„To fight or not to fight?” The basic political dilemma of the Poles in the period of partitions (Interview)

Added: 2017-10-30
Added: 2017-10-30



Mateusz Ciołkowski: Professor, in 1795, the third and final partition of Poland takes place, which results in the final loss of statehood. How did this event influence the political attitudes of the Poles, including one of the most important independence traditions: an insurrectionary tradition?


Professor Krzysztof Karol Daszyk: In 1795, following the liquidation of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth by Russia, Austria and Prussia, the Poles faced a very dramatic question. Here, I must clarify that when I say 'the Poles', I mean only the elites of that time, as the so-called common people did not have educated national and political consciousness at that time (this state of affairs will begin to change only in the last quarter of the 19th century); and so, in 1795, the Poles faced an extremely dramatic question: what will happen to the nation after they lose their State? In the legal doctrine of the Enlightenment, the nation was always defined in the context of the State. The great legal authority of that era, the Swiss Emer de Vattel, wrote that the common people who have found themselves under the rule of another State and lost their own statehood, cease to be the subject of international law. What's more, in the contemporary historiosophical conceptions, the history of nations was interpreted by analogy to the life of a ‘single man’, i.e. it was believed that every nation is born, has a maturation period in its development, and then, there is senility and death... That was the case with the ancient empires, and the fate of the modern Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth seemed to confirm this rule!

         In such a dramatic situation, one can speak of four attitudes of the Poles.

         Some, and they were mainly representatives of the magnates and wealthy gentry, accepted the existing state of affairs, i.e. the loss of their own State, choosing a ‘new homeland’ (depending on the annexation, now their homeland was Russia, Austria or Prussia). This attitude was later described as ‘contradictory attitude’, a term coined by Adam Mickiewicz.

         The second attitude, not so much actually occurring, as postulated by contemporary patriotic literature (Jan Paweł Woronicz, Józef Morelowski), is an attitude that can be described as the ‘Catonian attitude’: it pertained to imitating Cato the Younger, who, being a defender of republican principles, didn’t want to live under the rule of Julius Caesar, victorious in the war against Pompey the Great (Cato perceived him as the gravedigger of the Roman republic) and, therefore, he committed suicide. Tadeusz Rejtan, the famous member of the Polish Sejm from the constituency of Nowogródek, tried to prevent the senators and MPs from ratifying the cessation of territories to Russia, Austria and Prussia at the so-called Partition Sejm of 1773. When he failed, he was devastated by the disgrace of the Polish Sejm and he fell into madness, ultimately committing suicide a few years later (in 1780). This picture of Rejtan - a Polish Cato – was presented to us on the pages of Pan Tadeusz by Mickiewicz (in the Soplicowo manor, Mickiewicz describes a portrait of Rejtan assuming the ‘Catonian’ pose).

         The third attitude is an attitude that can be called (again referring to the ancient tradition) a ‘Leonidian attitude’ (it obviously refers to the figure of the heroic king of Sparta, Leonidas, who fought ‘until the end’ in order to defend his homeland from the Persian invader at  the pass of Thermopylae). This was the attitude chosen by the first conspirators in the post-partition period (The Centralisation of Lviv, the Warsaw Society of Polish Republicans), striving to prepare an armed uprising against the invaders; and above all - soldiers of the Polish Legions in Italy, founded in 1797, who – according to the words of Józef Wybicki’s Mazurek Dąbrowskiego [Dąbrowski's Mazurka] – intended to ‘pass the Vistula and Warta Rivers’ (i.e. to win back their own State) in order to ‘be Polish again’. (The quoted words of the Legionnaires' song are a perfect illustration of thinking about the nation in political terms; until we have our own State, we cannot call ourselves a nation, we are merely an ethnic element’.

         Finally, the fourth attitude is an attitude which, remaining in the convention of reaching for ancient patterns, can be called a ‘Solonian attitude’ (appealing to the attitude of Solon, the creator of democracy in Athens, who decided to preserve in a song, the libertarian ideals, when the tyrannical rule was introduced in the city-state). In the Polish realities of the post-partition period, the ‘Solonian attitude’ was a way of protecting the national identity (the language, culture, tradition, customs, and remembrance of the past).

