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Modernism: Representations of National Culture

Ahmet Ersoy
Maciej Górny
Vangelis Kechriotis

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

History of Poland in outline

Michał Bobrzyński
Traduction de Zuzanna Ładyga

Texte intégral

1Title: Dzieje Polski w zarysie (History of Poland in outline)

2Originally published: Warsaw: Gebethner i Wolff ; Cracow: G. Gebethner, 1879

3Language: Polish

4The excerpts used are from Michał Bobrzyński, Dzieje Polski w zarysie, ed. by Marian H. Serejski and Andrzej F. Grabski (Warszawa: Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, 1977), pp. 397–408.

About the author

5Michał Bobrzyński [1849, Cracow – 1935, Poznań]: one of the most important Polish historians and an influential politician. At the age of 28, he became professor at the Jagiellonian University in Cracow. At the age of 29, he was elected a member of the Academy of Sciences. He was a deputy in the Viennese Parliament, and vice-president of the regional Galician ‘Ministry of Education’ (Rada Szkolna Krajowa). Between 1908 and 1913, he was the governor of Galicia. During the First World War, Bobrzyński was the minister for Galicia in the Austrian government. His ideological stance remained almost unchanged from the very beginning of his political career. Bobrzyński was the youngest in the Cracow conservative circle (Stanisław Koźmian, Józef Szujski, Stanisław Tarnowski). He advocated close co-operation with the Habsburgs and rejected the prospect of military attempt for achieving independence. He was not only the youngest but also proved to be the most open-minded of the Stańczycy. He did not share their deep social conservatism. Finally, as the governor of Galicia, he supported Józef Piłsudski’s attempts to create pro-Austrian Polish military units on the eve of the First World War. As a historian, Bobrzyński is mostly known for his seminal work on the history of Poland. It was published many times in various forms, and Bobrzyński updated his research for the period from 1773 to the 1920s. Probably the most influential among the works that constitute the intellectual heritage of the Galician conservatives, Bobrzyński’s study retains its significance even today.

6Main works: O ustawodawstwie nieszawskim Kazimierza Jagiellończyka [On the law of Nieszawa by Kazimierz Jagiellończyk] (1875); Dzieje Polski w zarysie [History of Poland in outline] (1879); W imię prawdy dziejowej [In the name of historical truth] (1879); Szkice i studia historyczne [Historical sketches and studies] (1922).


7Bobrzyński was the youngest member of the Cracow school. Contrary to the older generation, he did not participate in the January uprising of 1863– 64. Thus, he lacked the traumatic generational experience that fueled the programs of modernization formulated through the 1860s to the 1880s, developed without any prospect of national and political emancipation. Nevertheless, he shared the Stańczycy’s assumption about the fall of the Polish– Lithuanian Commonwealth. Similar to Józef Szujski or Walerian Kalinka, he attributed the catastrophe to the internal anarchy of the Rzeczpospolita, disregarding the impact of Russian, Prussian and Austrian policies towards Poland. His vision of Polish history offered an answer to the question of how to avoid this fate. In his opinion, only a strong, absolute, and effective government would have been able to safeguard Polish independence. Thus, Bobrzyński highlighted the ‘absolutist’ medieval period in Polish history, while criticizing the Jagiellonian dynasty and—especially—the seventeenth century Polish gentry as a source of anarchy. While criticizing the lack of monarchic centralization, he questioned the popular historical myths that had been reified in the scholarship of Joachim Lelewel. Bobrzyński questioned the positive perceptions of the ‘golden age’ (that is the sixteenth century) and its vision of religious tolerance. This age, he believed, contained the very causes of subsequent internal chaos, and prompted the weakening of state structures. Contrary to Szujski’s texts however, Bobrzyński did not use historical arguments to raise contemporary political questions. His own ideas are presented in a subtle manner, covered under unquestionably professional ‘positivist’ methodology.

8The book immediately attracted public interest. Reactions were extreme: from fundamental criticism to total approval. It is worth mentioning that among the most severe critics of Dzieje Polski w zarysie, one can find other Cracow conservatives: Józef Szujski and Walerian Kalinka. Both criticized Bobrzyński for his alleged sympathy to Bismarck’s political ideology and his underestimation of the role of the Catholic Church in Polish history. Other critics raised the question of ‘historical pessimism.’ The historian Władysław Konopczyński and the writer Stefan Żeromski, both representing the Polish intelligentsia from the Russian region, pointed out (coincidental) similarities between Bobrzyński’s ideas and the official interpretation of history offered by the Russian ideologists of Russification. Bobrzyński’s book does not, however, offer an exclusively pessimistic vision of the past. The author emphasized the political revival of the late years of independent Poland, especially of the days of the ‘Great Diet.’ The whole Polish debate around the ideas and interpretations of Bobrzyński found its parallel in the Czech controversy about the formulations of Tomáš G. Masaryk and Josef Pekař, and accordingly it united historical analyses with political actualities.

