Model of Betrayal – The Plastic Panorama of Old Lwów (Lviv: The History Of One City #20)

Hidden from public view, stored in a museum vault in Wrocław, Poland is a scale model known as the Plastic Panorama of Old Lwów. The model’s title does not quite do it justice. For one thing, the panoramic model is not really plastic. Among the materials used to construct it included lead, sheet copper and fine pasteboard, not exactly what most fine works of art are made from. The model was also more than just a panorama. It was an intimately detailed reconstruction of the city of Lwów (Lviv, Ukraine today) as it looked in the mid-18th century just prior to the end of Polish rule and before the Austrian Habsburg takeover of the city. The three dimensional model was done with exacting historical accuracy, featuring the streets and buildings of Lwów with everything done to a scale of 200:1. The panorama in all its exquisite details was unprecedented. It was both an immaculate snapshot of Baroque Lwów and a reflection of the vision of its creator, Janusz Witwicki, an architect and art historian. Witwicki managed to continue work on the Panorama during some of the 20th century’s worst geopolitical upheavals, before he too was consumed by the maelstrom that ended Polish Lwów.

The Plastic Panorama of Old Lwów

The Plastic Panorama of Old Lwów (Credit: Andrzej Solnica)

A Baroque Vision – Witwicki Recreates Old Lwów
Janusz Witwicki was born in Austro-Hungarian Lemberg in 1903. His father, Wladyslaw was a highly acclaimed professor, known for his teachings and writings on psychology, philosophy, aesthetics and art history. Janusz also showed an affinity for art history as well as an obsessive fascination with Lwów’s architecture. He cultivated this interest at one of his first jobs, working in the office of Lwów’s conservator of monuments. He went on to follow his father into teaching, soon gaining an assistant professorship at Lwów’s prestigious technical university. In the late 1920’s Witwicki discovered his true calling when he was selected to design models for the Lwów pavilion at the Polish National Exhibition in Poznan. He constructed many fine replicas for display. They bore an astonishing resemblance to the architectural works of his hometown.

Just two years later, while in Paris, Witwicki was inspired with the idea to create a model of historical Lwów as it looked in the waning years of the Kingdom of Poland. His panorama would focus on Lwów during the Baroque period. This era appealed architecturally to Witwicki since it was the antithesis of the neo-classical and secessionist influences that had been the hallmark of Austrian imposed architectural modernity on Lwów. Fortunately for Witwicki, 80% of the Baroque era buildings of Lwów’s Old Town had survived Austrian rule. He would be able to perfect his model by closely studying many of these original buildings still extant from the cityscape he strived to recreate. Witwicki’s objective was not just to reconstruct the past, but also to showcase the enduring Polishness of the city. In this frontier city of the Second Republic of Poland, Witwicki would help promote nationalism by evoking the glorious Polish past of Lwów.

Janusz Witwicki

Janusz Witwicki – creator of the Plastic Panorama of Old Lwów (Credit: ©Witwicki Parsons Family Archives)

From the early 1930’s until the end of his life Witwicki was in the grip of an obsession. He spent hundreds of hours surveying and measuring buildings to ensure the precision of his models. Many days were spent digging into the city’s archival holdings where he would pour over maps, sketches and paintings that accurately represented mid-18th century Lwów. Witwicki was not alone in this pursuit. He put together a team of specialists, including architectural engineers and modelers who could help create the Panorama. He used his own financial resources to pay for much of the early work. As the project grew, so did Witwicki’s need to bring in greater financial backing.

In 1939 he was able to convince the city to pay one-third of the costs for the creation of the Panorama. It was a hard won success that would soon turn to disappointment. The city only paid a small portion of what they had promised. Perhaps there would have been more funding, but everything changed on September 1, 1939 when World War II broke out. Nazi Germany mercilessly attacked Poland, heavily bombing Lwów from the air on the first day. Less than three weeks later Soviet forces invaded Eastern Poland. Within a matter of weeks the Soviets had occupied Lwów. Work on the Panorama was temporarily frozen. Though models of the larger buildings had been completed, Witwicki’s grand project was now threatened, as would be his life.

