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Poland's History

Poland: Her People and Deeds. Part 3

Marek Jan Chodakiewicz


The Partitions (1795-1918)

The partitions lasted 123 years. The Commonwealth was no longer a state, even though a number of administrative entities were imposed on Poland. The partitioners dictated virtually all conditions. The Poles reacted to them, rather than creating opportunities on their own. On aristocratic and larger noble estates the Commonwealth persisted throughout the period of the partitions. Yet, overall, the old political nation, the nobility, lost its rights, while it never forgot its obligation to serve. The ethos of service put the nobility on a collision course with the occupiers. As a result of political repression, it was gradually stripped of its economic standing. The process accelerated because of the industrial modernization of the lands of the former Commonwealth. Economic changes went hand in glove with social changes which impacted all inhabitants, including Jews, Ruthenians, Lithanians, and others. Except those who assimilated in the Polish culture, most developed their distinct national path that was predicated on a radical break with the past.

It would be silly to aver that the Poles did nothing but fought for freedom, arm in hand, during 123 years of slavery under the partitioning powers. Naturally, the zeal for independence never left the minds of the patriots, but even they disagreed about the best ways to achieve the restoration of the Commonwealth. Some, in particular on the left, believed that armed struggle was the only way to freedom. Thus, at home and abroad, they were the leading lights of a plethora of military adventures and misadventures to gain Poland’s independence under the slogan “For Our Freedom and Yours!”.

Those included the Polish participation in the Napoleonic Wars (1797-1815); a variety of smaller affairs, including the wars for the independence of Hungary (1848-1849), unification of Italy (1848, 1860). Specifically at home, the Poles fought not only the wars against Austria (1809) and Russia (1813), but also the anti-Russian November Rising (1830-1831) and the January Rising (1863-1864). There were also an anti-Austrian insurrection around Cracow in 1846 and an anti-Prussian uprising around Poznań in 1848.

The last Polish military action under the partitions, and before the First World War, occurred during the Revolution of 1905 and lasted until 1907. Unlike other uprisings, which generally subsumed their social revolutionary impulses under the united desire for freedom, independence, and statehood, the Revolution of 1905 featured, in addition to an armed struggle against the Russian power, also a clash among revolutionaries in Poland who divided themselves between an internationalist and a patriotic wing both of whom were opposed violently by counterrevolutionary patriots, both nationalists and conservatives. Thus, a chunk of the left abandoned dreams of national independence in favor of an internationalist utopia.

On the other hand, throughout the partitions period, others, in particular on the right, favored an evolutionary road to independence. They pointed out the horrific price for armed uprisings: hundreds of thousands dead; hundreds of thousands shipped off to Siberia; and hundreds of thousands expropriated, in particular among the elite. While not dismissing the insurrectionist weapon at a propitious time, the evolutionary patriots argued to focus on social, national, educational, and economic work at the grassroots. Meanwhile, the ultraconservatives and reactionaries advanced the notion of Tri-loyalism, subservient cooperation with each of the partitioning powers. The tri-loyalists vacillated between a legitimate desire for moderate reforms from above and craven submission, even national treason. The divisions reflected not only the ideological affinities, but also the generational gaps as well as specific periods of history under the partitions. It was quite conceivable for a young leftist firebrand who have participated in an uprising’s most revolutionary wing to grow up to become a conservative, embracing rigidly tri-loyalism.

To a large extent, however, the patriots and others simply reacted to the policies of the partitioning powers. It was the occupiers whose policies impacted the Polish responses. Generally, a liberal spell in the occupation politics of the partitioners lessened active resistance in a short run, but, in the long run, it usually prompted unrealistic hopes which translated into increased demands by the captives. That, in turn, annoyed the occupiers and invited alien repression which triggered native resentment and more resistance, sometimes culminating in uprisings and more repression which crushed the resistance and temporarily pacified the oppressed. Thus, the cycles of liberalization and repression occurred periodically in all parts of subjugated Commonwealth.

