Polish Insurgency II


“Battle of Ostrołęka of 1831”, an 1838 painting by Karol Malankiewicz

In the early summer the mood in Germany and in the Frankfurt Parliament began to veer away from internationalist liberalism, and deputies representing the German population of Poznania, Silesia and Pomerania began to voice anti-Polish sentiments. As the liberal ardour spent itself, the Berlin government began to contain the crisis. It promised to abide by its plan of ‘national reorganisation’ in Poznania, but insisted the Polish militias be disbanded. The National Committee tried to negotiate, but when Prussian forces attacked one of the Polish units the Poles fought back. They won two pitched battles against the Prussian army, at Milosław and Sokolowo, but were eventually bombarded into surrender with heavy artillery. Talk of reorganisation and autonomy was dropped, and in the end the Frankfurt Parliament voted to incorporate the Grand Duchy of Posen into Germany. As Friedrich Engels noted wryly: ‘Our enthusiasm for the Poles changed into shrapnel and caustic.’

In November, the Austrian army bombarded Kraków and then Lwów into submission. The ‘Springtime of the Nations’ had turned into another bleak winter for Polish patriots; far from benefiting their cause in any way, it had actually had the effect of liquidating the remaining privileges in the Republic of Kraków and the Grand Duchy of Posen.

The Poles had been among the first on the barricades of Vienna and Berlin; they fought in the Dresden rising; a Polish legion formed by the poet Adam Mickiewicz in Lombardy fought at Rome, Genoa, Milan and Florence; Mierosławski commanded the anti-Bourbon forces in Sicily and then the German revolutionaries in Baden; General Chrzanowski commanded the Piedmontese forces at Novara. Wherever there were Russians, Prussians, Austrians or their allies to be fought, there were Poles in the ranks. Their greatest contribution was to the Hungarian cause. General Bem, who had saved the day for the Poles at Ostrołęka in 1831, commanded the revolutionary forces in Vienna in 1848 and then Lajos Kossuth’s army in Transylvania. General Dembiński was the commander-inchief of the Hungarian forces. They and hundreds of Polish officers fought to the bloody end at Temesvar, while Czartoryski backed the Hungarians with diplomatic and material resources.

All this only served to associate the Polish cause with revolution in the European mind, and Europe was frightened by revolution. The outbreak of the Crimean War in 1853 should have been a godsend to the Poles, combining as it did both of the nations most sympathetic to their cause against the arch-enemy Russia. The former British Foreign Secretary and future Prime Minister Lord Palmerston knew Czartoryski and had often made sympathetic pronouncements on the Polish question. Napoleon III inherited sympathy for the Polish cause with his political pedigree, and his Foreign Minister was Count Walewski, the half-Polish natural son of the first Napoleon. The Poles began to dream of a Franco-British expeditionary force landing in Lithuania, but Palmerston and Napoleon III buried the Polish issue in order to buy Austrian and Prussian neutrality in the conflict, and only allowed Polish units to be raised under the Turkish flag to fight the common enemy in the Caucasus and the Crimea.

The Russian defeat in the Crimea and the death of Tsar Nicholas in 1855 did, however, have an immediate effect on conditions in Poland itself. The new Tsar, Alexander II, visited Warsaw and expressed himself open to suggestions for reform, but warned against political illusion: ‘Point de rêveries, messieurs, point de rêveries!’ It was an idle taunt. Any attempt at improvement by the Poles was virtually bound to be seen in St Petersburg as ‘rêveries’, as the next few years were to demonstrate.

With cautious optimism, the Warsaw banker and industrialist Leopold Kronenberg and Andrzej Zamoyski of the Agricultural Society initiated a discussion of possible reforms. It was the area tackled by Zamoyski that absorbed most attention—the question of the peasants. By the late 1850s more than half of all peasant tenancies had been transformed into money-rents, mainly by voluntary commutation on the part of the landlord. But most small estates still operated on the old labour-rent system. In 1858 the Russian government asked the Agricultural Society to prepare a land reform project. Since discussions were going on in Russia on the subject of the emancipation of serfs, the matter began to assume starkly political overtones. It was a question of whether the Polish peasant would thank the Tsar or his Polish masters for his emancipation.