Against All Odds & Two Ideologies
Between 1939 and 1944 Lwów suffered three tyrannical occupations in succession. Witwicki suffered almost as badly as the city did and was lucky to escape with his life. He was arrested on three separate occasions. At one point he was forced to bribe the Nazis in order to regain his freedom. Incredibly, he continued to work on the Panorama. He audaciously petitioned the Nazi German city administration for access to archival resources so he could continue his work. At the same time, several of the twenty specialists he employed on the project were members of the Polish underground. The occupation authorities did allow his request to go forward. It seems that Witwicki’s perseverance had paid off. By the time Soviet rule over the city was established in 1944, none other than Nikita Khrushchev, now in charge of the Ukraine, paid a visit to Witwicki’s studio. He was highly impressed with the Panorama, even offering words of support, but Khrushchev also acknowledged that politically the Panorama did not fit with Soviet plans for the city. The Polish community was starting to be hollowed out.

This process would force over one hundred thousand of Lwów’s Poles to move west into what had been eastern Germany. The city’s future was to be Soviet, with an overwhelming ethnic majority of Ukrainians. Witwicki had been able to dodge the worst excesses of the war, but its aftermath was turned into an entirely different matter. He was an ethnic Pole recreating a marvelous Polish historical model of the city. The Soviets did not completely oppose his work. Instead they suggested that it be altered with a greater Ukrainian influence. A Ukrainian director was installed as head of the project. There was little doubt that Witwicki was losing control over his beloved Panorama. With Poles being forced to leave the city by the thousands, he knew that it was just a matter of time before the Panorama was confiscated. This was what exactly happened in April of 1946.

The Plastic Panorama of Old Lwów

Up close and personal with the past – The Plastic Panorama of Old Lwów

Rather than wait for the situation to worsen, Witwicki directly petitioned Khrushchev and Stalin to allow him to leave for Poland with the Panorama. Strangely enough his request was granted. Soviet authorities in the city had other ideas though. They opposed the Panorama being taken out of the city. In Stalin’s Soviet Union a local or regional official would hardly ever chance overriding an order from Khrushchev or Stalin. To do so was a virtual death sentence. What happened next, while not surprising, is perplexing. On July 16th, only three days before Witwicki was due to leave for Poland three men from Moscow met with him. They claimed to be newspaper correspondents, but most likely they were NKVD (precursor to the KGB) agents. Witwicki was murdered by these men. His wife, Irena was not allowed to view his body.

The whole sordid episode had the hallmarks of a Soviet conspiracy, leaving questions that could never be answered. Who exactly ordered Witwicki’s murder has never been discovered? Was it local officials acting out of malice? Had Khrushchev and Stalin played a cynical game with Witwicki? Were they really going to allow him to leave for Poland with the Panorama? Strangely enough the answer may be yes. Not long after the murder, the widowed Irena was given permission to leave for Poland and take the Panorama with her. It ended up at the Polish National Museum in Warsaw before being taken to Wrocław where the majority of Lwów’s Polish community had been resettled. It would stay in storage until the Iron Curtain fell.

The Panorama of Old Lwów on display in Wrocław

The Panorama of Old Lwów on display in Wrocław

The Light Of Display – A Model City Vanishes
In the early 1990’s Janusz Witwicki’s unfinished masterpiece, the Plastic Panorama of Old Lwów was put back on display at the Museum of Architecture in Wrocław. For the first time in decades, the public was able to marvel at its exquisite re-creation of a Lwów that had been lost to history and then recreated through an obsessive study of history. Only through sheer will, force of personality and single mindedness had Witwicki managed to bring old Lwów back to life. If only for a moment Witwicki had managed to defeat time and accurately represent a past that had all but vanished. Then the moment passed. In 2003 the Panorama was once again placed in storage. Fortunately, it has come to light in more recent times. Following a very extensive conservation process in September 2015 the model went on permanent exhibit at the Hala Stulecia in Wroclaw.

* Special thanks to Eve Chrzanowska Parsons (Grand-daughter of Janusz and Irena Witwicki) for her invaluable assistance with this article.

