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The Warsaw Voice » Other » November 5, 2008
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The Poles and Independence
November 5, 2008   
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by Andrzej Friszke

The question of what regaining independence changed in the lives of Poles can be answered in one word: everything. If we hadn't regained our own state in 1918, Poland would certainly not exist as a political entity, because there was no hope for autonomy or any similar form of political existence. Going even further, the process of melding Polish lands with those of the occupying countries would have had to progress significantly, so that after a few decades a Pole from Cracow and a Pole from Toruń or a Pole from Lublin would have no sense of community.

We need to recall early 20th-century reality. Polish lands lay within three partitioning powers: Russia, Prussia and Austria. Polish culture, education and political life was only allowed to develop freely in the Austrian partition, where Poles also governed locally. The Prussian partition had no autonomy, and additionally was divided into separate provinces. Wielkopolska was a land where Poles dominated ethnically and there was a strong Polish gentry and bourgeoisie, but in Gdańsk, Pomerania Poles accounted for just 50 percent of the population, cities were mostly German, and so was the wealthier rural population. In Upper Silesia, which was not part of Poland before the partitions, rural areas and worker districts spoke Polish while the higher classes were German practically without exception.

Relations in the Russian partition were no less complicated. This name is usually applied to the Kingdom of Poland formed in the wake of the Congress of Vienna in 1815. In the view of Poles living in those times, the Russian partition also meant the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and three provinces of Right-Bank Ukraine. There were grounds for this historical viewpoint. The history and political existence of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania lasted several hundred years. The duchy, occupying today's Lithuania and Belarus, was inhabited by Lithuanian and Belarusian peasants, Jewish townspeople and Poles who constituted the highest class-landowners, stewards and wealthy townspeople. Consequently the Poles saw themselves as the natural leader group in these lands. Conditions were similar in Right-Bank Ukraine, where the population in the 1830s comprised 4 million Ukrainian peasants and 400,000 Polish noblemen, mostly running small farms or sometimes even landless. Following a vetting of Polish gentry after the November Uprising of 1830-31, 340,000 Poles lost their rights and in the following decades merged in terms of status with the peasants, usually losing their sense of national identity. Nevertheless, before 1914, half the large estates in Ukraine belonged to Polish gentry.

This state of affairs in all the partitions and all the provinces underwent rapid change together with two great social processes: emancipation of the poorer classes and the related changes of ownership, and the development of those poorer classes' sense of national identity. This latter process developed differently in the western lands, where Roman Catholic and Polish-speaking peasants increasingly felt Polish, as compared with the east, where the Orthodox or Greek Catholic rural population acquired a sense of Ukrainian or, more slowly, Belarusian national identity. In Lithuania a national movement developed quickly that separated itself from Polish language and culture. Everywhere in the east, ethnic divisions were superimposed on social ones, consolidating the distance between the Polish manor and the non-Polish village. This meant that the area the Poles considered to be Poland changed its borders with each decade, and shrank in the east. Nothing could stop this disintegration of a country that had still had a sense of community in the 19th century-not even the rebirth of the Polish state. The complicated history of rebuilding-albeit in vestigial form-the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, or the failure of Ukrainian policies, made this very obvious.

This complicated reality was reflected in the biographies and identities of many people associated with independent Poland, such as Józef Piłsudski and Gabriel Narutowicz, or the writers Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, Józef Mackiewicz, Czesław Miłosz and Melchior Wańkowicz. Every one of them was suspended between an awareness of the historical community of the Republic's lands and the present day of nationality understood ethnically.

The emergence of the Polish state strengthened Polishness in the Polish-German borderland. However, it also contributed to consolidating the national awareness of Poles in indigenous lands, where in the second half of the 19th century only about 30 percent of Polish speakers considered themselves Poles. Other identities dominated, such as those linked to religion (I, a Roman Catholic) or the province or a sense of belonging to a state (we of the empire). The gentry in particular had a sense of belonging to a common nation, with Polish literature contributing greatly to this, but in the villages, this awareness did not gain momentum until the late 19th century. Thanks to Polish schools, local government, elections to the local assembly and the activity of peasant deputies in western Galicia, Polish peasants slowly became conscious Poles (and conscious Ukrainians in eastern Galicia). Even so, it was peasant leader Wincenty Witos who reported a scene from around Lublin in November 1918 when politicians traveling from Cracow collided with a crowd of peasant carts fleeing the city. One of the fugitives explained the reason for the panic: "The Poles came to the city and chose a king, hung up red flags and are conscripting people into the army."

A sense of national community encompassing landowners, the intelligentsia, peasants and workers began to develop thanks to the regaining of independence, through the shared hard work of building a state and its institutions, at schools and in the army. One great moment in this process was definitely the defense against the Bolshevik attack in 1920, when Witos headed the Polish government and peasant sons defended the country. These events, reinforced by 20 years of everyday life in the country, formed the modern-day Polish nation. Those ethnically Polish lands that were left outside Poland's borders quickly underwent Germanization, like Mazuria (schools and the army were also of key importance here), or Sovietization in the east (Polish groups around Żytomierz, now Zhytomyr).

Rebuilding the Polish state was also key to halting the process of the economic melding of Polish lands with those of the partitioning powers. This was especially true of the Congress Kingdom of Poland with Warsaw. Aside from Silesia, this was the most industrialized part of the Polish lands, and also one of the two or three most industrialized regions of Russia. Rapid development of industry took place in the years after the January Uprising of 1863, in the times portrayed in Bolesław Prus's novel Lalka (The Doll). The value of industrial production jumped from 123 million rubles in 1870 to 860 million rubles in 1910. On the other hand, this development was linked to the huge absorptive power of the Russian market, where 67 percent of the output was sent in 1910. World War I destroyed these opportunities and the Kingdom's industry fell into a very deep crisis. Getting out of it took many years, and had to involve new export directions and satisfying domestic demand. Economic links among the three former partitions were gradually rebuilt from 1918, with new railway lines connecting Warsaw with Poznań, and Katowice with Gdynia-Poland's only port, built from scratch. This served to destroy the perspective of "organic incorporation" of the partitions into the partitioning powers. This was not just an intellectual construction on the part of communist activist Rosa Luxembourg, but a very realistic prospect and an obvious threat to the rebuilding of the independent Polish state.

Concentrated as we are on Nov. 11 on symbolic figures and events, we tend to forget about the circumstances surrounding them. The symbols are important because they served to build a sense of shared identity. If that generation of Poles and its eminent representatives had failed to create major centers of Polish politics and to take advantage of the huge opportunity posed by the military collapse of the three partitioning powers, the history of the Polish nation could have gone in a completely different-and most likely worse-direction.


Andrzej Friszke is a historian from the Institute of Political Studies of the Polish Academy of Sciences
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