Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States
POLAND. I. Historical. Poland is a vast plain, the centre of which is at Warsaw, on the Vistula, and which forms the northwestern region of a plateau two-thirds larger, bounded by the Baltic sea, the Oder, the Carpathian mountains, the Black Sea, the Borysthenes and the Dwina. The boundaries of the state of Poland have changed, in a thousand years, from the belt formed by the tributary rivers of the Vistula to the circumference of the whole plain. But the country occupied by the Polish nation has never extended beyond the Carpathian mountains at the south and east. No mountains traverse Poland, only sandy hills. In the east there are marshes; the centre is covered with forests. The soil contains mineral wealth, copper, silver, and the largest mines of rock salt in Europe. The climate is cold in the north, and temperate in the south; the soil is everywhere fertile, but nothing but wheat is produced.
—The Polish population had its origin (independently of the Finnish or Turanian elements of pre-historic Europe) in the Slavic tribe of the Lecks, established on the banks of the Vistula at the beginning of the middle ages: they are called the Slaves of the plain. They annexed to themselves, in course of time, other Slavic nations, the principal of which are the Lithuanians, who occupy to the northeast of Poland a region of almost equal extent; and the lesser Russians, established at the east and south, in the countries called later Podolia and Galicia. The aggregate of these nations constituted, without any considerable variation, the Polish nationality; but the power of this state extended in the west over states almost wholly Germanic; and in the southeast over nations of Turkish or Tartar origin, such as the Cossacks of the Ukrania. The time of the greatest territorial extent of Poland was the year 1772. It was then composed of four states: Great Poland, comprising Greater Poland proper, Cujavia, Mazovia and Western Prussia; Little Poland comprising Little Poland proper, Podlaquia, Red Russia, and the Ukraine; Lithuania, comprising Lithuania proper, White Russia, the Black Russia of Lithuania, Iamogitia; and finally the feudatory countries, that is to say, the duchy of Courland and the Pomeranian districts of Butow and Lauenburg, fiefs in the hands of the king of Prussia. And it was precisely this year 1772 which saw the first dismemberment of Poland accomplished, and the political ruin of the nation precipitated. The causes which led to the dissolution of the most flourishing state of eastern Europe are now well known. They may be summed up in the insufficiency of public authority at the time when Poland was surrounded by three military states subject to a rigorous centralization.
—The origin of this anarchy lay primarily in the elective character of the king. The last Piast, a king of the first dynasty, was able to secure the throne to his nephew only by allowing the nobility to force a stipulation upon him by which they arrogated to themselves several prerogatives, such as exemption from taxation. From that time on, the nobility asserted their right of election, and, after the extinction of the Jagellons, enforced it. They swore their kings to the pacta conventa, the basis of that Polish constitution by which, to use Voltaire's expression, the nobility and the clergy defended their liberty against their king, and took liberty away from the rest of the nation: "There the peasant sows not for himself, but for lords, to whom he and his land and all the labor of his hands belong, and who can sell him or slay him with the beasts of the field. All who are of gentle blood depend only on themselves. To try them in a criminal matter, a general assembly of the nation is necessary; and they can be arrested only after having been condemned. Besides, they are scarcely ever punished. Many of the gentry are poor, and accept service with those who are wealthy; they receive a salary from them, perform the lowest offices, and prefer to serve their equals to enriching themselves by trade." Another peculiarity of this constitution was the famous right of veto granted to the deputies or nuncios in the diets. "Each deputy enjoys the right which the tribunes of the people had at Rome, of opposing the laws of the senate. A single gentleman who says, I protest, invalidates by this one word the unanimous resolutions of the rest, and if he departs from the place where the diet is being held, it must then dissolve. The remedy provided for the disorders which arise from this law is more dangerous still. Poland is seldom without two factions. Unanimity in the diets being thus impossible, each party forms a confederation, in which they decide by a plurality of votes, without any regard to the protests of the minority. These assemblies, illegal, according to the laws, but authorized by the laws, are held in the king's name, although often without his consent, and against his interests. When the dissensions are over, it belongs to the general diets to confirm or to annul the acts of these confederations." (Voltaire.) Such a system offered only too easy pretexts and opportunities for the intervention of neighboring states. From the beginning of the elective kingship the discord was such that a foreign prince was generally elected king, and when, at the end of the eighteenth century, the throne was given to a Pole, the choice was dictated by foreign influence. Russia ruled for nearly a century in the Polish councils. Her last intervention had for its chief motive to bring forward the situation of Russians of the Greek church, subjects of Poland in the eastern provinces, whose religious liberty was restricted or disregarded. It was Russia which took the principal part in the military operations against Poland, although the first idea of the division appears to have been expressed by Frederick II., king of Prussia.
