• “The only place on earth…” – with these words on the above postcard the description of a unique place on the map of Europe begins: the Corner of the Three Emperors. It was the meeting point of the borders of Prussia, Austria and Russia in Upper Silesia near the town of Myslowitz where these countries were neighbours from 1846 to 1915. Today, Myslowitz is known as Mysłowice and is located in southern Poland, but in those days, it lay at the eastern end of the German Empire on the route of legal and illegal migration of thousands of people from Eastern Europe to the West. However, the Corner of the Three Emperors was much more than a transport route: it was a tourist destination, a centre for the transfer of goods and an object of propaganda. Hundreds of postcards from the late 19th and early 20th century, which were used for more than just private messages, attest to the uniqueness of the place.

    Corner of the Three Emperors, published by H. Lukowski, Wrocław, 1913 (?)
    Silesian Digital Library, private collection


  • Today, postcards are no longer as important a communication tool as they used to be. They are being replaced by messages and photos that we post on social media. However, at the turn of the 20th century, postcards were the equivalent of online postings – fast, cheap and easily accessible. The first experimental postcards, still without illustrations, reached their recipients around 1840. In the following decades, the postcard craze took hold, and in 1905 alone, 7 billion postcards were sold worldwide. The development of tourism, or leisure travel, contributed to this: publishers began printing views of places visited by tourists on postcards, responding to the trend of sending short greetings. The popularity of such cards is shown in a satirical drawing by the German artist Adolf Hengeler.

    Adolf Hengeler, Tourists climb a pyramid in Egypt and write postcards, 1890
    Wikimedia Commons

  • Postcards from the Corner of the Three Emperors were very popular. Often, they simply depicted the border landscape, but were also enriched with additional elements which together told the story of the meeting of the three empires: images of everyday life, residents, visitors, trade, smuggling. At the same time, local card manufacturers emphasised the strategic role of the Corner by including portraits of the emperors: William I of Prussia, Franz Joseph of Austria Alexander II of Russia. In the above postcard, Wilhelm is shown at the top. His portrait, like the other two, is entwined with the branches of an oak tree – an emblem of Germany symbolizing the permanence of power .

    Corner of the Three Emperors (fragment), published by H. Lukowski, Wrocław, 1913 (?)
    Silesian Digital Library, private collection

  • Many postcards from the Corner feature views of the Przemsza River, a natural border between the three empires. Although the photographs usually show all three border areas, the perspective was usually captured from the side of the grand promenade on the Prussian side of the Przemsza. In this way, the landscape became a visual signal of Prussian dominance in the region. Such postcards, the most popular choice for visitors to the region, were often used to convey information about the journey. On this postcard sent to Berlin, the sender wrote in a mixture of Polish and German that he had crossed the border and was working for a Mister Pakuła without board, and that he did not like it in Nowa Huta near the Russian-Austrian border.

    Greetings from the Corner of the Three Empires near Mysłowice, published by Kunstverlag Bruno Scholz, Wrocław, 1907 (?) 
    Silesian Digital Library, private collection

  • The Bismarck Tower has also become a postcard symbol of Prussian domination of the region. Erected in 1907 on a hill above the Przemsza River, it was one of many similar granite buildings erected in the Empire the built to honour Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. It was 22 metres high a flame was lit at the top to illuminate the Prussian border. The tower attracted tourists in time it became the hallmark of the Corner of the Three Emperors. Its monumentality contrasted on Prussian postcards with the sparsely developed areas in its neighbours, especially on the Russian side. When the three empires collapsed as a result of the First World War the region became part of Poland in 1922, the new authorities first renamed the building the Insurgents’ Tower, then the Tadeusz Kościuszko Tower, and in 1933 had it demolished.

    Bismack Tower, Corner of the Three Emperors. View from Bismack Tower to Russian village Niwka, published by H. Lukowski, Wrocław, 1912

  • The postcards shaped the image not only of the Corner of the Three Emperors, but also of nearby Myslowitz. In the mid-19th century, thanks to the shifting of borders, this small town rose to become an important transport hub between the empires. Myslowitz’s prestige increased when the railway reached the town and travellers from Kraków or Wrocław could reach it without hindrance. Previously, the city had been a rare object of interest for artists and photographers; now, mass-produced local postcards like the one above showed the town’s imposing buildings, shady alleys and the picturesque promenade on the Przemsza, as well as elegant tourists and locals on walks and in restaurants. The postcards were an advertisement for the city, aimed especially at the German inhabitants of the border area. In doing so, they did not show the largest group of Myslowitz’s inhabitants – the Poles.