There were some similarities. Everywhere the Russians, Austrians, and Prussians disenfranchised and cashiered out the petty nobility, thus reducing it to the level of peasantry. Conversely, the occupiers wooed the magnates and upper middle nobility, in particular the so called senatorial families. For example, the Habsburgs granted most of them Austrian titles; many of them became “counts”. But the patter of repression was quite uneven. The Habsburg rule was the harshest until the second half of the 19th century. For instance, Vienna encouraged a blood jacquerie in the Cracow region to drown a noble patriotic insurrection in blood in 1846. The myth of Habsburg benevolence derives from the last stretch of their rule in the lands of the Commonwealth. The Russians started as the most liberal of the partitioning powers and ended as the most oppressive. The Romanovs resolved that the political concessions for the Poles only embolden the dreams of freedom, so their rule became increasingly oppressive. The Hohenzollerns ruled rigidly from the start but they applied the laws equally to everyone until the Kulturkampf against the Catholics and minorities (Danes, Poles, and Jews) in the second half of the 19th century. The Poles happened to be both Catholic and minority so they bore the brunt of the Prussian offensive which was the most brutal in the cultural and economic realms.

There were, of course, regional variation as the partitioning powers applied various policies in their captured Polish realms. Take industrialization, for example. The Austrian partition was the least developed part of the Habsburg Empire. Partly, this was to freeze social and economic relations to benefit Polish conservative landowning aristocracy who tended to support Vienna. But this conscious underdevelopment reflected Austria’s desire to keep the peripheries devoid of vital industries, while concentrating them in the heartland. The Prussian partition excelled in modernization both in the agricultural and industrial sectors. The Russian partition lagged behind, although the westernmost sections of the Romanov Empire were permitted to industrialized and enjoyed a lighter taxation burden than the rest of the realm. This concerned, in particular, the so-called “Kingdom of Poland,” which was later dubbed the “Vistula Country.” Thus St. Petersburg attempted to contain modernity to urban centers and encourage industrialization in the peripheries.

As a result, in the 19th century, the lands of the partitioned Commonwealth saw rapid, albeit uneven economic growth. In parallel, dynamic social changes occurred. They were informed by the economic transformation and, in turn, they impacted it in a variety of ways. Disenfranchised petty nobility, cherishing its historical heritage, not only supplied an inordinate number of patriots, but also continued as a fortress of tradition and freedom in the countryside. Some petty nobles moved to towns, where they entered the ranks of artisans and laborers. Meanwhile, having suffered the confiscations of their titles and properties in the wake of the uprisings and other conspiratorial activities, the representatives of the middle nobility likewise migrated to urban centers. They permeated the burger culture and created the nascent professional class, the intelligentsia (inteligencja): lawyers, doctors, teachers, notary publics, and so forth. The clergy likewise drew from the nobility but also from the people.

As far as their mentality, the rustics, meanwhile, continue to linger in their peasant mentality for the most part. The exceptions were the few villagers who participated in the armed effort and conspiratorial activities along with their priests and lords. Those farmers discovered that they were of Polish nationality and tended to cultivate it. Some peasants moved to towns which enormously impacted their mentality, in particular in the second half of the 19th century. Were they just locals, usually of Catholic religion, who should be loyal to the “king”? Were they perhaps a part of the international working class? Or were the new urban implants really patriotic Poles? Most eventually embraced the last option, in particular in ethnic Polish lands. Their Polishness was strongly tied to Catholicism. A paradox emerged: ethnically Polish patriots, either engaged with nationalist socialism, peasant populism, or Christian nationalism, were led by the scions of the multi-ethnic elite of the Commonwealth with diverse roots: Polish, Lithuanian, Tatar, Ruthenian, German, Jewish, Scottish, Hungarian, French, Armenian, and other.