The Agricultural Society eventually settled on a project which commuted all labour-rents to money-rents with assured tenancy, to be followed by a conversion of tenancies into freeholds by negotiation between landlord and tenant. The country followed the course of the discussion and by 1860 the Agricultural Society had come to be regarded as the de facto Sejm, its meetings reported even by the London Times. It was soon caught between the admonitions of St Petersburg and the increasingly strident demands of the Warsaw radicals. St Petersburg’s strong man in this instance was not a Russian but a Pole, Aleksander Wielopolski, an intelligent, urbane aristocrat who had supported the 1830 rising but had since come to see the pointlessness of such heroics.

In 1860 Wielopolski came up with a plan acceptable to the Tsar which was, in essence, a cautious return to the principles of the Congress Kingdom of the 1820s. Russia would concede a measure of administrative reform in the government of the Kingdom and permit the creation of consultative bodies; the clampdown on education would be eased and the peasant question would be solved by Wielopolski, who in 1862 became head of the civil government. In replication of earlier arrangements, Alexander’s brother Constantine was sent to Poland as viceroy. For his part, Wielopolski undertook to maintain order and keep Polish political ambitions under control.

This would not be easy. Wielopolski was disliked for his arrogance and apparent subservience to Russia. His rival Andrzej Zamoyski was a man of lesser intelligence but greater popularity who was beginning to be propelled by pressures from below. When summoned by Grand Duke Constantine he refused to collaborate, preferring to remain in opposition. The promise of liberalisation had acted like a tonic on the more radical elements of the population. Meetings were held, discussions raged in word and print on every aspect of reform, emancipation and autonomy, and the conclusion was drawn more often than not that any accommodation with Russia was impossible. The police listened, people were investigated, and the cells of the Citadel began to fill up with hundreds, then thousands.

On 25 February 1861, a meeting commemorating the 1830 rising was dispersed by police. Two days later a religious procession was fired on, leaving five dead. On 8 April a similar demonstration resulted in over a hundred deaths. Disturbances recurred in Warsaw and other cities in a climate of mutual provocation. Martial law was decreed and on 15 October Russian troops broke into a couple of Warsaw churches in which demonstrators had sought sanctuary, and some 1,500 were carted off to the Citadel. All churches and synagogues in the country closed in protest, leading to the arrest of bishops, priests and rabbis.

A group of radicals known as ‘Reds’ had founded a secret Warsaw City Committee, and this set up a countrywide provisional government to coordinate a mass rising in 1862. The military weakness of Russia demonstrated by the Crimean War, as well as the recent successes of Garibaldi in Italy, suggested that it might succeed. While liberals saw a Polish Cavour in Czartoryski, radicals saw a Polish Garibaldi in Mierosławski, who was a friend of Prince Napoleon, nephew of the Emperor of the French. The military commander appointed by the City Committee, Jarosław Dąbrowski, made contact with officers, both Russian and Polish, throughout the Russian army in order to cripple the military response at the moment of outbreak. Plans were well advanced when, in the summer of 1862, the Russian police got wind of the preparations and arrested many of the officers, including Dąbrowski.

Meanwhile, Wielopolski was trying to impose his own solution to the peasant question, which was similar to Zamoyski’s proposals of 1859. By now, however, Zamoyski and the Agricultural Society had shifted their position. In an attempt to outbid the Reds they pressed for more radical measures. Zamoyski was summoned to St Petersburg where he was given a reprimand by the Tsar and sent into exile. The Agricultural Society was abolished and Kronenberg’s City Deputation dissolved. It was now the turn of the moderates, known as the ‘Whites’, to go underground and start plotting.

The Poles had learnt a great deal from their experiences and displayed remarkable professionalism in the art of subversive organisation. The City Committee became the Central National Committee under the chairmanship of Stefan Bobrowski. It had five ministries: a diplomatic service which travelled widely and freely on forged documents, gaining admittance to European chancelleries as well as Russian émigrés’ garrets; a treasury which collected donations from sympathisers and ‘taxes’ from the lukewarm, and even floated an international loan; a quartermastership which purchased and smuggled arms and supplies; a department of the interior which formulated policy on emancipation of the peasants and the Jews; and a department of justice complete with its own ‘stiletto police’. The intelligence department had men in every branch of the Russian army and civil service. The fighters trained and operated clandestinely in Warsaw under the noses of the Russian army encamped not only in the Citadel but in the squares and streets. The Russian General Berg, who had been instructed by the Grand Duke Constantine to investigate the conspiracy, reported back after some weeks that he had discovered ‘only one thing, namely that I don’t belong to it’. As an afterthought, he added: ‘And neither does Your Imperial Highness.’