Thus, as we can see, as early as in the first years after the fall of the Rzeczpospolita, a new concept of the nation began to be created; a concept, according to which the nation can continue to exist despite the loss of its own statehood. It can last as a spiritual community. This thought will be undertaken later and the Romantics will develop it in a creative way.


What role did the Romantics play in the preparation of the November Uprising?


I will put it like this: the November Uprising is the result of Romantics’ work! In the twenties of the 19th century, the so-called dispute between the Romantics and the Classicists was not only a dispute about the shape of literary expression (as to whom one should copy: Horace or Byron?), but also (or even primarily!) a dispute over a new vision of the world and a man immersed in it, in which the Romantics wanted to see the right subject and the creator of history. In this dispute, therefore, a question had to arise about the meaning of patriotism.

         For the Classicists, a certain ideological and generational formation (which wasn’t just an exclusive group of writers referring to classical patterns), the small Polish Kingdom established in 1815 at the Congress of Vienna, with Tsar Alexander I as its ruler, was of a great value. After all, these people, brought up on the works of Enlightenment theorists of law (such as Emer de Vattel, mentioned previously), understood the homeland as a State, while the nation - as a state community. They were afraid of another insurrection, as in the event of defeat, the Congress Kingdom could lose its existence as a separate State.

The Classicists did not believe in the victory of the uprising outbreak. For them, the most important experience from turbulent pre-congress years was a defeat complex... By this, I mean the defeat of the Napoleonic Great Army (with the army of the Duchy of Warsaw fighting at their side) in the expedition to Russia in 1812.

In addition, the Vistula Classicists felt genuine gratitude to Tsar Alexander I for ‘resurrecting Poland’ (‘Poland’ meaning both the State and the nation). This gratitude obliged them to be loyal to Alexander and later, to his successor, Nicholas I. The gratitude, connected with fear that what was given by grace can be taken away at any moment, led to life-long acceptance of the principle: to maintain the state existence of the Congress Kingdom at any price, even at the price of the greatest concessions and the most far-reaching compromises.

It should also be added that the political and social elites of the Congress Kingdom (which were made up of representatives of the generation of the Classicists) owed their position in the State to the tsar. The historian Jerzy Łojek, famous for his uncompromising judgements, put forward the thesis that these elites were less afraid of losing the uprising, than of winning it... It sounds paradoxical, but we must agree with Łojko that, most likely,  quite radical social reforms would have been carried out in the independent Polish state (especially the enfranchisement of peasants) along with the democratisation of political life; such political and social changes would be hard to accept for the aristocratic and landowning elites of that time.


Exactly. The generation of the Classicists was afraid of changes in political and social relations existing in the Congress Kingdom at that time. And what was the position of the Romantics in this matter?


Using the language of Aesop, Romantics wanted a ‘storm’! To put it in a nutshell: proponents of Romanticism in literature were the propagators of the ‘revolution’ in politics.

The dispute between the Romantics and the Classicists was a typical rebellion of ‘the young’ against ‘the old’; a rebellion, which appeared for the first time in our culture in the pre-November Congress Kingdom (such a strong split between ‘sons’ and ‘fathers’ hadn’t been present in the traditional culture of the Nobles). We should also add that, in this case, ‘youth’ is a concept which means not only the age of the group of people which are the subject of our interest, but also (and even more so) a certain attitude towards the world; an attitude characterised by rebellion against the existing miserable reality, faith in the possibility of fulfilling dreams (using Mickiewicz's phrase, you have to ‘measure your strengths to your intentions’) and readiness for the greatest sacrifices in the name of the Great Things.

When thinking about Polish matters, Romantics were not burdened with the complex of defeat in 1812; at that time, they were too young to consciously remember the defeat. What they have learned from the Napoleonic era, was the golden legend of the ‘god of war’ and his heroic soldiers (such as General Jan Henryk Dąbrowski or Prince Józef Poniatowski) and the conviction about the possibility of carrying out truly historic activities (their idol was young and victorious General Napoleon Bonaparte, overthrowing the feudal and despotic government system in Europe).

