The nineteenth century
Added: 2017-10-30
Added: 2017-10-30
Wojciech Dzieduszycki

First edition: Cracow 1909.



I speak at a Mickiewicz celebration for the last time this century.[1] Thus, the hour has come to bethink ourselves of the period Polish history will dub the century of Adam Mickiewicz. For these hundred years we had no victorious hetmans, no mighty kings; a poet who loved and suffered for the whole nation, whose name was “Million,” was the pride of the nation. All sentiments nurtured by the nation; faith and tradition, longing for the happy past, sorrow at the dismal present, a momentary fit of despair, and unwavering hope for a future salutary miracle, all this lived in his spirit and in his beautiful verse, and thence did it flow to entire generations as a life-giving spring of faith, hope and love. We have lived and we now live on Mickiewicz. Throughout his life, the motherland filled the poet’s mind – and as we come together this day to honour his memory, let us ask ourselves if the poet’s immortal spirit, looking down on his motherland and judging what we lost and gained over the hundred years, will be merely saddened by our misery, or also solaced by our national achievements. Let us decide if we have matured and made progress, or if we have only kept falling for a hundred years, since the moment when Mickiewicz took his first steps in Novogrudok at the age of two, when Poland had freshly been erased from the map of Europe, traversed by Partition borders different than today, amid loud voices calling that the Polish nation was there no more and would never be again, amid equal oppression brought upon all parts of the former Republic to prove equal denial of Poland’s freedom and nationhood. Let us ask ourselves if we have recovered and grown stronger as a nation or if we have just languished in grief since the time, a hundred years ago, when young people who gathered in Italy under the flag of French revolutionists protested against the Partitions and shouted out to the world: “Poland has not yet perished!” If we wish to give a proper answer, we cannot content ourselves with revising merely our own history, but we must recall the history of Europe. It befits us not only to learn, but also to compare – both the past with the future and Poland with Europe. Only then will we be able to see, understand and sense. A hundred years ago Europe was torn between two opposite camps fighting a deadly battle. The French revolutionary democracy, grown by philosophers who believed in the almightiness of human reason and disdained the entire past of mankind, dreamed of a reign of reason, liberty, virtue and fraternity, while it unleashed an unprecedented hurricane of uncurbed passions into the world, spilling a sea of blood in its own country, spilling it over thrones and altars. It led out armed hosts against tyrants, appealing to nations for freedom, and it created republics of fanciful names and most unusual borders in defiance of history and tradition wherever it won. Remedying nothing, it only caused havoc everywhere around, while reason betrayed it.

Instead of liberty and fraternity, it gave France the most ruthless and bloody despotism, handing its motherland first to the pitiless giants of crime and then to petty, greedy and deceitful sectarians; in the name of freedom, it spread oppression and invasion outside French borders, showing disrespect to the faith, customs and language of the liberated and leaving their belongings for predatory victors. The allied thrones fought against revolutionary democracy in the name of monarchic, feudal and Christian tradition that was affronted, tarnished and dying. These thrones, just as the revolution, put their trust in the rationalist teachings of French philosophers and, looking contemptuously at what faith, history and nature had contributed, forced their own revolutionary forms of enlightened absolutism upon their people; deprived their subjects of their dearest traditions, old liberties, religious comforts, seemingly for the people’s good and in truth for the sake of a sceptic bureaucracy based on police. The thrones let the gentry, turned into lazy courtiers, keep their empty and unmerited privileges and denied their social duties. Deriving their rights from historic righteousness and God’s grace, these thrones belied the faith in God as a superstition for the mob, they belied lawfulness by choosing violence whenever need be, when they destroyed old and timeless states, when they dismembered Poland, when they accepted Venice, papal territories, the free cities and holy duchies of Germany as gifts from the revolution. They were too blinded to realise how they were digging a hole in the ground of tradition and international law beneath their feet, the only ground for monarchic states to stand on.

Lies and decay were on both sides. Thence sprang a hero born amid revolution, equal to Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, a god of war, Napoleon, who handled both the thrones and the revolution. He achieved victories nonpareil and granted new rights to nations. For an instant it seemed like his dream to begin a new lineage of kingdoms, like Charlemagne had done, would come true. Nonetheless, pride equal to his genius proved to be Napoleon’s undoing; he, too, disregarded history, tradition, the feelings and will of nations, trusting only in himself and his own destiny, not even in the reason of philosophers. By his edicts, he alternately imposed faith and the lack of faith, liberated and enslaved nations, until both nations and kings closed ranks against him. He fell, but his prominence lingered on into the century to inspire Mickiewicz and further generations, like a phantom of a living Caesar.

