The Positivists – The Creation of a Nation
The Polish nation took shape in the Middle Ages, yet this was an egalitarian nation, consisting only of the nobility – the szlachta. The szlachta were a large group, constituting about ten percent of the population. Only Hungary and Spain could compete with these proportions. After the Union of Lublin of 1569, every noble was entitled to participate in the election of the King. In this way, the monarch was equivalent to a modern President, with the exception that the King was elected for life (were he to breach the Henrician Articles or pacta conventa, the nobility were empowered to remove him from the throne). Thus, approximately one tenth of the nation chose their ruler. This was still the sixteenth century, and it is worth remembering that in the United Kingdom – that supposed model of modern democracy – as late as the early nineteenth century barely two percent of the general population were entitled to vote (excluding Catholics, who were finally granted the right to vote in 1829 under the Duke of Wellington’s premiership). Notwithstanding, at the close of the nineteenth century, a mere fraction of the former Polish state’s population had any awareness of belonging to a Polish nation. The peasantry – the largest social group – most commonly referred to themselves as ‘locals’. There were those, however, who – after the failure of the January Uprising – decided to challenge this. Today we call them ‘Positivists’. Their aim was to forge the ‘Polish community’ into a fully-aware, political nation. The Nobel laureate Czesław Miłosz wrote of Bolesław Prus (who was never awarded a Nobel prize, although he deserved one): “He had seven notebooks for collecting materials; the first for facts, the second for relations between facts, the third for general remarks, the fourth for jokes, the fifth for scientific facts and opinions, the sixth for observations and their method of collection, and the seventh for historical notes. Gradually, thanks to these materials, he engaged in a general study of society”. Another significant figure in this period, though not as intellectual, was Henryk Sienkiewicz (who was awarded a Nobel Prize). His ‘Trilogy’ – set during the events of the seventeenth century, and first published as instalments in the literary press – became an unparalleled best-seller; such was the popularity of this work that readers would write to the author, begging him not to kill off their favourite character. Stefan Żeromski related that he was surprised to see a crowd of peasants at a provincial railway station, waiting for the mail train, which carried, along with the post, the latest newspapers. When the train pulled in to the station, a railway official began to read the next chapter of ‘The Deluge’ aloud. The peasants, for the most part illiterate, listened with great concentration. “It is a great thing that Sienkiewicz has done” – Żeromski wrote later. Because essentially, it was a great thing. It meant that the simple people ceased to be just ‘from here’; they began to feel Polish; they learnt to love themselves, they learnt to love Poland. They understood that they were a part of something that went beyond the borders of their village. That is why – in 1920 – a peasant from, say Subcarpathia for instance, went to defend Warsaw from the Bolsheviks, even though he had never laid eyes on this city before. But he knew that it was his city. In this way, the positivists, thanks to literature, thanks to ‘self-education’ circles, thanks to the activities of a variety of social associations, created the modern nation of Poland, a nation that was soon to reach for independence.