Age-old Legacy

PartitionI have always been fascinated by the so-called Partitions of Poland which saw the complete and utter destruction of the Polish state in a space of only 23 years, from August 1772 to October 1795. Together, the annexing powers of Russia, Prussia and Austria wiped Poland off the political map of Europe for an astonishing 123 years, an amazing feat as Poland had been one of the largest and more influential states of 16th and 17th century Europe.

From Sea to Sea

To this day, Poles still recall the days when Poland stretched from ‘sea to sea’ (from the Baltic to the Black) and how the evil powers took their land away from them. History shows that it was a combination of malign motives from Poland’s neighbours and gross mismanagement. However, this romantic vision of Poland is still present in Polish society. Even Józef Piłsudski, former head of state, wove an impressive idea of federative enlargement into his policies in the form of a future (possible) state of Intermarum (between the seas).

Intermarum Today

The idea of a Poland reaching from sea to sea was taken up by Piłsudski on the basis of Prometheism. In simple terms, ‘Marshall’ Piłsudski, having been in exile in Russia for a large portion of his life, believed the only way to guarantee Poland’s future survival was to impede the expansion of Russia. This policy led also to Intermarum but at the heart of Prometheism was the weakening of Russia through the support of nationalist (independence) movements within Russia. This deep-rooted policy explains Poland’s need to support Ukrainian independence, the Belarus opposition and, most significantly, Lech Kaczyński’s insistence on supporting Georgia in the growing Russian-Georgian conflict.

Dual Legacy

KresyThe disappearance of Poland off the face of the map for 123 years led to two opposing concepts which are strictly woven into the fabric of Polishness. The first is the romantic notion of the Kresy, the former eastern borderlands of Poland lost after the partitions and, again, after WWII. The second concept, intrinsically linked to the first, is the idea of Ściana Wschodnia (eastern wall/zone) which depicts the current east of Poland as being economically and culturally inferior to the west. In other words, Poland is divided into two halves – west and east.

Inspiration on a Train

Poland\'s Rail NetworkI remember travelling by train from Łódź to Poznań many years ago. I spent most of the journey staring at a Polish State Railways (PKP) map of the Polish rail network (see map to the right). I stared and stared. Like most people, my mind has a tendency to find patterns where there are no patterns in reality. I drew an imaginary line between the western area of high rail network density and the eastern sparsely ‘populated’ area of rail network density. Something in my mind clicked.

Partitions Today

Partitions & Rail NetworkIt became apparent that this ‘imaginary’ line was not imaginary at all. The demarcation between east and west almost exactly matched the borders of the former ‘partitionary’ powers. In fact, if we superimpose the 1795 borders of Russia, Prussia and Austria onto a contemporary map of Poland, or even better, the rail network map, we find that the two almost exactly match. Prussia’s policy of incorporation and development was in stark contrast to Russia and Austria who invested little, if anything, into their newly acquired lands. Poland lost its place among the countries of Europe in 1795 yet still, 213 years on, people in Poland still speak of Poland A (the west) and Poland B (the east).


29 thoughts on “Age-old Legacy

  1. I remember the first year I lived here, 1994; I was heading by train from Dabrowa Bialostocka via Warsaw to Radom, to spend 1 November w a girl I’d met on the plane over. My first train journey in the new world. A jam-packed train, of course, as you might expect at that time of year. I remember being jammed against the corridor for hours, looking at that same map of the PKP’s network, and coming to exactly the same conclusion; two entities stitched together (stitched up?) with only a people to bind them. I wonder whether a countryman from the Bialowieza has more incommon with a Belarussian farmer than with a smug Varsovian sophisticate; whether an unemployed miner from Silesia has more in common with his Czech opposite number than a German-speaking restaurant owner in Wroclaw.