After the downfall of the usurper giant, legitimate monarchs shared the spoils, failing to keep the promises given to people during the fight. Although they called themselves restorers, they did not revive the former, pre-revolution order. Instead, with equal contempt to the new, revolutionary, and the old law of nations, they slashed Europe unthinkably, only to indulge their greed and some diplomatic or strategic concerns, heedless of the fact that they were building houses of cards having neither past nor future. Artificial states came into existence in central and eastern Europe, in whose legitimacy people could not believe, states which no one could love like one loves the land of his forebears. Seemingly, the system of protective and enlightened absolutism was restored, but amongst fear about the return of revolutionary events, every courageous thought and fervent emotion from the subjects was dreaded. Only flatterers and self-seekers could enjoy governments’ trust; egoist welfare and amusement were provided to preoccupy nations while concerns about the public interest were forbidden like crime; rank breakers were punished with prison, exile and gallows.

Only unenlightened village folk could passively bear such governance; enlightened classes everywhere murmured, conspired, revolted, under the banner of Romantic liberalism that largely marked the nineteenth century. Hoards of city dwellers, always on the move and hungry for news, supported the efforts of those discontented, expecting the destruction of democratic ideals of the great revolution. Liberals no longer fought in the name of rationalism that denied the past and promoted historic progress; they appealed to the soul of nations by calling for the return of historic states, praising national languages, customs and sometimes also ancestral faith; in state institutions of the past they sought the germ of real freedom and they demanded that everyone should follow the example of the English constitution, originating from the Middle Ages. The struggle against police absolutism lasted whole decades and featured heroic sacrifices. Constitutionalism and democracy triumphed first in the national states of the West, having found a mighty champion in the noble dreamer, nephew of the great Napoleon, who was an absolute ruler in France out of necessity of the hour and a great toiler of the Romantic revolution outside France. A number of major wars brought both Napoleon III’s downfall and the emergence of great national states in Germany and Italy, while constitutional liberties and democratic systems prevailed everywhere outside the borders of Russia, which remained in her immensity in the north an absolute and police monarchy, as it had always been.

After the victory of parliamentarism and the rule of nationality, the nations of the West ran out of principles, and it may seem like they have had no history for thirty years; they wage wars overseas, conquering Asian India and Africa for unimaginable profit, concealing their sometimes blatant lawlessness with mendacious platitudes about spreading civilisation. They possess much desired and bloodily gained goods, the coveted constitutional paradise, and to their disappointment they discover that true paradise is nowhere to be found in the world, that old miseries and worries have stayed the same, that crime and lawlessness have only changed their form. Those who sit in parliaments are not the nations’ finest men but ones who have won their seats by craftiness, and they oft-times thwart the public interest amid petty disputes; governments usually gain their position by intrigue or elaborate bribery; the free press serves profiteers or clings to whatever flatters the masses; governments no longer break noble individuals with cruel force but rule entire crowds, disseminating lies in print among the gullible. Having extended administrative power over all and burdened them with taxes, governments have harnessed all to their bureaucratic and military chariot, depriving them of civil sovereignty. Having become near almighty distributors of significance and glory, they aggrandise the obedient and put people showing character and independent thinking in the shade. New generations do not remember the old oppression and, seeing today’s vileness, they become indifferent to the public interest, they become passive and self-centred servants of the administration, seeking merely private benefit, leaving politics to professional politicians, that is, schemers or street loudmouths. In place of a statesman is a policy making man, worth and respected increasingly little. Among the jaded and the discouraged, an idea of inescapable decadence of Europe emerged; even young people adhere to dire pessimism and pride themselves on being a generation of decline.

