A Dane in 19th-Century Poland: A Voyage Into The Heart Of Nowhere
#language & literature
In the late 19th century, Georg Brandes made several trips to Poland. Encounters there with Russification, censorship and political oppression made the influential Danish writer fall in love with the Polish national cause and made him one of Poland’s biggest international supporters. So why have his remarkable writings about Poland been largely forgotten?
In the mid 1880s, Danish writer and critic Georg Brandes visited Poland, a country in the heart of Europe, which at the time wasn’t actually on any of the maps. Poland, as the memorable phrase (from some ten years later) from Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi goes, was Nowhere, having been divided between the three partitioning powers some 90 years earlier.
Travelling into those formerly Polish territories, Georg Brandes found ‘a nation which is not only condemned to death, but which has been buried alive,’ and yet one which ‘continually raises the lid of its coffin.’ He discovered a society engrossed in a struggle to maintain their national identity by all means possible…among which, culture often turned out to be the most effective.
What he saw changed in many ways his stance on the future of Europe but perhaps more importantly inspired a book called Poland that in this darkest of times became a ray of hope for Poles, a proof, and importantly one coming from the outside, that Poland was not yet lost...
A Dane on the border of civilisations
Kings with No Nation: Polish Adaptations of Ubu Roi
Jarry's Ubu Roi Seen Through Polish Eyes
The so-called Triangle of Three Emperors close to Mysłowice/Sosnowiec. Brandes crossed the border in Granica which is today part of Mysłowice. Photo: Scan from the old post card/Wikipedia
When Georg Brandes came to Poland, he was already an accomplished critic, political activist and one of the architects of the Modern Breakthrough, a cultural movement which deeply reorientated Scandinavian culture in the late 19th century. Born in 1842 in Copenhagen, he was one of the most influential European cultural commentators of his time, an ardent supporter of Ibsen and Strindberg, and one of the early admirers of Friedrich Nietzsche. Due to his many voyages, he was often called a ‘travelling critic’ – and yet his visit to Poland turned out unlike any other.
As Michalina Petelska, the author of a new monograph about Brandes in Poland explains, the Dane visited Polish territories for the first time in 1881 when he came on a short visit to the then-Prussian Poznań (Posen). But it was another trip – one undertaken four years later (1885) – that diametrically changed his understanding of the political situation in this part of the world and initiated his long-term relationship with Poland.
On 3rd February 1885, Georg Brandes boarded a train in Vienna bound for Warsaw – the capital of what the Russians had since 1867 called the ‘Privislinski Krai’. Before he got there however, the train stopped in the small town of Granica (Polish for ‘Border’, today called Mysłowice) – a frontier station on the border between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Russia. Here, during a passport check, Brandes was subjected to a thorough examination of his belongings by customs officers. Most of his books were confiscated and sent to the censor’s office in Warsaw, an institution Brandes would soon unwillingly become even more familiar with.
For Brandes, the stop was not only his first encounter with representatives of the Russian administration, but also a head-on collision with what he perceived as a totally different civilisation. ‘The Russian rule is not like the Prussian, prudent and uniform,’ he observed on the border. ‘It is incoherent, absurd, and often entrusted to clumsy hands.’ In a dialogue with the customs officer, its absurdity reminiscent of Nikolai Gogol and (retrospectively) Franz Kafka’s depictions of arbitrary authority, Brandes records the customs officer’s answer to his argument:
‘That is true from your point of view’, was the answer, and acting from their point of view they kept the books.
Standing at the border station for much too long, Brandes is left with ‘a receipt for 15 pounds of literature’ and a solid conclusion:
Thus on the very frontier itself, we got the feeling that from this point we were outside the precincts of real European civilisation.
Warszawa: a Russian provincial town
Brandes arrived in Warsaw, the heart of Russian Poland, just in time for the winter carnival. Along with Helena Modrzejewska, an actress pursuing an acting career in America and like him only visiting Warsaw, Brandes became one of the brightest stars of that year’s carnival season. Hosted and lauded by members of the local Polish elite, Brandes frequented balls, masquerades and plays… However, this spectacle did not prevent him seeing the true image of the city:
The city is of great extent, but with its decayed grandeur and the horrible memories it calls up at every turn, it makes a mournful impression. In the last century, next to Paris, it was the most brilliant city in Europe; now it is a Russian provincial town.