Elsewhere in the old lands of the Commonwealth, the local people likewise experienced a national awakening. The first were the Jews, who were split between tradition, nationalism, and secularism, including liberal and socialist. Some orientations overlapped in the Jewish community. It was perfectly natural to be a Jewish nationalist (Zionist) and embrace the cause of Palestine and socialism. In fact, most followers of the Zionist orientation were leftist. Some were liberal, while others religious Zionists. The traditionalists and ultraconservative adherents of Judaism, however, continued to constitute the bulk of the population. Nonetheless, their strength was slowly sapped by modernity, including modern ideologies.

Amongh the Orthodox and Uniate Ruthenians, there emerged a Ukrainian orientation in the late 19th century. It was mostly confined to Austria’s Galicia and its adherents embraced perhaps the most rabid form of integral nationalism. It rejected totally the legacy of the Commonwealth. Instead, Ukrainian nationalism was based on the German paradigm of “blood and soil.” Its Lithuanian counterpart alas embraced the same “folkish” model. The consistently feeble Belarusian nationalist orientation modeled itself on both the Ukrainian-Lithuanian and the Jewish examples. It became an exercise in rigid integrism, on the one hand, and in leftist radicalism, on the other. Most of the adherents of Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Lithuanian nationalisms came from the peasantry, while their leaders principally from the clergy. For them the legacy of the Commonwealth was the greatest adversity to be crushed.

Since the Polish-Lithuanian-Ruthenian state was destroyed by the partitioning powers it was unable to develop a modern “Polish” nation in the 19th century. By the beginning of the 20th century all component groups among the peasantry had embarked on their own separate nationalist projects. Only the Poles held the banner of the Commonwealth aloof and continued to appeal to its legacy. Although the Polish elites descended from the multinational tradition and gene pool, they were united by a powerful binding element: the Polish culture. Paradoxically, culture proved the key to assimilate and Polonize the legions alien newcomers who arrived only in the 19th century, most of them of the intelligentsia, professional, and entrepreneurial estates.

Yet, the requirements of the era of mass politics forced the politically organized scions of the Commonwealth, including the Christian nationalists, to rely primarily on Polish Catholic peasantry as their followers. Unless emancipated by the Polish culture, the non-Catholic peasants tended either to retain their local identity or internalize the integral nationalist message of their fellow ethnics and co-religionists. Ethno-nationalism was the death knoll of the Commonwealth, right when it was about to be resurrected.

Resurrection (1914-1921)

Poland’s patriots welcomed the First World War as the ultimate hope for their country’s revival. Finally, the three partitioning powers were at each other throats. The Polish question thus became current. In general, Russia, Prussia, and Austria made vague promises to the Poles. Their vagueness increased or decreased relative to the situation at the front. More marital success translated into more autonomy in culture, education, and charity in return for labor and economic exploitation as well as procurement of military draftees. Less fortune on the battlefield prompted occasional pledges of undefined “freedom” or “unification” under the wings of one of the partitioning powers.

Within the limited parameters thus drawn by Berlin, Vienna, and St. Petersburg, the Poles staged their own sometimes awkward maneuvers. Most dreamed of independent Poland emerging from the conflict. Some Poles were hoping it would be united under the aegis of Austria-Hungary, the most benevolent of the occupying powers, to form a Triple Monarchy with the Slavic element led by the Polish. A few saw a Polish champion in Prussia, although as time passed and the fortunes of war turned it became painfully obvious that the Hohenzollerns would dictate the outcome to the Habsburgs, including on the Polish question. Since, by 1916, the Central Powers had occupied all the lands of the old Commonwealth, they influenced the situation in the home country the most. Berlin and Vienna quite naturally favored the Poles who sided with them, either genuinely or opportunistically. Consequently, these Poles established structures and institutions that would assist them later in their bid for power. Ultimately, they emerged under their principal leader, erstwhile socialist Józef Piłsudski.