Social issues and economic interests tower above everything else. The beginning of the century saw mottos previously unheard of, voiced by English economists preaching a new commandment: “Remember to gain riches!” Mankind listened eagerly to the call that turned innate covetousness into a duty. Greed has always been among the most powerful motivations of human acts; however, it had been reprehensible and shameful to now become commendable, and hence undisguised; all barriers against it have been lifted that had protected the populace against the greed and cunning of magnates; credit has been deemed a driving force of societies, anti-usury laws have been rescinded, the feudal system in villages has been dismantled, artisan and agrarian associations have been forbidden, which allows for serious abuse and leaves every man stranded to struggle for a living, to win or to die. The pursuit of money became the essence of life while wealth became the main source of social significance. We are all bowing to the golden calf; private luxury most obscene seems permissible if not beneficent. Some lie and yell to hoard treasures or by all means keep the hoarded; others lie and yell to grab the treasures by force from those who acquired them.

However, this apotheosis of selfishness and frantic pursuit of Mammon brought some major benefits to humanity already in possession of great treasures of knowledge; mathematical and natural sciences eagerly developed for utilitarian purposes produced real wonders, deservedly seen as the great pride of the century. With steam and electricity, distances on earth have been shrunken, administrative order has been made possible as never before, the threats of famine and disease have been countered. By myriad inventions, hitherto inaccessible wealth has been made available to all, the most needy have improved their living standards, books and journals have been spread around the world, and finally, a war between Europe’s states was made so terrifying that the dread of it has become the major peacekeeping factor. Amongst the great and stable abundance, population doubled in our part of the world, despite the continuous transmarine outflow of migrants; villages have grown in opulence, immense cities have developed, magnificent in their orderliness and affluence, though perhaps without much picturesque beauty. Nonetheless, the taming of nature did not entail solely happiness of humankind; the fight for prosperity turned incredibly fierce, febrile, between men armed with the machines of today, which would inspire awe in our ancestors, including 18th century philosophers. A stranded man, torn from familial and class bonds, subject to every twist of fate, has no time for repose, not a moment to think about a religious or poetic ideal; amid restless struggle in large cities, factories, offices, railways, and on steamers, a man lives an altogether artificial life in defiance of inherent human qualities, in isolation from healing nature. He frequently witnesses how a cunning misdeed brings immense profit, exploitive to virtuous guilelessness; this leads many a man to doubt virtue, honour and duty, and to enviously curse the gleeful fraudsters. The specialised administration entrapped men in the machine of school, army and office, depriving them of freedom and personal dignity. Family has become a burden avoided by self-seekers; populations stopped multiplying in France and multiply increasingly slowly in England and Germany. Intricate crimes, in turn, proliferate near the end of the century, cold-blooded acts and suicides – even among children, while madhouses are growing ever fuller.

Believing in nothing but prosperity and devoid of political ideals, the vanquished in a struggle for existence curse the freedom and social order, when they unite in the hope of gaining treasures possessed by others. To this end, socialists seek to make the state more omnipotent than before, anarchists seek to destroy it. Against them stand those contented with the wealth, who claim – contrary to evidence – that today’s order is perfect. The attacks of the disinherited grow stronger every other day as the confidence of the rich dwindles. Social tasks and thoughts of reform fill the minds of all who are reasonable, and we know that the solution to social issues will be the main political challenge of the forthcoming century.

Many deplored the prose of the nineteenth century. This prose reflected the solitude of human beings, administrative artificiality of states, bureaucratic routine, the steady noise of cities, stacks of paper concealing the truth of life, clink of machines drowning out the life of nature. As for vivid historic poetry, the nineteenth century had it in abundance; no epic is greater than the Napoleonic epic, and later there were a number of poignant and powerful revolutionary dramas. Inspiration for artistic work was one of the awoken passions, wherefore the recent century can boast its art. We can certainly say it has bettered the eighteenth century in all but German poetry, though it perhaps did not produce creations as mature and remarkable as the age of Renaissance. In music, it reached utmost perfection; it yielded prominent works of painting and sculpture. The nineteenth century covered four periods and four schools of art-making. First it saw the twilight of a style called classical, or better call it academic, lawful son of the previous century’s rationalism, often rhetoric in literature and reason-loving, fond of smoothness in poems, pace regularity and grandiloquent words – turning poetry into a propaganda tool for abstract humanism. With its wasteful use of words, the style ineffectively aspired to imitate the liveliness of antiquity; despite its imperfections, it produced masterpieces in Germany. There were attempts to improve simple ancient forms in architecture, painting and sculpture by lending them a conventional, seemingly subtle air of high society. The academic style survived in these arts in Germany till the mid-nineteenth century.