In his walks around the city, he finds Warsaw ‘a forlorn, neglected place, which declines more and more every day’. Coming from Vienna, one of the finest cities of that era, he notes Warsaw’s wretchedly paved streets and lack of sewerage, seeing that nothing had been done by the authorities for its appearance and improvement.
Warsaw is the capital of a country whose existence the government does not recognise, and is a city whose pride the government wishes to humble in every way.
He notes that the city, just like the whole country, ‘has no “home rule”, no civic council, and nothing at all like it. Russian Poland is altogether a country where nothing is elected.’
The public space of the city around him is becoming the site of a cultural clash, where ‘all the signs, all the notices are in two languages or two kinds of characters.’ These small elements are constant reminders of the pressure the government keeps up to force their foreign language on the Poles.
In fact, Brandes’ visit to Poland coincided with the darkest days of the government’s oppressive Russification policy, intensified after the fall of the January Uprising of 1863. Speaking Polish was not allowed in the streets, public offices, schools nor higher education institutions: ‘Polish language is absolutely forbidden in the University.’ One of the few places where people were still allowed to speak Polish publicly was on stage in the theatre (though the selection of plays allowed was severely censored), as well as in church. But even in church, as Brandes notes, the government had begun trying to introduce the Russian language. Several bishops who refused were even exiled.
The threat which lurks about every man’s door
Paderewski, Modjeska & Curie: Shaping Independent Poland from the Outside
Brandes recorded carefully the ways in which the Russian administration was able to implement its ruthless policy of Russification. It was an elaborate system of political oppression and punishment – the most palpable symbol of which was the Cytadela, a fortress-prison looming over Warsaw ever since the November Uprising of 1830.
This system of punishment even stretched to children. Brandes recalls the case of a 12-year-old boy incarcerated for twenty-four hours in the dark because, coming out of school, he said to a comrade in Polish: ‘Let us go home together.’
However, as Brandes observed, one of the most powerful tools of oppression was the ‘administrative way’:
The fact is the government does not need a law to attain its end; it has at its command what is better, the administrative way, and this administrative way means, as a rule, Siberia. I have named the word which is in the air in Warsaw, the spectre of which broods over the city like a nightmare, the threat which lurks about every man’s door, the memory of which is to be read in the faces of so many men and women.
Deportation was a popular punishment for any patriotic activity, from participation in national uprisings or secret organisations, to underground education. Many Poles that Brandes knew in Warsaw had a history of deportation, often having served several years in remote parts of Siberia. One time, at a dinner party he was attending, Brandes notes his company and that ‘in a not very large room, more than two hundred years of Siberia were collected.’
Forced between the lines by censorship
A year later in 1886, Brandes returned to Warsaw to give a series of lectures on Polish Romantic literature (they were subsequently incorporated into his book about Poland). This turned out to be a wholly new reading experience for the Danish critic, not only because of the fact that Polish literature was for him a terra incognita (he does not cover it in his monumental six-volume book Main Currents in Nineteenth Century Literature) and that he would have to rely on translations, but also because of the oppressive policy concerning giving public lectures in Russian Poland on a topic as sensitive as Polish literature.
Brandes was obligated to submit the text of his lectures a month before his arrival. But under Russian censorship, even a trivial question such as the number of lectures planned became a political matter. Intending to give four lectures at first, he was discouraged from that plan, based on a logic that, again, verges on the absurd.
The number four did not meet with approval. ‘Why not?’ was then asked. The answer was: ‘Because three lectures are an entertainment; four are a course of instruction.’
Brandes very soon realised the scope and scale of that destructive system.
Of course all books published in the country itself are scrutinised with the greatest strictness. Even the classics of antiquity are examined. It has happened that the Roman verse nec timeo censores futuros has been struck out because it was translated: I do not fear the censors of the future (the meaning is, the judgement of the future). In a play dealing with the past of Poland they struck out before Jagiello the word King of Poland, and substituted Duke, although there never have been dukes of Poland. Nay, even the cookery books are subjected to the censorship, and are corrected with such puerility that lately the words ‘to be boiled over a free fire’ were erased because the word free was used.
Before long, Brandes developed a deeper understanding of what it really means to write and read under the conditions of censorship.