    Etc. 🙂

  2. Great minds think alike, eh? Fools never differ…
    I suspect you’re right Jim – a Białystok Polite probably has a LOT in common with a Grodno Belarusite. 🙂

  3. Because I have been reading Polish history course book recently I can express my own thoughts about the topic. It might not be really patriotic but I believe that Polish people of the XVIII century Poland were to blame for the partitions. The rule of kings was weak and many magnates used the political instability to increase their wealth and influence. There was no strong initiators of the necessary changes e.g. abolition of Liberum Veto and granting land to peasants. On top of that, Polish people believed that this internal weakness was the warranty of stability (Polska nierządem stoi) which proves the short-sightedness and lack of political responsibility of those who wielded power then. We brought this cataclysm on ourselves.

  4. Well first of all I would like to say that it is still patriotic to criticise one’s country and people. We don’t have to rub our national ego to be patriots:) We can question ourselves and challange popular views nothing wrong with that…

    It is a bold statement to make that Polish people believed that the country’s internal weakness was the warranty of its stability…

    What did it mean to be Polish then? Did ordinary people identified nationally? Who was in charge of the political system and who is to blame for its flaws?
    Do we make the same mistake our history writers do and associate Polish people with Polish nobility?

    As to foreign powers:
    We have an age old question, who’s more guilty – the sheep for being powerless of the wolf who took the opportunity and ate it?

    And wasn’t it inevitable? Look at the map of Europe of the time. And also see how other countries developed (Britain?). We were backwards and weak, and we had better organised enemies.

  5. Pawel, good questions. I think the problem here is that Polish people value individualism and individual freedom above the state and this seems to recur over history…

  6. Did you see that incredible map that was published in one of those weekly news magazines just after the last general election? It showed that voting of the individual gminas followed the same pattern…

  7. Yes, I did. Absolutely terrifying. Really. I find it very, very frightening to think that nothing has changed in the attitudes of certain areas of Poland (including stereotypes) since 1918…

  8. Hi !

    I decided to add a word or two.
    I consider myself an expert in history of that period and have a solid reputation which which would support such claims.

    The matter of partitions is somehow overrated as so unique, while several european states of that period suffered from similar fate – Spain was virtually powerless, the Netherlands were annexed by France after a long decline, Venice was eliminated too – and the list goes on and on.

    The partitions might be only more spectacular, but the reasons behind them were the european balance of power and as simple as geography. Lying in the middle of Europe Poland had no luxury of comfortable borders (like Spain or England) allowing slow recovery or retreat to the second league of european powers (like Sweden)- that is why when the time of weakness came it was very hard to survive the inevitable consequences.
    Poland’s dissappearance was so much predictable as determined by its place in Europe and between other powers – if the Netherlands, Spain, Venice, Sweden or England were in the same place they wouldn’t survive their time of weakness too. After all we have other partitions in Europe on its way or even implemented – Hungary ( 1541 and later), Habsburg monarchy ( planned in first decades of the XVIIIth century) or Prussia which avoided it in miraculous circumstances (deth of tzarina Elizabeth I).

    Now the question of decentralisation and political powers. It is wrong to assume that the best way to counter the danger of partitions and almost sole, internal reason behind them was power of nobility or personal freedom.
    Poland was after all a multinational and multiconfessional state which means that a strong rule caused far greater tensions than in unified, small countries or in general less diverse political beings such as France or Prussia. If we see what was happening to those states in the course of history we see that a strong rule is hardly helping either – Prussia literally fallen apart after 1806, while France suffered from civil wars, religious tensions and revolts despite much smaller problems with various ethnical (s much as we can see this term as useful at that time), religious or other differences.
    The problem was the BALANCE and in Poland it was rather fragile.
    Our bad luck was it happened to deteriorate along with other negative changes – we have declining level of education, problems with economy and political conflicts.
    The infamous ‘liberum veto’ was the result of those changes, rather than a problem on its own – after all somone had to back it up and someone had to approve the protest to make it work, and the right to veto existed virtually from the beginning of Polish parliamentalism – so was nothing new.

