Old Empire, Young Nation

The long struggle for a Polish nation

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2009

25 Pages, Grade: 1,0 (A)



1 Introduction: The (Re)constructed Nation

2 The Theory of Nationalism: From Imagination to Assimilation

3 The Lingering Decline: From an Empire to a Nation in Exile

4 The Capped Ascent: From a Dream to a Modern Nation

5 Conclusion: Nationalizing Crabwise

6 Epilogue: Return to Europe?


1 Introduction: The (Re)constructed Nation

Taking a look at any map of Europe, we can see a Europe of Nations. Neatly arranged side by side, there are various territories belonging to people who claim a unique culture, labeling themselves with national coats of arms and certain flags while singing a distinct national anthem. We know the European peoples and it appears as if they have had their separate nations naturally – be it a kingdom or a republic. However, it has not always been the case and we know that nationalism is a rather young phenomenon. European societies have very different political traditions that are worth a closer look. There is an obvious discrepancy between the East and the West. While nations like England, France and later Italy and Germany arose, Central and Eastern Europe was characterized by multicultural empires and occupied peoples. Especially startling seems to be the history of the Polish people. Living in a former powerful kingdom that vanished from the European map during the eighteenth century they have built a new nation in the twentieth century.

“The Polish people has not died; […] Their soul has descended to the domestic life of enslaved peoples […] It will return, will revive and will liberate all enslaved peoples of Europe.”[1] Thus wrote Adam Mickiewicz 1832. What had happened? Barely one century after the Polish army had saved Christian Europe from the invading Turks at Vienna, the Polish kingdom had suffered a disastrous fate. After the death of king August III. in 1763, Russia and Prussia had strengthened their influence on the Sejm and made Stanislaw Augustus Poniatowski his successor. But this had only been the beginning of what Mickiewicz referred to. During the following decades of struggle, Poland had been divided among the surrounding powers Habsburg, Russia and Prussia and ceased to exist on the European map by 1795. For more than a century, there would not be a sovereign Polish state. According to the Congress of Vienna, the Polish were only promised to get autonomy for their own state within the Russian Empire.

An uprising in 1830 appears to be the most promising movement towards a Polish nation and should therefore be examined more thoroughly. It also marks the endpoint of any Polish autonomy prior to the modern nation, established in the twentieth century. After the short return to the European map based on the Paris treaties of 1919, the Polish people were oppressed again. Only after the Second World War, Poles could ascent from domestic life and gradually create their own nation. They had to conform to Russian supremacy until 1990. Then, the Polish people would create their own nation.

What exactly is it that was special about the loss of a Polish state in the eighteenth and nineteenth century and why could a Polish nation be created after such a long time? Could a Polish nation not have evolved in 1830? Perhaps, the Polish people did lack a national identity and therefore lost their sovereignty. If so, what was different in the twentieth century? We have to take a look at the characteristics of nationalism. How did Europeans evolve nations? What was different in the Polish kingdom? Above all, what is the major discrepancy between the eighteenth century Polish people and modern Poland?

To deal with these questions, we need to identify the elements of a nation - the elements of imagined communities, how Benedict Anderson calls them in Imagined communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. Only on that foundation can we try to understand why there was no Polish nation in the nineteenth century. Furthermore, we need to apply Otto Bauer’s laws of assimilation. In “Die Bedingungen der Nationalen Assimilation,” he condensed his theory on general laws of national assimilation and consolidation.

Secondly, we need to analyze the partitions of Poland as well as the final loss of Polish autonomy by the failed uprising of 1830. The main focus does not have to be on foreign aggression, but rather on inner deficiencies of the Polish society. Aron Gill has written a comprehensive history of the Polish struggle for freedom during the nineteenth century in Freheitskämpfe der Polen im 19. Jahrhundert: Erhebungen - Aufstände – Revolutionen. Against the background of Lukowski’s The partitions of Poland: 1772, 1793, 1795, it provides essential insight into the loss of the Polish kingdom.