Aesopian: The Secret Code to Unlocking Polish Literature
Almost all articles in which anything is really said are therefore not intended to be understood at the first reading. The language is abstract, vague, of doubtful meaning. The whole public is taught to read between the lines. Almost all the feuilletons are allegories: they say one thing and express another. Since words such as ‘freedom’ and ‘fatherland’ are prohibited, it is natural that circumlocutions should be used.
The Dane also realised that in order to be able to give lectures (and actually say something), he would have to resort to the same kinds of tricks that Polish writers had been relying on for the last few decades of severe censorship:
I strove in vain to find expressions with double meaning, images, in themselves indistinct, which could be understood by the audience, circumlocutions, which could be seen through and yet would be unassailable. [...] Gradually I acquired practice in the rebus style, and wrote, so that by an accent or a pause I could give a sentence a new and more living character; I became expert in hints and implications.
It seems that in order to give his lectures on Polish literature in Russian Poland, Brandes had to, in a way, transform himself into a Polish writer – just like Adam Mickiewicz or Bolesław Prus, he would express his thoughts in what was called ‘Aesopian’, even if the language of his lecture was French.
Brandes as a critic of Polish literature
Playing with Censorship: How Polish Artists Dealt with the Communist Regime
Warsaw's City Hall where Brandes held his lectures on Polish literature in 1886; Source: Polona.pl
Before he came to Poland, Brandes was a great proponent of naturalism and modernism in literature and a vehement critic of symbolism. He was a major force in propelling to fame key figures of European modernism like August Strindberg and Henrik Ibsen.
But rather paradoxically, in Poland, ‘where the national character was peculiarly adapted to assimilate Romanticism,’ Brandes became engrossed with all things Polish Romantic. In his 1886 lectures on 19th-century Polish literature, he recognised Romanticism’s importance for Polish national culture:
Poland's Unique Take on Romanticism: Why Is It So Different?
Romanticism, therefore, did not isolate souls either in egotism, as in Germany, or in wild independence, as in England, but bound them together in a visionary feeling of compatriotism.
Brandes’ focus was on the writings of Adam Mickiewicz, Juliusz Słowacki and Zygmunt Krasiński, with the first becoming an unparalleled paragon of poetic qualities, compared only with the greatest European poets:
Mickiewicz alone approached those great names in poetry, which stand in history as above all healthy, far healthier than Byron, healthier even than Shakespeare: Homer and Goethe.
The Dane is also quick to to note an altogether allegorical or Aesopian character in much of Polish Romantic writing, ‘when the fundamental thought concealed itself behind an allegory, as is the case in Grażyna and [Konrad] Wallenrod’.
At times however, he can also be quite critical of Polish literature. He notes a lack of humour in Polish literature and claims that nowhere else is love as immaterial as in Polish romanticism. As for women in Polish literature, Brandes claims that while they are worshipped and admired here more than anywhere else, they are also hardly observed or studied.
In Mickiewicz and Słowacki he sees poets of national vengeance, whereas Krasiński is the poet of Christian love. And yet he sees both of these principles as anachronistic:
Translating Mickiewicz: Poland's International Man Of Mystery
(...) It is these two principles, both equally romantic, which permeate the Romantic literature of Poland. There is also a third unromantic and unsentimental principle; it teaches neither to exterminate nor to love your enemy, but to work more and better than he. The future belongs neither to the avenger nor to the apostle, but to him who labours with genius.
When speaking of more contemporary Polish literature, Brandes recognises the role of Henryk Sienkiewicz. But, characteristically, he saw in the future Nobel-Prize winner someone who through his art unites Poles from different partitions, rather than a brilliant writer: ‘Sienkiewicz has by degrees become the jewel in the crown of Poland. And he is far from being a genius of the first rank.’ At other times, he compares his historical novels (The famous Trilogy) to a Feigenkaffee (a fig coffee), a surrogate of real coffee. Namely, he means it is something that tastes like reality but is not, not a real history but a concoction, a fantasy made for the mob. And yet, this fig coffee was essential in building the Polish national identity beyond partitions.