Romanticism first emerged in England and conquered the entire mainland, alongside the fondness for English laws; it created literature that either was national or told of remote, half-savage peoples; it featured vivid verse and picturesque descriptions. Breaking with old forms, it was always lyric, whether it posed as a pure narrative or drama; it expressed resistance to the bureaucratic order that denied the feelings and history of nations, and it voiced exquisite revolutionary appeals. It brought a poet to the fore and made the eternal moaning of the soul heard, the soul yearning for ideals and freedom, and harassed by common prose. In line with its lyrical nature, Romanticism bred outstanding works of music, often wrongly called classical, becoming a powerful inspiration for Wagner. A little later on, Gothic and Romanesque models were sought in architecture, while painting illustrated national history and exotic or old folk traditions.

As the fights for freedom, nationality and democracy drew to an end, leading to complete victories or to bitter defeats that dismissed hopes for long, the interest in heroes dwindled, Romanticism grew old and receded. Arts began to please the sobered and materialist society, painting its faithful picture and reflecting the newly formed reality. Henceforth began the third period, naturalism, abundant in genre novels and paintings, and even genre sculpture and music, involving enormous steel constructions being raised for the purposes of railway and exhibitions, to meet immediate and temporary needs. Some professed the principle of art for art’s sake, boasting of sophisticated techniques or the most meticulous rendering of detail; others, who were more serious, tried to expose social defects or human miseries in their writings and paintings; some were eager advocates of socialism.

Although there were many powerful works of naturalism, it appeared too monotonous and only poured more prosaicness into the prosaicness of daily life, unbearably weighing down on the young generations. A new trend was therefore freshly ripe to replace it near the end of the century, which I am not yet sure whether to call impressionism or symbolism. It demands the recognition of the artist’s rights to personal sensitivity; it also first appeals to the reader’s or viewer’s sensitivity, while in its verse and hue it seeks queer symbols of feelings or desires of individuals or masses; it frequently goes astray amid peculiarity and vagueness, too often does it limit itself to a mere chaotic draft. However, it has already produced grand, deeply touching works, and perhaps it will see its geniuses, who will extract eternally genuine figures out of the depths of sensibility. Contrary to some recent predictions, given its early fruit, the trend ensures that poetry will not die away and art will not expire in the twentieth century.

Not only did natural and mathematical sciences mark major triumphs in the nineteenth century. Its first half celebrated German philosophy, which by effort of reason strived to predict the structure and destiny of the universe; many a thinker was in fact convinced that he himself had devised the order of the world with his thought, that all reality was his thought’s doing. Far-fetched speculation produced ever more wobbly and less substantial constructions until they collapsed, surrounded by vacuum, deterring people from all metaphysical analyses for long and causing damage to the reason-centred development of generations and to the civilisation of the century.

The Romantic movement pushed scholars toward historical research. The customs of bygone eras were studied, excellent museums were established to house the art of the past, ancient and medieval history was revived, hidden civilisations of the primeval East were unearthed, and the key to unravel universe’s mysteries was sought in the wisdom of ancient nations. Even descriptive natural sciences were practised in a historian-like fashion, or archaeologist-like, including the search for traces of distant past, questions about the very beginning and formation of our planet’s living beings, from which first sprang new fields of geology and palaeontology and then the theory of evolution, according to which human ancestry derives from the world’s most primordial organisms. Instead of metaphysical came historiosophy-related speculation, applying evolutionary rules of animals and plants to languages, nations, religions and civilisations, promoting a dogma of necessary progress and joyous about the great future for which humanity is destined, even without merit, and irrespective of errors and crimes.

It was easy to reverse the logic and, having first applied historical method to natural sciences, apply the method of natural sciences to the study of history and psychology. This was done by Positivism, during the days of artistic naturalism, when people devoted themselves to earning their daily bread and to the pursuit of wealth. Metaphysical speculations failed; the woes of the day defied the belief in inevitable progress; thought and inspiration waned, dampened after all the efforts made, while the wonders of skilful and utilitarian techniques proved the success of experimental studies. Therefore, Positivism called it childish to inquire into non-sensory matters, adhering to what was tangible and abandoning all dogmas other than that of materialism. It perceived humans as perfected animals, virtues as instincts, faith and heroism as illusions no longer necessary, poetry and art as dated playthings. Equating human thought and will with mere brain secretions, it denied man’s free will and responsibility. Noticing nothing immortal and nothing perfect in nature, only fight and hatred, it rejected both the hope for personal immortality and the belief in infinite progress. It deemed misery inevitable, and when deviating towards pessimism, it saw existence as a preordained woeful fate that only annihilation could put to an end.