By Force of Fear & Honor – The Final Days of the Siege of Przemysl

Late on the night of March 18th, sleet and wet snow began to fall in eastern Galicia. At the fortress of Przemysl soldiers of the 23rd Honved Infantry Regiment as well as other units were assembling for an attempt to break through an encircling ring of Russian forces. The massive citadel placed strategically on the San River had been under siege four consecutive months. Many of the soldiers were barely able to muster enough energy to walk toward their marshalling point on the eastern edge of the fortress works. Others collapsed before they made it out of the barracks, their reserves of energy all but expended. For the past several months these soldiers had subsisted on a diet that consisted of tea for breakfast, a kilogram of meat and a bit of bread for lunch, followed by a slice of bread and more tea for dinner. An officer’s reports estimated that only 30% of one regiment due to take part in the attack was fit for duty.

General Hermann  Kusmanek von Burgneustadten- Commanding officer of the Austrian-Hungarian forces during the siege of Przemysl

General Hermann Kusmanek von Burgneustadten- Commanding officer of the Austrian-Hungarian forces during the siege of Przemysl

Superhuman Efforts – By Force of Fear & Honor
As the soldiers emerged from a fitful sleep earlier that evening, they were wet, cold and on the verge of exhaustion. It was a miracle they could even attempt such an attack. On that same day they had been rallied by a speech from the fortress commander, General Herman Kusmanek von Burgneustadten who said: “Soldiers, for nearly half a year, in spite of cold and hunger, you have defended the fortress entrusted to you. The eyes of the world are fixed on you. Millions at home are waiting with painful eagerness to hear the news of your success. The honor of the army and our fatherland requires us to make a superhuman effort. Around us lies the iron ring of the enemy. Burst a way through it and join your comrades who have been fighting so bravely for you and are now so near. I have given you the last of our supplies of food. I charge you to go forward and sweep the foe aside. After our many gallant and glorious fights we must not fall into the hands of the Russians like sheep; we must and will break through.”

Soldiers who were not roused by these words may have been motivated by another force, fear. Their commanding officers issued threats that those who returned to the fortress would be charged with cowardice or treason. Whether it was fear or honor, the soldiers found enough courage to mount an attack. General Kusmanek knew the real truth though. Prior to the attack he had sent a message to the Supreme Warlord, Emperor Franz Josef: “Although the troops have lost most of their strength after long ordeals of all kinds, we will begin this attempt so that before our probable downfall we will perhaps render assistance to the field armies.”

From Slim To Impossible
At 5:00 a.m. buffeted by an icy wind, the 23rd Honved led the thrust forward. The Russians had been intercepting radio messages transmitted by the Austro-Hungarian command. This gave them warning of the direction from which the attack would come. The Russian artillery fire was deadly accurate. For the next nine hours the Austro-Hungarian troops made a futile attempt to break the Russian line. In the early afternoon the attack was finally called off. The result was that the 23rd Honved was utterly decimated. Two-thirds of the regiment had been killed or wounded. Kusmanek transmitted another message to Franz Josef trying to put the best face on the failure. “Because of the total exhaustion of the soldiers, any further breakthrough attempt would be completely fruitless. Therefore I will hold the fortress as long as possible; by continuing to pin down the enemy units we can still be of use to the field armies….we will persevere to the end.” The end was not far away.

The possibility of a breakout had been slim before the failed assault, now it was impossible. Now there were only two options left for the 120,000 soldiers surrounded within fortress Przemysl, either starve or surrender. With only a few days of rations left in the fortress, the latter course seemed probable.

One of the Przemysl forts showing damage that occured at the end of the siege

One of the Przemysl forts showing damage that occured at the end of the siege

The End of the World Arrives
On the same day that the breakout attempt failed, the decision was made by the officers to burn at least 600,000 crowns of paper money. In today’s terms this would be the equivalent of $27.5 million. Horses were slaughtered wholesale in the streets. The meat was divided among the starving soldiers. On the 20th and 21st, the garrison encountered yet another problem, they were forced to turn back Russian assaults. Then late on the night of the 21st a series of thunderous explosions began from inside the fortress walls. The artillery that had helped protect Przemysl for so many months was now packed with demolition charges or deliberately overloaded with powder. The Austro-Hungarian forces were not going to allow the Russians to get their hands on these guns. One observer in the Russian ranks was awestruck by what he saw from a distance. “The flash of the shells illuminated the hillsides in patches of blue light, giving the soldiers a ghastly appearance. It looked uncanny – almost like the Last Judgment.”