Romantics also did not feel obliged in any way to be grateful to Tsar Alexander I for ‘resurrecting Poland’. They regarded the Congress Kingdom as a facade creation. Maurycy Mochnacki, the herald of the romantic direction of thinking (not only in literature, but also in politics), argued in one of his publications that ‘We do not have a homeland’, because the political creation, somewhat grandly named ‘The Kingdom of Poland’ is, in fact, a province of the Russian Empire. If people begin to pretend that it is otherwise, then it will lead them to the reproach of national aspirations and the adoption of an attitude of political submission, or even servility. Juliusz Słowacki puts extremely strong words of accusation of the ‘Classicist’ elites of the Congress Kingdom in the mouth of a young romantic conspirator, Kordian. He states that for them, ‘the sound of the word ‘homeland’ diminished to the four letters of the word ‘Tsar’.

In turn, Seweryn Goszczyński, one of the authors of the November Night, wrote that the armed attack of the plotters' group on 29 November, 1830 was not only a declaration of war to the Russian invader. It was also a kind of moral blackmail against the contemporary Polish society. That attack was intended to force countrymen to abandon loyalist attitudes and to undertake an uncompromising fight against the tsarist partitioner for Independent Poland.

And it must be staid that, in November 1830, the Romantics managed to impose on the Poles, their style of thinking about politics, namely, that imponderabilia are what’s important, rather than clinging to the appearance of one’s ‘own’ statehood. It is so because, according to Romantics, homeland is not only a material reality (i.e. one’s own State), but also - and even above all – a spiritual reality, or (as Mochnacki argued) a set of ‘notions, concepts and feelings’, characteristic of a given community, which constitute the community in a separate nation, aware of its separate nature and its own historical tasks. And it is better to lose the façade of the State than to renounce the ‘notions, concepts and feelings’, and by doing so, to give up  the desire (in the post-partition reality) to resurrect the ‘united and independent Poland’.


The November Uprising ended in defeat. Many of its participants found themselves in exile. How did the Romantics interpret this insurrectional defeat?


Romantics decided that in 1831, just a ‘battle’ for Poland was lost, but not the war. After all, the insurgent authorities did not sign any formal instrument of surrender. Thus, the war for Poland continues... A large part of the November insurgents emigrated in order to prepare for the next ‘battle’; they expected that in some favourable international situation, a war would break out between the Western powers and the partitioners of Poland, or maybe even a pan-European revolution would start (which actually did take place in the years 1848-1849).

         What's more, the Romantics believed that in the moral plane (the most important for them), the November insurgents won, because they fought for a Good Cause! And the Good Cause is not only the independence of Poland, but also the freedom of other nations. First of all, the war of 1831 wasn’t interpreted as a war with the Russian nation, but rather as a war with a despotic tsar which oppressed not only the Poles but also the Russians (when the tsarist army was crossing the borders of the Congress Kingdom in order to suppress the Polish uprising, Russian soldiers were greeted with a slogan written on the banners stuck along their marching route. The slogan read: “In the name of God - for our freedom and yours”). Secondly, it was emphasised that the outbreak of the insurrection on the territories near the Vistula River prevented Tsar Nicholas I, the ‘gendarme’ (as he was labelled), watching the political order established at the Congress of Vienna, from armed intervention against the French Revolution in France (which overthrew Charles X, attempting to rebuild the system of absolutist rule) and the uprising of the Belgians (who succeeded to gain independence from the Dutch authorities). Therefore, in the period between 1830-1831, Poland played the role of ‘Winkelried of nations’, if I were to appeal to the captivating vision of Juliusz Słowacki presented on the pages of the drama Kordian.

         It should be added that. when the former November insurgents were marching on their way to the emigration in France through the South and West Germany, and Switzerland, they were welcomed there by ordinary inhabitants as ‘The Knights of Freedom’ and ‘The Birds heralding the Revolution’. No wonder, then, that they believed that an alliance of ‘the nations’ was being born against despots and that the Poles should play the role of avant-garde in the forthcoming ‘war for the freedom of the nations’.


It is common knowledge that the post-November emigrants cultivated the memory of the 1830-1831 uprising. And what was their attitude towards the previous Polish insurrectionary tradition?