    Too much personal freedom, some say ? Rubbish I answer – it was where the strenght of that country was – its citizens had more reasons to stay in than to leave with their territories, infact the Commonwealth might be one of the first states where the bond between society and the state has appeared – of course I mean mainly the nobility and others who enjoyed enough rights ( Royal Prussian cities, a part of Jewish community, Tartar community or at least some of Belorussian peasants) and were trying to stay inside voting with their actions or just their feet – there are no refugees running from this country (arians i.e. the Polish Brothers are the only exception) unless they had a very good reason and the only people to have such were the Ukrainian Cossacks and only after a long and bloody war which poisoned their attitude towards this country.
    Sorry, but patriotism and loyalty are not easy to win if a number of differences exist.

    The state with this ‘lenient’ attitude towards its society survived the trial of fire – the Deluge of 1654-61more or less intact ( losses to Russia are a matter of the civil war in 1665-6 not the Deluge) which would bring many other states to their knees and utter demise – better not forget that.
    The problem with XVIIIth century Poland was that it needed time to reform itself and recover its strenght (which was not only possible, but rather inevitable if we remember what the Enlightement was all about), while it got only another war against its will expanding the time of never ending conflicts it was engaged in to almost 70 years. Imagine English Civil War lasting so long, the War of Spanish Succession fought for such a long time or any other similar conflict for that matter.
    The Great Northern War turned the Republic into a Russian protectorate and the partitions from this moment became gradually harder to avoid, still there were several situations which might give such opportunities – various factors made its impossible, but not everything is under our controll or our fault.

    To make the entire over-stretched reply easier to understand.
    The partitions were hardly unique (e.g. Hungary and others) and hardly something we could blame only ourselves all the time which is so frequent if we don’t notice what was happening to others during their history.
    We just need to not make similar mistakes and build a system where our existence is important to others which was the key reason why the First Republic didn’t survive – in other words XXIst century Prometheism (certainly, hardly something reserved for the incompetent maniacs from PiS), strong alliances and strong position in the EU.

    I hope I gave something to think about.

  9. Very interesting post, I was talking about something similar the other day when I noticed how far east Warsaw really is and how empty the country around it is while almost everybody else seems to live in the west of Poland.

    I love the comparison using the rail map! I think I’ll submit this to the strangemaps guy, if I can figure out how.

  10. Cegorach: Strong rule does not necessarily imply authoritarian but ‘good management’ – something that many states often lack. I think the Polish partitions were in many ways unique because of the sheer size and population of Poland at the time. By the way, a wonderful comment. Many thanks! 🙂

    Island1: Please do! I’m sure Mr Strange Maps would like it. Many of my friends when talking about Poland say,”There in Warsaw, in the east”.

  11. Just though I’d mention; I sent Mr Strangemaps a link to your strange maps and he replied saying that he also liked them (and that he recognized your name from comments you’ve left there). Keep your eyes peeled.

  12. Interesting article, I wasn’t aware that Poland was divided like that in the past. Its interesting that the effects are still being seen to this day. I wish I knew more about Polish history. I was aware they have had a tough time of it in the past. Hopefully now with Communism in the past Poland will finally shine and prosper the Polish people deserve it.

  13. By the way guys I’m pretty much a newbie at word press
    what does the RSS Subscription do. I would be interested in reading more of Raf’s articles would this help me to do so?

    1. Geoff, if you have an rss engine, you can get this news regularly. I personally, use the “email subscription” function (under the RSS box above right) so I can have it delivered to my mailbox.

  14. Look, what Pilsidski thought about was a dream about Russian land. Intermarrum is a fascist dream – these are Russian lands. And being militarist he wanted war on Russia, not necessarily Stalin, the Tsar or whoever…

  15. i hope that it assists because it helps me alot.. ..and occasionally even when i have writers block and i am performing some thing else to take my mind off of my composing, i come across a time when i Wish to create more of my story basically because i guess my writer’s block is cured, so occasionally the correct time comes to you, i guess sometimes all u need to do is wait.. …i know i dont make sence but try obtaining watever u can from my answer and see if it works!!

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