On nation, state and independence: the dilemmas of 19th-century Poles
Added: 2017-10-30
Added: 2017-10-30


This article featured in the collective work: Temat polemiki: Polska. Najważniejsze polskie spory ideowo-polityczne, Krakow 2012.


The ultimate fall of the Polish Republic at the end of the 18th century compelled the Poles of the period join the group of numerous European nations (Hungarians, Irish, Greeks, Czechs, Serbs, Ruthenians-Ukrainians, etc.) who found different ways to strive to regain their own state or create the basis for their own statehood. It was quite different with Italians or Germans, who made efforts to unite into one national state.[1] Therefore, the 19th century can be called the age of nationality and the triumph of the idea of nationality, and the Polish question which emerged then, and will be discussed below, was somewhat universal, albeit tinged with the unique nature of the local conditions. It is also noteworthy that they repeatedly intersected or, conversely, collided with the efforts of other nations.[2] The slogan “For our freedom and yours” which emerged in the Romantic period and was daubed on revolutionary banners undoubtedly had a special meaning at that time.

At this point, I should explain the term “Pole” or more frequent “Poles” used in the text. It denotes the people, increasing over time, who identified themselves with Polishness in political terms – the game was of the state, the Polish Republic in both its territorial and cultural shape (which used to be related to each other) from before the partitions. During the long “Polish” 19th century enclosed between years 1795 and 1918, not only did the number of those people increase, but also, which is very important, the members of this group changed in terms of social background.[3] Initially, the group was dominated by the representatives of the gentry who constituted a large proportion of the Polish population (10%). Additionally, the group included some of the bourgeoisie, which is difficult to define, and probably the clergy too, as well as a very small percentage of the emerging intelligentsia. Over the course of time, representatives of new social classes joined them gradually, among whom were mostly the already free peasants – this phenomenon gained momentum at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries – and workers. Beside them, one can mention representatives of national minorities, most of whom chose to become Polonised, and who, similarly to Poles, were the successors of the former Polish Republic: Ruthenians, Lithuanians, Jews and Germans - and this list is by no means exhaustive.[4] The new leading elite of the nation fighting for independence was the intelligentsia that replaced the gentry in their role for the next one hundred years.[5]

In the Polish case, the fundamental dilemma – the starting point for any conclusions that were its results, other versions or variants that focused on more details – was clearly there already at the beginning of the age of partitions. It was most prominent at a time which was bookmarked by two key events. It opened with the loss at the battle of Maciejowice (1795) and the words attributed to the Commander-in-chief Kościuszko: “Finis Poloniae” and reiterated in particular by Szczęsny Potocki and Seweryn Rzewuski, who both said at that time that Poles must choose a new nationality for themselves. On the other hand, it ended with a pamphlet published in exile by Józef Pawlikowski, related to the commander-in-chief, with the meaningful title “Can the Poles recover independence?”.[6] Its publication was preceded by the first national conspiracies, the emergence of Dąbrowski’s Legions and Col. Joachim Denisko’s march to Bukowina.[7]

In my opinion, the question asked in the title of Pawlikowski’s pamphlet can be viewed as the central ideological and political dilemma of Poles and other nations in the 19th and 20th centuries. Obviously, any new circumstances gave it new meanings and made it easier or more difficult to answer the question. It can also be perceived as a question about the purpose of persevering as a nation subject to the European political order.

In fact, the true motif of Pawlikowski’s pamphlet was different than the title suggested. The author’s reflections did not focus on “if” – which was beyond any doubt – but “how”. It was a serious impediment, because it bothered only a few Poles. For others, it was totally and irrevocably over, as in the case of the two aforementioned Targowica Confederation leaders, Potocki and Rzewuski.[8] Others clung to something else which did not affect the end result – after all, Providence was watching and deciding – they had a glimmer of hope which did not incite or require any action. They believed they did not have any influence so there was no point in getting involved in any risky endeavours. That way of thinking, and the resulting attitudes stemming from it, were often the actual effect of such beliefs. The lost national spirit at the time when the state ceased to exist was understandable and even forgivable. Later, over time, the prolonged existence in the occupied country became increasingly natural for a number of those “[b]orn in slavery, chained in (…) swaddling bands”.[9] Instead of a rebellious mind-set that would bring forth dangerous conspiracies and uprisings, they tended to adjust. Yet it did not mean that they gave up. Their attitudes were defensive, with the last line of defence located in various places. Mostly, it was the Catholic faith and the Polish language but sometimes also the land.

