Life, Liberty, and Free Beer: the Short-lived Free State of Schwenten

Almost a century after its dissolution, two hilarious anecdotes are the Free State's main legacy.

Comedy is tragedy plus time. Take, for example, the Freistaat Schwenten: founded under the shadow of war and disbanded amid great national trauma, this short-lived ministate's memory was hijacked by the Nazis. Yet almost a century after its dissolution, the Free State's main legacy are two hilarious anecdotes: the one about its navy and the frozen lake, and the one about its parliament and the free beer.

But first: the tragedy.

As if four bloody years of world war weren't enough, the volatile eastern frontier of the crumbling Kaiserreich erupted in violence at the end of 1918, after Germany's defeat in World War I. The fighting centered on what to the Germans was the Prussian province of Posen, named after its capital.

Prussia was the core state of the German Empire, but Posen was its only non-German province: fully two-thirds of its 2 million inhabitants were Polish (and Catholic), the German (and 90 percent Protestant) population was concentrated in the province's west. 

To the Poles, the city of Posen was Poznań, and the surrounding area was Wielkopolska, ("Greater Poland"), the historical core of the independent Polish state, wiped off the map after the Congress of Vienna (1815) divided what was left of Poland among Russia, Prussia, and Austria.

A German defeat would be the best opportunity in a century to get Poland back on the map, and sort out a large number of other injustices in Europe and the world. That at least was the idea behind U.S. President Woodrow Wilson's famous Fourteen Points, formulated in early 1918. The 13th point stated that: 

An independent Polish state should be erected which should include the territories inhabited by indisputably Polish populations, which should be assured a free and secure access to the sea, and whose political and economic independence and territorial integrity should be guaranteed by international covenant.

Wilson's explicit reference to Poland is largely due to Ignacy Paderewski, the famous piano virtuoso, who had been campaigning vigorously for Polish independence, in the U.S. and elsewhere. On 27 December 1918, Paderewski [1] gave a speech at Poznań, then still excluded from the fledgling new Poland coagulating west of imperial Germany's borders. It was the start of a full-scale Polish rebellion against German rule.

The Free State of Schwenten

To the townsfolk of Schwenten, the escalating instability must have felt like a terrifying avalanche. The railway town of less than a thousand souls was predominantly German [2], and surrounded by villages that were mainly Polish. Schwenten sent out emissaries to German troops camped out in Glogau (now Głogów), across the provincial border in Silesia. They proved unwilling or unable to help defend the town against the Polish militias that were taking control of much of the area. 

In desperation, the people of Schwenten took their fate into their own hands. At a town meeting on 5 January 1919 in the Gasthaus Wolff, the inhabitants of Schwenten declared their independence — and their neutrality. The Freistaat Schwenten was born. The most urgent point on the new state's agenda was keeping the peace: Negotiations with the Polish commanders in the neighboring towns of Kiebel and Obra resulted in a non-aggression pact. 

The worst fighting between Germans and Poles was over by 16 February 1919, when the Allies imposed an armistice and a demarcation line (largely along the divide that separated majority-German from majority-Polish areas, although the eventual border would be different still).

The government of the Free State.

But the Free State rambled on. Emil Gustav Hegemann, the local reverend, was elected president and foreign minister. Town mayor Heinrich Drescher was appointed minister of the interior, while Karl Teske, the forest warden, was appointed minister of war. Plans to appoint the village barber as minister of the navy came to naught, as the local lake was completely frozen.

Schwenten instituted a constitution, proclaimed laws and filed a budget. An aggravating circumstance for the latter was the fact that Schwenten was unable to tax its main export, beer. Herr Schulz, who ran the Gasthaus where the Schwenten Parliament held its meetings, had made it clear that he would no longer ply his guests with free beer if they levied a tax on the stuff.

The Freistaat managed to live in peace with its neighbors, both German and Polish. Both sides recognized the Free State's neutrality. Foreigners who wanted to pass through town needed a visum, stamped by the local church office.

When it became clear that Schwenten would remain part of Germany, the state disbanded itself on 10 August 1919, declaring itself part of Germany. This only took effect on 9 June 1920, when the Treaty of Versailles came into force. To celebrate their curious, brief independence, the people of Schwenten held an annual Fest at the Historic Inn on 9 June, where the Entente Commission had come to approve its accession to Germany.

The Armistice line. Schwenten is to the northwest of Lissa (now Leszno).

The Nazis seized upon this annual celebration as an example of German heroism, with honchos like Reichsleiter Robert Ley and Interior Minister Wilhelm Frick participating in the annual celebrations.

After 1945, the area returned to Poland, and the remaining German population was expelled.

Schwenten today is called Świętno, a Polish village an hour and a half's drive southwest of Poznań, lodged firmly and deeply inside Poland. 

 Schwenten wasn't the only Freistaat to emerge from Germany's post-war chaos. See #179 for the curious history of the Freistaat Flaschenhals (Bottleneck).

Many thanks to Ruland Kolen for sending in the map of the Freistaat Schwenten. Map of the Free State taken here at Wikipedia. Picture of the presidency taken here at Wikigag. Map of the armistice taken here at Wikipedia. 

Strange Maps #718

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[1] Paderewski would go on to become the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Poland, for most of 1919. He signed the Versailles Treaty for Poland, and would later become his country's representative at the League of Nations. 

[2] Wholly German according to German Wikipedia, mainly German on Polish Wikipedia. I guess this proves that objectivity is that arrangement of the facts which best suits your particular story.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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