At the Crossroads: 1865–1918

A History of the Polish Intelligentsia – Part 3, Edited by Jerzy Jedlicki

by Magdalena Micińska (Author)
©2015 Monographs 227 Pages
Open Access


The three-part work provides a first synthetic account of the history of the Polish intelligentsia from the days of its formation to World War I. The third part deals with the period between 1865 and 1918. It is the period of numerical growth of the intelligentsia, growth of its self-consciousness and at the same time of growing struggles and rivalries of various political streams. The study concludes with the moment when Poland regained the independence that had been lost in 1795. The work combines social and intellectual history, tracing both the formation of the intelligentsia as a social stratum and the forms of engagement of the intelligentsia in the public discourse. Thus, it offers a broad view of the group’s transformations which immensely influenced the course of the Polish history.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction: The Black Gown
  • Chapter 1: The situation of the Polish intelligentsia after the January Insurrection
  • 1. Professional development opportunities
  • 2.   The development of capitalism and opportunities for the intelligentsia
  • 3. Liberal professions
  • 4. New sources of the intelligentsia
  • Chapter 2: Styles of life
  • 1. The financial and property elites
  • 2. The provincial intelligentsia and the ‘intelligent proletariat’
  • 3. An artistic bohemia
  • Chapter 3: The development conditions of a national culture
  • 1. The conditions of scientific and artistic work
  • 2. Inter-Partition contacts
  • 3. Knowledge and talents leaking out
  • Chapter 4: The ideological debates of the 2nd half of the 19th century
  • 1.   The Galician milieus: the birth of the Stańczyk faction and the Krakow historical school. The Democrats and Positivists of Krakow
  • 2. Warsaw Positivism
  • 3. The means of social influence
  • 4.   The self-stereotype of the Polish intelligentsia in the 2nd half of the 19th century
  • Chapter 5: At the century’s turn
  • 1.   The anti-Positivistic breakthrough; socialism and nationalism
  • 2. Renovation movements in the late 19th/early 20th century
  • 3. Generational differences
  • 4. Promoting Polish education in society
  • 5. The Revolution of 1905-7
  • 6.   Being a Polish twentieth-century intellectual in Poznań, Krakow and Warsaw
  • Chapter 6: The Polish intelligentsia in Europe. The influence of pan-European trends on Poland
  • 1. Polish milieus in foreign lands
  • 2.   Young Poland: between community commitment and decadence
  • 3. The First World War
  • Conclusion
  • Index

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Introduction: The Black Gown

Schowaj, matko, suknie moje, Keep away from me, mother,
Perły, wieńce z róż: My frocks, rose wreaths, pearls;
Jasne szaty, świetne stroje – Lucid robes now fit some other:
To nie dla mnie już! No more frolics, swirls!
Niegdyś jam stroje, róże lubiła, Once, about roses, apparels I raved,
Gdy nam nadziei wytrysknął zdrój; As a spring of our hope gushed;
Lecz gdy do grobu Polska zstąpiła, But now, that Poland descends to her grave,
Jeden mi tylko przystoi strój: That’s my costume, and all things lush:
Czarna sukienka! The black, black gown!

Mourning gowns, pall ribbons, or jewellery featuring apparent patriotic- eschatological symbolism was made obligatory by the populace of Warsaw in 1861, the time of demonstrations preceding the January Insurrection. Clearly enough, this gloomy atmosphere intensified as the uprising fell. Characteristically, the crushing defeat experience was initially described in a romanticist style, well-known and acknowledged at the time, but sounding naive today.

The little poem quoted above, Czarna sukienka [‘The Black Gown’] by Konstanty Gaszyński (d. 1866), refers to Adam Mickiewicz’s ballads written a few dozen years earlier. In the face of the horrible disaster, metaphors of this kind and equally simple rhymes were in use among almost all the romanticist epigones. However, this trivial ditty perfectly renders the mood that overwhelmed Poles – at least, the educated individuals, completely formed in terms of national awareness, deeply concerned about the present and future condition of the entire nation, and that is, representatives of the intelligentsia – in the mid-1860s. That the insurrection was defeated was not the end of the story. Its conclusion was a disgraceful calamity embracing those who summoned others to fight, using pompous language, many of them joining the battle as well, along with those who, in the name of the purposes of reason and moderation, turned their backs on those struggling, distancing themselves from the juvenile recklessness, the lack of political responsibility, the maleficent myopia, or the internal feuds inside the insurgent party. The January Insurrection ended in a wave of repressive measures being applied to Polish people in the Russian Partition (initially, also in the Austrian Partition), which outright menaced the nation’s physical existence. Part of this outcome was a piercing conviction, shared by the vast majority of the ←7 | 8→educated Polish elites, that armed struggle was ultimately discredited as a means of regaining lost independence; that Poles had not only to go on mourning the fallen and the executed but, in parallel, search for new ways to defend their national substance. Soon after, a new, clear and crude language, adequate to the fall’s depth and to the aspirations for the future, was elaborated on.

