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The Significance of the Political Emigration in Polish Politics During the Partition Period

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    In a small sketch devoted to the significance of the political emigration in Polish politics of the Partition period, one cannot be tempted to recount its history in detail, to mention even its numerous fields of activity, political, journalistic, cultural, charitable, military, or scientific initiatives. If you are interested in a still synthetic but much more comprehensive study of this issue, I refer you to my other paper[1]. Here, above all, I will try to reflect on its significance in the political life of Poles in the inter-insurrectionary period, i.e. covering the history of the Great Emigration. This will be an attempt to weigh its achievements and the effects they had on Polish national life and to assess how the very fact of its existence and functioning in the political life of the nation influenced the latter’s quality, effectiveness, and realism of the actions it took.

    The first and extremely lasting effect of the emergence of political emigration during the period of the Partitions of Poland was the establishment of a certain stereotype of the political emigrant, which has functioned in the Polish collective consciousness since that era. Thus it is the steadfast patriot who, having succumbed to harsh violence after yet another lost war in defending independence, a defeated uprising, or a crushed conspiracy, saving his head from the vengeance of victorious enemies and refusing to accept life under foreign oppression, chose exile to continue the interrupted struggle for the country’s freedom on foreign soil. Political emigrants in the Polish collective memory are, therefore, the best sons of the Fatherland, patriots who devote themselves wholeheartedly to its service and carry the idea of independence from yet another defeat to preserve it through the night of captivity and among their wandering routes find the one that will lead them back to a free Poland. Such is the image of the political émigré that accompanied Polish reflection on political emigration since the defeat of the Bar Confederation, when the first Polish wandering soldiers appeared, with Casimir Pulaski, the most famous of them in that era[2]. They were followed by a whole procession of generations of political emigration from the time after the fall of the Kościuszko Uprising, through Dąbrowski’s Legions [3], the Great Emigration [4], the committees and armed formations of the World War I[5], the authorities of the Second Republic of Poland [6] and its army in exile during the next world conflict [7], up to and including the waves of post-war emigration pushed out of the country in the times of Solidarity. It is noteworthy how different this image is from that of the French in their thinking about this concept. In the French collective memory, the term “political emigrant” has an entirely different connotation. It is a memory that goes back to the time of the Great French Revolution. Emigrants, in this view, are those who, mindful of their own narrow interests and in defence of their personal privileges, were prepared to abandon their native country and go into the service of foreigners, seeking their help and support to dans les furgons des étrangers (in foreign wagons) return to France and establish order there, rejected by the vast majority of the nation. Political émigrés are, therefore, highly suspicious individuals - traitors and miscreants placing themselves by the act of exile in political opposition to their own nation.

    Reflecting on the significance of political emigration in Polish political life (not only in the inter-insurrectionary era but also more broadly), we must point to its creation of a certain canon of political attitudes, stimulating them - or almost imposing them - as ready-made models on the next generation. The most important of these was the aspiration to create a national armed force in exile - in Polish uniforms, under its own banners and with a Polish command. Beginning with Dąbrowski’s Legions, this was an idea that was replicated throughout the period under discussion - from attempts to form Polish units in the Belgian service in 1832 [8], Polish battalions in the French Foreign Legion in Algeria [9], units in the service of the constitutional monarchs of Spain and Portugal in the first half of the 1830s [10], the ephemeral initiative of this type in Muhammad Ali’s Egypt undertaken at the same time [11], the fantastic ideas of establishing Polish formations made up of deserters from the Russian army in Persia or Khiva [12], the formation of Polish units to support the liberal revolutions in Germany [13] or in Savoy[14], the creation of the Southern Legion of the Polish Republic in Moldova in the 1840s [15], through the participation of various Polish legions in the European Spring of Nations - in Italy [16] and especially in Hungary or Transylvania [17], and finally, the creation of Sultan’s Cossack regiments and eventually an entire Polish division in Turkish service during the Crimean War [18], two Polish detachments in the Caucasus (after the Crimean War and during the January Uprising)[19], a Polish detachment in Turkish Dobruja, which from there - in the spring of 1864 - broke through to the fighting country, and finally to Major Józef Jagmin’s unit fighting on the Turkish side in the war with Russia in 1877 [20]. This pattern of behaviour was to be repeated in the organisation of Polish armed formations fighting on the side of both the Central Powers and the Entente in World War I (Piłsudski’s Legions, the Pulaski’s Legion, the Legion of Bayonne , Polish corps in the East, and finally General Haller’s Blue Army)[21], and on an even larger scale during World War II. Each time, the Polish military in exile became not only an armed formation to carry out current military tasks but also a symbol and a loud manifestation of the fact that “Poland has not perished yet, so long as we still live”. In a situation in which Poland did not exist on the political maps of Europe, did not have its own recognised government or a permanent liberated territory under its own administration, it still existed in the Polish military camp, linking very strongly Polish patriotism with love for the Polish soldier, revered in songs and poetry, described for the comfort of hearts in fine literature, immortalised in heroic episodes of his deeds by painters, and respected throughout society for the sacrifice of blood he made every generation.

