Behind the Scenes of the Greater Poland Uprising

The participation of the Catholic clergy in the Greater Poland Uprising and in the preservation of the Polish national identity during the period of partitions (1793-1918)

Priest Dariusz Śmierzchalski-Wachocz

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When we look at historical sources, we can see that from the 18th century until the time of World War I, the Prussian government implemented a policy aimed at depriving the Poles of their national identity. Greater Poland society learned to harden itself against this, for instance, during the period of the notorious Kulturkampf: during the dispossession of land and the punishment of children with flogging for using the Polish language in school. Taking into account the determined and programmed actions of the occupant in relation to society, the Catholic Church rose to the challenge and the Polish clergy was one of the most dynamic groups which demonstrated great organisational initiative and devotion, especially during the two last decades of the 19th century until the end of World War I. The anti-German attitude was intensified by the persecutions of Archbishops Marcin Dunin and Mieczysław Ledóchowski, profanations of holy masses and processions and the use of many other forms of retaliation. Under the influence of the Germanisation action, the clergy joined or initiated the fight for the national identity of Poles. The fighting took place in the political, educational-cultural and economic spheres. Patriotic sermons were delivered, catechism in Polish was taught both to children and adults, evenings of patriotic-religious singing were organised, different national symbols were propagated (e.g. the wearing of national and folk garments during the visits of archbishops), rallies and gatherings and various ceremonies were organised. During these ceremonies affinity with the Polish nation was demonstrated and the Germanisation of the Grand Duchy of Poznań was criticised.

1. The situation of the Catholic Church under Prussian rule

In the 18th century there were many events in the international arena which indicated that the fate of Poland was sealed and that the Republic of Poland was slowly going into decline. One of the signs which indicated that the Polish raison d’état in the international arena was being ignored and that the partitioning of the country was unofficially under way, was the incident from spring 1740, related to the monastery in Paradyż which was situated on the border of the Republic of Poland. The abbey, located on Polish territory, was attacked by Prussian forces which participated in the beating of the Cistercians and the looting of the abbey's material base. The incident was hushed up and ignored, though the abbey belonged to the Poznań diocese. Such activities were in fact undertaken repeatedly, and Prussia looted the Polish villages situated close to the border and abducted their inhabitants. Ultimately, after the year 1772, more and more new Polish territories were coming under Prussian rule. The respective partitions enlarged the Prussian territorial acquisitions at the expense of the Polish state, which finally in the year 1795 ceased to exist for a period of 123 years, whereby this fact was formally recognised by other European countries. Paradoxically, the only country which did not accept this situation was Turkey, our centuries old enemy, from which we had defended our fictional European allies in the past centuries. 

As a consequence of the first partition, the following territories were taken from Poland: Royal Prussia, except Gdańsk and Toruń, Warmia and the so called Netze District including Bydgoszcz and Inowrocław. The Chełm and Warmian diocese were seized in full while the Gniezno archdiocese was lost only in part. With the exception of Warmia, which was a fief of the Republic of Poland, these were genuinely Polish territories. In terms of denomination, Catholicism was dominant. Protestantism was a diaspora, mainly in the cities. After the second partition Prussia took the whole Greater Poland region, this means the Gniezno archdiocese, except the south-eastern part separated by the Pilica River and the Poznań diocese without the Czersk archdeaconry which included Warsaw. The size of the Polish territories annexed by Prussia increased significantly after the 3rd partition. Ultimate stabilisation in this respect was introduced by the Vienna Congress with the forming of the Grand Duchy of Poznań.

A new administrative division of the Catholic Church in Greater Poland was introduced by the circumscription bull entitled De salute animarum of 16 July 1821. It raised the dignity of the Poznań diocese, establishing at the same time a personal union with the Gniezno archdiocese. Furthermore, there were also the Warmian diocese and Wrocław diocese which were subordinated directly to the Holy See.

The territories, inhabited for the most part by Polish people, were within the boundaries of the Grand Duchy of Poznań, where - in accordance with international agreement- Prussia was supposed to guarantee a certain national autonomy to the Poles. This, however, remained just a dead letter of the agreement.

King Frederick II, as well as his successors could not stop thinking that a country so diversified in terms of its religious denominations must be made more uniform by striving to increase the number of subjects of the protestant denomination on the newly conquered territories. However, they certainly distanced themselves from the idea of the destruction of the Catholic Church which was supposed to help them in the solidification of Prussian rule in the consciousness of the subjects, whereby, as a tool in the hands of the state, the Church was supposed to be dependent on it. Thus, starting with a bishop and ending with a parish priest, all church beneficiaries had to obtain the approval of the local authorities. In theory, the bishops could perform their pastoral duties independently, but here, even the dean's visits were accompanied by a royal commissar. Communication with Rome was only possible via the government’s foreign department and the publication of papal bulls and regulations as well as the regulations of foreign religious authorities depended on consent given by Prussian officials. The church judiciary was limited, effectively leaving only those matters related to Catholic marriages in its competences. The church was severely affected by the secularisation of the estates of bishops and chapters which took place in Greater Poland in the year 1796. Salaries for bishops and canons as well as subsidies for church institutions established by the government, though much smaller than the previous income, nevertheless satisfied the most urgent needs of the Church. However, the danger of becoming dependent on the government remained. Irreparable damage was incurred by the Church as a result of the secularisation of monastic possessions. Most monasteries were demolished, only those which the Prussian government decided to adapt to its own needs were saved. Foundations for the future protestantisation action started to be built using church money. The tough regime in matters related to the Church in the times of the rule of Frederick William III, for whom it would be ideal to make the Catholic Church as similar to Protestantism as possible, did not allow the Prussian Episcopate to counteract the interference of authorities at every level with the activities of the Church. Royal instructions regarding the Church were, after all, implemented by an Evangelical Consistory and the Ministry of Clerical and Educational Affairs, established in the year 1817. The policy of exerting pressure on the Church on one hand and the search for a compromise by some Prussian bishops, which was dictated by necessity, led to a dispute regarding mixed marriages and the imprisonment of Gniezno-Poznań Archbishop Marcin Dunin in the year 1837. Certain hopes for a thaw in the relations between the Prussian state and the Catholic Church appeared after the year 1840, when Frederick William IV, whose attitude towards religion tended to be more liberal than that of his predecessor, took the throne. But even then, these hopes were not completely fulfilled.

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