The spectacle from within the fortress was just as terrifying. A young boy by the name of Yosef Altbauer remembered how: “the policemen spread out through the city, awakened the population from its sleep, and ordered them to leave their houses, leave their windows open and to go out in the field, for they were about to blow up all of the fortifications. This was an unforgettable night of hell. When the bombing of the fortifications, the bridges, and weapons caches began all at once toward morning, we thought that the end of the world had arrived.”

The end of one world had arrived as a new day dawned over the late winter landscape of the smoldering fortress. At 9:00 a.m. on March 22nd the first Russian troops entered the city. The siege of Przemysl was at an end. A fleetingly short rule by the Russians was at its beginning.
Sources: Austria-Hungary’s Last War 1914 – 1918 .Volume 2, Austrian Federal Ministry of the Army and War Archive
Przemysl: Siege and Surrender. Christopher Duffy, Volume 2: The Marshal Cavendish Illustrated Encyclopedia of World War I
Przemysl During the Time of the Siege (1914-1915) by Yosef Altbauer

Grounded – The Red Baron on the Eastern Front

Manfred Von Richthofen, better known as the Red Baron, is renowned for his prowess as a fighter ace during the First World War. He was credited with 80 kills of enemy fighters, before finally being shot down in combat during the last year of the war. Despite his death, Richthofen has become one of the legendary personages of the conflict. In a war where machine trumped man and mass movements were ascendant over the individual, the Red Baron nickname evokes a chivalrous knight of the skies waging a more gentlemanly type of warfare.

The legendary Red Baron endures, perhaps because in him we see an individual able to co-opt and transcend the modern methods of war. Those who romanticize Richthofen might be surprised to discover that the Red Baron started out grounded during the war. He was a member of another often idealized branch of military service, the cavalry. In addition, he did not get start on the western front where he would later acquire his fame. Instead he faced the Russians in the east, where he first had to survive a close call long before he was able to attain glory in the skies above.

He survived the Eastern Front & found fame - Manfred von Richthofen on a postcard from 1917

He survived the Eastern Front & found fame – Manfred von Richthofen on a postcard from 1917

Frontier Beginnings – Adventure & Danger
Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen was born in Silesia, close to the city of Breslau in Imperial Germany (today it the city of Wroclaw in southwestern Poland). The Freiherr in his name was a title of nobility, that would eventually be transformed into the nom de guerre of Baron. As a child Richthofen showed an aptitude for hunting and horsemanship. He began training for the military at the tender age of eleven. This was not out of the ordinary for males of Prussian aristocratic lineage. At the age of nineteen, Richthofen joined an Uhlan cavalry regiment. Ironically, the regiment took its name from Russian Tsar Alexander III. When the Great War erupted, Richthofen did not have the slightest cognizance of the role that airpower would play in either military strategy or his own life. Instead he found himself as a young lieutenant leading a patrol along the German-Russian frontier. This is where he gained success as well as got his first taste of danger.

Escape From the Cossacks
On August 1, 1914 Germany declared war on Russia. Within a say Richthofen was leading a patrol into enemy territory. Almost immediately, they captured a Russian village without so much as firing a shot. Showing a forthright aggressiveness, Richthofen took the village priest hostage, locking him away in the bell tower of the local church. The priest was to be shot if any of the village’s citizens failed to cooperate with the Germans. Unfortunately for Richthofen, most of his fellow soldiers were dispatched to perform other duties in the coming days. This left him and two other compatriots alone in hostile territory. Soon enough the dreaded enemy arrived.