    We must also emphasise, who knows, if not the most important result of the existence of political emigration in the inter-insurrectionary era. Right from its inception, this emigration, by its very existence, became an emphatic manifesto rejecting the acceptance of the state of national existence that was imposed on Poles by the division of their country approved by the superpowers at the Congress of Vienna. It was a testimony to the enormous vitality of the nation and its indomitable will to regain independence, elevated by the post-November Uprising exiles before the eyes of the whole of Europe and the world. It was thanks to it that the Polish cause did not disappear from the consciousness of the European public opinion for at least another 40 years. Finally, the November Uprising and the ensuing Great Emigration were also acts that closed once and for all the path, open until 1830, to coming to terms with the situation that had arisen after 1815 and seeking some bearable form of existence for the nation in a system of enslavement and political division that would inevitably lead to gradual disintegration of the national community, and consequent denationalisation. This was because emigration was at that time one of the fundamental factors uniting all the parts of the partitioned Poland and creating (despite differences in programmes and the often fierce internal disputes that tore it apart) an environment in which nationwide national life was developing. The political programmes it devised, the concepts of conduct, the institutions it created, the printed press and the journalism it produced kept as its goal of action and the main point of reference the whole of Poland, without dividing it into separate parts subordinate to the respective provinces of the partitioned Poland. It was in the exile that the national political life of Poles was still taking place. Who knows whether, leaving aside other factors shaping the attitudes of Polish politicians under the Partitions, the very fact of the existence of a large and very politically active emigration in the inter-insurrectionary period, considering itself to represent the entire Polish nation, did not prevent the concept of tri-loyalism from appearing a generation earlier. It is also difficult to assess how the popularisation of such an attitude after 1830 would have affected the condition of Polish national life and whether it would not have accelerated the disintegration of the national community had it not been cemented together by this emigrant political binder for several decades to come. And it is not only about the fiery manifestoes of democrats, proclaiming to Poles what that future Poland should be like, or the political memoranda written for foreign cabinets by the associates of the Hotel Lambert, in which it was shown why it was in Europe’s interest to rebuild it, but also about the poetry of the bardic poets, about Pan Tadeusz becoming widely available, read and regarded as the national epic not only in Mickiewicz’s homeland of Lithuania but also in Greater Poland, Galicia and Podolia, Chopin’s mazurkas played in every Polish manor house; cultural institutions such as the Polish Library in Paris [22] and the Polish Museum in Rapperswil [23], treasuries of national memory and archives of lived history, intended to serve the nation for generations to come. There is no exaggeration in stating that it was political emigration that brought the idea of an active struggle for independence from an enslaved country to the rest of the world, that it prepared for it, planned for it and, with varying degrees of success in changing circumstances, tried to put it into effect, that it also stimulated national conspiracies through its emissaries and tried to assume patronage over them. But it was also the one that most strongly represented the country as a whole and, in its thinking and action, cemented it, levelling out the local differences that would naturally appear - for example, due to the different conditions for action in the various parts of the partitioned Poland.