    The Corner of the Three Emperors in Myslowitz, published by H.C.B. publishing house, 1907
    Museum of the City of Mysłowice

  • Poles on the postcards are unrecognizable. This may have had political overtones and could have been a further signal of German domination of the town and the surrounding area. According to the Prussian narrative, the town owed its elegant appearance and modernity to its subordination to Prussian rule. In order to maintain this image, groups whose presence violated the sense of belonging of this place to Prussia had to be eliminated from the visual messages. That is why Myslowitz postcards such as the one above probably depict not Polish but German elite enjoying the city’s charms.

    The Corner of the Three Emperors in Myslowitz (fragment), published by H.C.B. publishing house, 1907
    Museum of the City of Mysłowice

  • Local postcard producers captured the image of the Corner of the Three Emperors and Myslowitz not only from the Prussian perspective. They also printed “views from Russia”, like the one above. From the meadows by the river, the panorama of Myslowitz was even more impressive and reinforced the conviction of the difference in development between Prussia and Russia. Prominent among Myslowitz’s urban buildings was the brick synagogue with two towers, built in 1899. Costly and impressive, the building testified to the wealth and high standing of the town’s small Jewish community of businessmen and merchants. In contrast, in the surrounding town of Modrzejów on the Russian side of the border, Jews made up almost 90 per cent of the population, but both their standard of living and their synagogue were much more modest.

    View of Myslowitz from the Russian side, published by Siegrfried Kochmann, Myslowitz, 1905
    Museum of the City of Mysłowice

  • Sometimes local publishers included unobvious motifs on their postcards. On the postcard above, the view of Myslowitz from the Russian customs office is accompanied by a lady sitting in a graceful pose, wearing a low-cut dress. The sender sent the postcard to a ‘Miss Marie Scheibert’, probably working in a fashion salon in nearby Chorzów. The image of the woman may have simply served to make the postcard more attractive. However, it could also have carried a less innocent message: in a border town known not only as a tourist destination, but also as a centre for the trafficking of women and prostitution, the figure of a lady became a promise of erotic entertainment and attracted visitors eager for such services.

    View from the Russian customs office in Modrzejów, published by Siegfried Kochmann, Myslowitz, 1912
    Museum in Sosnowiec, collection of Stefan Ślęzak

  • An image of a frivolously dressed and flirtatiously smiling woman also appears on this postcard. However, it is another motif that is worth special attention here. In the lower part of the postcard, showing the Modrzejów customs office on the Russian side of the border, a group of people can be seen: customs officials, women and children. Among them, more or less in the middle, stands a Jewish boy in traditional dress. Perhaps the publisher of the postcard deliberately chose such a shot to emphasise the fact that Modrzejów was a ‘Jewish town’. Thus, the boy on the postcard stands out for his ethnicity in the group, while at the same time being a natural part of the local landscape and community of Modrzejów, which was dominated by Jews in numbers.

    Greetings from Myslowitz, Upper Silesia. Russian customs house in Modrzejów, published by Kunstverlag Hermann Lukovski, Beuthen, 1906
    Silesian Digital Library

  • At the same time, Prussian postcards showing the Austrian border areas focused on other aspects. Publishers were much more likely to take into account the unique political relationship between the two countries, which, despite occasional conflicts, shared a cultural bond, language and a common past. Even if Prussian tourist guides featured descriptions of poverty and backwardness on the Austrian side, postcards showing the Austrian countryside had to bear the image of the three rulers, with the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph in the middle. This can be seen in the above postcard from Jęzor, a border village on the Austrian side of the Corner.

