The Year of Revolutions
Towards the end of the first half of the 19th century, western and central Europe became ripe for a general trial of strength between the forces of democracy and feudalism. Although greatly shaken by successive revolutions, namely the Great French Revolution at the end of the 18th century, the revolutions of July 1830 in France and in August the same year in Belgium, feudalism had retained some of its positions thanks to the unholy alliance formed after Napoleon’s fall, under Russia’s leadership. Even in countries where capitalism, the new socio-economic system, was already prevailing, not all bourgeoisie took part in the exercise of power. In such countries like Italy and Germany the peoples which were conscious of the national bonds between them, remained politically divided. In central Europe, feudalism and peasant serfdom still prevailed. The vast empire of the Habsburgs was a prison for the Italian, Hungarian and Slav peoples. Workers, already a numerous class, were the object of unbelievable exploitation in all capitalist countries.
In 1848, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels issued the Communist Manifesto, the basic program of scientific socialism, the ideology of the workers’ movement.
The Polish question played a role of tremendous importance in shaping the revolutionary situation in Europe in 1848. Revolutionaries in every European country — anti-feudal bourgeoisie in Germany, French peasants, and nations fighting for unity and independence — ties their hopes with the Poles’ struggle and victory. Poland’s liberation became a universal revolutionary slogan. In 1848 and 1849 Poles fought in defense of the freedom of many nations. Many Poles were entrusted with military commands by peoples fighting for their liberation: Mikolaj Kaminski, Wojciech Chrzanowski, Ludwik Mieroslawski, Ignacy Pradzynski, Edward Dembinski, and first and foremost General Jozef Bem in Hungary.
In 1848, the revolutionary democratic forces did not attain full success, mainly because the liberal bourgeoisie did not support the people’s masses wholeheartedly, and in the end joined sides with the forces of reaction. But the abolishment of serfdom and the granting of land to the peasants were undoubtedly great successes gained by the Spring of Peoples, as were the establishment of a parliamentary system in Germany and the introduction of democratic elections in France. Various rights granted to the nations ruled by the Habsburg monarchy and the unification of Italy were indirect results of the revolutions of 1848.
The rising in Great Poland broke out in March 1848 on the news that the king of Prussia had yielded to the demands of Berlin revolutionaries. It differed from all the previous liberation movements on Polish territories in that it had the mass support of peasants and the petty bourgeoisie.
Another characteristic feature of the Great Poland Rising was that the dividing line between the people’s masses and their revolutionary democratic leaders on the one hand and the property owning classes on the other became clearly apparent. The peasants and petty bourgeoisie had to face not only well armed regular units of the Prussian army, but also the passive attitude of Polish reactionaries, who feared revolution and confined their support to demonstrations within the limits of law, and later agreed to a compromise, forsaking the struggle for independence in order to preserve their class domination. When counter-revolution won the day in Prussia, the Poznan region had already been “pacified” by Prussian troops. The heroism displayed by peasant scythebearers at Miloslaw on April 30, at Wrzesnia and Sokolow on May 5, could not save the uprising from defeat. The military command, mainly in the hands of Mieroslawski who, after his release from Prussian prison, became the leader of the uprising, was unwilling to continue a struggle based on the support of the people’s masses.
Poles played no special role in the Austrian Spring of Peoples. Following the outbreak of the revolution in Vienna, Polish representative bodies, the National Committee in Cracow and somewhat later the National Council in Lvov, and their liberal bourgeoisie leaders, were satisfied with small concessions of an administrative nature, in jurisdiction and education, which in fact were won by Vienna revolutionaries.
Efforts by the people and emissaries from France to make Cracow the center of a national rising were not supported by the National Committee. The rest was done by Austrian troops: an artillery bombardment of the city forced Cracow into submission. The same happened to Lvov.
The final abolition of peasant serfdom and serf-labour in Galicia was the greatest achievement of the 1848 revolution.
This is what Adam Mickiewicz, founder of the Polish Legion which fought for Italian liberty against the Austrians in Lombardy, wrote in LaTribune des Peuples in 1849:
“Recent revolutions confirmed certain political truths: a people fighting for its independence and broader liberties has every reason to treat all the old dynasties as its natural enemy. The people should not trust the Church dignitaries since all of them are attached to the cult of absolutism, regardless of whether this absolutism should prove Mohammedan, heretical, or even atheist. Finally it should reject all cooperation with the aristocracy, particularly with those aristocrats who were the servants or advisors of a government which oppressed the people. Had the recent revolutions obtained nothing for the people apart from awareness of these truths, this alone would have been a great advance towards the future.”
. . . . SEE YOU SOON, GOD BE WILLING . . .