Polish Revolutions


Battle at Miłosław, 1868 painting by Juliusz Kossak.

The central European nation of Poland spent much of its history between the 17th and 20th centuries struggling for the right to exist as an independent nation. Yet, throughout this period, the rebellious spirit of the Polish people was never completely eradicated. In a series of agreements negotiated in the late 18th century, the neighboring nations of Russia, Prussia, and Austria partitioned Poland, with each country adding parts of he country to its own territory. It was not until 1918, at the end of World War I, that Poland established its own independence, only to be invaded by Germany and the Soviet Union during World War II.

After the war, Poland became a Soviet satellite, although it was more tolerantly governed than was common. The Solidarity movement of the 1980s paved the basis for a turn toward democracy in the 1990s when the Soviet bloc was dissolved.

In 1807 France created the Duchy of Warsaw out of land it had taken from Prussia and enlarged the territory in 1809 by taking land from Austria. However, French expansion into Polish territories was halted in 1815 by the defeat of the French in the Napoleonic Wars. As part of the war spoils set out in the Treaty of Venice, Russia was granted control of the Kingdom of Poland. Initially, Czar Nicholas I allowed Poland to exist in a semi-autonomous state. However, in 1830, he made the decision to call up the Polish army to assist in his efforts to halt the move toward democratization in Belgium and France. His actions gave rise to a new wave of Polish nationalism, and a newly awakened sense of rebellion led to the first Polish revolution. The revolution was in large part a response to the French and Belgian revolutions and to the emergence of democratic socialism in Poland.

Hostilities began on the night of November 29, 1830, when a group of civilians attacked Belweder Palace. Their aim was to kill the first viceroy of Poland, the Grand Duke Constantine Pavlovich Romanov. Constantine was the grandson of Catherine the Great of Russia. Ironically, Constantine had organized the Polish army and was a strong supporter of the Poles. He considered himself more Polish than Russian and had married a Pole, Johanna Grudzinska, in May 1820. In the confusion that accompanied the attack, Constantine managed to escape. Because he was hesitant to attack those whom he considered his own people, he refused to order his troops to counterattack.

Simultaneously with the attack on the palace, cadets from Warsaw Military College overwhelmed Russian forces along the Austrian and Prussian borders. The cadets captured a number of generals, executing those who refused to join the revolutionary movement. The revolution gained strength as it spread to Lithuania, where the revolt was spearheaded by Emilia Plater. Plater, who died a heroine, was representative of the many women who took up arms to fight for Polish independence. Convinced that victory was within their grasp, the revolutionary government expelled Russian garrisons, deposed the Romanov dynasty, and established its own government.

Ultimately, Russian forces, which initially outnumbered the Polish forces 10 to one, overwhelmed the Poles and Liths who were weakened by indecisive military leaders, and recaptured Warsaw in September 1831. Without mercy, Russia apprehended more than 25,000 prisoners and exiled them to Siberia. The leader of Polish romanticism, poet Adam Mickiewicz, was one of those sent into exile. Although he was not exiled, the composer Frédéric Chopin left Poland at this time but continued to express his despair over the Polish situation in his musical compositions.

After the war, the czar began the Russification of Poland with the intention of eradicating any remaining tendencies toward Polish nationalism. He was unsuccessful, however, and only caused Polish rebels to go underground as they waited for a new opportunity to rid themselves of the Russian invaders. A subsequent uprising in 1846 in the Free City of Kraków and in those cities along the Austrian border was halted by the quick and brutal action of Austria and her allies.

When Alexander II ascended to power in Russia in 1855, he exhibited more tolerance toward Poland and reinstated the semi-autonomous state that had existed before the first revolution. While the majority of the Polish people were delighted to regain some of the ground that had been lost, revolutionary groups stepped up their efforts to incite rebellion. When the government attempted to draft the rebels into the army, insurrections broke out in January 1863 and again spread into Lithuania and into what was known as White Russia.

This conspiracy that developed into the second Polish revolution originated at the School of Fine Arts and the Medical Surgical Academy in Warsaw in 1861. Most revolutionaries split along ideological lines into the radical Reds who seized control of the revolution through the Central National Committee and the more moderate Whites. Members of the Whites, generally the landowning and bourgeoisie classes, saw alliances with Britain and France as more likely avenues toward eventual independence than taking up arms against the powerful Russian government and military. Splinter groups also surfaced. When the revolt began, Poland was operating without an organized army and was forced to depend on guerrilla fighters to engage Russian forces.

By the mid-19th century, the Kingdom of Poland had become home to large numbers of Ukrainian peasants who did not share the Polish desire for independence. This lack of unity within Poland provided Russia with excellent opportunities to undercut Polish efforts toward independence. Among the Polish population, participation was widespread. Out of a population of some 4 million people, an estimated 200,000 individuals took up arms at some point in the second Polish revolution.

When Russian forces prevailed in May 1864, the czar was determined to wipe out all elements of Polish nationalism. Once the Russian administration was entrenched in Poland, all Polish children were required to learn Russian. The Roman Catholic Church, which was seen as instrumental in keeping Polish nationalism alive, came under close scrutiny. In order to exert its right to control Poland, the czar also confiscated a good deal of land and curtailed Polish autonomy. Even though the Poles had been defeated, the desire for independence had been roused in many young people, particularly university students. It was those individuals who kept Polish nationalism alive during the following decades.

Further reading: Biskupski, Mieczyslaw B. The History of Poland. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2000; Davies, Norman. Heart of Europe: The Past in Poland’s Future. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001; Leslie, R. F., ed. The History of Poland Since 1863. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1980; Naimark, Norman M. The History of the “Proletariat”: The Emergence of Marxism in the Kingdom of Poland, 1870–1887. New York: Colombia University Press, 1979.

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