Humanity could not stand this doubt as it is in man’s nature to need a form of religion. Convinced of his reason’s imperfection, he clings to the dogmas presented in a solemn aura of infallibility and accepts only those unravelling the mystery of life with a promise of justice and happiness. Thus, many refused to adopt scientific pessimism and persevered at dogmatic belief in the progress brought by revolution, as it was professed in a form of infallible dogma by socialists. In humans, scientific experiments encountered spiritual phenomena that revealed powers of the soul, inexplicable by material hypotheses. Thereon other masses clung to those discoveries and believed in mystic inspirations or even witchcraft and pagan superstitions. The largest group returned to the faith of their fathers, and Catholicism proved to be the strongest of Christian religions, armed with papal infallibility, the solemnity of historic tradition and charm of majestic symbols. When the great Pope decided to take the matter of justice-seeking democratic masses into his hands, a strong movement of faith and desire of a Catholic organisation emerged to preach Christian socialism and fight against secular and revolutionary socialism. This fight will probably grow fierce and spread wide to imprint itself on the next century.

Having recalled the history of Europe, I can now answer the question: what was our motherland in Europe throughout this century? Did she decrease in power and value in relation to other nations? Or, quite the reverse, did she catch up with them, having first stayed behind? Did the ordeals and miseries damage her or improve her hardiness? Should we predict a bleak or a brighter future? Are there only idle despair and foul nonfeasance ahead of us? Or, conversely, does the century’s history dispose us to work hard and be boldly hopeful?

As I said before, a hundred years ago the Polish state had already been nonexistent; the name of Poland had been erased in diplomatic and administrative terms; no one was officially called a Pole. The erstwhile Polish lands were quite desolate and impoverished compared with the rest of Europe; their entire populace was ten million residents, including four to five million Catholics of the Latin rite, that is, of the “Polish” rite, around two million Uniats in Red and White Ruthenia, as Catherine had already destroyed the union under her rule in Volhynia and Podolia. Conscious national identity remained only among one class, if we may call them a class, namely the landed nobility, who remembered old liberties, the nobility that included both proud magnates and those with similar property and habits as peasants. There was patriotism among Christian townsfolk in Warsaw, Vilnius and Cracow, but Polish cities were too insignificant to make a difference, since Warsaw with its 60.000 residents was the largest city in a vast stretch of land.

Many Jews were residents of towns, but they remained foreign to the nation. Rural folk, extremely ignorant and passive, remained in bondage and hated their masters, succumbing to new, foreign governments without a murmur. The general public was attached to the religion of their forebears, perhaps largely to the ceremonial side of it, while a small group of the wealthy and enlightened took pride in being Voltairian non-believers. Usually living idle and dissipated lives and frequently divorcing, they provided shocking evidence for the slackening of morals. Those more prudential felt patriotic grief, but there were many voices content about the Partitions and expecting that Germans and Muscovites would set things in order.

As cultural legacy, we had old and solemn literature of the golden age, full of promise, that was later wasted; a fading memory of once independent and famed scientific achievements; the neglected monuments of old art, hideously remodelled; the memory of fine traditions of the Sejm and of warfare, disgraced by an age of debauchery and sloth. Only for several decades, in an already politically dire situation, wise academic writers – followers of French models – had been resurrecting literature; some had turned to science; a handful of elegant painters had emerged; parliamentary traditions had been revived in glory at the Great Sejm; knightly valour had revealed itself in the Bar Confederation and Kościuszko Uprising. Only novelists’ descriptions of aristocratic estates delude us. Vast landed properties stood alone in an impoverished country with its cities in decline; but these properties were also dilapidated and heavily indebted, neglected manors that yielded no profit. In the Republic’s last days, the magnates had kept their wasteful estates out of political need, financing them with loans, with domains granted by the Crown, and – regrettably – with foreign subsidies, until their fortunes collapsed abruptly as the Partitions came. However, there were people in the late eighteenth century who strived to economically raise the country from decay with wise management and inventive undertakings.