What happened next was related by Richthofen a few years later in his autobiography, The Red Fighter Pilot:“During that night the sentinel came suddenly rushing to the church tower near which the horses had been put. He called out, “The Cossacks are there!” The night was as dark as pitch. It rained a little. No stars were visible. One couldn’t see a yard ahead.

As a precaution we had previously breached the wall around the churchyard. Through the breach we took the horses into the open. The darkness was so great that we were in perfect security after having advanced fifty yards. I myself went with the sentinel, carbine in hand, to the place where he pretended he had seen Cossacks.

Gliding along the churchyard wall I came to the street. When I got there I experienced a queer feeling, for the street swarmed with Cossacks. I looked over the wall, behind which the rascals had put the horses. Most of them had lanterns, and they acted very uncautiously and were very loud. I estimated that there were from twenty to thirty of them. One had left his horse and gone to the Pope whom I had let off the day before.

Immediately it flashed through my brain: “Of course we are betrayed!” Therefore, we had to be doubly careful. I could not risk a fight because I could not dispose of more than two carbines. Therefore, I resolved to play at robber and police.

After having rested a few hours, our visitors rode away again.

On the next day I thought it wise to change our quarters. On the seventh day I was again back in my garrison and everyone stared at me as if I were a ghost.”

Memorial at Richthofen's former home Świdnica, Poland - formerly Schweidnitz, Imperial Germany (Credit: Bonio)

Memorial at Richthofen’s former home Świdnica, Poland – formerly Schweidnitz, Imperial Germany (Credit: Bonio)

Avoiding Death – Taking Flight
It was the first of many escapes for the man who would come to be known as the Red Baron. The difference in this case was that it occurred on the ground rather than the air. In addition, this escape had involved a weeklong game of cat and mouse, whereas Richthofen’s future close calls would take place in a matter of seconds. The Red Baron was not quite taking flight at this point, but at least he was still a free man. A day after arriving back at his barracks Richthofen was headed to the western front . He was still in space and time a long way from his future aerial exploits. Richthofen would spend the coming months of the war as a dispatch runner. Perhaps a talent for hide and seek he had first cultivated on the Eastern Front became useful. He was able to avoid being killed or wounded until being granted a transfer to the flying service. This took him all the way back to where he had first started, on the Eastern Front. He was back to his roots, but from here his career really would begin to take flight. He started out on reconnaissance flights. Soon he would be headed for even greater adventures in the skies. First though, he could look down at the lands of the Eastern Front, where he had once run for his life.


Miracle of Illogic – The Austro-Hungarian Empire In Hindsight

Deep within the dusty tomes of long forgotten history books, hidden nuggets of illuminating information have been known to arise. The old saying that the truth is stranger than fiction can have a much deeper meaning when a fresh light is cast on a once obscure past. As we happen to be on the cusp of the 100th Anniversary of the First World War I have been doing some research on one of my favorite subjects, the Austro-Hungarian Military. Lately I have had the distinct pleasure of reading through Austria-Hungary’s Last War 1914 – 1918 prepared by the Austrian Federal Ministry of the Army and War Archive. This seven volume set was first published in 1930. Up until just a few years ago there was no English translation available. In 2010, a translation was finally completed by historian Stan Hanna. What an incredible achievement! The seven volumes run to several thousand pages in length. One hazards to guess how Hanna was able to do it all. With this translation English speaking military history buffs now have a window into nearly every facet of the Austro-Hungarian military apparatus during the Great War. A panoramic view is now available of the most multi-cultural empire in European history.

Ethnic map of Austria-Hungary

Ethnic map of Austria-Hungary

To the Ends of an Empire
Consider that it was almost exactly one hundred years ago when the Austria-Hungary went to war with a polyglot group of Central and Eastern Europeans who were tied together for better or worse by an old and faltering monarchy. The empire was home to 51 million people, consisting of nine different ethnic groups of at least a million or more in population. This demographic breakdown still has the power to amaze and confound. How such a multi-cultural, ethnic stew stayed together as long as it did, has become the subject of many debates.