The Man Behind Quo Vadis
Stranger aspects of the national character
But it didn’t stop at literature. Brandes was also a keen (and critical) observer of Polish social life and national character. He saw Poles as ‘an enthusiastic and unpractical people [...] who above all, worshipped independence to the point of insanity’. He also realised that Poles lack some modern bourgeois qualities, like thrift, industry, discipline, moderation and civil prudence – qualities which ‘ensure the continuance of the individual and of the state’. He was also baffled at how careless the Polish upper classes were with money.
It seemed the Polish ‘national’ philosophy encapsulated in the popular saying ‘Things will sort themselves out’ (‘Jakoś to będzie’) was inconsistent with the parts of the culture that inspired him. Unlike the Poles, who saw it as proof of their ability to adapt and considered it almost their national survival strategy, Brandes found it unstructured and an invalid approach to life: ‘a saying characteristic of the land of disorder.’
A poor paymaster, or one who lives on credit, is judged less severely here than anywhere. About families who are in debt to everybody it is said indulgently: ‘They were forced to run into debt.’ They are not despised on that account, hardly even when extravagance has amounted to folly, as when the head of a family gambles and loses a fortune in play. But just in such cases the bright and the shady sides of the Polish character are seen in close proximity.
At times, Brandes’ search for cultural differences becomes an essay in civilisational differences. For one, he notes that the relationships between people of rank and their inferiors in Russian Poland ‘have certainly something Asiatic’. He is scandalised by the extravagance of the nobility in their employment of servants:
In every house owned by a person of ample means, for instance, there is a doorkeeper who sits the whole day on a chair at the entrance to open the open hall door. A Dane could never be induced to sit so long on a chair.
He finds the idea of servants waiting up for their masters late into the night off-putting. ‘According to northern ideas, their humility was amazing,’ he concludes. Brandes is also bewildered by how servants kiss their master’s sleeve (rather than their hand) – he notices something similar among students carrying to their lips the arm of a man to whom they wished to show respect. To a foreigner from egalitarian Denmark, which by then was on a steady path to democracy, all of this seemed strange and exotic.
Inspired by the Polish national cause
However what strikes Brandes most – and what constitutes the bulk of Poland, the book he published in 1888 – is how Polish society deals with the political predicament in which it had found itself. Brandes considers the Polish striving for freedom as one of the important elements of the Polish national character but also an important element of 19th-century history:
Everywhere in Europe where there has been any fighting for freedom in this century, the Poles have taken part in it, on all battlefields, on all the barricades.
Brandes is astonished by the strange stamina and consistency of Polish society’s will to retain its traditions, language and identity:
We meet here a people in whom every nerve is strained, because day in and day out they fight for their existence, instead of enjoying it like other races.
It might be striking to note that in Poland, Brandes, who is otherwise considered an atheist and anticlerical, sees the Church as a positive force, playing a key role in maintaining the national identity of the folk – especially in the countryside. Moreover, despite being an avowed socialist, he was willing to dismiss the role of socialism in the Polish struggle for independence and put national struggle before class struggle:
It is inconceivable that the class-struggle of this age should leave Poland unaffected. But the ill-will against the Russian is nevertheless a hundred-fold stronger than the distrust of the master. The Russian is despised for not being a Catholic; the most abusive term a peasant can use is Moskal (Muscovite).
Again, he recognised the crucial role of religion:
Among the people of rank and the common people there is only the economic distance; but between the Pole and the Russian rises the barrier of religion, the most powerful factor in the life of this country.
More importantly, Brandes saw the Polish national cause as interrelated with that of humanity’s and Europe’s future. ‘We see here a people who are entirely absorbed in their national cause,’ he argued, ‘and yet this national cause is nothing but the universal cause, the cause of humanity.’
When Poland Was Nowhere: Foreigners Reflect on the Partitions & a Stateless Nation
‘Should Poland be definitely lost,’ he argued in another passage, ‘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.’
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!!!!
Ironically enough it was the ‘military barbarism’ of World War I that eventually became a force that paved a way for Polish independence.
A glimpse of Poles as a free people
Polonia (Un)Chained: Iconography of the Suppressed Nation – Image Gallery
A panorama of Lviv seen from the Citadel, 1890, photo. Edward Trzemeski/Polona.pl
In 1898, ten years after the first edition of Poland, Brandes visited Kraków and Lviv. This was his first foray into the Austro-Hungarian partition of Poland. It was here that Brandes for the first time ‘saw the Poles as a free people’, referring to the wide scope of autonomy which Galicia, the historic name for this region, enjoyed in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The difference was markedly different, with self-government, education and universities in Polish – even freedom of speech.