Beyond that line was an attitude of utter indifference and passivity towards the national cause and its advocates. After the fall of the state, it was present to varying degrees and intensity throughout the whole of the 19th century, starting from the Duchy of Warsaw until August 1914. Its persistence needs to be emphasised, disregarding national myths, but such beliefs and behaviours shall not be discussed here. We will rather try to ponder the question asked in Paris by the son of a blacksmith from Rozprza and look at answers given at different historical moments.[10]

One of them has already been referred to and came as a surprise in the late autumn of 1806. Napoleon’s army entered the traditionally Polish lands and the question arose of what to do: to join up, wait for further developments or manifest servility to the new ruler – the Prussian king? All those options had their supporters and executers. In fact, such situation repeated several times. Did the Napoleonic era, which left its mark on the Polish perception of independence, carried a real chance of a truly national uprising that after ten years would definitely undo the occupants’ work, as Jerzy Łojek professed, or on the contrary – was it wise that most Poles, in particular the Polish elites, waited for more specific declarations of the French Emperor?[11] It remains a mystery but such an outcome cannot be ruled out.

The need to make a clear choice seemed more paramount during the November Night,[12] and afterwards, the coryphaei of our national culture made it appear even more dramatic. Regardless of future artistic narrations, the drama of that event was absolutely real, especially the moment when some officers rebelled and murdered their commanders (six generals and one colonel). They believed that by staying loyal to Emperor Nicholas I instead of leading them to fight, those people had betrayed a nation that was breaking free from captivity.[13] It was no longer a tea-party or a press discussion – brothers were shedding real blood and it was not the last time they did so.

The defeat of the November Uprising was the starting point for a heated, multi-faceted, and somewhat national debate, although a few immigrants participated. It was a debate on whether there was any point in hoping and not giving up on independence, but mostly on how to strive for it, bearing in mind the recent failure of the uprising. A number of strategies were put forward which were  not only ideological but also political. Additionally, new political parties were born ranging from a democratic party based on Kościuszko’s republicanism, focused on how to effectively mobilise the peasant masses and who were ready to resort to revolutionary means in any future struggle, including coercion and terror to a conservative party based on diplomacy and slow, step-by-step actions. They were followed by a search for potential allies and the best methods and means, establishing success factors and forming the vision of the future state, its system, and later also its borders.[14] For others, the rescue and last chance were not politics but mysticism and actions verging on Catholic orthodoxy.[15]

But such speculations were only possible in exile, whereas the occupied country had to endure and deal with it. But how to live in an enslaved country without abandoning your own national identity or the last glimmer of hope, and at the same time avoid being sent to Kufstein, Austria, or Moabit, Prussia, or even to Tobolsk? The time between uprisings legitimised practices that were used from the beginning of the captivity in all three partitions in various forms, sometimes with good results. The ones who followed the practice (Czartoryska, Staszic, Czacki, Ossoliński, Chłapowski, Marcinkowski) and their achievements, from the modest start in 1800, were already numerous.[16] Those practical, individual and even spontaneous actions were then referred to as organic work and ideologised or promoted as the role model for communities that did not forgo their patriotism, but also did not want to expose themselves or their families without good cause.[17] Such a definition of organic work did not involve insurrectional or even political actions aiming at strengthening Poles and Polishness in civilizational terms. Sometimes, it started from projects whose goal was to improve one’s own welfare and, consequently, social status. It was sometimes met with unjustified criticism from young rebels or older radicals. Those were abundant in all six generations of Poles who had to live and die in the age of partitions. Let us return to the main dilemma described by Pawlikowski. One may say that the achievements of the “restrainers” were a response to a version that evolved over time: how to be a nation without a state?