—The first dismemberment took place in 1772. Austria and Prussia signed treaties with Poland which restored to Russia, Livonia, Polotsk, Witebsk, Meislaw and Minsk; to Prussia, a part of Posnania, Pomerania and Warnia; and to Austria, Galicia and Lodomiria. Poland, reduced to these limits, abolished her ancient government, and adopted, by a constitution copied from that which France had just voted (1791), hereditary royalty, national representation, with two houses, the re-establishment of urban franchise, and the abolition of serfdom. But this constitution having been taxed with illegality by the confederation of Tarjowice, assembled by the advice of Catherine II., and at which the old sovereignty of the equestrian order was reclaimed, the disturbances which followed this transformation led to the interference of the Russian armies, and the second partition of Poland (1791), which took from her half of Lithuania, Posnania, Thorn, and Dantzic. Poland rose in arms the following year, and took part in the European war, but her defeat was followed by the third partition (1794).
—A nation can not be all at once suppressed, especially in modern times, without the conquest giving rise to the protests of the states which have not shared in the spoliation, and which then exert themselves for the re-establishment of the dismembered nation. Poland was the subject of two of these at least partial restorations. The first was the work of Napoleon I., who constituted, by the treaty of Tilsit (1807), as an independent state, at most the ancient country of the Lecks, the basin of the Vistula, under the title of grand duchy of Warsaw. This territory was taken almost entire from Prussia, defeated at Friedland. The grand duke was the king of Saxony. The constitution of 1792 was preserved, in form, at all events. This creation of the grand duchy of Warsaw was dated at Tilsit, 1807; Prussia had nothing of Poland, but Russia kept all the east, and Austria all the south. The war with Austria having been renewed, the Poles reconquered Galicia; but they were obliged in 1809 to cede a part of it to Russia, by a treaty approved of by France. The second restoration of Poland was the work of Europe, assembled at the congress of Vienna.
—The treaties of 1815, while keeping Posnania for Prussia, and Galicia for Austria, gave an independent existence to the greater portion of Poland, which, under the name of kingdom of Poland, was governed by the emperor of Russia on the principle of personal union. This kingdom received a constitution, Nov. 15-27, 1815, by virtue of which the senate and the chamber of nuncios of the nobility and of deputies of the commons shared in the legislation. The chambers had a certain initiative, and suffrage was established on a much broader basis than in the French chartres. The Roman Catholic religion, professed by the greater part of the inhabitants of the kingdom of Poland, was to be the object of the peculiar care of the government, without detracting in any way from the liberty of other forms of religion, all of which, without exception, might be practiced freely and publicly, and enjoy the protection of the government. Difference in the forms of worship made no difference as to the enjoyment of civil and political rights. The senate of the kingdom of Poland was to have as many bishops of the Roman Catholic church as the law should establish palatinates; a bishop of the Greek church had a seat in it also. All public administrative affairs, judicial and military, without exception, were to be conducted in the Polish language. Public places, both civil and military, could be filled only by Poles. Cracow, with its suburbs, was also constituted a republic. The direction of its affairs was conducted by a senate, and the legislative power by an assembly of representatives. (Constitution of May 3, 1815.) But a commission appointed by the three joint powers decided everything.
—The system established by the constitution of 1815, upon a more liberal basis than the charters of that period, and the application of which would not have been without difficulty under a national dynasty, was naturally still more precarious in a country lately conquered, and the dependence of which was but slightly disguised by the so-called system of personal union. From this time on, Poland saw the possibility of liberty only in complete separation, and sought it in four insurrections, the failure of which each time aggravated the situation of the country. The first took place in 1830, and was crushed the year following in the battle of Ostrolenka and the capture of Warsaw. The Russian government adopted a series of measures to efface the Polish nationality, the principal of which were the abolition of judicial power in Lithuania and Ruthenia, the suppression of Catholic churches, forced conversions, the education of the children in the Russian religion (in Poland as well as in Lithuania), the substitution of the Russian language for the Polish in public documents and in the schools, the transportation to St. Petersburg of the library of Warsaw, the forced enrollment of Poles in the Russian army, their transportation to the Caucasus, the confiscation of their goods, the inquisition of officials in families, and the transportation and forced enrollment of children. A large number of Poles emigrated, either to other European countries, principally France and England, or to the republic of Cracow, on the faith of its constitution. The Austro - Prusso - Russian commission, which had held the town since 1815, and which had the letter of the treaties in its favor, exacted their expulsion from the senate, and, as the senate refused to obey, took their expulsion upon itself. The accumulation of resentment burst out in a revolution some years afterward (1846). Associations covering all Poland, delegated authority to a dictatorship of five, who proclaimed, at Cracow, on the 22d of February, the national government of the Polish republic. The movement extended everywhere, and was everywhere crushed out in blood; it was then that the massacre of the Poles in Galicia took place, by peasants of Russian origin, whom the Austrian government was accused of having excited to the deed, and which it at all events did not restrain. The republic of Cracow was suppressed, and Austria, Prussia and Russia signed, on the 6th of November, a treaty which incorporated Cracow with Austria. France and England entered a protest, for form's sake. A third insurrection took place in 1848, and was quelled the same year.