    Greetings from the Three Empires in Jęzor (Austria), published by HLB publishing house, 1908
    Museum of the City of Mysłowice

  • “Here is Mysłowice station, known as three borders’ location: Russian, Prussian and the third, for a hundred years now shared. A 10-minute stop, so I take advantage and write a letter.” This was the rhyme written by a Polish traveller in 1902 on a postcard showing customs officials standing in front of the Corner of the Three Emperors. Postcards with views of border crossings accompanied the fear of further travel, checking tickets and luggage search. They also provided the excitement of seeing what was just across the border – something that was both close and exotic. But the postcards also had a cautionary function, as the sight of uniformed customs officials was meant to deter smugglers.

    Greetings from the Corner of the Three Emperors near Mysłowice, published by Verlag M. Rölle, Buch-u. Papierhandl., Mysłowice, 1902
    National Library in Warsaw

  • Meanwhile, five hundred kilometres to the east, on the Austro-Russian border, life was idyllic. Or at least that was the impression the producers of postcards there wanted to give. On a postcard from the border crossing in Brody, today in Ukraine, travellers heading west to Austria were supposed to be greeted by a friendly group of locals, with only the barriers adding a touch of officialdom to the cheerful scene. The reality was different, however, and the area, where smugglers operated, was far from safe and idyllic: in the words of the Austrian writer Martin Pollack, “… the Galicians often used to say ‘he was lost in Brody’, when they wanted to make it clear that unfavourable fate had thrown someone into a gloomy and sad place, from where there was no return”.

    Brody: Border, published by Władysław Kocyan, Brody, 1914
    National Library in Warsaw, collection of J. Wasylkowski

  • However, those who overcame the obstacles and reached the Corner of the Three Emperors from the east could become an object of interest for Prussian postcard manufacturers. This was all the more so because the thousands of economic migrants trying to enter Prussia drew attention to themselves by their often-modest clothing. They contrasted with the uniformed customs officers and the fashionably dressed inhabitants of Myslowitz. Publishers included images of immigrants on postcards to emphasise the civilisational and material superiority of the Prussian people and the legal order prevailing in the area. They classified the newcomers as in the captions on the postcard above: “Old folk costumes from Galicia”, “Old folk costumes from Russian Poland”, “Old folk costumes from Upper Silesia”.

    Folk types in the Corner of the Three Emperors in old folk costumes, published by Hermann Lukowski, Breslau, before 1914
    Silesian Digital Library

  • The simplistic classification of the newcomers did not reflect their complex situation and individual fates. Their long journey to Bremen or Hamburg, often preceding the voyage to America, took place under difficult, sometimes humiliating conditions. The postcard illustrations avoid these uncomfortable topics by focusing on didactic or propaganda messages. The latter message is conveyed by the postcard seen above, which shows, in addition to the Galician peasants and the Prussian customs officers accompanying them, the buildings of the Main Agricultural Workers’ Centre in Berlin. The view of the Centre and armed uniformed men was meant to warn that the presence of foreign workers in Prussia was subject to legal control.

    Myslowitz in times of migrants and seasonal workers, published by Max Rolle, Myslowitz 1903

  • Postcards depicting scenes of smugglers being apprehended at border crossings, such as the one above, also contained caution. They were carefully composed, coloured, and featured decorative borders in an Art Nouveau style. They sometimes resembled scenes from crime literature or silent films. With their drama, these postcards went beyond the category of tourist souvenirs, as they carried a clear message: a warning to travellers and smugglers not to try to break the law, as they would be caught anyway.

    The Corner of the Three Emperors in Myslowitz, published by Max Rölle, Myslowitz, undated
    Museum of the City of Mysłowice

  • Postcard publishers in other regions were not so convinced of the tight control on the Prussian borders. A postcard from Greater Poland, then part of Prussia, depicts a coachman flying with his horse and cart over the heads of customs officials – and this despite the tight ranks of uniformed men guarding the crossing. The inscription on the postcard reads: “Through the air over the border” and emphasises the humorous meaning of the scene. There was probably a grain of truth in it, as illegal movement across the border was a well-known phenomenon, and there were presumably Jews among those bypassing the customs officers – just like the coachman on the postcard.