The successors of the November Night officers and sometimes the officers themselves, a few years older – with new experience from heated discussions about future uprisings and with a revolutionary zeal inspired by the outpouring of nationalist sentiment – were, irrespective of age, very impatient and hopeful. They were filled with a mystical faith in the people, an entity who were supposed to be a source of energy and would determine the victory in the new battle they had initiated.[18] The battle could not have been postponed or delayed – who knew for how long – to find a more convenient time. The state of Romantic fever led to the greatest tragedy in the history of Polish struggle for independence in the 19th century – the Galician Slaughter.[19] Was a bloody lesson learned from this? Yes and no. If we want to find the answer to that question, we must look at the ideological dispute and fierce competition for power and control over the society between the “Reds” and the “Whites” at the time of the January Uprising, which was at the heart of the subject discussed herein.

First of all, despite more failures such as the Spring of Nations, there was still hope that Poles would regain independence.[20] The hope that it would be possible to do so on their own, with no need for other “nations to rise to our assistance”, which Mickiewicz prayed for in the “Litany of the Pilgrim”, did not fade.[21] After all, the Romantic fervour was still alive and a new generation of Poles also approved of an attitude in which literature was a substitute for politics, and poetry replaced a reasonable take on the reality.[22] Secondly, the people could still be the driving force of another uprising, provided that it was prepared beforehand. That was to be achieved by effective agitation, but most of all by freeing them from captivity where it still existed, such as in Russia, and bestowing land upon people. The expectation was that they would instantly and simultaneously be aggrandised to the status of citizens and Poles. That ambitious, yet ultimately feasible, task was conceived of by young people initiating conspiracy groups in different places: Warsaw, Kiev, Vilnius or St Petersburg. Their belief was encouraged by some of the immigrants who had gathered in Paris around Ludwik Mierosławski and who had unique and whimsical plans for a people’s war.[23]

The few communities that emerged in Poland the 1850s and 1860s, supported by the Mierosławski group in exile, soon sparked off a new insurrectional orientation – the “Red” camp. It was inspired by a momentary crisis in Russia under Alexander II after the lost Crimean War and whose repercussions were also felt in Poland. When Nicholas I was gone from Russia and his viceroy, Ivan Paskevich, was absent from Warsaw, the terror lessened and there came the time of “post-Crimean thaw”. At the same time, France under Napoleon III started to develop an interest in the Polish cause, which spurred an unexpected but rapid improvement of the patriotic mood. It first occurred in Warsaw and from there it quickly spread to the provinces, including Galicia and to some extent even the Taken Lands. It was a so called “moral revolution”[24] and gave birth to a belief that an uprising in the short term was not only possible but also advisable. Moreover, people hoped for tangible support from Russian “Land and Liberty” revolutionists, with whom the Poles in exile had struck up meaningful relations.[25] Success depended on the involvement of numbers of peasants grateful for the properties returned by the Polish National Government – as planned – on the first day of the uprising. Preparations were set in motion. Their fundamental element was large-scale agitation, which also involved the clergy. The “Reds”, later representing the Municipal Committee and then the Central National Committee, also contributed to the dynamic growth of the conspiracy network, which soon  became the foundation for the Polish Secret State. In fact, it was their greatest achievement.[26]

But they did not hold the monopoly on the concern about the Polish cause or the patent on patriotism. Other Poles sought that too, chiefly the “Whites”, a group consisting of members and followers of the local Agricultural Society chaired by the then popular and respected “Mr. Andrzej”, or Count Andrzej Zamoyski, politically oriented towards the Hôtel Lambert in exile led by Prince Władysław Czartoryski.[27] From his father, Prince Adam, sometimes referred to as “King Adam I”, he inherited a group of activists – a moderate organisation in exile with significant heritage, who strongly opposed any revolutionary methods, perilous haste or disregard for possible consequences. The “White” camp, controlled by the State Directorate, was forcefully created in response to the hectic activities of the “Reds”, who were openly admitting the possibility of using coercion, repression and terror towards resistant fellow citizens.

