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Modernism: Representations of National Culture

Ahmet Ersoy
Maciej Górny
Vangelis Kechriotis

Chapter II. The “Critical turns”: Subverting the Romantic narratives

Some truths from our history

Józef Szujski
Traduction de Zuzanna Ładyga

Texte intégral

1Title: Kilka prawd z dziejów naszych. Ku rozważeniu w chwili obecnej (Some truths from our history. For consideration at the present moment)

2Originally published: in 1867 as a separate booklet printed by Przegląd Polsk

3Language: Polish

4The excerpts used are from Józef Szujski, O fałszywej historii jako mistrzyni fałszywej polityki. Rozprawy i artykuły, ed. by Henryk Michalak, (Warsaw: Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, 1991), pp. 189–208.

About the author

5Józef Szujski [1835, Tarnów (present-day south Poland) – 1883, Cracow]: one of the most highly regarded Polish historians and conservative politicians. Szujski studied in Cracow and Vienna. Considered politically subversive, he was denied the position of history instructor at the Warsaw ‘High School’ (Szkoła Główna). Thus, he concentrated on his political writings. His Portrety przez Nie-Van-Dycka (Portraits by Not-Van-Dyck), published in 1861 and encompassing the program for the social progress and modernization of Poland, were enthusiastically received by the public in Galicia. In the years of the liberalization of the Austrian political system, Szujski’s outlook gradually shifted from that of a democrat to that of a conservative. During the January uprising (1863–64), he cooperated with the national government, publishing patriotic leaflets and a newspaper in Galicia entitled Naprzód (Forward). After the suppression of the insurrection, Szujski participated in a new conservative group around the Przegląd Polski (Polish review) in Cracow. The group, known as the Stańczycy, was anti-Russian, Catholic, conservative and pro-Western. Szujski is considered to be one of the founders of the Cracow conservative circle. While he advocated loyalty to the Austrian ruler, he also supported the limited democratic idea of an ‘open’ gentry, the “aristocracy of morality and the brain” (in which intellectual merits and civic virtues, rather than inherited privileges, would be decisive for the social status of the individual). From 1869 onwards, Szujski lectured on the history of Poland at the Jagiellonian University. He was also a deputy in the Galician legislature and the Austrian Parliament. Szujski considered himself a historian, not a politician, and thus public education was one of his first aims. In order to make an intellectual impact on Polish society, Szujski wrote several monumental (now totally forgotten) plays presenting his philosophy of history. He occupies an important place in the history of Polish historiography, and remains, together with the other Stańczycy members (Walerian Kalinka and Michał Bobrzyński), a point of reference for conservative modernizers.

6Main works: Portrety przez Nie-Van-Dycka [Portraits by Not-Van-Dyck] (1861); Dzieje Polski [History of Poland] (1862–1866); Kilka prawd z dziejów naszych. Ku rozważeniu w chwili obecnej [Some truths from our history. For consideration at the present moment] (1867); Zborowscy (1868); Maryna Mniszchówna (1875); Śmierć Władysława IV [Death of Władysław IV] (1876).


7Szujski’s text is a result of bitter discussions that followed the suppression of the Polish uprising of 1863–64. As with many other participants in the unsuccessful struggle for independence, Szujski radically re-evaluated his attitude towards Polish history and Polish politics. It should be mentioned that Szujski’s ideas do not represent the first attempt to re-interpret the national program in Galicia. Szujski simply followed his elder colleague, Antoni Zygmunt Helcel, whose political ideas turned from Romantic activism into political realism during the days of the Galician Jacquerie (a peasant revolt directed against Polish gentry) of 1846. Starting in the early 1860s, the Polish politicians of Galicia experienced a more liberal political regime. Many of them lost their faith in a revolutionary pursuit of Polish independence and concentrated on the social, economic and cultural development of Polish society in Galicia. Szujski’s text is one of the first and most popular documents of the Polish political elite’s reorientation in Galicia.