Briefly speaking, the November Uprising was treated by its initiators and participants (as Franciszek Wężyk described it at that time) as ‘the continuation of noble attempts under the lead of virtuous Kościuszko’. But the Romantics also perceived themselves as the heirs (and perhaps even more legitimate ones) of the Bar’s tradition.

A beautiful legend of the Bar Confederation of 1768-1772 was created by Juliusz Słowacki on the pages of the drama Ksiądz Marek [Father Marek]. In the description of this genius poet, the Bar town of Podole, where on 29 February 1768, the confederation was established, was the ‘Polish Bethlehem’ in which the idea of ​​fighting for the Independent Rzeczpospolita of Free Citizens was born (in the eighteenth-century realities, the term ‘citizen’ meant ‘nobleman’, but in the Romantic era, the term began to include common inhabitants of the lands of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth).


But the legend of the Bar Confederation did not overshadow the golden legend of Tadeusz Kościuszko... I’m asking about it in a special moment; we are having this conversation in the year 2017, which was declared the Kościuszko Year, in connection with the 200th anniversary of the death of the Chief of Insurrection in 1794.


No, it didn’t overshadow the legend. In the opinion of Romantics, Tadeusz Kościuszko is undoubtedly the greatest hero of the Polish struggle for independence. Let us return once again to the world of Pan Tadeusz created by Mickiewicz. Here, the greatest Polish national heroes on the portraits, hanging on the walls of the Soplicowo court; included the head of the insurrection of 1794, whose picture was displayed in the place of honour.

However, the hearts of the Romantics were closer to the Bar Confederation... It’s because it wasn’t a war fought by the forces of a regular army (and this is the type of war in the case of the Kościuszko Insurrection), but rather a ‘bottom-up’ general levy of citizens in defence of their freedom. Besides, while the recent November Uprising resembled the Kosciuszko Insurrection (as it was also a war fought by the regular army), the Romantics were expecting that the next national liberation uprising would have to be an improvised fight, as the Poles no longer had their own army (as was the case in 1794 or 1830). Therefore, the fight had to be undertaken by patriot volunteers, and so, it had to resemble the activities carried out by the Bar Confederates.

And indeed, when it comes to the way of conducting military operations, the uprising which broke out in January 1863, resembled the Bar Confederation more than the Kościuszko Insurrection.


The January Uprising of 1863-1864, similarly to the previous independence spurts, also ended in defeat... What conclusions were drawn by the Poles from that defeat?


The traumatic experience of the defeat of the January Uprising caused the insurrection thought to die for forty years on Polish soil…

Only post-war emigrants preserved the thought, but, in our history, the role of the post-January emigration is incomparably smaller than the role of the post-November emigration.

Gaining the experience of disaster of 1864 and being subjected to oppression which followed the defeat, the people in the Polish lands of the Russian partition develop a psychosis of fear and lose their faith in the possibility of regaining independence. The supporters of the ‘settlement’ with Russia come to the fore. There are even such extreme proposals as the one presented by Kazimierz Krzywicki in a small book (failing to indicate the author) entitled Polska i Rosja w 1872 r. [Poland and Russia in 1872]. He published his proposal in 1872, i.e. on the hundredth anniversary of the first partition of Rzeczpospolita. The author of the publication did not hesitate to address his own nation with a proposal to renounce not only its state aspirations, but also postulated full (also cultural and linguistic) integration of the Poles with the Russian nation…

Warsaw Positivists, who, after the January Uprising took over the ‘government of souls’ in the Congress Poland for about a quarter of a century, also gave up their attempts to restore their own independent State, promoting the programme of civilisational development of Polish lands; the development leading to the creation of a ‘healthy’ (functioning like one body, all parts of which are efficient and cooperate with one another) and rich society; in other words, happy, as they thought. Such a manifesto was offered to the Poles in the article Wskazania polityczne [Political Indications], announced in 1882 by the main ideologist of the Warsaw Positivists, Aleksander Świętochowski.