9Paradoxically, a conservative interpretation of national history also influenced post-1945 Polish Marxist historiography. All features of Bobrzyński’s vision of history, the sins of the gentry, the critique of Polish anarchy, the idea of strong government and—last, but definitely not least—the kind of oblivion regarding Russian politics towards Poland and Lithuania in the late eighteenth century, were appropriated by the communist historians. However, Bobrzyński himself, as a conservative and pro-Austrian politician, did not fit into the category of a progressive historical tradition. Although later he was recognized as one of the most important Polish historians, his interpretation of Polish history is not among the popular topics of contemporary debate.


History of Poland in outline

11To the best of our abilities and with the means available we have achieved our task: a picture of the Republic’s historic progress, much different from that painted by our predecessors, now exists for the readers to see and to judge. It is with great pain and sorrow that one closes a book which presents in such dark colors the catastrophe of the last three centuries of our history.

12It makes no mention of the outstanding qualities or achievements of our predecessors that the earlier sources fed us with; the great social and political innovations that we were supposedly the first to bring to life as an example for Europe to follow. Whoever looks at this history and sees the origins of the famous Polish liberty in anarchy and a lack of strong government and then proves as their inevitable consequence the decline of a nation, will evidently never argue that Poland was the first in Europe to realize the idea of pure liberty that is, liberty which goes hand in hand with law and order; he will never be capable of saying that Polish liberty, or rather insubordination, was a model for other nations and an encouragement for them to abolish absolutist rule. [...]

13It is difficult to deal with those who, while seeing clearly our mistakes and sins, put all the blame for our misery and loss of political existence on foreign aggressors and our neighbors’ dishonesty. It is of little consolation to present others in a worse light than oneself, to label the evil experienced as lawlessness and abuse. And here again, history comes in useful in proving wrong the idea that our innocent country had fallen victim to foreign violence. [...] Our country, while being annexed by its neighbors, was no less than them in terms of size, population, prosperity or intelligence. Actually, we surpassed each if not in one then in another aspect. Still, we were the only ones to fall, and what is more, without a fight, an honest fight of which we were not incapable. Those who were annexing us were involved in such fierce conflicts that they were frequently eager to help us if only we allied with them and were willing to offer the smallest possible assistance in opposing their adversaries. Such was the extent of our decay and disintegration, and such was the seriousness of our mistakes and sins that blinded us that we rejected such proposals. Therefore, we should look no further than ourselves for causes of our misery. Only then, when we alleviate our domestic problems, will we have the chance to be respected and feel significant. [...]

14We cannot turn back the clock and change the facts, but if we want to learn any lesson from them, we need to ask ourselves about the causes of the country’s fall and to examine them with a clear, honest and unemotional eye. [...]

15Whatever causes for our country’s collapse we find today—be it oppression of the people by the gentry, regress of the cities, moral disintegration or intellectual eclipse—all these will never be more than secondary phenomena, which also occurred in other places, often in worse circumstances, but which nowhere caused a nation to cease to exist politically. For everywhere else there was a government that, upon recognizing the danger, was sooner or later ready to avert or minimize it. Our country was the only one to lack this vital element, a government which, when the time was near, would unify all, even the most deficient forces. The one and only reason of our fall was that we did not have a government. [...]

  • 1 The battle of Tannenberg (Grunwald) in 1410.
  • 2 Bobrzyński means the union between Poland and Lithuania in Lublin 1569. One of its immediate effec (...)

16Our entire history from the sixteenth century onwards gives an impression of a chronicle of youthful upheavals and dangerous games rather than of mature labor and serious exercise—an impression which is not at odds with reality. We were the last to join the Western nations and their civilization, and our geographical distance to them was the longest so that we could experience their influence only indirectly. The Italians, the French, the Spanish and partly also the English developed on the rich foundations of the ancient world, whose lasting efforts provided them with a rich and inspiring heritage. The Germans had to learn the hard lesson of the Frankish country before they could start their independent existence. All of them began their history and work as much as five centuries before us and hence for the next five centuries they had the time to mature and grow in strength, while we were making our first steps in the harsh reality of the times. We had five hundred years to achieve what others did in ten, and we frequently were hard on their heels in this noble contest. However, is it surprising that by the end of the fifteenth century we were slightly behind them, that we were still more like a young boy fraternizing with adult men and trying to do their backbreaking work? [...] Let us go back to the fifteenth century. Our nation then did not have enough strength to defend its stability in the face of the threatening German incursions, and so, it turned for rescue to the Ruthenian–Lithuanian Union. The Tannenberg fields1 saw the defeat of the enemy army, but from then on, Poland had to take up the enormous task of colonizing and civilizing vast lands of Ruthenia and Lithuania. The task, although performed with great pride, drained the country’s vitality resources, scattering them in the Far East instead of nursing and concentrating them within the country’s borders, and breathing new life into them. Let us imagine, only for a moment, that these millions of Poles, our capital and our labor, whom we have given to the East had remained inside our ethnographic borders—what difference would it have made for our national development! A denser population would not have found sufficient means to sustain itself in agriculture, and it would have had to divert its activity to industry and trade, to create cities whose bourgeoisie would counterbalance the gentry. Harsher conditions of everyday life, and a more violent struggle for survival would have given rise to new desires and new energy, would have enriched the intellectual realm and inspired more action. And if the circumstances forced us to engage in fierce civil wars, we would have come out of them with a strong government and a clear vision of the future. However, the facts are that we could not survive without the Union,2 and the Union has consumed our insides—this is the vicious circle of our national failure.