It was quite different abroad, in particular in the West. The pro-Russian orientation was only a bit more tepid than the pro-Prussian one among the Poles. In fact, the largest Polish political party — the Christian right wing National Democracy — albeit it did execute its share of gestures of loyalty to St. Petersburg, made no bones about its pro-Western affinities. Its top leader, Roman Dmowski, having earlier predicted the collapse of all partitioning powers in the coming war, now promptly decamped to the West, where, along with conservative Count Maurycy Zamoyski, writer Henryk Sienkiewicz, and pianist Ignacy Paderewski, a de facto Polish government in exile. Its members operated in Paris and London as well throughout North America, most notably in Washington, D.C., where they would gain a sympathetic ear of President Woodrow Wilson. His famous 14 Points counted “an independent Polish state” with “a free and secure access to the sea” as one of the principal Allied war aims.

Meanwhile, Poland minorities harbored their dreams as well. The Ukrainians wanted their own ethnic state and so did the Lithuanians and Belarusians. The Jews oscillated between the postulates of national autonomy, an idea of a condominium state dubbed “Judaeo-Polonia,” and dreams of mass emigration to the Holy Land. Eventually, the minorities and the Poles found themselves on a collision course over contradictory and competing objectives. Diplomacy addressed some of the problems, but, more often, it was left to armed struggle to decide the outcome.

Roman Dmowski virtually monopolized Poland’s wartime diplomacy. Dapper, dazzling, brilliant, and multi-lingual, the National Democrat leader was cut out for the role. Polish diplomatic success during the First World War and its aftermath must be ascribed to him. Versailles was his crowning success, where even his enemies expressed a grudging admiration of the Polish nationalist. However, he needed much assistance. Nobel prize in literature winner Sienkiewicz’s fame helped; so did aristocratic Zamoyski’s money and connections. Most notably, however, Paderewski’s charming softness smoothed the rough feathers, particularly Jewish and liberal who detested Dmowski to a serious detriment of the Polish cause. America’s support materialized primarily because of “Paddy,” who could count on his concert pianist stardom and the backing of his staunchly Catholic and nationalist Polish-Americans of the Polonia.

Diplomats talk but where they are not backed by guns they often stumble. The Poles were more than ready to back their diplomatic claims by force which is always the ultima ratio. The Polish military effort which led to independence is customarily, if erroneously, attributed solely to the genius of Piłsudski. That is a very reductionist view, ignoring a multitude of other factors. First, millions of Polish draftees fought in the Russian, Prussian, and Austro-Hungarian armies without any Polish command or Polish strategic goal. For much of the conflict they were beyond any influence of Piłsudski or anyone else. However, these soldiers constituted an important, well trained, and battle hardened element of the population that would eventually fight for Poland’s resurrection.

Second, admittedly, Piłsudski was a national and social symbol of long standing. However, he lacked proper military education. Yet, he was a consummate politician, a zoon politikon par excellance. His leadership was crucial at home. Eventually, by virtue of being active on the spot in Poland in November 1918, he became a unifier and Commander-in-chief of disparate Polish armies and underground forces because of his inspiring charisma, singular will power, inexhaustible energy, political association with the Central Powers, and leftist pedigree, which served him conveniently at the time.

Even prior to 1914, Piłsudski organized a variety of shooting and paramilitary clubs, some of which engaged in espionage against Russia on behalf of Austria-Hungary. He welded them into a Rifleman Association and Rifle Teams. With the outbreak of the war, Piłsudski fielded a “cadre company,” which singlehandedly assaulted the Romanov Empire in an abortive and futile operation in August 1914. Having retreated back to the Austrian-occupied slice of Poland, the company soon expanded into a brigade of about 5,500 troops under Piłsudski’s command. Subsequently, the Austrians permitted the establishment of two other competing Polish brigades under different leadership, fielding together over 15,000 soldiers. The outfit was collectively referred to as the Legions (Legiony). Later it was dubbed as the Polish Auxiliary Corps (Polski Korpus Posiłkowy); it remained under a direct Austrian command throughout.

