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Poland and the Polish Question: Impressions and Afterthoughts

jan peczkis|Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The reviewer was a Briton (p. 135), and her work was inspired by her visit to Poland in 1913. (p. 7). My review is based on the original 1915 edition. This work provides a comprehensive survey of Polish history up to that time, and includes a moderate amount of material on Polish culture. Author Ninian Hill is not sympathetic to the cause of Polish independence. She suggests that the best that Poles can hope for is being united into one geographic unit, and with autonomy, under one of the Partitioning powers. [How wrong she was!]



I focus on a number of items of interest:

JEWS AND THE KHMELNITSKY REVOLT

Nowadays, especially in Ukrainian-Jewish dialogue, blame for the Khmelnitsky (Chmielnicki) revolt, and especially the pogroms, is placed upon the Polish nobility. We are thus told that the Jews had been wrongly blamed for the oppressive policies of the nobility. This spin assumes, to begin with, that Jews were merely order-fulfillers of the nobility, and furthermore could not make their own decisions about their conduct towards the Cossacks. In contrast, author Ninian Hill realizes that, far from being order-giving micromanagers, the Polish landowners were often absent, and thus Jews were free to act and were responsible for their own conduct. She writes, (quote) Absentee landlordism, oppressive exactions by Jewish factors, and the proselytizing efforts of Jesuit clerics, all combined to create discontent and turbulence among these naturally turbulent people. (unquote)(p. 37).

FEUDALISM AND THE POLISH PEASANT-NOBLE RELATIONSHIP: NOTHING UNUSUALLY TERRIBLE

While discussing the onerous aspects of the relationship between the Polish nobility and the serfs, the author realizes that it was not all that different from the corresponding relationship in other nations. She comments, (quote) The nobles had the power of life and death over their serfs, and the murder of a peasant, which was previously punishable by a fine, only became a capital offense in 1768. In mentioning this matter it is only fair to recall that heritable jurisdiction, which extended in some cases to the power of life and death, survived in Scotland till 1748. (unquote)(p. 52).

POLISH INITIATIVES TO EMANCIPATE THEIR SERFS

Nowadays, credit is commonly given to the Partitioning powers for abolishing Polish serfdom. However, the first efforts to emancipate the peasantry came from the Poles themselves. In discussing the events leading up to the January 1863 Insurrection, author Hill writes, (quote) A great sensation was caused by the suppression of the Agricultural Society. This Society had been founded by Count Andrew Zamoyski, a man of liberal ideas educated at the University of Edinburgh, who was animated by the desire to help his country in a practical manner. It had a membership of four thousand to five thousand, drawn from all parts of the country. They had just adopted a scheme to give their serfs, who were nominally liberated in 1807, their land in freehold. This action brought down upon them the heavy hand of Russian officialdom, and the Society was dissolved. (unquote)(p. 120).

THE JANUARY 1863 INSURRECTION—A GUERRILLA SELF-DEFENSE AGAINST TSARIST RUSSIAN ACTS

The author displays an ambivalent attitude towards the Polish insurrections. On one hand, she portrays them as adventurous acts driven by dreams and extremism. On the other hand, she realizes that the January 1863 Insurrection began as a practical form of self-defense against specific and onerous Russian policies. She writes, (quote) At the beginning of 1863 the [tsarist] Government precipitated matters by a drastic measure. On the night of the 15th of January the police made a raid, and arrested in their beds about two thousand men whom they regarded as obnoxious, with a view to drafting them into the army and sending away to remote parts of Russia. Many others, taking alarm, fled into the country, where, meeting with much sympathy and support, they formed themselves into armed bands. These bands stamped their character upon the insurrection. Never was there anything in the nature of an army. The insurgents waged a guerrilla war, which all the might of Russia found it extremely difficult to deal with. (unquote)(p. 125).

The Polish insurrectionists formed a Secret Committee, which issued printed proclamations and which imposed taxes that were promptly paid. (p. 126). They also employed a group of Assassins called “Stiletchiki” (Sztyletnicy). These covert operatives eliminated individually-targeted enemies of the Insurrection, including the Jewish spy Hermani, whose papers proved that he was conducting espionage for the Russian authorities. (p. 127).

THE BOYCOTT: AN UNREMARKABLE TOOL OF POLITICAL AND ECONOMIC SELF-DEFENSE--AND NOT ONLY TARGETING JEWS

Nowadays, the Endek-led boycott of Jews, started by Roman Dmowski, is customarily awfulized as some kind of an unusual and horrible thing that those rascally Poles had invented against the Jews. It was not. The boycott was a common event. It had been earlier used by Poles, to defend their political and economic interests, against the onerous hakatist-inspired Prussian policies. Hill quips, (quote) The persecution has united them [Poles] as they never were united before. Nobles, peasants, clergy, and burghers are as one man in opposition to German encroachments, and they are not altogether powerless. There are three millions of them at least, and they constitute a force to be reckoned with. Their most effective weapon in the meantime is boycotting. So long as the Government boycotts them, as regards employment and as settlers under the ANSIEDELUNGS KOMMISSION, so long will they continue to boycott everyone and everything German. In Posen [Poznan], and throughout Prussian Poland, there are Polish hotels, cafes, and shops. Poles and Germans patronize their own compatriots. The two communities live side by side, and have no intercourse with each other which can possibly be avoided. If a Pole should so far forget himself as to patronize a German or even a Jewish shop, the patriotic Press is not slow to call him to book in a very personal paragraph and hold him up to scorn. (unquote)(pp. 152-153).
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