8‘Some Truths from our History’ raises the question of responsibility for the defeat of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth in the eighteenth century. Szujski suggests that Poles themselves are to be blamed. The oppression of the peasantry, the refusal of law and order, and the lack of strong rulers made the partitions possible, and Prussia, Russia and Austria only made use of the opportunity. The fall of Poland was caused by the degeneration of the ‘national spirit.’ The liberum veto of the old gentry (a right of an individual to block the decisions of the majority) turned into liberum conspiro (a tendency to solve the national problems through military irredentism and conspiracies). After the suppression of the last uprising, the time of conspiracies was over. According to Szujski, the only possible and creative political program was that of the organic development of the nation (see Aleksander Świętochowski, Political directives). Szujski encouraged the Poles in Galicia to take the chance to be more active in political, social and economic terms, and thus, not to miss this unique opportunity. The second part of Szujski’s text focuses upon the danger of pan-Slavist movements. The only credible supporter of the Polish national movement’s anti-Russian policy, according to Szujski, was Austria, and the Polish citizens of Austria-Hungary had to remain loyal to the Habsburgs. Apart from political calculations, it was also Szujski’s conviction of the unquestionable Latin (and Catholic) character of Polish culture that made him a pro-Austrian.

9Szujski’s political program became the leading ideological text for Polish conservatives and right-wing liberals not only in Galicia, but also in Prussia/ Germany and Russia. It is interesting how the notion of progress changed its meaning during the debates generated by Szujski’s ideas. In the last decades of the nineteenth century, conservatism was perceived as a progressive ideology (contrary to archaic remainders of Polish Romanticism). At the turn of the twentieth century the emerging modern political movements reinterpreted Polish political goals and questioned the conservative right’s entitlement to represent Polish opinion, something which the conservatives had taken for granted since the 1860s. Two political movements formed in the second half of the nineteenth century, instigated by the Polish nationalists and the socialists respectively, both of which tapped into the heritage of Romanticism. In the literary world, ‘Young Poland,’ a fin-de-siècle literary group of poets and writers, questioned the moral and artistic value of positivist literature (see Artur Górski, Young Poland).

10Though it is hard to claim that all of Szujski’s political writings enjoyed popularity, this text was surely a major source in the construction of a Polish self-image whereby the underdevelopment of Poland is linked to mechanisms of state building and organization. Thus, Szujski, together with his younger colleague, the brilliant historian Michał Bobrzyński, had to face the strong criticism of nationalist historians from the Russian part of Poland. Members of the so-called Warsaw historical school perceived themselves as being in constant struggle against Russification and for defending their national existence, which led them to more ‘optimistic’ conclusions concerning Polish history. In their view, the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth of the eighteenth century had been subjected to external aggression precisely in the moment when it launched a process of political modernization, thus proving its ability to regenerate the state structures.

11On the other hand, Szujski’s interpretation of Polish history influenced not only the conservative circles of nineteenth-century Galicia. Even Polish communist historiography borrowed some ideas from his writings (for instance the idea of the collapse of the Rzeczpospolita because of an inefficient and abnormal internal political system). Szujski himself, however, as a conservative, was officially condemned in the works of the 1950s. This critical attitude gradually grew milder as Szujski and the Cracow school were forgot ten. Post-1989 attempts to revive the conflict between the conservative historical Cracow school and the liberal-nationalist Warsaw school were unsuccessful.


Some truths from our history. For consideration at the present moment

13Why on earth did this nation die, a nation whose days were so glorious, lands so vast, ideas so lofty, spirit so noble, mission so important? [...]

  • 1 Members of the first Polish dynasty, the Piasts.
  • 2 Sigismund II August (1520–1570): king of Poland and grand duke of Lithuania, the last ruling Jagie (...)
  • 3 Stefan Batory (István Báthory, 1533–1586): prince of Transylvania and elected king of Poland.

14Was it because of the particular form of its government? But have we not flourished during the monarchic reign of Bolesławs1 and the liberal reign of the Jagiellons? Was it because of the supremacy of one social group or another? That also was not the reason, since the preponderance of the clergy and the magnates […] saved Poland during the first Jagiellons from […] separatism, and the preponderance of democratic gentry saw through the union of Poland and Lithuania during the reign of Zygmunt August2, and also because we remember the rule of Stefan Batory3, who managed to make of all social strata the foundation of the last ten years’ period of Poland’s harmonious existence. For the ensuing three centuries we suffered a variety of monarchic and republican models, none of which could save Poland from her undoing or bring its renaissance after the partitioning. Why was that? Because the year 1586, when Stefan Batory died […], marks the beginning of the decline of national and social harmony which requires both government as well as social peace and justice, the two elements that decide every nation’s prosperity or decline.

15Whatever the form of government, whatever the structure of society, those two elements must coexist for a nation to flourish. If they do, any form of government is effective and any social system adequate. If they don’t, it means that there is some weakness or flaw in the social system or in the government, and that there is a sin against God’s law in both. That is when a long, horrible era of internal unrest and catastrophe begins and thus justice is done by the hand of fate. A soul who believes in God may tremble at the results, but will never lose faith in its just purpose.

