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Poland: Nation and Migration

Marek Chodakiewicz speaking at Clash of Civilizations Conference

Dr. Marek Jan Chodakiewicz delivered this lecture at the “Clash of Civilizations” conference, a European Parliament event, in Warsaw, Poland, on 26 November 2022. 

In early 1939, Professor Wincenty Lutosławski, a leading Christian Nationalist (Endek) philosopher, in his opus The Mission of the Polish Nation (Posłannictwo polskiego narodu), insisted that “To the Polish nation there belong Polonized Germans, Tatars, Armenians, Roma, Jews, so long as they live for the common ideal of Poland… A Black man or a Redskin can become a real Pole, if he embraces the spiritual heritage of the Polish nation inherent in its literature, art, politics, customs, and so long as he possesses an unshakeable will to contribute to the development of the national existence of the Poles.”

This statement neatly sums up that culture is what makes Polish nationalism a mighty and mightily attractive phenomenon.

Like other countries, Poland arose because of propitious historical conditions, which included the influx of various people into her geographic space and the growth of national consciousness, which translates into national solidarity and cultural coherence.

But first, let us look at the context. In history, empires are the rule, while nation-states an infrequent rarity. The former tend to overwhelm the latter. However, our European experience dictates that the nation-state is a better means to cultivate a variety of European expressions, as opposed to the imperial uniformity.

One of our eldest Western sources, the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), dictates that God made nations and tribes; He destroyed the Tower of Babel, the first experiment in multiculturalism and globalism, because its architects defied the Lord’s order to be fruitful and multiply and populate the earth. Instead, they congregated in one place: Babel.

Next, in our Western tradition, we have a viable example of Greek city-states (polis) with a variety of systems, including democracy. Decentralization engendered sanguinary fratricidal wars among the Greeks and, eventually, led to the demise of the system (though it would be tried later with a similar outcome in late medieval and Renaissance Italy).

On a greater scale, there was the great Roman Republic which, however, lost its republican system when it gained an empire. But to keep it, Rome resorted to tyranny, so-called Oriental despotism.

Nation-state; city-state; and empire: ultimately, everywhere the key to the successful survival of such systems was the assimilation of newcomers and the spread of national consciousness and, with it, national solidarity.

Historically, Poland has been a welcoming haven for outsiders. While the Poles have always welcomed guests, they invariably fight invaders. They continue to cultivate this tradition in contemporary times.

For example, in the summer and fall of 2021, Poland barred the way to a powerful wave of tens of thousands of Third World interlopers, dispatched by Russia and Belarus, to destabilize the West, for the arrivals were hostile and threatening to the natives. Aggression was not the best way to find favor with one’s prospective hosts. So, they were kept out like other invaders before.

However, since late February 2022, after Russia invaded Ukraine, over 7.3 million Ukrainians have crossed the borders of the Polish Commonwealth. Considering that there are fewer than 40 million Poles, the influx is simply incredible. Yet, the Poles have shown the arrivals their cordial hospitality, accommodating the bulk of the refugees, most of them women and children. As always, the byword is: “When a guest enters a home, God himself enters.” (Gość w dom, Bóg w dom.)

Let us briefly recount the waves of migrations into Poland (or what eventually became Poland) from the earliest times.

During the pre-literate times, thousands of years ago, our evidence is the scantest. However, DNA studies dictate that migrations are the most salient human experiences. Poland has had its own share, of course, just like anyone else. The Slavic people were the penultimate (before the Balts) arrivals in Europe during the Volkswanderung from the Eurasian steppes. Some of them settled between the Odra, Vistula, and Bug rivers, thus becoming the ancestors of contemporary Poles.

In fact, preliminary DNA research suggests that the ancestors of the Poles either traveled first south, through the Iranian plateau, to India and then headed north to the future Poland, or some of the travelers, after initially settling between the Odra and the Bug, picked up again and headed to India, only to return some time afterward.

Incidentally, it is truly uncanny how modern DNA science suggests that the 16th-17th century Sarmatian myth of the origin of the Poles may have been true after all. Of course, these are just preliminary findings. Much more work is needed for this kind of interpretation to be conclusive.

At any rate, DNA research also suggests that the contemporary Poles are about 50% Slavic. What about the other half?  The other half really includes nearly everyone else. And the factor most responsible for it would be (besides love) migrations and, of course, Polish hospitality.

In the pre-DNA era, the father of Polish anthropology, Professor Jan Czekajewski, counted over 30 main anthropological types in Poland, classified by their morphology and other features.

Further, in pre-literate times, the archeologists recognize a number of disparate cultures, either transient or domiciled on future Polish lands. These included, for example, the Goths or Croats. Most of them left to settle to the West and South, naturally, but at least a few remained behind to mingle with the people who eventually became the Poles.

In medieval times, successive waves of settlers appeared in Poland, a process that is better documented than previous migrations. Whereas there continued to be an interaction and intermingling of the Poles with the eastern Slavs, the Ruthenians, by the 13th century, Poland had also experienced several major waves of new arrivals from the north and the west.