The Polish intelligentsia, across the partitioned lands, attired the black gown from Gaszyński’s simple poem – symbolically, in most cases, but sometimes also in the most literal way. Among the Galician democrats, who cultivated the memory of the heroes of 1863-4, it was the fashionable mode to manifest national bereavement. At the house, for instance, of the Lwów journalist and politician Tadeusz Romanowicz (1843-1904), “it was so plaintive, to the extent that awe was striking”. The host “wore Polish-style clothes, a black żupan [a sort of caftan]”; his sister, Zofia Romanowiczówna (1842-1935), a writer, “gave the impression of being a vestal who had decided, sworn, never to laugh out loud, never to be consoled”; his mother “was seated on a sofa, like a goddess of mourning, in a black dress […]. A silver Eagle [badge] served her as a brooch; the black hair, which all the family had, did not spoil the harmony of that dreary tone”.1

Dismal mourning of the glory of yore or, the opposite of it, condemnation of the insurgents’ pestilent imprudence became predominant, over several dozen years, in the Polish debates on the January uprising, and in the Polish intelligentsia’s way of thinking about the last armed spurt. Several dozen years, with new generations having matured, were necessary for words of criticism and tearful lamentations to be replaced by the heroic legend of the January Insurrection, proclaimed in dozens and hundreds of poems in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; in stories, tales and novels authored by scribblers with a sense of patriotic mission as well as by the leading exponents of the Polish literary scene. What is more, half a century after the defeat, not only was public homage to the lost and suffering ones called for, but also a pride owing to the insurgents’ achievements, their audacity, devotion, fortitude, tactical skills, valour and, in particular, their outstanding abilities in becoming self-organised under the extremely hard conditions of an inimical partitioned environment.

These abilities were, one might say, incarnated by the National Government, its courier services, the stamp featuring the Polish Eagle, and its nameless order – the factors that integrated a considerable share of society for a dozen-or-so months during 1863-4. On the verge of the 20th century, the January ←8 | 9→Insurrection became not only a repository for heroic and martyrdom attitudes, commemorated in annual Galician celebrations; but a treasury for participants of gymnasium (secondary-school) conspiratorial dealings in the Russian and Prussian Partitions. Half a century after the last insurrection was defeated, and two years before the world conflict broke out, young Poles could see in it, quoting Józef Piłsudski’s statement from 1912, “a forge of the war thought that is to continue enduring in Poland”2.

Over the fifty years following 1864, not only the judgement on the January uprising evolved: the period was decisive to the crystallisation of attitudes among the Polish intelligentsia. For those people, the disastrous outcome of January 1863 was the largest challenge in their class’ history; in what ways they got to grips with it, how hard-won successes were recorded to their credit, and how ignominious defeats were incurred, will be discussed further in Chapter 4 of this volume. The late 1860s and early 1870s became the period when Polish intellectuals’ views and opinions for the first time diverged so dramatically: responses to the catastrophe, attempts at understanding and rationalising it, setting completely new objectives and paths for the entire nation, drove educated Poles to completely different itineraries and did not at all foster a sensitive understanding for dissimilar choices.

The distance kept by the wrathful young Positivists, who in the post-January Warsaw declared war against the eulogists who claimed a Christ-related mission for the Polish nation, taken over from the Romanticists, and hackneyed; or, the distance demonstrated by the no-less-irate, and almost equally young, Stańczyk faction exponents, was enormous, in Krakow, they denied that the local democrats had a decent level of patriotism, and its expression was not limited to acrimonious commentaries in the press but also in the indiscriminate epithets they would flounce against one another.

And still, it nonetheless seems that the 1870s or 1880s was probably the last period, particularly in the Russian Partition, when representatives of the Polish intelligentsia proved capable of coming to an agreement, in the name of a common position of the Poles against the partitioner. Catholic publicists could for many years display hatred toward Aleksander Świętochowski, a liberal man; for his part, Świętochowski could provoke them by stigmatising parochial models of religiosity, sexuality, and family; Darwinists could jeer at creationists who, in ←9 | 10→turn, could directly equate Darwinism to a cult of Satan – all this still seems to have been an internal struggle between Poles, carried out without the participation of the partitioning authorities, without referring to the common enemy. In those realities, a man like Świętochowski could be received in a conservative salon by his ideological opponents, although before then, a wall of disgust separated him from them. In 1880, about a dozen years after the leading Positivist manifestos were published, he was invited to pay a visit to the house of Aleksander and Jadwiga Kraushar, but this was not all: the hosts “were ordering a regular storm for three days in order to take the man by it for their soirée”.3 Aleksander Świętochowski no more impersonated at that time the incomprehensible and odious principles, but was a confederate in the struggle against the superior adversary. In the late 19th century, the everyday reality in Warsaw, willingly remarked by memoirists, was mutual contact (albeit very much wariness-imbued) and the exchange of views (with one’s own opinion remaining guarded) between zealous Catholics and non-denominational people; between socialists and moderate advocates of conciliation; between the wealthiest and best-related, by marriage connections, and the intelligentsia elite and pen-pushers living from hand to mouth; and, amidst members of the intelligentsia of varied ethnic backgrounds.