  • 4 Piotr Skarga (Piotr Powęski, 1536–1612): Jesuit at the court of king Sigismund III (1566–1632); ca (...)

16Now, the sin of this nation, as prophesized by our holy preacher,4 was its disregard for government, its disorder, its disregard for fellow men and the suffering of the common people. Its sin was to abandon the religion of its fathers, to turn away from God and The Holy Church. Those sins gave rise to the mad discord that resulted in the partitioning of Poland. It legitimated the kings’ attempts to save the government by monarchic means, initiated by Batory, during whose reign there was still some harmony left in the nation, and later continued, with miserable results, by all of his successors. It entitled the Church to resort to such extreme measures as the introduction of Jesuitism. The common people were still dormant, hence inactive, while the gentry, the nation proper, submitted to the obfuscation of Jesuit radicalism without submitting to monarchic radicalism, and invented a violent and insane measure against it: liberum veto! It served to resist any change, any kind of social or political reform that conscience and circumstance required. [...]

17Then came the time of bondage. Bondage is more than just external pressure, more than a social system that a nation finds oppressive, it is not merely one nation gaining the upper hand over another in a conflict, it is much more serious because it means that a nation is denied its government and its own power of control over society. Oh, madness of those who believe that it is enough to be willing to chase the enemy away, that it suffices to engage in petty conspiracy to be free and independent—be gone from our land, do not ever come back, because you bring nothing but an endless string of defeats, because your days are numbered, days that God’s will allowed you to spend among us, because you have done enough harm, and now it is time for us to bury you with words of love and Christian forgiveness on our lips! Do you know what it means to be free? It means to be able to form a government and to reorganize the society. But the government cannot be some parody of itself—it has to be an organic government, one whose rule is all encompassing, and the reorganization of the society cannot be destructive, it has to be constructive.

18Bondage came, but the social conditions remained the same. God, oh God! If we stop to think for but a while, can we see how horrible our fate had to be?

  • 5 Targowica: a republican confederation, announced in 1792 upon the aggression of Russia against the (...)

19Initially, it was enough to have the members of the ‘Great Diet,’ who understood what government was and what social needs were. Targowica5 fell into disarray; it died a cynical and desperate death. The ideological limitations of the ‘Great Diet’ together with Kościuszko’s saintliness provided the indispensable cementing of society.

  • 6 Prince Józef Antoni Poniatowski (1763–1813): nephew of the last king of Poland, Stanisław August P (...)
  • 7 Stanisław Staszic (1755–1826): priest and political thinker.

20That society used its political instinct to send its sons to join Italian legions and Napoleon’s victorious troops. Not a single drop of blood shed for those causes went to waste, because it meant that the nation rescued its position in Europe by political means. That society helped to form the Grand Duchy of Warsaw, which combined the ideas of the ‘Great Diet’ with Western European progress. But the ‘Great Diet’ generation has moved on in years, as everything does in this world. It underwent political transformation towards a fundamental contempt for the French imperialism combined with a fundamental lack of civil courage, as well as military transformation from patriotism towards the sense of pride as that saved by Prince Joseph6 in the waters of the Elster River. Those characteristics altered its sympathies from Napoleon to Alexander. However, only those who are incapable of celebrating a generation that leaves the scene of battle, a generation that was leaving the field, with minor exceptions, with dignity can condemn it; it can only be condemned by someone who had never stopped to think what it was that made someone like Kościuszko or Staszic7 drift towards Alexander.

  • 8 Maurycy Mochnacki (1803–1834): literary critic and radical political leader during the November up (...)