Once we have understood the decline of Poland, the revival can be discussed. “National Myth and International Relations: Poland and Lithuania, 1989-1994,“ written by Timothy Snyder may help us understand the circumstances of recent Polish history. He explains to us the essentials of Polish national identity and the context of the inevitable conflict with Lithuania. Furthermore the article “‘We Shall Rebuild A new a Powerful Nation:’ UNRRA, Internationalism and National Reconstruction in Poland,” written by J. Reinisch will be important to explaining the contemporary emerge of the Polish nation. Based on that research, Snyder’s book The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569-1999 will be the key to

identify the changes from the Polish partitions to the Polish nation. Combining these complementing studies, we might finally be able to explain the loss and (re)construction of the Polish Nation.

2 The Theory of Nationalism: From Imagination to Assimilation

To discuss the history of the Polish nation, we need to start by taking a look at the nature of nationalizing societies. Without a doubt, we are touching a complex topic that includes various theories and assumptions. However, the literature on European nationalism contains a number of coherent studies that will help us to deal with the Polish case. Brubaker for example has assembled a series of general elements for nationalizing states. His model appears especially useful because of its adaptability for any European nation. He postulates a core nation which bears the idea of a state polity for itself. When the core nation finally realizes that its interests are not implemented, they begin to “promote the language, cultural flourishing, demographic predominance, economic welfare, or political hegemony” only to gain control of the state policy. Usually the justification of the core nation’s interests is found in their history – a history which goes hand in hand with a historical destiny. By mobilizing more and more people, the core nation finally accomplishes the adoption of their idea by the state.[2]

But where does that core nation come from in the first place? Anderson teaches us that nation-ness, while being the “the most universally legitimate value in the political

life of our time,”[3] is just imaginary. A national identity that could create a core nation therefore evolves from a collective self-conception. According to Anderson, in most cases this is founded by a common language. In reality, these languages are spread by religious scriptures.[4] In Europe, the Enlightenment evidently moved Latin, Greek, Hebrew from the throne and established national languages as bases of the community.[5] The languages as well as the idea of the national community were spread by education[6] and print-languages laid the bases for national consciousnesses.[7]

Before the nationalization, Christian Europe was divided into dynastical entities. The more powerful dynasties that formed multicultural empires like Habsburg or the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth resisted the idea of nationalism for a while. Nevertheless, growing national movements within them managed to break them apart and to form separate nations.[8] After the language, nationalism usually incorporated natural ties of birth or land like the idea of a motherland, Vaterland, or patria.[9] Traditional boundary-stones had to make room for borders on maps to create the imagination of a sovereign national territory.[10] Finally, “guided by its imagined map it [the Nation] organized the new educational, juridical, public-health, police, and immigration bureaucracies it was building on the principle of ethno-racial hierarchies which were, however, always understood in terms of parallel series.”[11]

Nationalism, as exclusive as it may be to certain groups, is an expansive movement and is anxious to include more territory and thus more people. To reconstruct the process of assimilating a larger population into a core nation, we can draw on Bauer’s laws of national assimilation. Being an Austrian politician at the end of the Habsburg Monarchy, he drew his awareness from living in a multi-cultural Empire which was experiencing various national movements at his time and finally gave way to new nations. Most probably, some of his laws will be relevant for reviewing Poland’s nation-building. In his eight Bedingungen der Nationalen Assimilation, he stated that:[12]

1. The larger the minority, the smaller the attractive power of the majority; the smaller the minority the more certain the assimilation.[13]
2. The smaller the proportion of the minority in the total population the easier the assimilation.[14]
3. Assimilation occurs most easily where the minority is dispersed and lives in the settlements of the majority; assimilation becomes more difficult the more concentrated the minority and the more isolated in terms of distance from the settlements of the majority. Assimilation is completely hampered where the minority settlement forms a completely separate linguistic community from the majority.[15]
4. National assimilation occurs more easily the more similar the minority is to the majority in race, culture, religion, and language.[16]
5. Minorities assimilate only when they find a class within the majority similar in circumstance to themselves in class standing, occupational interests and qualifications, and level of culture. Assimilation always means amalgamation with class fellows.[17]
6. Economic, social, political, and religious struggles ease assimilation; national struggles impede it.[18]
7. The stronger a nation is in population, wealth, power, and culture the greater is its attractive power to alien minorities in its orbit, the greater is the power of resistance of its own minorities in foreign areas.[19]
8. Assimilation develops more easily the weaker and more inconstant the influx of the minority elements, the stronger and more constant the influx of majority elements.[20]

