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Polish Peasant National Consciousness Long Preceded the End of Serfdom. Reciprocity of Polish-Jewish Antagonisms,The Nation in the Village: The Genesis of Peasant National Identity in Austrian Poland, 1848-1914 (Paperback)

jan peczkis|Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The term "peasant", a somewhat ambiguous term, refers to the smallholder who, before their emancipation of 1848 in Austrian-ruled Galicia, had worked the landlord's estate in exchange for the right to farm small plots. Among the Poles of Galicia, Prussia, and Russia, peasants constituted 80-85% of the population, along with 8-10% gentry landholders (SZLACHTA), a small intelligentsia (clergy and teachers), and 2-3% of what the author calls wealthy aristocrats. (p. 11).

Nowadays, leftist academics, and some Jews, insist that "Poland" is a recent invention because, according to their argument, the very concept of a nation was limited to the upper classes until the last two centuries or so. This is a non-sequitur. In addition, they are copying an old Marxist line, and a dubious one at that.

The author emphasizes peasant national consciousness in the decades after the end of serfdom (1848). However, as soon becomes obvious, Polish peasants were nationally conscious long before that. Although author Keely Stauter-Halsted does not dwell on very early forms of Polish peasant national consciousness, the information that she does present is worth elaborating.


Contrary to notions about peasants living in a tiny world in which only local affairs mattered, Stauter-Halsted discusses many forms of pre-literate, pre-media peasant access to information about the outside world. The author comments, (quote) Even before emancipation, peasants enjoyed ties to cultural and economic life beyond the parish. Patterns of influence, from trade networks to kinship associations and larger religious communities, extended beyond the individual village. (unquote)(p. 7).

The Polish Galician peasant's world was even larger. Stauter-Halsted points out that, (quote). The long-standing Polish tradition of migration for work also fostered familiarity with and conceptions about foreign lands...Beginning already during the sixteenth-century grain trade boom, whole villages along streams feeding into the Vistula emptied of males in the early spring for the five-month trip down the river to deliver grain to the international port of Gdansk. The arduous two-month walk back to Galicia helped to acquaint rafters with the geography of the Polish lands and with foreign empires. By the nineteenth century, raftsmen were among the most knowledgeable about the rivers and towns of the old Polish Kingdom. (unquote)(p. 57).


Well before the first Partition [1772], the Polish peasant knew other peoples, each inhabiting a distinct area geographically, with which to compare and contrast his own, (quote) By the mid-eighteenth century, the burdens of serfdom had become so great throughout the Polish lands that many peasant families were forced to send male representatives abroad to earn money...to Hungary or Bukovina. (unquote)(pp. 58-59).

The village KARCZMA (tavern) was an institution. There, long before the emergence of peasant literacy, formal education, and newspapers, the peasant could learn about, and discuss, significant matters not only of local but also distant origin. (p. 51). This, of course, included far-off locations, their peoples, their customs, and the geographic loci of their existences. As a result, the peasant could nurture some concept of "non-Poland" and, by implication, "Poland", that, furthermore, was not dependent on the oft-painful relationship with his landlord.

Let us extend this consideration. According to leftist ideation, patriotism and nationalism are inventions of the upper classes, and are eventually transmitted to the peasantry so that they will go to war with each other in support of the privileges of the upper classes. The facts are otherwise. The peasant forms his own concept of nationality. It is not solely dependent on what he has heard from his landlord. It is his own.


Having a concept of nationality implies thinking in terms of a polarity between "us" and "them" at the national level. Clearly, this already existed in the Polish peasant's mind long before Emancipation from serfdom, as shown in the next paragraphs.

One obvious aspect of emancipatory nationalism is awareness of one's people having been wronged by another nation. Keely Stauter-Halsted describes how the Galician Polish peasant, already before 1800, reckoned the German a foreign invader and exploiter. (quote) Village songs and theater commonly refer to the devil using the Polish word for German (NIEMIEC) and cast him in the urban clothes (including a short dress coat) widely associated with towns in the German lands. The choruses of songs about Germans are much harsher in tone than those discussing Poles...At least one popular refrain known from the eighteenth century complains of the Germans who "came to our country/According to their custom/With carpetbags/and now they are lords." (unquote)(p. 55).

Clearly, the peasant's concept of the German, already before 1800, had been that of an enemy, and not just a heavy-handed "outsider" or abstract "powerful official". Moreover, since he unambiguously knew the Germans as distinct peoples that functioned as a collective entity, he had some concept of nationality. Finally, since the Polish peasant also knew that the German had a definite homeland, and that concerted action against his homeland had originated from the Germans' homeland ("came to our country"), he had some concept of a nation-state. To the extent that the peasant held such overall concepts of the German, it follows that he had to have a corresponding sense of one's own as a Pole.


