildings of Moscow and St Petersburg (APOLLO, December 2007 and January 2010). It is a report of a tour of Silesia by Marcus Binney and the architect Kit Martin, together with the historian Wojciech Wagner, who provided historical and architectural information on the 100 or so country houses illustrated, which mostly date from the 16th to the 19th centuries. It is depressing reading. 'In Silesia', Martin writes, 'we found one of the most spectacular concentrations of country houses and castles in the whole of western Europe, with enormous potential, yet the majority of these buildings could be beyond practical repair within the next 20 years.'

But SAVE is always positive and Martin, with his experience of dividing and converting country houses in Britain, proposes that while some of the Silesian houses might be lived in again and a few--such as Schinkel's Kamenz, or Kaminiec Zabkowicki--are worthy of being open to the public as historic buildings, others could be hotels or offices while some could be restored to encourage the regeneration of village centres. All this, of course, requires both money and political will, while it will take time to make Silesia a tourist destination able to support a number of country hotels. The authors point out, however, that the country house in Britain seemed doomed in the 1950s but since the 'Destruction of the Country House' exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in 1974 the situation has completely changed. Publicity is what matters, but the trouble is that, after over half a century of neglect, the situation is desperate.

Silesia is not, of course, the only part of Europe where, because of political and population changes resulting from the dreadful history of the last century, historic buildings are in danger. There is Transylvania, for instance, which I hope to write about in a future article. But Silesia was at the centre of great events and of European politics for centuries, and the tangible legacy of a rich and diverse cultural past survives. It is a part of Europe that deserves to be better known and appreciated. But one significant local institution that is not likely to be recreated in the foreseeable future is the Richthofen Museum in Swidnica.


Silesia: The Land of Dying Country Houses is available from SAVE Europe's Heritage, for 15 [pounds sterling] + 2.50 pounds sterling] p+p. Contact SAVE at 70 Cowcross Street, London ECIM 6EJ (+44 (0) 7253 3500) or download an order form at www. Please contact SAVE for overseas postal rates
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Title Annotation:ARCHITECTURE
Author:Stamp, Gavin
Geographic Code:4EXPO
Date:Mar 1, 2010
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