—In 1861 the Russian government seemed to wish to adopt free institutions in Poland. A council of state or of administration, and councils of districts and of municipalities, were instituted; the use of the Polish language in official documents was permitted, and the right of petition recognized. It is certain that the national agronomical society carried its labors beyond the object for which it was established; it was dissolved, as well as the urban delegations. The fourth insurrection was thenceforth fully resolved upon; it lasted until 1863 and 1864, and was, like the previous ones, reduced by force. France and England interposed by diplomatic notes, to the legality and conclusions of which the Russian government took exceptions; the intervening powers did not push any further the measure which had encouraged the Poles without giving them any real support; the character of belligerents, which was accorded to the confederate states of America, was not granted to them. After the suppression of this last insurrection, Poland lost even the nominal existence which had been conceded to her by virtue of the treaties of 1815; she was incorporated into the Russian empire, and in 1867 the very name of Poland disappeared; there remain, administratively at least, only the ten western governments of the empire. J. DE B.
—II. General Considerations. The Polish question is at once easy to state, and difficult to solve. We have to do with a nation whose territory and independence have been taken away, which has fought with heroism and perseverance to recover those inestimable possessions, which has been conquered, and has suffered martyrdom rather than abjure its rights. This is the statement of the question; what will be the solution of it? Russia, Austria, Prussia, will never restore the provinces which they have taken; that appears to us certain. Let any one ask no matter what country to cede a part of its territory without "previous and just indemnity," and the answer would be the same. Only a war can bring about the re-establishment of Poland; but unless extraordinary circumstances should arise to aid its liberators, success would be too doubtful for any one willingly to run the risks of an aggression.
—Many persons believe that there is an interest, if not European, at least French and German, in the reconstruction of Poland on the banks of the Vistula. But as this Poland would be intended as a barrier against Russia, the latter would spend her last rouble and her last man rather than permit its establishment, and in this emergency the government would find the Russian nation ready for any sacrifice. The interest of Prussia and of Austria is open to discussion: but, however threatening Russia may appear to them, these two powers will always think that the portions of Poland which they have annexed will be more useful to them as provinces than as allies. In view of these difficulties, we will not venture any prophecy as to the future of Poland. It is, however, self-evident that the efforts of a handful of brave men will not suffice to vanquish the numerous and well-disciplined battalions of Russia. Enthusiasm will not supply the place of numbers, and neither Poland nor civilization has anything to gain from a rising, the result of which must seem like suicide.
—We can not leave this subject without drawing from the history of Poland the political lesson which it contains. And firstly, the elective system, applied to royalty, has borne such sad fruit on the banks of the Vistula, that it would forever be condemned if men profited by the lessons of history. Besides, it is known that Germany herself has not had too much reason to be satisfied with her "elective empire," although it was during several centuries elective only in form. Republics will continue to replace their chief magistrates periodically, and at short intervals, but monarchies will remain hereditary. It is true that Poland called herself a republic.—Then, the liberum veto, the unanimity required for the choice of a king and in other cases, rendered all regular decision impossible. This requirement could not be in any way justified. At the present day, sovereign powers alone maintain such a requirement, which may be sustained to a certain extent by states coming freely together in conference, but has its inconveniences even in a confederacy; it is necessary that in the greater number of cases the majority should prevail. A small number of persons, filled with the desire of coming to an understanding, succeed at last in agreeing by a series of compromises. States assembled in conference are rarely numerous, while Poland had 40,000 nobles with the right to vote; how could they agree? It is easily understood that with this multitude of petty sovereigns anarchy should have found its way into the country and excited the covetousness of its neighbors. We have no intention of extenuating what is odious in the act of partition, by saying that the Poles provoked it by the unintelligent organization of their government. The thief can not be declared innocent because the owner neglected to shut his door, but the owner has none the less himself to blame.
—But if these mistakes have had such terrible results to the victims of them, the states which took part in the spoliation have felt the consequences of their unjust act; and it is not impossible that they may yet suffer further from it, for moral evil is nearly always followed by a series of troubles. (See
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