When Poland Was Nowhere: Foreigners Reflect on the Partitions & a Stateless Nation
From ‘a country on the moon’ and ‘nowhere’ to the idea of an independent Polish state: here’s how foreigners saw the partitions and the fate of a nation deprived of its statehood and freedom.
At the end of the 18th century, the Polish state, having been partitioned by neighbouring empires, was erased from the political map of Europe. Poland, as one French playwright would later put it, was ‘virtually nowhere’. And yet this did not mean that Poland and Poles would disappear from the political agendas and minds of members of the elite in Europe and elsewhere.
Here’s a look at some of the most interesting quotes about Poland from that era, which show that the non-existent state occupied a key place in many contemporary political and moral debates.
Prelude: Rousseau’s advice (1772)
You may not prevent them from gobbling you up; see to it at least that they will not be able to digest you. [...] If you see to it that no Pole can ever become a Russian, I guarantee that Russia will not subjugate Poland.
In 1772, writing on the cusp of the first partition, the French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau gave Poles some important advice.
Rousseau was convinced that there was a way ‘to maintain [Poland’s] existence in spite of all the efforts of her oppressors’. He saw the country’s defence in ‘the virtue of her citizens, their patriotic zeal, the particular way in which national institutions may be able to form their souls’.
Poles today appear to have taken Rousseau’s advice to heart, but at the time it seemed they had a long way to go.
Edmund Burke: A Country on the Moon (1793)
With respect to us, Poland might be, in fact, considered as a country on the moon.
For the Polish elite the partitions and disappearance of their country came as a shock. Still, outside of Poland the event was seen in a more nuanced way. While for many it was an example of ruthless, barbarian aggression, others considered it a sign of political pragmatism, bringing order and establishing ‘a balance of powers’ in the otherwise unstable region. For others still, as is manifest in Edmund Burke’s quote from his speech in the British Parliament, Poland’s plight was a remote concern, unimportant in comparison with the goals and interests of Britain and other key European players. An attempt at restoring Poland would effectively mean going to war with Austria, Russia and Prussia, all of the great powers of mainland Europe, with France as their only ally. ‘The situation of Poland rendered any such attempts impracticable’, he concluded. At the same time Burke was deeply aware of the long-term consequences of partitions for Europe:
No wise or honest man can approve of that partition, or can contemplate it without prognosticating great mischief from it to all countries at some future time.
Secret article: Suppressing the name (1797)
In view of the necessity to abolish everything which could revive the memory of the existence of the Kingdom of Poland, now that the annulment of this body politic has been effected … the high contracting parties are agreed and undertake never to include in their titles … the name or designation of the Kingdom of Poland, which shall remain suppressed as from the present and forever…
Two years after the final partition, the partitioning powers signed a secret, separate article which sought to ‘abolish everything which could revive the memory of the existence of the Kingdom of Poland’. This pertained in particular to the name ‘Poland’ and ‘Polish’, which from then on were to be avoided (as it turned out later, this wasn’t necessarily adhered to). This secret protocol was also a good indication of the worse reality yet to come: the oppressive administrative policies which sought to eradicate the Polish language and national identity later in the century.
Tsar Nicholas I: No Poles! (1831)
I don’t know if there ever will be a Poland, what I am sure of is that there will be no Poles.
The fall of the November Uprising of 1830 brought heavy repercussions to Polish territories. The autonomous Kingdom of Poland was dismantled, Russian control over Polish affairs was increased, and further Russification programmes were implemented.
In France, the fall of the November Uprising spawned another famous ‘Polish’ quote: ‘Peace reigns in Warsaw (L’ordre regne a Varsovie)’, said Horace Sebastiani, France’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, upon the brutal crushing of the insurrection by the Russian army.
Alphonse de Lamartine: A cause of France (1848)
The cause of re-establishing the Polish nation is a cause of France itself, one of those causes which [France] will never desert nor forget, one for which it offers its active support.
This instruction to French ambassadors came from Alphonse de Lamartine, a French poet who at the time served as France’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. For Lamartine, Polish independence was an essential cause, part of the common French-Polish interests.
Lamartine's approach stood in a rather sharp contrast with the political idea most famously embraced in another quote expressed in the French language: Il faut se débarrasser de la Pologne ('One should get rid of Poland') - the motto was particularly popular in the circles of Russian liberal Slavophile elites.
All in all, France had traditionally much sympathy for the Polish insurrections (1830, 1846, 1848, 1863). During the 19th century, many French poets expressed their solidarity with the Polish national cause, including Alfred de Musset, Pierre-Jean de Beranger, Alfred de Vigny, Victor Hugo, and Casimir Delavigne. The latter was the author of La Varsovienne, written during the November Uprising.
Alexander Herzen: Poland as a bridge (1851)
Having united Poland with Russia, the government has erected an enormous bridge for the solemn passage of revolutionary ideas, a bridge that begins at the Vistula River and ends at the Black Sea.
For Russian émigré writer Alexander Herzen, the Polish national cause was inseperably connected with the revolutionary cause in Russia, and the even wider issue of freedom in Europe. Herzen saw the partitions of Poland as a potentially revolutionary act that opened up the empire to the advancement of liberal ideas from the West. He also understood the futility of the oppressive administrative policies:
One can destroy Poland, but not conquer it, one can carry out the threat made by Nicholas to leave only a sign and a pile of stones where Warsaw once stood, but it is impossible to turn them into slaves like the Baltic provinces.