    It is also worth noting its universal dimension and the scale of its impact on other nations, perhaps underestimated and forgotten by us today. Its inspiration can be found at the dawn of many movements for national revival - especially of the Balkan peoples, whose political ideas it strongly influenced. But its march through Germany and its contacts with the Italian or Hungarian national movements also left its mark on the history of the nations mentioned above. Finally, this emigration - the largest, most active, and longest-lasting in Europe at the time - was a tangible proof that nation and state were not the same thing and that a nation could exist without a state and its culture could develop outside its homeland. When at the end of the 18th century, Józef Wybicki wrote the words of Mazurek Dąbrowskiego, he was still convinced that a nation without a state cannot exist and that only when: “We’ll cross the Vistula, we’ll cross the Warta, we will be Poles”. The generation of the Great Emigration no longer had any doubts that one could be a Pole at the Seine or the Potomac or even in the Algerian desert. Through their numerous emigrations, Poles appeared to the world as a national community without a state yet retaining some form of separate political existence. This significantly changed the way of thinking about the nature of the political order and the relationship between the authorities, the state, and its inhabitants.

    Recognising its many and considerable contributions to animating, inspiring, and sustaining national life in all its dimensions - internal political, international, ideological, or cultural - we must nevertheless ask ourselves whether the influence of this emigration, especially on the political life of the country, had only a positive effect, or whether it was also associated with certain burdens weighing negatively on the activities undertaken, or perhaps leading them entirely astray. One may risk a claim that, as the years went by, not only did the time distance separating the emigrants from their homeland increase, but also the gap grew between domestic reality - changing and evolving beyond their consciousness - and the reminiscence of the Poland they had left, functioning more and more only in their imagination or memory. The émigrés remaining in exile with their perceptions of the country, its political conditions, social moods, relations between different social groups, etc., had less and less information to properly read and assess the reality and thus propose sensible solutions to the challenges it brought. What is more, political emigration - or at least that part of it (always a minority) whose activity was not absorbed by the struggle with everyday living problems, who did not melt into the society of the country of settlement and start living with its problems, but who retained an attachment to the national idea and devoted their energies to the struggle for national goals - functioned in a kind of diseased condition - a certain political fever, often weighing on emotional stability and the ability to coolly assess the situation. All politically active circles looked forward to a change in the homeland’s fate, which would also mean a change in their personal fortunes. They planned uprisings and revolutions, organised legions, and conspiracies, and created political programmes in the expectation that their actions would gain mass support from their compatriots at home, convince foreign politicians to support their cause or establish fraternal cooperation with revolutionaries of other peoples. They were so keen to believe it that they failed to recognise the existing constraints standing in the way of the possibility of accomplishing their political plans. In this situation, it was easy to make mistakes that determined the failure of the initiatives undertaken. Polish society in the Russian part of Poland immediately after the defeat of the November Uprising turned out not to be ready to support another movement which Józef Zaliwski was trying to incite. Hence, his attempt to provoke a guerilla war in 1833 failed utterly, entailing only unnecessary casualties[24]. The simultaneous uprising in all the three parts of the partitioned Poland planned by the democrats in 1846 failed not only as a result of effective counteraction by the partitioners but equally due to a peasant revolt against Polish noblemen and insurgents in Galicia (the Austrian part of Poland)[25]. The slaughter came as a profound shock to all émigré circles and the political elite remaining in the country, proving that the hitherto idealised image of the Polish people, peaceful and patriotic by nature, ready under the leadership of the nobility to stand under the national banners in the fight for the fatherland’s independence, was a myth. The discovery of this truth and the realisation of what the social reality and level of national consciousness of the widely understood people actually looked like had its painful price, which the participants in the uprising movement, suppressed by the hands of the Polish peasants, were forced to pay.