The beginnings of improvement during the reign of Stanisław August were by no means futile. Patriots appeared who created better political conditions in the early nineteenth century. Valiant soldiers formed legions and, faithfully serving under Napoleon’s eagles, “Under Dąbrowski’s command, they rejoined the nation” and established the independent Duchy of Warsaw. Wise players, whose leader was A. J. Czartoryski, acquired national institutions for Lithuania and Ruthenia from Alexander I. When Napoleon fell, Congress Poland was founded, with the Sejm, treasury and Polish army. Polish schools developed in Lithuania and Volhynia; the Poznań region enjoyed considerable autonomy; Cracow was a republic.

However, the outcome of the Congress of Vienna was as artificial and dishonest in Poland as everywhere around. It disregarded the sanctity of historical memories; it granted merely partial freedom for national development; it gave constitutional liberty to merely a small part of the country, and then the government did not respect even that liberty. The same reasons for displeasure existed in Poland as in a large part of Europe. Seeing this, governments began to harass those whom they suspected of ardent patriotism. Thereby, the increasing harassment provided more fuel to the revolutionary fire. Patriotism grew wider and deeper; the hot-headed considered it their duty to join the general revolutionary movement; the more mellow felt it would be treason to oppose uprisings. Thus dawned a long era of fighting for independence, constitution and democracy, of conspiracies, armed insurrections and emigration, full of sacrifice and heroism, though – sadly – not free from internal quarrels. It was expected that all the people would rise, it was certainly expected that the liberated nations of the West would come to Poland’s aid, and their respective revolutionary pursuits were helped. All was to no avail. Poland was the only place where the legacy of 1815 survived while destroyed everywhere else. The oppression of the Polish nation began, and it continues to this day, even though the Poles have ceased conspiracy and uprisings for nearly forty years now. Countless crowds have been deported to Siberia; the union has been liquidated under the Russian rule; the impoverished gentry has been persecuted; the Poles have been excluded from offices; our language has been banned in offices and schools; speaking Polish has been prohibited in Lithuanian cities; the Church has been hampered; Catholics have been forbidden to purchase land in half of the former Republic of Poland. Prussians envied their neighbour’s fame and followed suit with similar mottoes of eradicating the nation using cruel measures. After expecting their hopes to come true, no disappointment came upon the Poles, but only violence and police oppression which ails them to this day, conditions not experienced by other nations of Europe. Different was the course of events under the Austrian rule alone. In favourable circumstances and under a favourable monarch, we were given the chance to freely develop a national life, though with no treasury and army. There were statesmen who knew how to rekindle the old Sejm traditions. There was also plenty of trouble intrinsic to political life, envy and internal disputes, careerists using politics merely for aggrandisement, rabble-rousers abusing the homeland’s name, profiteers making fortunes dishonestly while faking patriotism. Despite the mistakes, we have proven our ability to have a political life, and we have statesmen who extend their influence also beyond our country. There is at least one province governed by the Poles and in Polish; we participate in the political history of the world, and we politically mean more than a hundred years ago.

Enormous stretches of Polish lands have been taken away; half of the former Republic of Poland – Mickiewicz’s motherland – has been dressed in a Russian greatcoat and crushed so badly that a passing traveller would deem her dead and himself a visitor to her grave. Yet we know she is alive. The heavy oppression is the evidence of this life to the world, continuing to this day and God knows how long into the future. Many peasant Uniats still suffer persecution for their faith with admirable endurance; there are many who forgot they had been Catholics, while nationalist movements, strange if not hostile to Poland, have reportedly formed in Ruthenia, and are also stirring in Lithuania.

Sill, we have not perished; our population grows twice as fast as the surrounding nations. We have multiplied fourfold and our number has a force twice greater in Europe than before. A large part of former Poland is nowadays a populous and well-cultivated land, and the surplus population leaves to work abroad and settle overseas. Alongside the descendants of nobility, a powerful, enlightened, rich and nationally conscious Polish bourgeoisie emerged, one that we never had before. There are truly large Polish cities, with Warsaw, the heart of the nation, being the seventh or eighth in Europe and developing faster than other capitals. The great mechanical inventions that changed the face of Europe are not of our making, but we know how to use them and have staff aplenty who are technically skilled and work in the country or far abroad. We have no such railway network as Western nations but we have created, against Mickiewicz’s predictions, great and flourishing industry. We wilfully wanted rural folk to become aware of their national and civic identity throughout the century, and we exposed ourselves to fearsome defeats while deluded into believing that million-strong crowds had awoken. Today’s peasants, emancipated and granted freehold, though still poor and uneducated, earn their living and slowly become more enlightened. They know their duties to their homeland in Greater Poland, and in other regions they stir and begin to voice patriotic ideas. We are finally seeing the longed-for awakening, while many of us feared their hopes would be failed. The people are democratic in their demands, it could not be otherwise. But they are still inexperienced, prone to manipulation and easily deceived into imprudent deeds. Like a child acting on its own for the first time, they can harm themselves or their home. But harms will pass, experience will bring edification, and nothing will negate the present and future meaningfulness of national conscience in a myriad crowd who can assert their rights and uphold their nationality. This is a safeguard for the future, ensuring that the nation will survive adversities and see its fortunes rise.