If we trust these laws, we will have to consider various aspects of exchange between a national majority and possible minorities within Poland as well as the ratio of Polish nationals to the population of an assumed Polish nation to different times. The success of Polish nationalism is, according to Bauer’s laws, equally dependent on social and national struggles. A failed assimilation can lead to “mismatch between cultural and political boundaries,”[21] as Brubaker explains. Looking back, especially on modern European history, we know that this has led to war and ethnic cleansing at multiple occasions.


[1] Printed in Deutschland und Europa (Stuttgart: Landeszentrale für politische Bildung Baden-Württemberg, 1998), 27.

[2] Rogers Brubaker, Nationalism Reframed: Nationhood and the national question in the

New Europe (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 83.

[3] Benedict Anderson, Imagined communities: reflections on the origin and spread of

nationalism (London, New York: Verso, 1991), 3.

[4] Anderson, 14-18.

[5] Anderson, 70.

[6] Anderson, 140.

[7] Anderson, 43.

[8] Anderson, 84.

[9] Anderson, 143.

[10] Anderson, 172.

[11] Anderson, 169.

[12] Otto Bauer, “Die Bedingungen der Nationalen Assimilation,” Der Kampf, vol. V, (March 1912): 246-263. Translation of Bauer’s laws by Henry J. Antkiewicz, “Leon Wasilewski and the National Question in Socialist Theory,” Ethnicity and Racial Studies. 2, no. 4 (October 1979), 505-06.

[13] Je grösser[sic] die Minderheiten desto geringer die Anziehungskraft der Mehrheit; je kleiner die Minderheiten, desto gewisser die Assimilation.

[14] Je kleiner der Anteil der Minderheit an der Gesamtbevölkerung, desto leichter die Assimilation.

[15] Die Assimilation vollzieht sich am leichtesten, wo sich die Minderheit zerstreut und in die Wohnungen der Mehrheit einnistet; die Assimilation wird desto schwerer, je mehr sich die Minderheit zusammendrängt und je mehr sie sich von den Wohnsitzen der Mehrheit räumlich scheidet; die Assimilation ist völlig gehindert, wo die Siedlung der Minderheit eine von den Wohnsitzen der Mehrheit vollständig getrennte Sprachinsel bildet.

[16] Die nationale Assimilation erfolgt desto leichter, je ähnlicher Minderheit und Mehrheit in Rasse und Kultur, Religion und Sprache einander sind.

[17] Minderheiten assimilieren sich nur dann, wenn sie innerhalb der Mehrheit eine ihnen nach Klassenlage, Berufsstellung, Qualifikation der Arbeit und Kultur ähnliche Klasse finden. Assimilation ist stets Angleichung an Klassengenossen.

[18] Wirtschaftliche, soziale, politische, religiöse Kämpfe erleichtern, nationale Kämpfe erschweren die Assimilation.

[19] Je grösser[sic] eine Nation an Volkszahl, Reichtum, Macht und Kultur, desto grösser[sic] ist ihre Anziehungskraft auf die fremden Minderheiten in ihrem Gebiet, desto grösser[sic] die Widerstandskraft ihrer Minderheiten in fremden Gebieten.

[20] Die Assimilation vollzieht sich desto leichter, je schwächeren und je weniger stetigen Zuzug die Minderheit, je stärkeren und je stetigeren Zuzug die Mehrheit empfängt.

[21] Brubaker, 55.

Excerpt out of 25 pages


Old Empire, Young Nation
The long struggle for a Polish nation
East Tennessee State University  (History Department)
Homelands and Identity
1,0 (A)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
531 KB
Nationalismus, Nationalism, Poland, Polish Nation, Teilungen, Partitions, Identity, Identität, Assimilation
Quote paper
Magister Artium Steve Nowak (Author), 2009, Old Empire, Young Nation, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/144510


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