Integrated into the Imperial and Royal Forces, the Legions fought anywhere they were assigned by the high command, a symbolic token of Vienna’s commitment to a unified Poland, rather than an independent Polish military. Meanwhile, Piłsudski also set up a clandestine Polish Military Organization (Polska Organizacja Wojskowa – POW). Geared to fight primarily against the Russians, its secret cells appeared everywhere in the Russian partition and beyond, reaching deep into the Empire of the Romanovs. The POW’s strength in other partitions was residual. The organization fielded perhaps 5,000 operatives. Nonetheless, it supplied valuable cadres and intelligence that contributed to the ultimate Polish victory.

But before its triumph a time of trial came to the Polish military under the tutelage of Central Powers. In early 1918, a rebellion broke out among Polish units of the Habsburgs. They were disappointed at the German attempt to establish a rump Polish state around Warsaw as dictated by the Treaty of Brest Litovsk (Brześć Litewski) and by a subsequent effort to set up a Polish force under the diktat of Berlin by commandeering the Polish forces hitherto directed by Vienna. Only a few Poles agreed to serve the Prussians in the so-called Polnische Wehrmacht, including some under secret orders from Piłsudski. Most Legionaries refused to serve and they were interned by the Prussians in situ. Piłsudski himself was arrested and transferred to a prison in Germany as a bargaining chip.

Meanwhile, some other Polish Legionary units, under Colonel (later General) Józef Haller, mutinied. They broke through the Austro-Hungarian front to join the Polish military detachments which had, meanwhile, been set up in revolutionary Russia by General Józef Dowbor-Muśnicki. The antecedent of those Polish formations included the volunteer Puławy Legion, which briefly served at the grace of the Tsar in 1914-1915. However, only the liberal Russian revolutionary government formally allowed the Poles to form separate national detachments.

In practice, as Russia spiraled into chaos and violence, Polish military officers and political activists increasingly made their own decisions from above and below. To stem the wave of Red anarchy and to protect their own, the Poles began flocking together. Consequently, in addition to the 1st and 2nd Corps in the Ukraine and western Russia, there was a plethora of Polish units of various size spread throughout the Empire from Murmansk through the Caucasus to Vladivostok. Most were subordinated, nominally at least, to General Dowbor-Muśnicki, and they ranged in size from a lancer regiment in Volhynia to an infantry division in Siberia. The forces numbered about 100,000 men.

A few of these men were able to break through to Poland, including by riding, guerrilla-style, from the Caucasus or by sailing from Murmansk or Vladivostok to Gdańsk. Some were permitted to cross the German lines unarmed and disperse among the general population. These would soon volunteer for service again. But most were ultimately destroyed by the Bolsheviks, except the clandestine POW, which continued its mission – now, from late 1917 – against the Reds.

Concurrently, a new Polish force was raised in the West. Originally, it consisted of about 22,000 Polish-Americans with a sprinkling of Polish-Canadians who, in 1917, volunteered to train in a camp on the US-Canada border. Soon they shipped off to serve in France in the so-called Blue Army of General Haller, who had arrived from Russia to lead them. The émigré volunteers from Brasil and France joined as well. But the largest pool of recruits came from the Entente’s POW camps. Polish soldiers of the Hohenzollerns and Habsburg armies swiftly volunteered for the Blue Army which reached about 80,000 troops. It engaged the Germans on the Western front and, after the Allied victory, it was transferred to Poland where it jumped into action against the Ukrainians.

For concurrently to Dmowski’s tour the force at Versailles, where the powers agreed to the restoration of the Polish state without, however, explicitly guaranteeing its frontiers, the resurrected Commonwealth was compelled to fight four border wars and a fifth one which arose in no man’s land and threatened to engulf Europe: the war against a Red Russian aggression. The border wars pitted the Poles against the Czechs, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, and Germans. Belarusians and Jews either remained neutral or sought Polish assistance for their endeavors, although some leftists among them joined the Reds against all other parties, including the Poles.