The Romantic movement in art suited the lyrical mood and plight of the Polish nation deprived of independence, who had to cherish its traditions, seek solace in remembering its bygone glory and in waiting for a salutary miracle to come. Sorrowful and attached to the faith of its fathers, it easily believed in prophecies and hallowed its heroes and martyrs like saints. Hence, Romanticism reached us early and lingered for a while, even when the West turned away from it. It yielded the most brilliant fruit in Poland; here it could be truly epic, it produced genuine and perfect masterpieces. Not in vain do we extol poets, as they were the greatest pride and a worthy strength of the nation. At the forefront of their magnificent array was the most prominent Polish poet, Adam Mickiewicz, a sublime genius, who will go down to posterity as the greatest poet of the century. The later trend towards naturalism affected Polish literature, bringing novel to the fore, while it was usually novel of manners. However, contrary to the theories by some critics, the most nationally influential novels remained Romantic and described an idealised future to comfort the harried generations. The new symbolic trend has become increasingly evident in recent years, its lyricism resonating with our souls. Turning to the people and sensing the new future, it has bred poets who bode well for twentieth-century literature.

Music, most lyrical and very familiar, flourished in tandem with Romantic poetry. Among the deceased, Chopin won acclaim around the world; Moniuszko is only nationally known, but no less distinguished. The living musicians augur well for the tradition. Painting and sculpture followed suit. Painting long adhered to the Romantic style and, in the second half of the century, welcomed another hero of Polish art next to Mickiewicz, Jan Matejko. He visually revived the erstwhile glory, while his skilled successors turned to genre painting, landscape and portrait. They are now tempted by the new school, in which a charming glow of hues awaits them whenever they dare to go beyond blotchy sketches.

Polish education improved in all fields. The discipline of history has progressed, revealing the grand past and seeking the causes of downfall; we have an array of remarkable and learned writers in the field of national historiography; a large host of serious researchers currently studies our past. Philosophers have emerged in Poland as almost never before; perhaps they have not been independent enough, but they have influenced the nation’s civilisation and tried to explain the mystery of existence and the significance of Poland in the history of mankind. Polish economists and lawyers have won acclaim in Europe and respect from foreigners. Throughout the century, we had scholars and enthusiasts of native nature; we had and still have travellers who explored remote lands, learned the tongues and beliefs of unknown nations, and unearthed the monuments of the ancient past. Since the Cracow’s Academy formed the centre for Polish science, a growing number of researchers has become involved in exact sciences, to people’s enormous benefit. Physicians active in research are also in plenty. Polish names have been recorded to the nation’s aggrandisement in all disciplines involved in broadening human knowledge, for the first time in centuries.

Many old problems remain unremedied, and a few new ones have joined. We are insouciant as before; many of us waste family inheritance on vanity, merrymaking and idleness; many lose hard-won lands, not only their own, but also national property. Too often do we settle for theatrical appearances, not looking for true merit; we are too sensitive to the views of the neighbouring countries instead of forming our own opinion and due national dignity. And, worst of all, old envy endured, once unleashed against the hardworking people of merit; backbiting and interclass aversions are rife; a Pole is able to plot with an enemy solely to prevent others from winning glory in homeland-related pursuits.

What was hitherto unheard of, we have learned from other nations a peculiar type of bragging that hails our ineptitude, selfishness and misdeeds as something praiseworthy. Egoists have appeared who avoid even family duties to live insignificant lives and rest in insignificant graves; fraudsters and profiteers have multiplied who dare to act deceitfully under the pretence of serving the public. Deplorable acceptance has grown around these phenomena, belying virtue and honour, allowing such people to boast and impose themselves upon those who are honest. People who used to be excluded from respectable society are now let in, both petty troublemakers and democratic schemers of whom it is not known what they do for a living or who are known to do something reprehensible.

