Prof. Andrzej NOWAK: Polish lesson

Polish Constitution Day Parade in Chicago.

Prof. Andrzej NOWAK: Polish lesson

The Polish émigré circles gathered together the greatest talents and, in the case of a few people, the greatest geniuses in the history of Polish culture.

For Poles in exile, Jan Jacques Rousseau’s 'Considerations on the Government of Poland’ became another guide to the future: 'If you cannot prevent your neighbours from swallowing you, make them never digest you’.

What should we do if we lose the battle for our country? Emigration is one of the ways out, historically tried and tested by Poles. Political emigration is leaving with the idea of returning – to a country that is free again. It is about returning with a gun in your hand, with ready-made ideas for reform and contacts in the world that will help the country, and finally with money earned in other countries and under other conditions that will be useful as an investment in your own homeland.

It is an experience that has been practised in our history since the 18th century, when the Republic, under external control, lost its independence and there were people who decided to fight for this independence – but lost. The first great uprising was the Dzików Confederation, almost completely forgotten today, which was formed in Dzików in 1734, but which involved armed resistance from a large part of the Polish Republic. It was a protest against the open military intervention of Russia, which had imposed a king on Poland against the will of the citizens in 1733. The citizens elected Stanisław Leszczyński and the Russian Empress chose Augustus III Sas. At that time, in the face of the invasion of the Russian army, a young priest of the Piarist order, Stanislaw Konarski, re-popularised the concept of independence in his Confidential Letters from the Interregnum. He served the Confederates until 1736, seeking diplomatic support from France. When this failed, he returned from exile with his head full of ideas on how to save his homeland from decline. From his stay in Western European countries, he brought back new concepts of education, on the basis of which he prepared the first school for the renewal of the Republic, the Collegium Nobilium in Warsaw, and reformed the entire Piarist school network, combining the study of the contemporary world with education for civic duty in a modern system. In order to contribute to the salutary reform of political institutions, he published the most important work of Polish political journalism of the 18th century: O skutecznym rad sposobie [On the Means of Effective Counsels], which hammered into Sarmatian heads the need to reject the liberum veto, which was being manipulated by our neighbours to enslave our country. Without Konarski, there would have been no Constitution of 3 May.

Before that, however, in the face of another Russian military intervention in Warsaw – the kidnapping of senators and deputies at Catherine’s behest and the imposition of formal Russian 'protection’ on the Republic – another major uprising broke out: the Bar Confederation, which lasted four years. It was defeated by the violence of the neighbouring Empire. But it also left an example, in the actions of one of its emigrant deputies, of what one can and should strive for when fate throws one out of an enslaved country. Catherine II and Frederick II of Prussia, in order to prepare the justification for the partition of Poland, created a highly effective propaganda image of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth as a black hole on the map of European enlightenment, a hotbed of darkness and superstition that only Prussian and Muscovite bayonets could put right. Such was the picture drawn, for the money of the two partitioners, by the first pens of enlightened Europe: Voltaire, Diderot and Baron Grimm. The actions of Michał Wielhorski, the deputy of the Confederation and then émigré Grand Master of Lithuania, were a response to this. He received no diplomatic help from Paris, but, aware of the importance of fighting for the country’s image in international public opinion, he made contact with his contemporaries: Gabriel Mably and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Both famous philosophers, under his influence and on the basis of the materials he provided, wrote works that would form an important counter-current to the 'black legend’ of Poland. Rousseau’s book, Considerations on the Government of Poland, in particular, would become a permanent reference point on the intellectual map of Europe, in which Sarmatian freedom was not condemned as 'darkness and anarchy’, but appreciated as a manifestation of the republican spirit. And for the Poles, it would be another guide for the future: 'If you cannot prevent your neighbours from swallowing you, make them never digest you’. Culture, national culture, is the most important thing – this is what Rousseau, persuaded by the emigrants from Bar, promoted.

And we know from the history of the nineteenth century, after the Republic had been wiped off the map by three empires, that this advice would prove salutary in the long run, and that emigration would play the most important role in fulfilling it.

Of course, we also know that the successive waves of emigration immediately after the collapse, first of the Constitution of 3 May as a result of the invasion of Catherine’s army in 1792, and then already after the final partition of Poland in 1795, were mainly concerned with political and organisational preparations for the resumption of the armed struggle for independence and with seeking support for it in the West. The result of the first emigration (concentrated in Dresden and revolutionary Paris) was the preparation of the Kościuszko Uprising. The second emigration, after the defeat of the insurrection, was to bear as its most important fruit Dabrowski’s legions, which finally arrived 'from Italian soil to Poland’, together with Napoleon, in 1806. The nucleus of Polish statehood was thus re-established: The Duchy of Warsaw. Although Napoleon lost another confrontation with Russia and the cause of the Duchy was buried, this effort, symbolised by the legions created by the emigration, was not entirely in vain. At the Congress of Vienna after the Napoleonic Wars, the name of the Kingdom of Poland was restored, but only as a small territory within the rule of Tsar Alexander I. For the next 15 years (1815-1830), the Poles again had a substitute for statehood. Valuable, but not enough for those who wanted independence and the Republic as a whole. So another uprising broke out, the November Uprising. It too was defeated by the most powerful army in the world at the time, that of Tsar Nicholas. The defeat of the uprising triggered the largest wave of emigration in history.