Even more astonishing is the fact that during World War One, the army fought on three separate fronts, suffered hundreds of thousands of casualties, numerous setbacks and yet still somehow held together until the very last months of the conflict. Seemingly against all logic, a motley collection of ethnicities carried on a war in some of the most undesirable circumstances and locales experienced by any army in the modern age. Yes there were mutinies at times, yes there were disgruntled soldiers, desertions and surrenders, yes the empire disintegrated at the end of the war. These facts are all indisputable. Yet the empire also lasted for nearly the entire duration of the war, despite a panoply of competing cultures and nationalities vying for freedom, respect and independence.

All for One, One Against All
Perhaps the best way of trying to understand the miracle of illogic that was the Austro-Hungarian Empire is to breakdown just one of the many fascinating statistics found in the seven volumes. On page 42 of Austria-Hungary’s Last War, 1914 – 1918, Volume 1 is the following sentence: “Out of every 100 soldiers in the Austro-Hungarian Army there were 25 Germans, 23 Magyars, 13 Czechs, 9 Serbo-Croats, 8 Poles, 8 Ruthenes, 7 Romanians, 4 Slovaks, and 1 Italian.” This breakdown is quite compelling when viewed with hindsight. Today we know what became of the empire’s ethnic constituents.

Start with the fact that all of the above ethnic groups were squeezed within the borders of a single governing entity. The pressure of that squeeze caused fissures and faults along ethnic lines. The cracks exposed new nations and states, some of which have stood the test of time and others that have long since been resigned to the dustbin of history. A look at what became of these peoples in the aftermath of the empire’s dissolution is revealing. The Germans were predominantly from what would become the nation of Austria. It has been a successful state by any measure, excepting the period when it was sucked up into the vortex of Nazism. Other groups of Germans were scattered in several areas further east. Following the Second World War, luck, fate or a combination of both led them back to Germany via expulsion. The Magyars became a nation, now that they were no longer allowed to be the Kingdom of Hungary. For those Hungarians who still long to right the injustice of the Kingdom’s dismembering by the postwar Treaty of Trianon, they need to keep in mind that in the kingdom, Magyars were barely half the populace. In Hungary today they make up over 90% of the population. The war tore apart the Kingdom, but gave them a nation they can always call their own.

Austro-Hungarian soldiers in 1915. Ready for war or the end of an empire

Austro-Hungarian soldiers in 1915. Ready for war or the end of an empire

A Constant State of Becoming
The Czechs united with the Slovaks, creating a state which only lasted until the next war. It rose again after the war, but was peacefully sundered from within. Less than five years after the iron curtain ceased to exist so did Czechoslovakia. The Serbo-Croats started a South Slav state of their own, which descended into warring statelets due to the Second World War. Afterwards it was put back together again, but fell apart once and for all time following the end of communism. Freedom had a strange and unsettling effect on became known as the former Yugoslavia. The Poles finally got their nation back following the Great War, only to have it blown into near oblivion by the Nazis. Somehow it survived. Today it represents a successful, if precarious example of a successful post-communist state.

Then there was the Ruthenes, a people who have become the heart of Ukrainian nationalism in the western Ukraine today. Turning towards the west and then forced east, they are in a constant state of becoming. The story is much the same today as it was during the final decades of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Galicia playing its stereotypical role as impoverished backwater has been Europeanized with some success. The Romanians already had their nation, but to them it was never complete without Transylvania. They have pretty much had it that way – with one notable Hungarian forced exception – since the Great War. They have Transylvania, but will they ever have prosperity? And then there were the Tyrol Italians, caught between the Germanic and Latin worlds. They say you can’t have your cake and eat it too, but freed from the shackles of empire these Italians were gluttons who managed to escape the punishing legacy of a post imperial world.

Vanishing Act
In a nutshell, this is the history of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s constituent parts. What had been all for one prior to the Great War, became every ethnicity for itself at the end of the war. It was self-interest over collective interest. This was the ultimate betrayal of Austria-Hungary and led directly to its ruin. The results were or still are today: Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Yugoslavia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Poland, Greater Romania, the Soviet Union, Ukraine and Greater Italy. The loosely unified yet fatally flawed empire is today twelve disparate nations. A whole new world has come into being, born from a vanished one.