This same period, the century’s close, disturbed, however, this relative balance, maintained with great exertion. From the mid-1880s, the young Polish intelligentsia drew upon the intellectual ferment which was engulfing Western Europe as well as Russia at that time, eventually causing a looseness in the nineteenth-century, positivistic, rational understanding of the universe. The new modernist epoch did not perhaps annul all the achievements and beliefs of the ‘age of science’, now coming to its end, but it certainly caused a deep break in them. The decadent, melancholic end of the century, drowning in the fumes of absinthe, brought along the seeds of qualitatively new phenomena, modern ones (moderne, in French), determining, as it would occur, the public and private life of the inhabitants of Europe, and of Poland, for at least the whole of the following century. Modernity implied a redefinition of the subject and object of politics, and a new style of its pursuance; the birth and development of mass-scale movements (socialism, nationalism, peasant parties); new methods of playing the political game and winning over supporters to one’s platform; and, moreover, the conviction – perhaps not really new but articulated so boldly for the first time – that the ←10 | 11→right argument in the game rests with a single, and only (that is, ours), side and party. Modern states, and nations too – self-aware though without a state organisation, like the Poles – were codifying at that time new formulas of patriotism and their own identity, forming ethnically homogeneous communities and excluding and ‘placing beyond the pale’ the elements they deemed foreign. The late 19th and early 20th century was also marked by an attempted redefinition of relations between outstanding individuals and the nameless masses; the visionary artist and the philistine public; woman and man; wife and husband; parents and children; the old and the young; the wealthy and the destitute; those who enjoyed common respect with contentment and those rejected, in neglect and disregard.

In Polish lands, most of these phenomena took a course more laborious and painful than in Western Europe, as Poles, apart from in Austrian Galicia, had no modern, centrally controlled instruments available with which to incarnate the assumptions of a modern Polish government – that is: a national army, school, cultural and scientific institutions, or even legal political parties. At the same time, the turn of the twentieth century was the time when the public life of the Polish people began to be formed, and subsequently dominated, by the generations on which the ‘black gown’ of mourning after the January Insurrection defeat was never superimposed. Generations, represented for the first time ever, on such a scale, by males and females alike, which challenged the usefulness, patriotism, and even the simple honesty of their fathers, rejected the common sense coerced by the sense of frailty, ignominiously moderate purposes and even more temperate methods of achieving them. Symbolic to these was, for instance, Głos, a magazine issued from 1886 in Warsaw: an emphatic utterance of that young generation, their common cry of dissension toward the detestable reality and, in parallel, a metaphorical intersection at which the Polish intelligentsia eventually turned in two completely different directions, to the left and to the right, going further and further away from each other at the crossroads ever since. The increasing conflict would come to an apogee in the Revolution of 1905-7 – in the fierce struggles over declarations, journalistic texts, bloody sacrifices, and clashes between socialist and nationalist party armed gangs.

More than fifty years of the history of the Polish intelligentsia between the fall of the January Insurrection and Poland’s regained independence in 1918, abounded with sudden turnings of the plot and astonishing paradoxes. There was a horrific disaster and no less horrid repressions at the period’s dawn; nonetheless, the following decades proved, for the intelligentsia, to be a period of quite unprecedented revival: this group set for itself probably the highest aspirations in its history, enjoying a hitherto-unknown prestige. The First World War (1914-8) and the reinstatement of independence for Poland, with a remarkable ←11 | 12→contribution from the local intelligentsia’s thoughts, effort, and blood, conclude the period under discussion.

Between those limited dates, the Polish educated elites changed radically. If the latter half of the 19th century admitted common mourning, shared meditation on common needs, common “quiet confidential conversations between fellow countrymen”4, the turn of the century finally dispelled these good-natured illusions. The socialists and the nationalists reproached each other for having betrayed the immemorial ideals, for yielding to foreign influence, for lusting for power, interestedness, and ideological strangeness. In 1918, an unusual tangle of internal endeavours and external occurrences will enable the construction of what was then called The Second Republic. Would the builders, Polish intellectuals, be capable of building a new country out of the rubble – or would they rather transfer to the regained homeland the phobias and resentments bred over the years of national bondage?

1 Kazimierz Chłędowski, Pamiętniki [‘Memoirs’], vol. 1 Galicja 1843-1880 [‘Galicia, 1843-80’]. Wrocław 1951, p. 110-111.

2 Józef Piłsudski, Zarys historii militarnej powstania styczniowego [‘An outline of the military history of the January Uprising’], [1912], Lecture 8; quoted after: J. Piłsudski, Pisma zbiorowe [‘Collected works’], vol. 3, Warszawa 1937, p. 129.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Open Access
Publication date
2014 (November)
soziale Schichten Parteipolititk Kulturgeschichte
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 227 pp., 1 b/w fig.

Biographical notes

Magdalena Micińska (Author)

Jerzy Jedlicki is Professor emeritus at the Institute of History at the Polish Academy of Sciences where he was head of the research group for the history of intelligentsia. He also was fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington D.C. Magdalena Micińska is Professor at the Institute of History at the Polish Academy of Sciences.


Title: At the Crossroads: 1865–1918
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