In Lviv, he met with artists and writers, as well as an official organisation for veterans of the January Uprising (an unthinkable group under the Russian Partition) and the Sokół Association, a paramilitary youth organisation with a nationalist edge. He also took part in celebrations commemorating the unveiling of a monument to 17th-century king Jan III Sobieski – something that would hardly be possible in the other two partitions.
At least I have here seen enough to prove that the Poles do not lack the ability to shape their life as an independent people.
Far away, but forever close
The Dane’s trip to Lviv was his last visit to Poland, but he never lost his interest in the Polish national cause. In 1899, he took part in an international survey about Poland where he once again advocated the right of the nation to pursue independence. A year later, he announced his position on the situation of Polish women. In 1905, as revolutionary waves coursed through the Russian Empire, Brandes wrote an open letter to Polish youth in the partition urging them to continue their boycott of Russian schools. In 1907, he again campaigned for Poland by participating in the international survey organised by Henryk Sienkiewicz, itself a reaction to Prussian legislation decreeing the expulsion of Poles.
During all this time, Brandes remained perhaps the most eminent intellectual to argue for the Polish cause. He was also active as Europe’s leading intellectual (an author of books on Kierkegaard, Ibsen, Shakespeare) but also a political activist involved in bringing the world’s attention to other suffering or oppressed minority groups. He reported on the situation of Danes in Schleswig, Finns in their struggle with the Russian Empire, as well as the Armenian genocide in Turkey. He was seen as representing the conscience of Europe – and he was paying the price for it.
Military barbarism arrives
Polish Legions (III kompania wiedeńska), 1918, Photo: National Library Polona
This hefty price was perhaps most blatant when, upon the outbreak of WWI, the declared pacifist Brandes decided to stick to neutrality. His stance met with a lack of understanding on all sides of the conflict and cost him many friendships – among the most powerful were France’s prime minister George Clemenceau, and among the most dedicated were his friends in Poland.
Ironically, for Poles, the Great War, with the partitioning powers now fighting against each other, appeared to be that long-awaited chance of regaining independence. As it was, the war ended leaving all the powers defeated, fulfilling the dreams of many generations of Poles. But for Brandes, war was only a catastrophe.
‘What is Europe?’ he asked in a speech on the conditions in Poland. ‘Transformed into hundreds of battlefields, thousands of cemeteries and hospitals, one enormous bankrupt estate, and one immense insane asylum.’
He could also see that the end of the war would not bring a solution to Europe’s problems: ‘But what if neither side were to win a decisive victory? Suppose that all these horrors lead to nothing but a partie remise as every indication seems to show?’
Betrayal & lost friendship
But Brandes also refused to turn a blind eye to what he saw as acts of anti-Jewish violence coming on the back of the theatre of war. In an article from late October 1914, he denounced Polish nationalism and condemned both the recent pogroms and Polish intellectuals’ inability to speak out against them. For Brandes, this was a matter of moral integrity.
The article met with negative reactions from the Polish public, and weighed heavily on Brandes’ relationship with Poles. For Poles, even though Brandes had been such a keen ally for many years, this was a betrayal of the Polish national cause at its most sensitive time.
But, as Michalina Petelska argues, this did not mean Brandes had turned his back on Poles. During the war, he had already started working with Julia Ledóchowska, a future saint of the Catholic Church, who was organising relief in Scandinavia for Polish victims of war. When she approached Brandes in 1917 about this project, he started becoming involved by giving lectures and donating funds to the cause.
Despite this continued support elsewhere, his 1914 article continued to play a divisive role in Brandes’ relations with Poland, even decades later. As a result, the memory of Brandes’ role and contribution to the Polish national cause was suppressed. His book Poland was never reprinted in resurrected Poland, and Brandes never returned to the country for whose independence he probably did more than any other foreigner. He died in Copenhagen in 1927.
What is it to love Poland other than to love freedom, to have deep sympathy with misfortune, and to admire courage and belligerent enthusiasm!
Written by Mikołaj Gliński, May 2018
19th century history
partitions of Poland
Where is Poland?
Join us on a journey through a country that wasn’t on the map!
Explore the guide