21Whoever considered those matters should have no difficulty in understanding the history of the Congress Kingdom of Poland and Kościuszko’s insurrection. This is the battle of two generations [...]. The one that leaves the battlefield consists of the friends of Alexander, those who respect Poland in politics and are classicists in literature; those of the young generation are conspirators in politics and Romantics in literature. Let no one think, for fear of blasphemy, that either of those two sides had a monopoly on the spirit of the nation. Both had their arguments, while the truth was in the middle, but it was an elusive truth. On the one side there was the religious belief in government, on the other—the belief in social reform. Those two concepts were further apart than ever at the time of division, because it was bondage that stood between them. In the struggle against that bondage, some wanted to save the government as long as it bore traces of being Polish; others related the struggle for independence to social issues. It is the infamous vicious circle that ran its course in 1863. [...] During the November uprising the conspiracy was at its liveliest and most vigorous, it had the power of political arguments, the support of such geniuses as Mochnacki8 and Mickiewicz, it had minds that understood the need for government, it had the heroes of October 29, while their opponents, who called that day an unfortunate accident, who failed to implement the enfranchisement or to start a new era in politics or in literature, who, having seized power, failed to make use of the means created by the young—that fraction seemed to have no means of its own! The uprising of 1831 failed, the Congress Kingdom of Poland and other annexed territories came under the oppressive rule of tsar Nikolai, the battle of principles moved to emigration, which monopolized the leadership of the nation from 1831 to 1848.

  • 9 Andrzej Tomasz Towiański (1799–1878): thinker and philosopher, initiator of a messianic emigrant c (...)

22If the consequences of bondage are horrible, the consequences of emigration are even worse. In bondage one does not lose track of reality, the sole basis of any political action, while in exile there remains only an idea, a feeling, a memory. Moreover, one has to cope with a foreign social system. It is even worse when one goes into exile with a broken heart, with horrible disillusionment, with anger and desperation. The two fractions of the emigrants developed further in those circumstances, one that supported the idea of government and the other that supported social reform. Such was the basis for all political sects in exile, right down to the creed of Andrzej Towiański,9 which, by appealing to quietism, attracted all the strongest spirits of emigration. Without foundation in reality, emigration parties spread their ideas with a strong belief in their efficacy, and the democratic fraction served the country well by disseminating liberal ideologies, in whose saving grace and essentiality they were firm believers. Who of us has not subscribed to their ideas, who could deny them credit for social action? Unfortunately, the democratic fraction had no political impact; its core ideas were only valid until 1831, when there was the right climate for action, when there was reality. To use a social movement for political means, to assume that despite having been free yesterday it would sacrifice itself today for the cause, to substitute a social organism with conspiracy, to initiate the movement with but a few people united around the sacred cause, to deny the existence of any social group that is present in society but failed to join in, to count on the weakness of the national spirit, volatile and driven by feelings, this is the naked truth of the theory of conspiracy; this is not something of Polish invention, but was borrowed from foreign social movements, a theory we all know, sent to us by Providence in order to introduce social equality, which died at the moment that equality was implemented. We cannot deny its double merit of martyrdom and the dissemination of progressive ideas, we cannot deny that what it has introduced in Poland was necessary—we are all its spiritual sons and there is no one in Poland who would fail to admit its victory, but the time has come to bury liberi conspiro, that spirit who had redeemed the old sinner, the liberum veto, with the blood and tears of millions.

  • 10 The expedition of Józef Zaliwski organized through exile groups in 1833 ended in complete failure (...)

23I do not need to support my theses with a plethora of examples. It is enough to mention the events of 1833.10 1846, 1848, and finally those of the last movement of 1863. All of them happened for the same cause, used the same means and repeated the same mistake. All that we are saying, and we say it with the utmost conviction, is that the gravity of a mistake grows proportionately to experience, and likewise increases the validity of the other side’s arguments! Today, following the enfranchisement, it so happens that the conspirators are completely wrong while the proponents of regular, organic work are absolutely right!

24Why is that? It is because 1863 closed the era of conspiracy for good, leaving not a single socially dependent person in Poland, the year 1863 saw the enfranchisement of the folk, which, as a lesser evil, had been the subject of conspiratorial efforts. Because to continue the conspiracy after 1863 would no longer be a struggle for independence, which no country in the world regained by conspiratorial means, it would no longer be the continuation of social revolution, which had already happened in 1863, but it would mean condemning the country to peril, assisting Moscow in its destruction of Poland. Just like liberum veto after the Constitution of May 3 was Targowica, so would be liberum conspiro after the enfranchisement, but with more horrible consequences. This is not freedom, this is socialism; this is not independence—this is to be devoured by Moscow!

25Let us then repeat that today the right way is the way of normal, organic development of the nation, of social order following the enfranchisement and equality. In the political, social and economic spheres we should openly and publicly start using new forces, from among us we should elect a group of public figures enjoying the confidence of the nation. The Parliament, the public institutions and associations—these are our legal bodies. No other bodies should function or be established. [...]

26As an essentially Slavic country and as the queen of Slavic nations on their Western frontier, Poland had two enemies: the Germans from its beginnings to the early Jagiellons and Moscow from the Jagiellon era until today. [...] Five centuries ago the Germans were our enemies, today it is only Moscow.