Nonetheless, there is also undeniable moral improvement. Family life has become more dignified; there are far less marital scandals than before. The more mighty and enlightened feel an increasing sense of duty towards the poor and unschooled. An ability to work hard and persistently has developed together with education; despite many squanderers, we are far wealthier as a nation than before; along with general literacy, scholarly education has become more common; the number of books and journals has grown immensely, and though they sometimes spread envy and lie, they also promote the love of Polish things. The dream of Mickiewicz came true as Pan Tadeusz has gathered wide readership among commoners. We have many educated men who practice no religion but do not boast about their lack of faith, while the vast majority who stayed in the Church tend to display sensible and enlightened religiousness. It is all the stronger because the prudent know that the fate of our nation is bound to the fate of Catholicism and that people will find the most powerful source of patriotism in religion, one that will help them learn how to do civic work, to improve their wellbeing and education, to gain the deserved dignity in their country, to chase Western nations or even surpass them if people understand the importance of their duties.

Thus we go on, and we will continue likewise; the undying spirit of Mickiewicz looks down on his Poland, bemoans her misery and rejoices in her thriving life that promises a good future. We will survive what befalls us. In every respect – if we exclude politics – we can honestly say we have competed with other, older nations, in some aspects we have already equalled them, in other aspects we have approached them. We have never stood so high in terms of number and civilisation. We have atoned for many of the late Republic’s mistakes. We should not meddle in the ways of politics as they do not depend on us, but on the erratic twists and turns of history. If they come suddenly and find us healthy, strong and wise, we shall benefit by them. On the other hand, if the most favourable external circumstances find a degraded, ailing and thoughtless nation, they will not help. Political significance is but one, though still very important, attribute of a living nation, and it sometimes comes with effort and work for the society, as their result rather than their source and origin. The history of the last century clearly teaches us that an immature nation endowed with independence undeservedly shall not find happiness, order or strength in that independence; however beautifully painted on a map, it shall languish. A nation working hard will find its way through history by daily work, whatever its ways and forms.

Let us note, by the way, that what was once referred to as history, namely policymaking and warfare, will stop being the only factor shaping the fortunes of nations, that the time of solely political formations is passing, that a time will come in the twentieth century for socially derived structures. All the more victorious will be those most virtuous, healthiest, wealthy through work and rich in knowledge. Let us thence spare ourselves political agenda for tomorrow, let us engage in politics only inasmuch as the social need requires it. Not in politics should we place our hopes for the future; instead, let us outline a programme of work for the good of the nation, society and civilisation, perform this programme diligently and persistently. Then we shall not perish; we shall live for certain, and for certain shall we triumph and have an honourable place in the future, whose political system we cannot yet envisage.

Let us seek strength in the unfaltering faith and hope of our forefathers, in the love of our motherland, which everyone should give to all within the nation and receive in return; let us eagerly work for the sake of order rather than our own glory; let us decry our errors for the sake of improvement rather than out of spite; let us rise to affluence not only for selfish benefit or by profiteering tricks, but by productive work for the nation. Let us not spend the wealth on vanity but turn it into public benefit; let us avidly practise science in order to improve knowledge and power rather than gain in the eyes of our neighbours. Let us devote ourselves to literature and art, not to display sophistication, but to be ennobled by communion with ideals without which no nation is worthy of living.

Mickiewicz and his fellow bards prophesied a forthcoming salutary miracle for the nation. Let us not tempt God’s providence by trusting in miracles and abandon reality for delusive hopes. The coveted miracle will come when we deserve it with conscientious work and the love of people, beauty and truth. Such historic miracles must be earned in toil, and the toil wholesome and wise shall be rewarded. A miracle will happen only to the worthy. You, the young, be worthy of a miracle!

[1] Speech delivered at a celebration commemorating Adam Mickiewicz organised by the “Ognisko” association in Vienna.

Recently added articles


This website is a part of the project entitled ‘Polish Political Thought and Independence: A Program for the Promotion of Polish Intellectual Heritage Abroad’, generously funded
by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland as A part of ‘Public Diplomacy 2017’ programme, component ‘Collaboration in the field of Public Diplomacy 2017’.
Design by Stereoplan