17Here is how we try to solve the greatest historical mystery. We do not see it as the only, or the most educating one. We are not among those who, having pointed to mistakes and vices, think they have done all that was needed. [...] Let us learn from our tragic experience and never forget that, above all, we should follow the worthy and brilliant examples from our own history. In search of models and programs, they have been brought to attention many a time, but how it has been done only until recently! The research into the past was limited only to the history of the seventeenth and the eighteenth century, that is, the epoch of our greatest decline. The image of the nation was cleared of its vices, its virtues were highlighted, and a perfected model of a noble Pole was presented for us to love and follow. Needless to say, this was a Pole with his head shaven at the back, dressed in a robe, and carrying a curved sword; a Pole always gallantly mounting his horse, always eager to defend his homeland and crush enemy regiments with a pennon in hand; a Catholic registered in the scapular, devoted in his prayers, virtuous and calm in the matters of his home and, although fast to defend his honor with a broadsword, easily reconciling with his neighbor over a bottle of wine; a man proud of his noble ring and equality, raised in a monastic boarding school and polished in the royal court; a man of great eloquence both in court and in parliamentary session, fluent in Latin, eagerly participating in public life and always seeking consensus in arguments; a severe judge in a tribunal; a gentleman respectful of the crown; and a soldier in the name of freedom and religion. Strangely enough, it was never questioned whether this ideal Pole paid regular taxes! It was never noticed that he was a lifeless sculpture, devoid of real character and ambitions, narrow-minded in social and political matters. Finally, it was never acknowledged that a nation consisting of such ideal Poles could not exist because of its immobility. [...] The only thing, which can rescue us from the pits of falsity, is history. The history which, by directing our eyes to the epoch of our greatest splendor, would show us not the example of one, typical citizen, but rather a whole society abundant in characters that are fit, energetic, and broad-minded in terms of knowledge, feelings and actions.

18In its moments of greatness, Polish society was not monopolized by the gentry. This status was only a means of consolidating this part of the nation, which directed its efforts and actions towards higher aims. Apart from that, however, there existed an independent bourgeois and landowners who also considered themselves to be rightful citizens of the country regardless of their origin and occupation, and who owed their positions to hard work, education, talent and wealth. Intelligence was greatly valued for membership in the clergy, which could turn even the plainest servant into a political magnate and provide him and his family with the most extraordinary riches. [...] Not until the epoch of its great fall did Poland know the poisonous kind of equality— the only thing it knew was social stability that connected people of different positions in common effort for the public good.

19This stability was guarded by the government, which never suppressed differences of opinion, but raised an iron hand against any, even the most powerful persons, who dared to break the law and who stubbornly obstructed the country’s policies. Nor was this government afraid of unpopularity, and, always rising above the shortsightedness of the masses, acted constantly focused on its goals and resolute towards its means. [...]

  • 3 Sigismund II August (1520–1572): king of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania and the last represent (...)

20This country had always found the greatest support and leverage for its efforts in modesty. And not until the death of Zygmunt August the king3 did it become fond of the vain boastfulness of putting itself before the most advanced nations. It knew perfectly how much it owed to these nations and was aware how many of its best institutions were taken from abroad. It felt strongly attracted to the Western civilization and constantly adopted its newest inventions, its social and political solutions, its education and knowledge, its church systems, its economy, trade, industry and art. Moreover, it was never hesitant to open its doors to foreigners who, bored with their own country, came to Poland in search of a better life. Our country provided the conditions and welcomed all who had the capital and efficient labor, to mention only the Jews, the German colonizers, the Italians and eventually the French. [...] We were not boastful about our past, and, as every man who did not yet reach the limits of his development, we had our eyes focused on the future; we lived in the future.

21Not until the last years of the sixteenth century did it occur to anyone that our nation was chosen for a special mission and that this mission frees us from the obligation to abide by the general laws of human progress. Before that, Polish citizens bravely carried the burden of these laws and knew that every violation will bring horrendous consequences. They knew that Poland owed its position in Europe only to its endurance and hard work and were never afraid to join the battle for humanity’s existence. Instead of becoming fossilized in itself, seeking protection in its scarecrow costume, our country used to embrace these religious, social and political trends that were shaking Europe, and would join other nations in tacking national issues as they arose. [...]

22In the past, Poland was more open-minded. The ideas it nursed were brighter than those that sprouted from the ignorance and shortsightedness in the era of the country’s fall, or from the rotten politics and false historiography of recent times.


1 The battle of Tannenberg (Grunwald) in 1410.

2 Bobrzyński means the union between Poland and Lithuania in Lublin 1569. One of its immediate effects was the attachment of large Ukrainian territories to the Polish crown and Polish colonization of the whole area.

3 Sigismund II August (1520–1572): king of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania and the last representative of the Jagiellon dynasty.


Zuzanna Ładyga (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2010

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