Wielopolski still hoped to avert insurrection. He brought forward the annual selective conscription into the Russian army and excluded landowners and settled peasants from the lists. By concentrating the draft of more than 30,000 on the educated young and the cities he calculated that the majority of the conspirators would be caught in the net, while those who purposely avoided it would reveal their identity. In the event, the majority slipped away from home as the draft drew near. On 22 January 1863 the National Committee proclaimed the insurrection, and that night small units attacked Russian garrisons around the country.

The rising was doomed to failure. The insurgents numbered no more than about 20,000 ill-equipped men dispersed in bands of between fifty and five hundred. Their numbers grew periodically, and in all some 100,000 people would fight over the next eighteen months, but they were no match for the 300,000 Russian regulars concentrated against them. By virtue of good reconnaissance, timing, and an ability to melt away into the countryside, they managed to harass the Russian forces, cut supply lines, and occasionally defeat a column on the march, but they could not capture a town or take on a full division in pitched battle, as they had no artillery. Only in the remoter areas of Sandomierz, Podlasie and Kielce was it possible for units of more than 2,000 men to survive in the open. Nor was there any continuity of command. Ludwik Mierosławski, who was to take control, was defeated while moving in from Poznania. Marian Langiewicz did manage to assume overall command, but was soon defeated and forced to withdraw to Galicia.

World opinion was strongly pro-Polish, and while newspapers ranted against Russian injustice, young men flocked to Poland, from Ireland, England, France, Germany and, most of all, Italy. Garibaldi’s friend Francesco Nullo was one of several redshirts who fought and died in Poland. Remarkably, the largest non-Polish contingent was Russian.

Foreign governments were less eager to help. Bismarck made it clear that he would help Russia if the need arose. Austria turned a blind eye to the activity going on along its border, which was the only entry point for supplies. On 17 April 1863 Britain, France and Austria made a joint démarche in St Petersburg protesting at Russia’s violation of the Vienna settlement of 1815. Privately, Napoleon III and his ministers intimated that they would send arms and eventually troops, urging the Poles to hold on. It was largely as a result of this that the Whites, who were in close touch with their political siblings in Paris, decided in February to join the insurrection officially and to make a bid for control of the movement.

This changed hands more than once over the next months, and in October 1863 came to rest in those of Romuald Traugutt, a Lithuanian landowner. He was a devout, almost ascetic thirty-fiveyear-old father of two who had reached the rank of colonel in the Russian army and seen service in the Crimean War. He reorganised the National Committee and the military command, and it was largely owing to his leadership that the insurrection revived in the autumn of 1863 and expanded its area of operations.

It had been said that the boundaries of the putative future Poland would draw themselves with the blood of insurgents. Predictably, they did not stretch very far into Ukraine, where only groups of Polish szlachta came out. In Belorussia, they included much of the old Commonwealth, with not only the peasants, but also the Jews of towns such as Pińsk joining the cause. In Lithuania and even southern Livonia, they corresponded to the borders of 1772, with mass participation by all classes. It was a slap in the face to the Russian policy carried on in these areas since the first partition.

On 2 March 1864 the Tsar pulled the carpet from under the feet of the insurrectionary government by decreeing the emancipation of the peasants with full possession of land. In April Traugutt was arrested. Sporadic fighting went on for another six months, but the uprising was over. The Tsar issued a ukase changing the name of the Kingdom of Poland to the ‘Vistula Province’. All Polish institutions were abolished, and a period of intense repression began. General Muravyov, known in Russia as ‘Hangman’ Muravyov, scoured the Western Gubernias for signs of dissent and carried out a thorough purge. Brutality was meted out on a hitherto unknown scale, the path to Siberia was trodden by chain gangs numbering tens of thousands of young people who would never return, and the nation went into mourning.

It went into mourning not only for the failure of the insurrection, but for the whole tradition of insurgency. The 1863 rising was an uncommon achievement—it was no mean feat for 100,000 intellectuals, noblemen, workers and peasants to keep Europe’s largest military machine tied down for eighteen months. It had also proved that the szlachta were not alone, and the very last engagement was fought by a detachment of peasants. Nevertheless it was the end of an era in Polish history.

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