On this basis of all the foregoing, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the enserfed, pre-literate, 16th-19th century Polish peasant had some significant concept of nationality, nations, nation-states, and nationalism, including his own. In particularly, how could the well-traveled peasant, and those peasants who learned of his exploits, fail to have (or develop) a sense of homeland? From there, it was only a short conceptual distance to cherish and defend this homeland--a basic of patriotism and nationalism. In addition, the earliness of the peasant concept of an enemy nation implied a peasant awareness of himself as part of the Polish nation--a nation on the receiving end of German enmity.


Polish peasants had always served as soldiers in defense of Poland. (p. 200). The most later-celebrated instance was the peasant combatants in the Kosciuszko Insurrection (1794) at Raclawice. (p. 197, 213).

The aforementioned raftsmen (p. 57; see also p. 150) spread news, such as that about the Insurrections of 1830 and 1863 in faraway tsarist Russian-ruled Poland. Although Keely Stauter-Halsted does not consider it, it is obvious that knowledge about the Insurrections of 1830 and 1863 would create a sense of kinship with the oppressed peoples, and a sense of the Russian being an enemy--even though the Galician Polish peasant commonly had no personal experience with either. This, at very least, was a rudimentary form of Polish peasant nationalism.


Keely Stauter-Halsted focuses the main part of her book on the development of peasant society after Emancipation (1848). Interestingly, literacy followed, rather than preceded, important peasant initiatives. The peasants began to form organizations that, among other things, would prevent a potential return of serfdom. The peasants became administrators, leading to the village commune (GMINA) and the village mayor (WOJT). Even by the mid-1870's, only about 20% of village mayors (who, of course, disproportionately had literacy skills) were even minimally literate, and fewer still had a good working knowledge of the law. (p. 82). Even in 1875, 99% of village mayors were professional farmers. (p. 85).

Widespread schooling, and formal instruction in Polish history and patriotism, along with its visible manifestation (rallies, parades, special days) came still later. Extensive landlord involvement in support of the development of the peasantry was also a relatively late development. The Polish peasants thus finally experienced patriotism and nationalism in their modern forms.


After peasant Emancipation, the traditional Jewish middleman position, between landlord and peasant, began to decline (p. 41), and Polish-Jewish relations began to sour, culminating in the notion, nowadays, that Poles are born anti-Semites. The emancipated peasantry increasingly needed credit. In the then-absence of credit institutions, this made him dependent upon the Jewish tavern owner, who also doubled as a usurer. Although Austrian law forbade usurious interest rates, they sometimes were as high as 250%, computed weekly. (p. 50). Furthermore, as Polish peasants themselves became entrepreneurs, they, for the first time, came into direct competition with the Jews. (p. 116). In time, peasants organized a network of Polish-owned shops to break the Jewish monopoly on rural trade. (p. 133). [The boycott was the obvious next step.] In addition, Stauter-Halsted points out that, (quote) Beginning in the 1870's, Christian peasants sought to organize their own credit institutions and village stores in order to undercut the interest rates and prices Jewish merchants demanded. (unquote)(p. 41).

Polish-Jewish rivalry not only continued, but expanded into new venues, (quote) Village innkeepers were also almost always without exception Jewish, since gentry landowners had sold their concessions for alcohol trade only to nonserfs before emancipation...Because of their position within the money economy, Galician Villagers viewed rural Jews, whether in the capacity as bartenders, moneylenders, or managers of general stores, as responsible for much of their economic misery. To complete the picture of economic control, Jewish families in the 1870's began competing with small farmers to buy up estate land from impoverished gentry. By 1889, some 10 percent of agricultural land was owned by Jews. (unquote)(p. 134).


Pointedly, Polish-Jewish antagonism was not as one-sided as nowadays portrayed. Keely Stauter-Halsted comments, (quote) Peasant resentment of rural Jews heightened still further after the latter began to retaliate against the loss of business. Jewish merchants attacked parish priests for their founding Christian stores. The Jewish shop owner in the town of Kalwarya reportedly offered to donate 60 ZLOTYS year to a cloister of the priest's choosing if the clergyman would convince circle members to close their store, and offered the circle itself 100 ZLOTYS to cease its operations. In most cases, peasant entrepreneurs persevered. Occasionally, however, as in the parish of Dabrowa in 1884, the Jews triumphed and circle activities ceased altogether in response to the "great agitation" Jewish businessmen organized. (unquote)(p. 139). [Note that all the foregoing events occurred BEFORE the strong anti-Jewish turn by the Endeks in the 1890's and especially after about 1900, notably the 1912 Dmowski-led systematic boycott of Jews.]
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