    It was not only the supporters and conspirators of the Polish Democratic Society who made similar mistakes. Some political concepts developed in the circle of the Hotel Lambert were also based more on wishful thinking and ideas about reality concocted in the seclusion of offices than on reality itself. It is no coincidence that one of the eminent scholars of this issue, Professor Andrzej Nowak, included the following phrase in the title of a study devoted to it: Koncepcje polityczne i fantazje kręgu Adama Czartoryskiego [Political concepts and fantasies of Adam Czartoryski’s milieu] [26]. In fact, the dreams visualised in this political milieu concerning the resurrection of the Zaporizhzhya Cossacks, the revolt of the Crimean Tatars and the mobilisation against Russia of all peoples under pressure from the empire - from the Caucasian highlanders of Chechnya and  Circassia, through the Nogais of the Black Sea steppes, to the Nekrasov Cossacks from Turkish Dobruja - should be regarded as fantasies rather than actual plans of action, or assembling anti-Russian coalitions from Sweden and Finland (which was expected to rebel) in the north to the Serbs, Croats, Bulgarians, Hungarians and Romanians (who would co-operate with each other in this endeavour) in the south. The course of the Spring of Nations brutally verified the assumptions based on the idea of cooperation between national movements in the Balkans and the Danube region, revealing the depth of the conflicts dividing them, and the possibilities of developing any significant (apart from symbolic) cooperation with the peoples of the Caucasus or the Black Sea Region simply did not exist at the time.

    Perhaps it would be appropriate to regard these “fantasies” as entirely chimerical ideas that could only have been born in the feverish minds of emigrants, grasping at every opportunity to sustain in them the hope of defeating the forces of enemies that repeatedly outnumbered them, and allowing them to believe that by this means they would be able to return to their country. Perhaps..., but was it not the task of our émigré politicians, behind whom there was no significant potential of the state that could be used in the game, who were not able in any way to create a political situation conducive to their intentions, to construct different concepts of action, to propose different solutions to existing political issues in all areas that could be considered as a theatre of war against the invaders? It was impossible to predict where this war would begin and what would be feasible in connection with it. After all, plans for all contingencies should have been ready, the ground prepared, contacts established, reconnaissance made, and schemes of action drawn up. More often than not, life mercilessly tested these ideas, but in the end, their balance was positive, and the costs of these initiatives were not so high. In fact, almost every one of these “fantastic” ideas remained in the realm of dreams until unpredictable developments made them plausible. It could hardly have been imagined in the early days of the emigration that, a quarter of a century later, a Polish division would be formed in Turkey, and regiments of Sultan’s Cossacks composed partly of Poles and partly of Balkan Slavs, under Polish command and commanded by Polish officers, would occupy Bucharest. Whether they could go further north or, on the contrary, by decision of the Allied command, they would be withdrawn to fronts distant from Polish lands did not depend on the will of the Polish émigrés. What they could do was to create a vehicle for action and set up another “Poland in the military camp”, waiting for a chance to march back home - and this is what they did. It was up to the major players - the European powers - to make decisions that could, in an instant, legitimise much of the Polish dream. The task of the Polish emigration was to be prepared for that moment when it finally appeared - wherever - in the Balkans, in Hungary, in the Caucasus, in Italy or on the Rhine -  a war would break out creating an opportunity to advance the Polish cause. The alternative was to do nothing. Passivity, however, offered no hope for the future. Activity, on the other hand, generated costs - not only material costs but also human costs, in the form of the dead, the executed, the exiled or the imprisoned, with no guarantee of success, but offering the hope necessary for the survival of the national idea, and perhaps also necessary for the mobilisation of the nation for organised effort, attesting both to the world and itself that it is alive and not resigned to slavery, that it has the will to regain independence and pursue it by all means, that it is not the idea of a few hot heads, but that it lives in the hearts of enough fellow citizens to send thousands of new soldiers of independence in every generation into the ranks of the insurgency and conspiracy, as well as into exile. The motto formulated by Prince Adam Jerzy Czartoryski, which guided his efforts, reflects well the sense of the political activities of the whole emigration, even if it can sometimes justifiably be accused of dreaminess and detachment from reality: “There will be what is possible, do what you should do" the Prince used to say. This duty to the national cause was fulfilled by Polish political emigration - not without dramatic mistakes, sometimes embarrassing disputes, and at times even betrayals - but on the whole, to the best of its ability, bringing glory not only to itself but also to the very name of Poland, and having served its Homeland well.


    Text originally published in Polish on 


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