The “Whites” also condemned national apostasy and did not believe in the possibility of reaching a compromise with Russia – as advocated by Margrave Aleksander Wielopolski, appointed head of the Civil Administration in Congress Poland in 1862 – nor did they shy away from armed struggle.[28] They would answer the call of the fatherland if need be, but not just yet: the circumstances had to be more favourable. What they meant was mainly the international situation, the need to continue the endeavour to remain in the favour of European empires: France and England, or even Austria. This view, considering the experience of other nations fighting for independence at that time, was completely rational. They also believed that the people should not be baffled with slogans they could not yet comprehend, otherwise it would be like in Galicia twenty years before. The leader of that camp, consisting mostly of landowners, was a Warsaw banker of Jewish descent, Leopold Kronenberg, which surely was a singularity and a harbinger of a new era.[29]

The political developments in the country were gaining speed towards a direction where both camps were in a trap, unable to change their orientation or the chain of events that had begun. Although there were no new circumstances that would justify the immediate combat which many hoped for, after the impressment ordered by Wielopolski there was no more time to waste. Meanwhile, the struggle for the hearts and minds of Poles was becoming fiercer. The margrave’s intention to seek agreement with Russia was rejected by the majority of the society, but sympathies were still divided between the “Reds” and the “Whites”.[30] It all changed with the outbreak of the uprising announced in the manifest of the Polish National Government on the night of 21 and 22 January 1863. Undoubtedly, it was the “Reds”’ success, but it did not last long because the subsequent failures, starting on the morning of 22 January 1863, were far from what they had expected or planned.[31] Yet the uprising went on and the initial crisis was paradoxically overcome by the “Whites”, who joined in in March after a prolonged delay.

However, that decision came at a price which was a fierce struggle, ending in autumn, for power, dictatorship, the composition of the National Government and the management of the Secret State as well as the representation in exile.[32] The ferocious conflict also involved the general uprising agenda, including the main direction of the internal affairs: radicalism exerting physical coercion or terror (“dagger bearers”) or more moderate ways, as well as the organisation and command of the armed forces, the search for potential allies, or actions taken on the international arena. It all coincided with more or less successful guerrilla warfare. The group in power, i.e. members of the government, kept changing, which stopped with the informal dictatorship of Romuald Traugutt. Iron will, energy and determination kept the failing uprising going for a few months in 1864. One of the major contributors was “Michał Czarnecki”, which was Traugutt’s pseudonym while he commanded the National Government from Russian-controlled Warsaw, supported by a few close co-workers. In practice, his dictatorship only prolonged the agony. Was it too much or too little?

The “Reds” vs. “Whites” dispute was still unresolved, like the estimated influence of both parties and their abilities to mobilise fellow citizens to take the desired actions. Like before, for some time the dispute went on in exile and then moved to the pages of historical texts. It also resonated in the lecture hall of the Jagiellonian University, where a vision of the uprising was presented to the young audience by their future commandant, Józef Piłsudski, shortly before the outbreak of the “great war”. With his reflections about the January Night, which he then wrote down, he wanted it to be a lesson for the future and to use it for the purpose of his independence plans.[33] The dispute about independence and how to regain it subsided for three decades in the post-uprising era, when the down-to-earth positivist approach to the arduous dilemma prevailed. However, in the early years of the next century, it re-emerged along with the Romantic (now neo-Romantic) ideas. It had to come back, because independence had long become one of the constituents of the Polish national mythology.[34]