At that time (i.e. in the first years after the defeat of the January Uprising), a much more attractive political manifesto was offered by young Kraków conservatives (subsequently labelled Stańczycy – loyalists), gathered around the monthly ‘Przegląd Polski’ [‘The Polish Review’], published since 1866. Their main ideologist, the eminent historian Józef Szujski, was strongly involved in the recent January insurrection (similarly to other founders of Przegląd Polski, namely: Stanisław Tarnowski, Stanisław Koźmian and Ludwik Wodzicki). In the manifesto brochure Kilka prawd z dziejów naszych. Ku rozważeniu w chwili obecnej [Several truths from our history. To be considered at the present time], published in January 1867, Szujski argued that it is necessary to abandon the conspiracy and insurrection path, as it would never lead to independence; instead, the Poles should step onto the path of the organicist activities aimed at strengthening the material and spiritual forces of the nation. A chance to effectively conduct such activities appeared in the mid-1860s in autonomous Galicia. In such a situation, Szujski is calling for a ‘conciliation’ with Austria which is liberalising its policy towards the Poles, and for the maximum use - by means of legal actions - of the opportunities that the Poles living under the Habsburgs have obtained.

The manifesto offering the ‘settlement’ with Austria, promoted by Szujski, was directed against Russia and Prussia. In the years 1867-1869, it was expected that Austria (or, more precisely: Austro-Hungary) would form an alliance with France, and a war of these countries with Prussia and Russia would break out. After the potential French-Austrian-Hungarian victory in the expected war, it was speculated that it would be possible to annex the Congress Kingdom, captured from Russia, to Galicia. Such a solution would lead to the strengthening of the Polish element in the Habsburg monarchy, which would finally result in the transformation of the Austro-Hungarian Empire into the Austro-Hungarian-Poland region. Still, these great political hopes of Szujski and his political friends disappeared quite quickly in 1870, after France was defeated by Prussia.

Since the seventies of the 19th century, the political manifesto of Kraków's loyalists, which was initially quite attractive, begins to lose its attractiveness... After Szujski's death (which occurred in 1883), Stanisław Koźmian suggested a manifesto of a ‘three-party settlement’ and three-party loyalism on the pages of the three-volume book Rzecz o roku 1863 [The Truth About the Year 1863], published in 1894-1895. The manifesto replaced the idea of reaching a settlement with Austria and the attitude of loyalty to the Habsburgs, as was initially promoted by the loyalists. As Koźmian argued, the implementation of this manifesto was supposed to give the Poles the possibility of effectively defending the ‘national existence’ (the language, culture, traditions, customs, etc.) also in the Russian and Prussian partition.

As we can see, Koźmian greatly reduced the national aspirations of the Poles: he commands his compatriots to defend only their ‘national existence’, while warning them against taking any pro-independence actions (and even against solemnising the insurrection anniversary!). In his opinion, there is no chance for the restitution of the Polish State in the foreseeable future; the Poles are not able to fight for independence with their own forces, and they cannot count on any assistance from abroad.

In turn, Stanisław Tarnowski advised his countrymen to ‘wait’ for better times and promised a ‘revival’ of the nation (that is, as you might guess, the restitution of the Polish State), but claimed that it could only happen ‘in a century or centuries’. He presented his ideas on the pages of the book entitled Z doświadczeń i rozmyślań [From experience and meditations], published in 1891.

It is impossible not to notice how great a mistake was made by these loyalist politicians, describing themselves as realists who, allegedly formulated their political forecasts on the basis of a deep and sober analysis of reality... Stanisław Tarnowski died on 31 December 1917, i..e on the eve of the resurrection of the Polish State; while Stanisław Koźmian, who outlived Tarnowski by almost five years, became a witness of that resurrection!...


However, at the end of the 19th century, when Tarnowski and Koźmian published the aforementioned books: From Experience and Meditations and The Truth about the Year 1863, could one have predicted the outbreak of the ‘great war’ in 1914?