In 1863, Herzen once again stood up for Poles in their military struggle against the powerful empire, a decision which cost him the support of many of his Russian adherents. And yet his judgement was as sound and consistent as it only could be:
We are for Poland because we are for Russia. We are on the side of the Poles because we are Russians. We want independence for Poland because we want freedom for Russia. We are with the Poles, because we are chained by the single set of fethers. [...] Yes, we are against the empire because we are for the people!
Lord Acton: Partitions as the ‘revolutionary’ act (1862)
The partition of Poland was an act of wanton violence, committed in open defiance not only of popular feeling but of public law. For the first time in modern history a great State was suppressed, and a whole nation divided among its enemies. This famous measure, the most revolutionary act of the old absolutism, awakened the theory of nationality in Europe, converting a dormant right into an aspiration, and a sentiment into a political claim.
In his 1862 essay Nationality, Lord Acton saw the third partition of Poland not only as ‘the most revolutionary act of the old absolutism’ but also a prefiguration of a wholly new political setting to come when ‘the ancient European system was in ruins, and a new world was rising in its place.’
Thenceforward there was a nation demanding to be united in a State, a soul, as it were, wandering in search of a body in which to begin life over again; and, for the first time, a cry was heard that the arrangement of States was unjust – that their limits were unnatural, and that a whole people was deprived of its right to constitute an independent community.
Benjamin Disraeli: Partitions and the beginning of the era of tumult (1863)
All the boundaries of the kingdoms which existed when Poland was partitioned have been altered; the laws of almost every country in Europe have been remodelled; new codes have been introduced, and new governments called into being. In short, the later and more numerous changes have occurred in the 80 years since that event than were probably ever before crowded into a similar period of the history of man.
For the British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, writing after the January Uprising had already taken place, the partitions marked the beginning of a new tumultuous era in European history.
Karl Marx: Partitions as cement (1875)
The partition of Poland is the cement which holds together the three great military despots: Russia, Prussia, and Austria. Only the rebirth of Poland can tear these bonds apart and thereby remove the greatest obstacle in the way of the social emancipation of the European peoples.
Karl Marx was a close adherent of the Polish political cause, which he saw as closely tied with the social question. Marx appreciated the Poles’ active role in revolutionary and emancipatory movements around the world, calling Poland ‘a cosmopolitan soldier of the revolution’:
Poland spilt its blood in the American War of Independence; its legions fought under the banner of the first French republic; with its revolution of 1830 it prevented the invasion of France, which had been decided upon by the partitioners of Poland; in 1846 in Kraków it was the first to plant the banner of revolution in Europe, in 1848 it had a glorious share in the revolutionary struggles in Hungary, Germany, and Italy; finally, in 1871 it provided the Paris Commune with the best generals and the most heroic soldiers.
Georg Brandes: Poland as the symbol of Freedom and Justice
Poland is synonymous with our hope or our illusion as to the advance of our age in culture. Its future coincides with the future of civilisation. Its final destruction would be synonymous with the victory of modern, military barbarism in Europe!
Georg Brandes deeply believed in the resurrection of Poland. In the 1880s, this eminent Danish journalist and literary critic visited Poland on a number of occasions, and would later publish his impressions as a separate book, On Poland. Brandes also reflected on the potentially terrifying ramifications of the ultimate disappearance of Poland from the map of Europe:
‘Poland’s disappearance would not be like that of Assyria or Egypt in remote antiquity; for Poland in the presence of Russia and Prussia, politically speaking signifies independence, freedom, justice, reason – that is to say, the question whether these forces shall conquer or succumb. Poland is the question whether it is military force or the will of the people that is to have the last word in the history of the world of the present day. Should Poland be definitely lost, it would indicate nothing less in principle than that the culture of liberty and liberality in Europe were lost. One independent country after another would fall after Poland.’
Alfred Jarry: Poland as nowhere (1896)
As to the action which is about to begin, it takes place in Poland – that is to say, nowhere.
This brief note appears at the beginning of Ubu Roi, Alfred Jarry’s most famous piece of his surreal theatre. But rather than being just an absurd joke, the quote can be seen as a reference to the actual political situation in Europe when Poland, erased from the map, was virtually nowhere.
Ubu Roi, which takes place in a rather fantastical Poland, brims with such memorable 'Polish' quotes. The final line of the play brings also such a statement: ‘If there was no Poland, there would be no Poles!’ states Papa Ubu, and one can hardly disagree.
Woodrow Wilson – 13th point: An independent Polish state
An independent Polish state should be erected which should include the territories inhabited by indisputably Polish populations, which should be assured a free and secure access to the sea, and whose political and economic independence and territorial integrity should be guaranteed by international covenant.
The outbreak of World War I offered a new chance for Poland. Poles fought in the armies of the partitioning powers, often facing each other on battlefields as enemies. In January 1918, the idea of an independent Polish state appeared as the 13th Point in Woodrow Wilson’s famous Fourteen Points, an important statement of principles which was to be used for peace negotiations to end WWI. On 11th November of that same year, Poland returned to the map of Europe, following 123 years of partitions.
Author: Mikołaj Gliński, 3 August 2017