27Moscow, I repeat, because only Moscow has an unaccomplished mission and Austria is in its way. Prussia can side with Russia, but once having united to form one German state, it has had no interest in killing us, because every Western state realizes that killing another nation only exhausts and wastes its own strength. Whoever stands in opposition to Polish interests in Austria, in opposition to the direction of organic work, willy-nilly sides with Moscow. [...]

28We are in a monarchy whose position with respect to Russia is the same as that of Poland a century ago. Despite considerable, decided differences between Austria and the Republic of Poland of old, there is a striking similarity in that area. Anyone with a reasonable outlook cannot deny that Austria today, like Poland once, is in a sorry state of disorder due to the overlooking of the essential mission: the Eastern mission. The issue of Turkey allowed Russia to grow at the expense of Poland, the issue of Poland enabled it to reach the border of Austria and become a dangerous neighbor. The Turkish issue served to divert the attention of Poland; Germany and Italy have attracted the attention of Austria and brought it some serious, irreparable losses. The Austrian monarchy is troubled by the same internal problems that once plagued Poland. A century ago Poland had to find within itself the conditions for becoming a truly European, modern state or perish; today Austria has to find her raison d’être in the modern era of nation- states or prepare for a period of hardships. Centralization proved to be both ineffective and harmful; it came up against the solid resistance of historical laws and national consciousness. It was like the internal divisions that were the downfall of Poland, its intolerance and the narrow-mindedness of its internal and external politics.

29The old methods have exhausted themselves—there is no coming back to the era of Metterrnich’s absolutism. Dualism, trialism, the Slavic, German or Hungarian supremacy are nothing but conflicting forces, which will never find their balance until the magical word ‘Become!’ is spoken. [...]

30After all said, we can add: Advienne que pourra if we only follow the principles of enlightened politics at home.

31Enlightened politics means dealing with internal issues in a liberal manner, in accord with national politics. It is here that we are dealing with a longstanding denial, which makes Augean stables of things. [...]

  • 11 “Ruski” in the original.

32The Ukrainian11 question is for Poland a question of federation, for Moscow it is a question of Pan-Slavic absolutism. By putting forward the issue of federation we are dealing with the issue of Ukrainians in Galicia. We are calling the Ukrainians the Ukrainians and the Ukrainian language Ukrainian, we provide it with conditions to develop, but we demand what is right and we take into account the current state of affairs. We recognize the Ukraine in Parliament, at school, at the municipal level, but we demand that it recognize the union and us, that it stop being a conspiracy of Moscow and socialists, that it admit to having sinned and to having betrayed the principles of its forbears! Everything for the Ukrainians, but not for Moscow, everything for the Ukrainians, but no compromise with those who have proved completely unable to compromise!


1 Members of the first Polish dynasty, the Piasts.

2 Sigismund II August (1520–1570): king of Poland and grand duke of Lithuania, the last ruling Jagiellon.

3 Stefan Batory (István Báthory, 1533–1586): prince of Transylvania and elected king of Poland.

4 Piotr Skarga (Piotr Powęski, 1536–1612): Jesuit at the court of king Sigismund III (1566–1632); called for a centralized monarchy and fought against religious tolerance, prophesying the decline of the kingdom.

5 Targowica: a republican confederation, announced in 1792 upon the aggression of Russia against the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. Led by a group of Polish aristocrats, it combined traditional gentry conservatism with pro-Russian sentiment.

6 Prince Józef Antoni Poniatowski (1763–1813): nephew of the last king of Poland, Stanisław August Poniatowski, general of the Polish army and French marshal. Poniatowski died 1813 during the battle of nations in Leipzig where his Polish units fought in the rearguard of Napoleon’s withdrawing army.

7 Stanisław Staszic (1755–1826): priest and political thinker.

8 Maurycy Mochnacki (1803–1834): literary critic and radical political leader during the November uprising (1830–1831).

9 Andrzej Tomasz Towiański (1799–1878): thinker and philosopher, initiator of a messianic emigrant circle that attracted most prominent Poles in exile (including Adam Mickiewicz and Juliusz Słowacki among others).

10 The expedition of Józef Zaliwski organized through exile groups in 1833 ended in complete failure after reaching Poland; many of its participants were arrested.

11 “Ruski” in the original.


Zuzanna Ładyga (Traducteur)

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