Prof. Andrzej NOWAK: Polish mad love for freedom

Polish mad love for freedom

Photo of Prof. Andrzej NOWAK

Prof. Andrzej NOWAK

Historian, Sovietologist and member of the National Development Council. Lecturer at the Jagiellonian University. Full Professor at the Institute of History of the Polish Academy of Sciences. Winner of the Lech Kaczyński Award, Chevalier of the Order of the White Eagle.

Ryc.Fabien Clairefond

other articles by this author

Rising up results from a change in circumstance. In other words, rising is a reaction to a fall. But it is not the only one. Having fallen down or having been knocked over and pulverised, you can either rise again or simply get used to your supine position.

.In 1795, following eight centuries of existence, the Kingdom of Poland was totally partitioned by its neighbours: Russia, Prussia and the Habsburg Empire. Truth be told, it had already lost its independence in the early 18th century, when Peter the Great’s Russia took advantage of the internal crisis in the Commonwealth, that extraordinary political construct that had grown out of the Kingdom of Poland since the union it had concluded with Lithuania in 1385.

An important feature of that unique political structure was that it extended a system of civic freedoms over an enormous area covering today’s Poland, Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine. From 1468 to 1793, there were almost three hundred sessions of the parliament (Sejm) whose members were elected by the citizens at about sixty local assemblies (sejmiks) all across that vast land. The basic constitution adopted by the Sejm in 1505 enshrined the principle of nihil novi (nothing new) meaning that the King could not make any new law or impose any taxes without the consent from the representatives of the citizens, i.e. the parliament. From 1572, all free citizens (that is every nobleman, of which there were several hundred thousand in the Commonwealth) had the right to elect their king. Every envoy to the Sejm also had the right of veto and could halt the passing of a law. Designed to protect those in minority, the provision was of course exposed to abuse and could lead to a crisis of sovereignty. Especially that the neighbouring empires developed based on a completely different political system and were geared towards territorial expansion through military conquest (Russia, Sweden, Turkey, Prussia).

The loss of independence in the 18th century was such a downfall. Some citizens of the Commonwealth accepted the new situation. Others decided that it called for a different response that would be more in line with the tradition of freedom in which they had been raised for generations.

The moment of crisis came in 1733 when, following the death of the old king, the citizens were to elect his successor. Their almost unanimous choice was Stanisław Leszczyński. This did not go down well with the neighbours, and especially Russia, who feared that the new king might side with France to make the Commonwealth less independent of St Petersburg. Working in agreement with the Emperor of Austria,  Empress Anna sent to Poland three contingents of Russia’s armed forces to impose a ruler that was to the liking of foreign powers rather than the one that the citizens themselves wanted to elect. It was then that the first uprising, known as the Dzików Confederation, broke out. Its rallying call was the quote from the then primate Teodor Potocki: “Gens libera sumus et nemini servimus unquam [we are a free nation that shall never be enslaved]”. The words galvanised at least over a dozen thousand active insurgents, who were overwhelmingly noblemen, but also burghers and even peasants (Kurpie from northern Mazovia). Confronted with stronger and better run armies of foreign intervening powers, they tasted the bitter pill of fighting a lost battle and the ensuing political emigration (to Königsberg and Paris) or Russian captivity. It was an experience of helplessness mingled with determination not to succumb to foreign enslavement without resistance. The fight continued up until 1736. Some of the insurgents captured by the Russians were deported to Siberia. This scenario would then repeat itself in nearly every uprising against Russian domination over Poland right up to the time of Stalin.

Mounting oppression provoked more uprisings: the Bar Confederation (1768-1772), the Kościuszko Insurrection (1794), and then – following the third partition – the most well-known insurgencies: November Uprising (1830-1831) and January Uprising (1863-1865). Some researchers expand this list to include the revolution of 1905-1907 in the Polish lands annexed by Russia, treating it as another “national” uprising. The period also saw less “classic” revolts against Prussia and Austria, the other partitioning powers: these include the insurrections in Wielkopolska (1806), Kraków (1846), again Wielkopolska/Poznań (1848), Kraków and Lviv (Wiosna Ludów 1848), again Wielkopolska (1918-1919) and then the three Silesian uprisings (1919, 1920, 1921), if one were to arbitrarily extend the 19th century to the moment of establishing the borders of the reborn Polish Republic. Another addition that is sometimes made to the list is the activities of the legions – the Polish armed force created by Józef Piłsudski during WW1 – from August 1914 until the disarmament of the German and Austro-Hungarian troops in Polish lands in October-November 1918. Piłsudski himself treated November 1918 as a victorious epilogue to the January Uprising that formed the basis of the entire patriotic education of both himself and a large part of his generation.