In recorded times, first, there came the Vikings. Most came to pillage and steal people. However, some of them settled on the Baltic Sea coast (Wolin), and some bands penetrated inland.

Incidentally, the penetration was mutual. For example, Świętosława, the daughter of Prince Mieszko I (ca. 930-992) and the sister of King Bolesław the Brave (ca. 967-1025) brought as her dowry a regiment of Polish warriors when she married, first, the King of Sweden and, then, the King of Denmark. Her son, Canute the Great (?-1035) conquered England and ruled also over Norway and Denmark, presumably with the help of his mother’s migrating Polish warriors.

Back in Poland, within the next couple of hundred years, following the nation’s Baptism in 966, there began arriving German settlers in search of land. The rulers of Poland welcomed them and settled them in congruence, usually, with the Magdeburg law. Although most German settlers put their roots down in rural areas, many nonetheless settled in towns, where they became an important part of the burgher estate.

Initially, there were some problems with loyalty among some of the new arrivals, in particular in the royal capital of Cracow. In the early 14th century, the German burghers under Mayor Adalbert there rebelled against Prince (later King) Władysław I Elbow-High (1260 – 1333). The Prince crushed the rebellion, and his supporters ferreted out the traitors by subjecting them to an ingenious counterintelligence measure. The suspects had to pronounce properly the phrase: “Soczewica, koło, miele, młyn” (Lentils, a wheel, grind, mill).  Assimilated migrants did just fine; others not so much.

At any rate, the German migration into Poland continued incrementally for centuries. The last large influx of Germans into the Polish lands occurred in the first half of the 18th century, during so-called Saxon times. However, individual arrivals by the Germans (and others) were only halted and reversed with the Soviet occupation of Poland after 1945.

Perhaps even earlier than the Germans, there came the Jewish people in the 11th and 12th centuries. Initially, the first Jews arrived mostly as merchants, the Radhanite, often to buy amber and Slavic slaves sold by the local elites. But the real, mass influx of the Jewish people was triggered by the crusades and their attendant pogroms in Germany and elsewhere in Western Europe. Polish rulers, however, issued edicts of toleration, including, principally, the famous Statue of Kalisz of 1264, which welcomed and protected Jews. Each wave of persecution in western Europe sent Jewish refugees eastward to Poland.

The new migrants began referring to Poland as Polin – “here God comes to rest.” Later, from the mid-16th century, they applied the term “Paradise for Jews” (Paradisus Judaeorum) to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.  The Jewish were permitted to retain their language (Yiddish), customs, and, most importantly, religion. They also enjoyed autonomous institutions, including the Council of Three (Four) Lands, which was a Jewish parliament, a forerunner of the Knesset.

There were other migrants who were accorded similar privileges. Chronologically, the Armenians showed up as early as the 11th century. Via Kiyvian Ruthenia they continued to resettle in Poland continuously at least until the 18th century. The Armenians, both Orthodox and Catholic, enjoyed their own autonomous institutions. In modern times, more of them arrived after 1945 and, in particular, following the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Then there were the Tatars, who fled internal persecution and strife among their own people to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and settled there in the 14th century, later spreading to the Polish crown lands (Podlasie). In addition to their autonomous community institutions, they were free to practice their Muslim religion.

The Scotts likewise enjoyed their own community institutions in Poland. They came in successive waves starting in the 16th century. They were first driven by economic opportunities; they’d rather come to Poland than be transported to America or Australia. Perhaps most of the early Scottish settlers were itinerant merchants, though there were also quite a few mercenaries. The next waves came to escape religious and political prosecution at home. Amazingly, most were not Catholics (though some of those came as well), but, rather, Presbyterians. The last large wave arrived in the 18th century after the defeat of the legitimate Stuart monarchs. In the 19th century, it was mostly Scottish engineers who arrived in Poland looking for jobs in her budding industries.

The Dutch Mennonites arrived in the 16th century seeking refuge from religious persecution. They were mostly farmers, who settled in Ducal and Royal Prussia and along the upper Vistula. Later, some of them migrated to the Ukrainian lands.

Likewise, there were religious refugees from France: the Huguenots. Some of them settled in Poland in the late 16th century; others trickled in for the next two hundred years.

Of course, over time, most of the migrants assimilated and became Polish by culture and language; many of them eventually embraced Catholicism.

A few of the new arrivals eventually become Polish nobility. A few had their foreign noble titles confirmed (indygenant) by the Polish parliament. In the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, a Jew who converted to Catholicism was automatically ennobled.

The nobility (szlachta) was extremely numerous in Poland, perhaps up to 10-15%, and its significance cannot be overstated. A noble was a citizen with full rights. There were virtually no property requirements, but to enjoy and maintain his privileges a noble had to serve in the military – to defend the homeland.

Here we should perhaps detour briefly to discuss the development of national consciousness in Poland. It spread through two main devices: corporate rights and war.

Most of those who fought for the King and country were nobles, and they developed eventually a corporate consciousness as warriors and citizens and what can be termed as proto-national consciousness as the political nation (natio).