The Czechs attacked the Polish industrial and transport hub Tsechen Silesia (Śląsk Cieszyński) in 1919, and kept it despite its clear Polish (Protestant) majority thanks to the Western Allied help. The Ukrainians split into two orientation; the western one warred against Poland over Lwów/Lviv/Lemberg/Leopolis and lost; the eastern one allied itself with the Poles against Russia’s Whites and Reds but it also lost. The Lithuanians collaborated with the Reds against the Poles and were ultimately defeated and expelled from Wilno/Vilnius. Belarusians of various anti-Bolshevik political stripes sought Warsaw’s assistance against the Reds but they failed to overcome them and their short-lived state collapsed.

The Jewish community split in congruence with their degree of assimilation and political affinities. Jews who considered themselves Polish joined the armed effort in various units. The ultra-Orthodox prayed and stayed on the sidelines waiting to accommodate whoever emerged victorious. Unassimilated leftist Jews tended to be either indifferent or hostile, including some who merged with the Reds against the Poles.

Germany was interested in keeping their post-partition and earlier gains in western Poland. To counter that, the Poles launched several insurrections. The Poznanian uprising was the most successful (1918) and resulted in securing Greater Poland and Pomerania for the Poles. They also staged three uprisings in Silesia until some of the province accrued to them (1919-1921). In the Mazurian lakes district (Mazury) aka East Prussia the population, partly Polish but solidly Protestant, voted to stay in Germany because it looked at the time that Poland was about to be overrun by the Reds.

By far the most dangerous was the Polish-Bolshevik War (1919-1921). For Poland it was existential struggle. As the German forces receded west, the Reds sought to expand onward and, thus, bumped into the Poles. Low level conflict followed with the Polish military pushed toward the pre-partition borders of the Commonwealth with Russia before the front stabilized for almost a year. The Poles halted their advance because Piłsudski feared a White victory. White Tsarist generals flatly denied Poland’s right to exist as an independent state. Lenin and his comrades, meanwhile, were full of platitudes about “national self-determination” and “freedom” for Poland.

After the collapse of the White, anti-Bolshevik offensive, Piłsudski’s gamble included also supporting left-wing, eastern Ukrainian nationalists and populists of Semen Petlyura. To assist them, the Polish forces launched an expedition to free Kyiv from the Reds in May 1920. Alas, Poland’s Ukrainian allies found no volunteers but exhaustion and indifference. The Bolsheviks counterattacked on two fronts and by August 1920 they were at the outskirts of Warsaw. Then, in a lightning strike, the Poles rallied. Based by a plan drafted by General Tadeusz Rozwadowski and approved by Piłsudski, they launched a counter-offensive and expelled the Reds, destroying much of their strength in the process.

Throughout, the Poles were virtually alone. Yet, one must remember the crucial role of the volunteer American pilots fighting gallantly on the Polish side. Other than that, the Western aid was limited largely to a trickle of war supplies and a gaggle of military observers, some of whom informally and illegally joined the fray against the Reds. They included future French president, Charles de Gaulle.

By October 1920, the armies of Poland once again reached deep in the territories of the Ukraine and Belarus. They were too exhausted and their resources too depleted to pursue the enemy to Moscow. The Bolsheviks were too trounced to fight back. Nonetheless, this was the only time in history that the Red Army was routed in the field and lost a war. Lenin sued for peace. It was concluded at Riga in March 1921.

This brilliant Polish victory stunned Western statement who had advocated appeasement of the Reds and all but abandoned Poland to the tender mercies of the Bolsheviks. Meanwhile, European leftists and trade unionists, who had organized strikes and blocked war materiel from reaching Poland, seethed with hatred at Warsaw for having had thwarted a progressive revolution carried westward on the Red Army’s bayonets.

Although Communist guerrilla raids and infiltration operations continued well into the 1920s, the borders were generally secure and, with their state resurrected and free, the Poles could turn to the business of reconstruction.

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part 2
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Note: Original content of poloniainstitute.net. Permission to republish with a valid reference to Polonia Institute publication is hereby granted.

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1 comment

bronekc August 26, 2017 at 5:05 pm

This was a very decent brief. Prof. Chodakiewicz deserves credit. Hats off to him.

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