Soon, its effect was the “interrupted uprising”, recently thoroughly analysed by Leszek Moczulski, that lasted for two weeks in August 1914 in the southern part of Congress Poland (from Michałowice to Kielce).[35] Its failure did not weaken the belief that the path chosen by the commandant and his soldiers was right. The dilemma of several generations of Poles in the 19th century did not vanish altogether but, on the contrary, it became a permanent academic subject and an occasional topic of public debates of historians, publicists or artists. It was discussed most animatedly around the anniversaries of various uprisings and in the 20th century it sometimes made real sense.[36]

Years later, the dilemma was concisely and aptly summarised in a totally new context by the great grandson and namesake of one of the uprising generals, the writer Tomasz Łubieński, who simply asked: “to fight or not to fight?”.[37] The question returned again, not only because of the writer, in the context of the 60th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising – the last Polish national uprising.[38] From the perspective of historical methods and knowledge, it must remain unanswered. History allows or even encourages such questions, but does not offer an answer that would fit an academic paradigm. Life does. So far, every generation of Poles has given their own, mostly gory answer. Even the last fight for freedom in the 1980s, which was intended as a peaceful one, involved casualties.

[1] H. Wereszycki, ‘Sprawa polska w XIX wieku’, in S. Kieniewicz (ed.), Polska XIX wieku: państwo, społeczeństwo, kultura (Warszawa, 1977), p. 161.

[2] J. Borejsza, ‘Rewolucjonista polski – szkic do portretu’, in op. cit., p. 287 et seq.

[3]T. Łepkowski, Polska – narodziny nowoczesnego narodu 1764 – 1870 (Warszawa, 19670, p. 216 et seq. and 233 et seq.

[4]The last case – of Germans – was recently analysed by I. Roeskau-Rydel, Niemiecko – austriackie rodziny urzędnicze w Galicji 1772 – 1918: kariery zawodowe, środowisko, akulturacja, asymilacja (Kraków, 2011), p. 358 et seq.

[5]J. Jedlicki, ‘Błędne koło 1832 – 1864’, in J. Jedlicki (ed.), Dzieje inteligencji polskiej do roku 1918, vol. 2 (Warszawa, 2008), p. 227 et seq.

[6] Paris, 1800.

[7] M. Kukiel, Próby powstańcze po trzecim rozbiorze, reprint (Poznań, 2006), passim.

[8] J. Łojek, Dzieje zdrajcy: Szczęsny Potocki (Warszawa, 1995), p. 228 et seq.

[9] A. Mickiewicz, Pan Tadeusz, or the last foray in Lithuania, George Rapall Noyes (trans.), (London and Toronto, 1917).

[10] Profile of Józef Herman Pawlikowski (1767 – 1829), The Polish Biographical Dictionary, vol. XXV (Ossolineum, 1980), pp. 446-452.

[11] J. Łojek, Kalendarz historyczny: polemiczna historii Polski (Warszawa, 1994), p. 245.

[12] See also A. Kijowski, Listopadowy wieczór (Warszawa, 1972), p. 26 et seq.

[13] A detailed description of those events can be found in M. Brandys, ‘Koniec świata szwoleżerów’, part III, Rewolucya w Warszawie (Warszawa, 1974), p. 34 et seq., also W. Tokarz, Sprzysiężenie Wysokiego i noc listopadowa (Warszawa, 1980), p. 211 et seq.

[14] S. Kalembka, Wielka emigracja 1831 – 1863 (Toruń, 2003), s. 227 et seq.

[15] Cf. K. Rutkowski, Stos dla Adama albo kacerze i kapłani: studium w czternastu odsłonach o sporze zmartwychwstańców z towiańczykami (Warszawa, 1994).

[16] The most significant are the Temple of the Sibyl in Puławy, the Warsaw Society of Friends of Learning, the Krzemieniec Lyceum, Ossolineum in Lviv, promotion of modern agriculture in Greater Poland, Poznań Academic Assistance Society and the Bazar Hotel in Poznań, respectively. Each of those people and their initiatives have been written about, see also T. Gąsowski (ed.), Wybitni Polacy XIX stulecia. Leksykon (Kraków, 1998).