Eventually, some noble privileges accrued to others. Noble consciousness entered national culture and, after the 18th century, fertilized the burghers and other commoners. The rise of modern nationalism not only facilitated the Polonization of the common people, the peasants in particular, but it also expedited the assimilation of the migrants and their descendants.

One only needs to look at the last names of various Polish patriots to see the evidence of successful migration, mingling, and assimilation: Kościuszko (Ruthenian – Belarusian), Wytwicki (Ruthenian – Ukrainian), Fabiani (Italian), Poncet de la Riviere (French), Todtleben (Baltic German), Muszyński (Tatar – Mustafa), Naimski (Jewish – Naim, meaning pretty in Hebrew), Butler (English), MacDonald (Scottish), Ter-Oganian (Armenian), and so forth: all of them Polish patriots, all descending from migrants.

It is important to stress that such patriots usually proved in blood their loyalty to their new homeland. They participated in Poland’s every war and insurrection from 1772 to 1944. War, foreign invasions, and occupations, in particular, forged new Poles. Incidentally, this did not just concern the newcomers, but also the common people of Poland.

Most of them were peasants and began developing a sense of national consciousness on any significant scale only from the second half of the 19th century. Arguably, middle and upper class “migrant foreigners” were often more Polish and patriotic than the commoners who, after the disappearance of the last Polish monarch, simply lacked a frame of reference powerful enough to stimulate their Polishness.

However, those chosen few farmers who fought – as early as the 16th century, for example, in the ranks of the picked infantry (piechota wybraniecka), markedly showed a much higher level of national consciousness than their run-of-the-mill peasant neighbors. The same applies to the Kościuszko scythemen of 1794, a few legionaries of common origin in the Napoleonic wars, and even fewer peasant insurgents in the 1830-1831 and 1863 insurrections. The waxing of national consciousness proceeded with the First World War and the Polish Bolshevik War (1914-1921).

One should perhaps mention here an eccentric case of Poles in America who, at the beginning of the 20th century, acquired both Polish and American consciousness simultaneously and, after 1914, volunteered for the Polish armed forces of a not-yet-existing Polish state in comparable numbers as their counterparts in Galicia to the Polish legions.

The Second World War was an important watershed, for it uniformized Poland through slaughter and deportations. Predictably, terror and persecution of everyone Polish stimulated the growth of national consciousness, in particular among the common people.

After all, nothing could spur you to appreciate your cultural background more than when the occupiers persecuted you for it. If a Polish farmer was sent to Siberia as “a Polish lord,” he would certainly strive to live up to the charge. If a German gendarme slapped a Polish peasant on the face and called him a “Polish pig,” the attendant hatred and resentment usually translated into the victim embracing the identity he was tormented for.

There was yet another element facilitating the ascendancy of the Polish national identity in Poland. Hardly any ethnic minorities remained after the depredations of Hitler and Stalin. The German dictator mass murdered Jews during the Holocaust and the Christian Poles in the ordinary terror. He also deported millions of pre-war Polish citizens within and without Poland.

The Soviet strongman meanwhile exterminated the Polish elites of various backgrounds and deported millions of others as well, including hundreds of thousands to the Gulag (1939-1941) and the rest after 1944, when cultural and ethnic Poles were expelled to central Poland from her eastern lands that accrued to the USSR as a result of the Yalta and Potsdam agreements. Meanwhile, from 1945, millions of Germans fled eastern Germany (which became now western Poland) or, subsequently, suffered resettlement in the west. The Ukrainians and Belarusians were removed to what used to be eastern Polish lands now under Soviet rule.

At any rate, after that mid-20th-century calamity, many minorities simply disappeared, and their remnants were put into deep hibernation under Communism. The Communists actually attempted socially to engineer Poland to achieve its “pure” status as a Polish-only state. In 1947, a prominent Christian Nationalist ideologue and activist, Adam Doboszyński, unequivocally rejected such an approach: “Poland had to wait for one thousand years for the appearance of the slogan that the Commonwealth should be inhabited solely by the Poles. It was only the Soviet agentura that advanced and implemented this slogan here; we will not encounter it proposed by any Polish thinker.”

But even under the Soviet occupation in the second half of the 20th century, migrations failed to stop completely. In contemporary times, there have been more migrants before and after 1989, including from the so-called socialist world. Most notably, a few Greeks arrived in the late 1940s as refugees from the Greek Civil War. North Korean students came, but almost all of them were returned home (though a couple managed to defect).

A few Vietnamese came to study engineering in Poland, but most of Poland’s current Vietnamese residents had been slave laborers in East Germany; after their expulsion from there following Germany’s reunification, they moved to Poland, instead of returning home, in the early 1990s.  There are also a number of Syrians, Iraqis, Libyans, and others left over from various Soviet and Communist adventures in the Middle East and the Maghreb. For the same reason, a few Africans, sometimes with Polish mothers, ended up in Poland.

In time, they should all be integrated. The trick is to take only as many as is appropriate for assimilation. Otherwise, the hosts will be swamped and will disappear. Who is going to practice the famous Polish hospitality then? The outsiders cannot replace the natives, for it would be the end of any culture, Polish in this instance.

Marek Jan Chodakiewicz
Washington, D.C., 25 November 2022