Since 1831, the history of Poland, and certainly of Polish culture, has been marked by this division, which was later renewed until the second half of the twentieth century: country – emigration. The country is the part of Poland that is not sovereign and therefore cannot freely develop its culture and political debate. Emigration replaces the country in these functions. Of course, this was political emigration and not mass economic emigration, which only became an important social phenomenon at the end of the 19th century. Just over 10,000 people emigrated after 1831. Most of them, around 6,000, settled in France. About 700 settled in the United Kingdom and several hundred in Belgium. Smaller groups went to Greece, Turkey, Italy and Germany, as well as to Spain and Algeria, which had been colonised by France. Only a few dozen rebels initially reached the United States, with the support of the American-Polish Committee, led by James F. Cooper (author of The Last of the Mohicans). More important than the numbers was the specific quality of this emigration. It consisted mainly of officers, members of the nobility and intelligentsia, volunteers for the insurgent army and participants in the political life of the Kingdom of Poland. They were almost all men. Most of them remained bachelors. A group of about 200 Polish women went into exile; mixed marriages with French women were rare. Many of the Polish exiles did not seek stability abroad, but lived with the thought, even the obsession, of returning to their country: to return with arms in their hands, to a liberated Poland.

Polish Veterans in Chicago.

While we can speak of a strong patriotic mobilisation of a large part of the Polish social elite, certainly during the November Uprising, the post-Uprising emigration was characterised by this mobilisation to an almost feverish degree. It also had a special intellectual capacity to sustain this fever, to spread it, to create out of it an institution and a specific political culture. For it was an emigration of people who were not only literate, almost 100% of them, but also, to a very significant extent, educated – at the universities of Warsaw, Vilnius and the Krzemieniec secondary school. In France, of the 6,000 emigrants, 1117 had already taken up higher education (mostly medicine and engineering). It was thought that further education would be useful in the reborn Republic. In such a community, it was possible to publish nearly 100 different periodicals (by 1848) and more than 1,700 titles of books and political pamphlets, helped by the fact that nearly 200 emigrants took up work as printers, lithographers and bookbinders. The Poles in exile were not yet able to establish their own university, but they did establish several other lasting institutions of culture, education and science. These include the Literary Society, founded in Paris in 1832 (it had a scientific and a statistical department; from 1854 it was known as the Historical and Literary Society); since 1838 there has been a Polish library in the heart of Paris, on the Isle de St Louis; and since 1842 there was also a Polish secondary school in Paris, which lasted for over 100 years.

There was something else, however, that defied statistical calculation: the concentration in the circle of this emigration of the greatest talents, and with regard to a few people, we can say, the greatest geniuses in the history of Polish culture. They were Adam Mickiewicz, Juliusz Słowacki, Zygmunt Krasiński – three poets who are known in this history as the three 'national bards’. They were later joined by the 'fourth bard’, Cyprian Kamil Norwid. They were accompanied by the music of Fryderyk Chopin. Alongside them were other talented poets, publicists and historians – co-creators and popularisers of new symbols and myths in the national imagination. They, above all Chopin, undoubtedly created the most perfect instrument of 'soft power’ for the cause of Polish independence, especially at a time when Poland, deprived of a state, had no 'hard power’.

It is worth remembering, however, that the successes of other Polish emigrants also played such a role, albeit on a smaller scale. Three examples can be named: Ignacy Domeyko, Paweł Edmund Strzelecki and Antoni Norbert Patek. They can be seen as testimony to a kind of 'globalisation’ of Polishness that emigration fostered. Domeyko (1802-1889), a friend of Mickiewicz’s from the University of Vilnius, where he had studied differential calculus, decided to pursue new studies in exile, at the École de Mines in Paris. He put the knowledge he had acquired to good use and went as far as Chile. There he organized the foundations of modern mineralogy and the mining industry, and reformed the University of Santiago, where he served as rector for 16 years. Along with the next generation of emigrants, Ernest Malinowski (1818-1899 – emigrated as a boy with his father after the November Uprising), the builder of the Trans-Andean Railway in Peru and Ecuador, Domeyko became a distinctive sign for Poles in Latin America, just as Kościuszko and Pułaski had become such signs for Poles in North America. This time, however, it was no longer the sabre but a university degree and engineering achievements.

Paweł Edmund Strzelecki,

Paweł Edmund Strzelecki (1797-1873) played a similar role for Australia. Born in Poznań, Strzelecki had left the country before 1830 due to an unhappy love affair and his great passion for travelling. After touring Canada, the United States, Mexico, South America, Hawaii and Tahiti, he arrived in New Zealand and Australia in 1839. In Australia, he explored mineral deposits in the Gippsland region (including gold deposits) and in 1840, he surveyed and measured the continent’s highest peak in the Australian Alps: he named it Mount Kosciuszko (2228 m). Although not a political émigré in the strict sense, he was keen to support the activities of the Literary Society of Friends of Poland in the United Kingdom.

Antoni Norbert Patek (1812-1877) was awarded the Golden Cross of the Order of Virtuti Militari at the age of 18 for his services in the cavalry during the November Uprising. In exile, he settled in Switzerland. In Geneva, after years of practice, he set up his own watch factory, using a new invention: the head winding. In 1845, in partnership with the French inventor Adrian Philipp, he founded a new watchmaking company that introduced watches with a separate second hand. During his lifetime, Patek Philippe made a name for himself by producing some of the world’s first wristwatches. Today it is the most exclusive watch brand in the world.

Have these careers resulted in anything for Poland? Resulted? Thousands of emigrants, of course, had no careers. Most lived in daily deprivation, on small state allowances (paid in France until 1856) and odd jobs. The main type of work was political activism. Through this activity, emigration became a laboratory for the organisation of modern political life. And yet, the examples given here of activities that go beyond participation in the 'condemned sword’, i.e. political life, but which are not a form of deviation from Poland, but a service to its culture, to its good name, to the pride of that name – through individual scientific, technical, artistic achievements – deserve to be remembered. These achievements did not end with the Great Emigration, of course, but continued to be confirmed – from Maria Skłodowska to Tadeusz Sendzimir and Zbigniew Brzeziński. Poland is on the map. But it is good that we have these models.