Unfortunately, in 1939, the neighbouring empires in their most terrible totalitarian form of Stalin’s Soviet Union and Hitler’s Third Reich, joined forces one more time to destroy the Polish state that re-emerged in 1918. Later on, when Stalin won the struggle for domination over the eastern part of Europe, he created a Poland that was once more subordinated, reverting in a way to the situation in the 18th century. Little wonder then that the insurgent tradition was rekindled. Its pivotal manifestation was of course the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, but it also informed the earlier Jewish uprising in the Warsaw ghetto (1943), which was an insurgency against being utterly debased by the German occupiers. That same tradition was also behind the insurrection attempt made by the young people of Czortków (22 January 1940), the only uprising under Soviet occupation after the invasion of 17 September 1939. Today, there is also partial acceptance for the idea to commemorate the “cursed soldiers”, members of the armed anti-communist underground operating after WW2, as yet another group of Polish insurgents fighting for independence. There then follows a whole series  of revolts that are often interpreted as a direct continuation of the insurgent tradition. These are June 1956, referred to as the workers’ uprising in Poznań,  March 1968 (“students’ uprising”, even though not only students were involved), December 1970 (workers’ uprising on Poland’s coast), June 1976 (workers’ protests focused in Radom and Ursus),  the specific “moral revolution” (modelled on the one in 1861-1862) that started with the establishment of the Worker’s Defence Committee (KOR) and the Movement for Defence of Human and Civic Rights in 1976-1977 and most definitely with the election of John Paul II in October 1978 and his first pilgrimage to Poland (June 1979), the “bloodless uprising” of Solidarity, and especially its “outbreak” in August 1980, and finally the bloody suppression of that “uprising” through the martial law imposed by Wojciech Jaruzelski (from 13 December 1981 to at least the death of Fr Jerzy Popiełuszko in October 1984). All of this shows that the insurgent tradition was alive in Poland until at least 1981. It was experienced as a sentiment with a constantly renewed sense of purpose.

The January Uprising, considered by several generations to be the largest but also the most traumatic push for independence before 1918 keeps animating the debate over that tradition and the question: “to fight or not to fight?”.

Prepared by a vast underground network, it broke out on 22 January 1863. Its manifesto, dated on that day, proclaimed the creation of the Polish National Government and called the peoples of Poland, Lithuania and Ruthenia (Ukraine) – the three nations of the former Commonwealth – to engage in a deadly fight with the “invader government” and offered land grants to peasants. The attack against Russian garrisons failed, but the Russians were surprised by the large scale of the operation. This gave the insurgents some time to form their troops. No fewer than 150,000 volunteers from all three partitions passed through their ranks. The uprising caused a diplomatic upheaval: Bismarck, the new Prime Minister of Prussia, immediately approached Russia with an offer of help. This raised concerns in France, England and even Austria, creating an opportunity to provoke a major European conflict that could give the uprising a chance of winning Poland’s independence. Some initiators of the uprising pinned great hopes on a large-scale involvement of peasants, others counted on an intervention, even if only diplomatic, by Western powers. The insurgents wanted to improve the lot of the Polish people. It is precisely for this reason that they gave their lives in over 1,200 battles and skirmishes (the largest clashes were those of Małogoszcz, Skała, Grochowiska, Opatów, and Żyrzyn). They fought, including in Lithuania and under Kiev, to restore the political community of the Commonwealth within its pre-partition borders from 90 years before. At that time, the struggle was lost.

The feeling of defeat was total. It was primarily caused by the huge losses suffered during both the uprising and the resulting repressions. About 20,000 insurgents were killed in battles alone. Over 700 were executed. From 35,000 to 40,000 were deported for penal servitude or mandatory settlement deep inside Russia. Around 3,500 estates owned by the Polish nobility were confiscated. This is just a glimpse of a long list of repressions imposed on the Polish people after 1863.

According to an often repeated interpretation, the January Uprising was a symptom of the pathological Polish “Romantic madness” that took hold of the active elites (except for Count Wielopolski who was alone or at least outnumbered in his opinions) who failed to notice an opportunity for modernisation offered by the reforms carried out in Russia following the Crimean War. Ivan Berend, the author of a popular general history of Central and Eastern Europe, juxtaposes Polish “Romantic nationalism” bereft of “rational self-control” with the Czech national movement whose approach was different in that it was rational instead of “emotionally heroic”. As it happened, the long and winding road to modernisation could not bypass the problem of independence and the struggle to regain one’s own country. That problem had to be solved by the changing and socially expanding nation. The obstacle was not only the bureaucracy of one empire weakened by the lost battles in the wars against Italy and then Prussia – as was the case of the Czechs and their opposition to the Habsburgs – but deliberate policies pursued by Russian elites and Bismarck’s Prussia. These powers considered the issue of Poland’s rebirth as a threat not only to the stability of their state structures. Combating such a perceived threat was also an important component of their nascent pan-Russian and pan-German national programmes. Without fighting, the Russian Empire would never have been ready to give independence to the Poles, not even within the confines of a small, carved out Kingdom.

On the other hand, it was only through fighting for the independence of the imagined “whole nation” that the Polish landowners could exceed the limitations of their own interest which dictated that they should rather prolong the domination over peasantry and control the land. The programme of radical land grants proclaimed by the insurgents was successfully taken over by Russian authorities as a weapon against its authors. The long-term effect of the process initiated by the insurgent manifesto of 22 January 1863 was the emancipation of the largest social group, the peasants, from feudal dependency and slave mentality. Having received land on such favourable and radical terms – thanks to the uprising! – in the Polish lands annexed by Russia, peasants have developed a sense of national identity within two generations. One more reason why this was possible was that Polishness was no longer associated with serfdom, but rather with the glorious struggle for freedom immortalised in the works of Polish culture that initiated large swathes of society to Polishess at the time of Sienkiewicz, Żeromski or Wyspiański.  Such peasants defended Warsaw in 1920 and knew how to fend off the temptation of class-based revenge and social anarchy advocated by the Bolsheviks.

.The memory of the January Uprising is cherished by the Poles and the Lithuanians (Lithuanian peasants took very active part in the insurgency). In 2023, that struggle is also remembered by the Ukrainians in the context of their fight against Russian imperialism. It also speaks to freedom-loving Belarusians as it was precisely in 1863 that one of the heroes of that uprising, the Belarusian Kastus Kalinouski, called for creating a modern Belarusian nation. The Commonwealth of free citizens coming from four nations (Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine, and Belarus) has not surrendered.

Andrzej Nowak

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