Behind the Scenes of the Greater Poland Uprising

The social and national structure of Greater Poland on the eve of the Great War

Tadeusz Janicki

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The Greater Poland society “on the eve of the Great War” had an expanded and hierarchical structure both in social terms and nationality-wise. At its top there were the landed-gentry and a small, usually German or Jewish bourgeoisie. The next places in the social hierarchy were occupied by the intelligentsia, the petite bourgeoisie and wealthy peasants, and at the bottom of the social pyramid, there were the small farmers and the particularly numerous groups of farm and industrial workers. 

The above-mentioned structure was a result of the feudal past, the progressing industrialisation and the modernisation processes related to the development of education and mass culture. Also the natural movements and migration of the population as well as the Germanisation policy of the Prussian occupant and defensive actions taken by Poles exerted some influence on it.

Despite the constantly changing modernisation processes, birth still largely determined the membership of a given social group and social position.  The phenomenon of social mobility during the two last decades before the outbreak of the war was more and more clear, but concerned the middle and lower positions of the social ladder. As a result of this, at the beginning of the 20th century in Greater Poland, there were still deep social divisions and the respective groups differed from each other owing to legal positions, wealth, functions, lifestyle and even clothing.

One of few factors which was common for all the social groups was religion: Catholic in the case of the Poles, Evangelical in the case of the Germans and Mosaic in reference to the Jews. Despite the rampant urbanisation, most of the Greater Poland inhabitants lived in the countryside or in small towns.

Population – natural and migration flows

Throughout the long 19th century, the number of inhabitants of the Grand Duchy of Poznań increased systematically. In the years 1890-1910, the population growth rate reached its highest level and ranged between 35000 and 40000 people per year. This resulted from the maintenance of a high birth rate, which until the year 1910 exceeded 40% per year, and a systematic decrease in the death rate, which amounted to 31% in the year 1875 and just 19.9%in the year 1911. The significant decrease in the death rate was a consequence of economic and civilisational changes which led to a better supply of food to the population and significant progress in education, hygiene and medical awareness. As a result of this, average life expectancy was also increasing systematically in Greater Poland.

In addition to the population growth rate, the population of Greater Poland depended on the balance of external migration flows, which at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century (just like throughout the 19th century) was negative. Among the people who arrived in Greater Poland, Germans were dominant, especially soldiers, officials, merchants, bankers, craftsmen, farmers and, only to a small extent, workers. The number of other ethnic groups coming to Greater Poland in the second half of the 19th century, particularly Jews and Poles from other partitions, was relatively small.

The second phenomenon which determined the actual balance of external migration flows was the emigration from Greater Poland which intensified in the last decades of the 19th century. IThis pertained to all ethnic groups living in Greater Poland, however, because of the ethnic structure of this region, the largest group among those who left were Poles. The primary causes of emigration were economic and social factors, especially overpopulation of the rural areas, poverty and the lack of prospects for finding a job locally or the achievement of any economic independence. Meanwhile, emigration and work outside agriculture brought higher incomes and allowed for the achievement of a higher social status. In their search for a job and a better tomorrow the Greater Poland inhabitants left for the German Reich (especially to Rhineland and Westphalia which underwent fast industrialisation) or decided to emigrate overseas whereby here, the main goal was North America.

The economic and social phenomena were related to migration flows. On the one hand, the economic migration deprived Polish society of young dynamic people with the spirit of entrepreneurship, who, in the search for a better life, left Greater Poland, often contrary to the anti-emigration propaganda of the Polish press. On the other hand, the money earned in western Germany and America was spent and invested in Greater Poland, which contributed to an enlivening of its economy. Furthermore, while living and working in the West, the Polish emigrants became familiar with economic and social relations which differed from those present in Greater Poland, and by participating in the life of trade unions and strikes, they formed their own class awareness. Many of them, after some time, returned to Greater Poland and, owing to the newly acquired knowledge and awareness. became an important factor in the emancipation of small holder peasants and agricultural workers and also the democratisation of social relations in the countryside and in the city.

In the years 1871-1913 about 440000 Poles left Greater Poland on a permanent basis. They settled mainly in Rhineland and Westphalia. In the year 1913, about 105000 Poles stayed in the above-mentioned regions and 80000 in the capital city of Germany. In the same period, Jews and Germans also left Greater Poland even though the Prussian authorities tried to stop the outflow of the latter, as this contradicted the objectives of their ethnic policy in the Poznań province.