    Through the air above the border: a stile in Skalmierzyce, publisher unknown, 1906
    National Library in Warsaw

  • Jews also appeared on Prussian postcards from the Corner of the Three Emperors. Although the Jewish community had long inhabited the region, and in Myslowitz alone accounted for around 15 per cent of the population, the image of Jews on the postcards served rather to create an impression of their otherness and alienation. This was all the more so because on cards such as the one above, publishers showed traditional Eastern European Jews migrating from Austrian Galicia and the Russian Empire, rather than local, assimilated and looking like the majority of Prussian society. The use of the stereotypical image of the Jew was widespread in European antisemitic propaganda. The juxtaposition on the postcard of the figures of the Jewish traders with the scene of the arrest of the smuggler at the border crossing was intended to further arouse distrust of Jews and associate them with dishonest practices.

    Corner of the Three Emperors. Scene with a smuggler. Mixed goods trader at wholesale and retail. Types of emigrants. Lecture on trade, published by Max Rölle, Myslowitz, 1909
    Silesian Digital Library

  • Antisemitism on postcards could be even more explicit when the authors reached for the convention of satire. This can be seen in the postcard above. It depicts Jewish passengers on the Kraków–Vienna railway, whose route passed through Myslowitz. The men in the carriage in particular draw attention to themselves through their exaggerated appearance and behaviour: they have prominent noses and large mouths, and their clothes are designed to evoke unambiguous, stereotypical associations. Thus, the man in the bow-tie shirt and tailcoat is supposed to be a banker, the religious Jew wears a chalat, or a Jewish robe, and the frock-coat is worn by a representative of the bourgeoisie allegedly controlled by Jews. All three are animatedly discussing – their caricatured faces suggest that they are probably discussing shady business.

    Lithograph showing three Jewish men and a Jewish woman in a third-class carriage. Publisher, place and year of publication – unknown.
    Reprint of a postcard from the collection of Stefan Ślęzak

  • Thus, postcard Jews – eastern and western, urban and rural, wealthy and poor, traditional and assimilated – were burdened with the same ‘Jewish traits’ and fell into one antisemitic category. However, in the Corner of the Three Emperors, through which dozens of ethnic groups passed, the negative view of Jews was distinctive: on local postcards, only Jews were given caricatured features. This can be seen, among other things, in the above card: Jews like marionettes in a puppet theatre, artificially glued to the border landscape, contrast in appearance with the realistic figures representing other groups. The Jews on the postcard were intended to inspire distrust in the recipients, as were the types of occupations attributed to them on the postcard: “Swindler”, “Peddler”, “Junk seller”. Growing antisemitism was a reflection of increasing prejudice and radicalism in Europe at the beginning of the 20th century, and in this respect the Corner of the Three Emperors, advertised as the only such place on earth, was no longer unique.

    The Triangle of the Three Emperors, published by Johann Lukowski, Beuthen, no date
    The Schoen Palace Museum in Sosnowiec, collection of Monika Stańczyk


    An online exhibition of the Centre for Historical Research of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Berlin and the Leibniz Institute for the History and Culture of Eastern Europe in Leipzig (GWZO).

    Developed by Maciej Gugała.

    Based on the text by Małgorzata Stolarska-Fronia Begegnungen am Grenzort um 1900 – Zwischen nationalen Meister-Erzählung und Sensationen der Mobilität/Spotkania na pograniczu około 1900 roku – między narodową narracją główną a sensacją mobilności, a chapter of the book Gezeigte Grenzen. Erkundungen deutsch-polnisch-jüdischer Beziehungsbilder zwischen 1890 und 1920/Ukazane granice. Eksploracje obrazów relacji niemiecko-polsko-żydowskich w latach 1890–1920 by Maren Röger and Małgorzata Stolarska-Fronia in cooperation with Ryszard Kaczmarek, Marcin Wieloch, and Vincent Hoyer (to be published in April 2024 by Sandstein in Dresten).

    The exhibition is part of the project The Power of Reproduction: Images of Relations between Germans, Poles and Jews in the Visual Media from 1890 to 1930, funded by the Polish-German Foundation for Science, project no. 2021-04.

    Partners in the project: Leibniz Institute for the History and Culture of Eastern Europe in Leipzig (GWZO), University of Silesia in Katowice, Silesian Library in Katowice, Centre for Historical Research of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Berlin.

    On the poster: fragment of the postcard Folk types in the Corner of the Three Emperors in old folk costumes, published by Hermann Lukowski, Breslau, before 1914
    Silesian Digital Library