Monday, April 13, 2015

Mixed Feelings

I have very mixed feelings when I read Polish history. My goal is to try to understand the times in which my ancestors lived. I take pride in the nobles of the 16th and 17th century who created a semblance of democracy in Poland. I am embarrassed by the greed and seeming self-absorption of many of the nobles of the 18th century.

In the 16th century, the ruling classes of the Republic of PolandLithuania conceived a type of democracy that was unique for it’s time.

Nobles had assumed governance, regarding themselves as the supreme authority of the state.[1]  The king gained his throne not by inheritance but by election. Once a king was elected, he was required to agree to the stipulations of the nobles before he could be crowned.  The king was elected to be a leader, not a ruler.  There was a parliament (Sejm) consisting of upper and lower houses and populated by the nobles’ envoys, and representatives from the provinces.

The Republic was thus freed from the whims and prejudices of an absolute ruler. State policies were shaped by the consensus of the nobles.

This was the age of Golden Liberty. Under that system, all nobles, regardless of rank or economic status, were considered to have equal legal status and enjoyed   extensive legal rights and privileges.[2]

But Golden Liberty applied only to the nobility. Peasants and townfolk were excluded.  There was no legal system to protect the majority of the population from the excesses of nobles who were greedy and despotic.

Polish serfs were just one step up from slavery. They were sharecroppers.  More than that, their daily lives could be controlled by the landlord.  The Lord of the Manor could forbid serfs from leaving the village. He could refuse to allow girls to get married off the estate.[3]  Peasants were subject to the attitudes and whims of the noble whose land they worked.

Fast forward to the early 18th century and the heirs of the architects of Golden Liberty seem to have become quite complacent in their rights and privileges.

After the Great Northern War 1700-21[4], Tsar Peter the Great of Russia had a firm grip on Polish affairs.  He emasculated the Republic by forcing severe reduction in the armed forces and removing financial support. The army was forced to provide their own funds and supplies by levying local taxes. But the nobility was not inclined to support the army.  The nobles’ strong resistance to any new taxes insured that the Polish armed forces remained feeble while both Prussia and Russia were rapidly building their armed forces.  

Alliances were made and broken; treaties were made and broken; confederations were made and dissolved.  In its weakened position, Poland sought the protection of her powerful neighbors.

By 1772, Prussia, Russia and Austria carved up and took control of Polish lands in the First Partition of Poland.

On May 3, 1791 Poland adopted a new constitution that gave equal rights and protections to all classes of society. Many nobles fiercely resisted this. It took only another two years for Poland’s powerful neighbors to again redistribute Polish lands among themselves. In another two years, by 1795, Poland completely disappeared from the map in the Third Partition of Poland.

This is the source of my embarrassment. How could the noble class with such a proud heritage act so ignobly!?   My reading of Polish history tells me that the ruling class, by its complacency and greed effectively gave away their homeland. Poland vanished for more than a century and came back into existence only after the end of WWI.

My ancestors were peasants. I’m glad of that.

Please comment if you have a differing view of history.  I truly want to understand my heritage. I want to learn.

[1] Norman Davies God’s Playground Vol I, p.326
[3] Wall, Robin and Laslett, Family Forms in Historic Europe, ch 4
[4] Norman Davies God’s Playground Vol I, ch. 17


  1. Good work and interesting stuff!
    Here are my comments for what they are worth. I don't believe it is possible to dissect the actions of people or assign motives to them across the centuries through the lens of our own culture. Also innate human nature and intelligence (or lack of it) knows no class boundaries, so to assign greed and complacency only to the Nobles is in my view an error. Tolstoy does a pretty good job of pointing out that there are stupid, useless or just plain evil people at all strata of society - The Soviet Union proved him right! - Just remember someone said we are all just animals with a thin veneer of civilization - so don't be too hard on your ancestors !

  2. Thanks, Paul. You're right, of course, but we all still seem to expect more of people who have "status". I admit to bias here because it is my family history. I cannot claim to be 100% objective.

    1. Hey Mary, no one is really objective when dealing with human relations, so no need to apologize - I myself was really reacting to our current (western) shallow political culture which blames everything on the rich and/or global companies, and presents everyone else as victims. But enough of that!
      You've obviously done a lot of hard work on this project, and produced a very informative and readable piece on Poland's rich history. I really enjoyed reading it, and learned something new! - Thank you!