The negative balance of external migration flows in the years 1871-1913 was, however, significantly lower than the above-mentioned population growth rate. As a result of this, the population of Greater Poland increased from 1600000 people in the year 1875 to 2100000 people in the year 1910.

Territorial structure

At the beginning of the 20th century, the vast majority of Greater Poland inhabitants lived in the countryside. Although, as a result of external and internal migration, the percentage of inhabitants of rural areas fell from 71% in the year 1890 to 65.6% in the year 1910, however, they were still dominant in the structure because of the place of residence. The urbanisation processes in Greater Poland, characteristic for many areas of the German Reich, occurred to a very limited extent because of the poor development of industry. It is true that in the years 1890-1910, the speed of the population growth rate increased systematically, however, this did not lead to the establishment of big cities. The only city with more than 100000 inhabitants was Poznań where the civil population increased from 73000 in the year 1898 to 110000 in the year 1901 and 157000 in the year 1910, which, to a great extent was related to the liquidation of the Poznań Fortress and significant enlargement of the area of the city. The second largest city in terms of the number of inhabitants - Bydgoszcz - had only 58000 people living there in the year 1910. The number of inhabitants in other cities ranged between a few and several thousand inhabitants, whereby, cities with more than 10000 inhabitants included Inowrocław, Krotoszyn, Ostrów Wlkp. and Rawicz. At the same time, in the years 1895-1910 as many as 31 cities in Greater Poland suffered a decrease in the number of inhabitants.

Occupational structure

The industrial revolution from the XIX century triggered a number of changes in the social structure and led to the formation of a new type of society defined as the industrial society. It was characterised by a decrease in the number of people employed in agriculture and an increase in the employment in industry, the appearance of the working class (proletariat) and the urbanisation of and high increase in spatial and social mobility. However, the industrialisation processes characteristic for the western regions of the German Reich occurred only to a small extent in Greater Poland. People employed in agriculture, whose number increased, were still dominant in the occupational structure of the region, though their percentage in proportion to the entirety of the employed decreased systematically from 64.1% in 1882 to 57.7% in 1895 and 56.61% in 1907.

The domination of agriculture in the economy of Greater Poland resulted from the lack of basic raw materials of the industrial age in the area, especially hard coal, the peripheral location of the Poznań province, the poorly developed transportation infrastructure and the slow development of the city.

Among the remaining occupationally active population in the year 1907, 8.5% worked in industry, crafts and civil engineering, 7.1% in trade, transport and catering services, 5.8% in public administration, healthcare and freelance professions, 1.4% as domestic servants and 10.6% belonged to the ”no profession” or “unidentified profession” categories.

Social structure 

At the top of the Greater Poland’s social structure, there were the aristocracy and noblemen, which under the influence of agrarian reforms and the popularisation of capitalist methods of manufacturing in agriculture gradually transformed into the landed-gentry. Unfortunately, the debts from the times of the First Republic of Poland and the Duchy of Warsaw, periodically recurring economic crises, lack of management skills in new conditions and the frequent living beyond means led to the loss of land estates and social degradation. As a result of this, the number of landed-gentry continued to decline. The above-mentioned trend could not be changed by the small inflow of people coming from other social groups, which came into possession of the landed estates during the discussed period. In 1907 the number of professionally active owners, lease-holders and administrators of land estates whose area exceeded 100ha, including helping family members, amounted to 4108 people. Together with the professionally passive family members, the number of land-owners in that period is estimated at a level of about 10000 people. Until the 1870s the Polish land-owners outnumbered the German land-owners. However, as a result of incompetent management and the activities of the Settlement Commission, the above-mentioned relation was reversed and in 1885 1010 (60.9%) out of 1659 land estate owners in Greater Poland were Germans and only 649 (39.1%) were Poles. 

Despite their small number, the Polish land-owners were the elite of the Greater Poland society for historic, economic and cultural reasons. The unfavourable market situation for agriculture from the first half of the 19 century and the policies of the occupant authorities led to the occurrence of a need for modernisation and this, literally, was a condition for the survival of the Polish land estates. Following the example set by Dezydery Chłapowski, the number of land-owners who, striving to maintain their land estates managed them according to modern standards, upgraded them and raised their profitability increased steadily. On the other hand any financial surpluses were invested by them in industry and banking institutions.

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