In 1887, i.e. a few years before the publication of the aforementioned manifesto books by Stanisław Tarnowski and Stanisław Koźmian, the widely-read novelist Zygmunt Miłkowski (literary pseudonym: Teodor Tomasz Jeż), a veteran of the Spring of Nations and the January Uprising, who lived in Switzerland, published an extremely important brochure entitled Rzecz o obronie czynnej i o Skarbie Narodowym [The Truth about active defence and the National Treasury] in Paris. In this brochure, he analysed the contemporary international situation and he predicted that, due to the growing conflict between the powers for the influence in the Balkans and the deepening French-German antagonism, the moment of the all-European ‘conflagration’ (i.e. fire) is approaching.

In this regard, Miłkowski appealed to his countrymen not to wait passively until the ‘fire’ breaks out, but to prepare themselves appropriately in advance for that moment; ‘appropriately’ meaning in such a way that, when a favourable international situation occurs, they can effectively claim their national rights.

The preparations, postulated by the author of the booklet, should be carried out both on the basis of legal organicist activities aimed at strengthening the spiritual and material forces of the nation, as well as through conspiracy methods (secret gathering and storing funds needed to prepare the future insurrection, creating a secret organisation to manage the preparations, etc.).

What is important, Miłkowski did not stop at formulating the plan of pro-independence actions presented here extremely briefly, but brought about the formation in Switzerland, in the same year of 1887, of the Polish League, which was supposed to be a kind of a secret Polish government initiating and coordinating these activities.


Did the action, taken by Miłkowski in exile, influence the situation in the country?


The booklet The Truth About Active Defence and the National Treasury, mentioned by me, was published in exile, but the manifesto included in it was addressed to compatriots in the country; primarily, to the new young generation entering the political scene in the Congress Kingdom, which was subsequently labelled the ‘rebellious generation’ [Pokolenie Niepokornych].

These ‘rebellious’ people were born around 1863 (and, therefore, unlike their fathers, they didn’t have a defeat complex stemming from the January Uprising); these were people rebelling, on the one hand, against the brutal rule of the Russian partitioner, and, on the other, against the generation of their parents, submissive to that authority.

Copies of the The Truth about active defence and the National Treasury, smuggled to the Congress Kingdom, were enthusiastically received by those ‘rebellious’ people (mainly university students and students of the final grades of junior high schools). One of the most famous representatives of the generation, young Stefan Żeromski wrote in his diary that Miłkowski's brochure was ‘a manifesto of the president of the scattered Republic of Poland’; ‘the manifesto’ whose ideological and political message, the young ‘rebellious’ decided to implement.

It is this generation which gave us activists of the two most important camps in the Polish political life of the turn of the 19th and 20th century; the camp of national democrats with Roman Dmowski at the head, and the socialist and independentist camp  under the leadership of Józef Piłsudski.

The National League, founded in 1893 and headed by Dmowski, was - in the organisational sense - a successor of the Polish League. Initially, the National League and the ‘affiliated’ organisations operating under its aegis (primarily Stronnictwo Demokratyczno-Narodowe [The Democratic and National Party], established in the Russian partition in 1897) were formed on the basis of Zygmunt Miłkowski's manifesto opposing any partitions or settlements and promoting insurrection. Still, in 1903, Dmowski's camp abandons the insurrectionary slogans, now offering a plan of legal work with the aim of strengthening Polishness in each of the three partitions, while in 1905, it steps onto the path of cooperation with the Russian government, thus expecting to obtain political concessions for the Congress Kingdom.

Hence, in the first years of the 20th century, the only significant political group referring to the idea of an ​​armed struggle for independence was the Polish Socialist Party, created in 1892 and headed by Józef Piłsudski. It was the socialists and independentists who, following the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War in 1904, made preparations for another insurrection. The preparations were continued later (in 1908) in autonomous Galicia where paramilitary organisations began to be formed. The organisations were to be the nucleus of Polish military formations in the upcoming (as anticipated) ‘great war’; the war which, indeed, broke out in 1914.

Piłsudski's legionnaires of the time of the war, were (metaphorically speaking) another ‘stone’ (after Bar Confederates, Kościuszko insurgents, November insurgents and partisans of 1863), put to the sacrificial stake in the fight for Independent Poland. And we should add that it was the last ‘stone’ when it comes to the long (finished, as conventionally accepted, in 1918) 19th century which was the subject of our conversation.

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