[17] T. Kizwalter, J. Skowronek, Droga do niepodległości czy program defensywny? Praca organiczna – program i motywy (Warszawa, 1988), p. 8 et seq.

[18] T. Kulak, ‘Mit narodowej siły polskiego ludu’, in W. Wrzesiński (ed.), Polska myśl polityczna XIX i XX wieku, vol. XI, Polskie mity polityczne w XIX i XX wieku (Wrocław, 1994), p. 153 et seq.

[19]See M. Janion, Gorączka romantyczna (Kraków, 2000), p. 504, also M. Żmigrodzka, Romantyzm i historia, 2nd edition (Gdańsk, 2001), p. 57, 346 and 485. The slaughter has been described in detail in S. Kieniewicza, Ruch chłopski w Galicji w 1846 roku (Wrocław, 1951).

[20] S. Kalembka, Wiosna Ludów w Europie (Warszawa, 1991), p. 65.

[21] A. Mickiewicz, The Books and the Pilgrimage of the Polish Nation, Krystyn Lach-Szyrma (trans.), (London, 1833).

[22] Cf. A Witkowska, Sławianie, my lubim sielanki (Warszawa, 1972).

[23] Cf. T. Łubieński, Czerwonobiały (Kraków, 1983), p. 123.

[24] M. Kukiel, Dzieje Polski porozbiorowe 1795 – 1921, 2nd edition (Paris, 1983), p. 384 et seq.

[25] J. Zdrada, Jarosław Dąbrowski 1836 – 1871 (Kraków, 1971), p. 134 et seq.

[26] Cf. F. Ramotowska, Tajemne Państwo Polskie w powstaniu styczniowym 1863 – 1864. Struktura organizacyjna, part 1 – 2 (Warszawa, 1999 – 2000).

[27] On the concerns of “Mr. Andrzej”, see S. Kieniewicz, Między ugodą a rewolucją: Andrzej Zamoyski w latach 1861 - 1862 (Warszawa, 1962), p. 234 et seq.

[28] The latest biography of the margrave is A. Żor, Ropucha: studium odrzucenia (Toruń, 2007), passim.

[29] A. Żor, Kronenberg. Dzieje fortuny (Warszawa, 2011), p. 297 et seq.

[30] P. Jasienica, Dwie drogi (Warszawa, 1960), p. 195 et seq.

[31] J. Piłsudski, 22 stycznia 1863, Boje polskie, vol. 1 (Poznań, 1914).

[32] The most comprehensive analysis of the rivalry is included in S. Kieniewicz, Powstanie styczniowe (Warszawa, 1972), p. 395 et seq.

[33] L. Moczulski, Przerwane powstanie polskie 1914 (Warszawa, 2010), passim.

[34] T. Kulak, ‘Mit walki o niepodległość w okresie porozbiorowym’, in Polska, op. cit., vol. X, Polskie mity, op. cit. Kontynuacja (Wrocław, 1996), p. 17.

[35] L. Moczulski, Przerwane powstanie polskie 1914 (Warszawa, 2010), passim.

[36] Cf. W. Burszta, ‘Społeczno-kulturowy kontekst niepodległościowych postaw Polaków’, in Polska myśl, op. cit., vol. XI, Między irredentą, lojalnością a kolaboracją. O suwerenność państwową i niezależność narodową (1795 – 1989) (Wrocław, 2001), p. 41 et seq.

[37] T. Łubieński, Bić się czy nie bić? (Warszawa, 1978), 2nd extended edition of Bić się czy nie bić: o polskich powstaniach (Warszawa, 1997).

[38] T. Łubieński, Ani tryumf, ani zgon: szkice o powstaniu warszawskim (Warszawa, 2004), 2nd edition (Warszawa, 2009). Previous reflections on this subject are recalled in D. Gawin (ed.), Spór o Powstanie: Powstanie Warszawskie w powojennej publicystyce polskiej 1945 – 1981 (Warszawa, 2004), passim.

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