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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It was only the revolution of 1848 and the resulting constitution, proclaimed on 31 January 1850, which brought significant changes in the legal situation of the Church. It became completely sovereign, except for its material dependence on the state and cooperation with the authorities in the filling of ecclesiastical posts in connection with patronage rights. The implementation of the constitution, especially on Polish territories, met with significant difficulties created by the government, which was afraid of the excessive independence of the Church, which, to a greater and greater extent was becoming the mainstay of the Polish identity, particularly in Greater Poland.

Church freedoms guaranteed under the constitution never ceased to be a thorn in the side of the Prussian administration; they were equally burdensome to conservative circles concerned about the possessions of Protestantism, and liberals in the case of whom, in addition to ideological reasons, political reasons also had to be taken into account. This was fully evident after Otto von Bismarck had claimed victory over Austria in 1866 and defeated France in the years 1870-1871. The Kulturkampf initiated at that time was a test of strength for the Catholic Church which revealed the great ideological and organisational potential of the Church in Prussia, but at the same time caused it a lot of damage. Many institutions, within several years ceased to exist, above all, one must mention here seminaries and numerous religious facilities. There were conflicts regarding this issue with Gniezno and Poznań Archbishop Mieczysław Halka-Ledóchowski, an ultramontane and a loyalist. During these events Ledóchowski rose in Poland to the role of a national martyr. The archbishop received support from the clergy and peasant masses. The retaliatory actions taken by the Prussian government led to numerous arrests and expulsions abroad among the clergy. Thus, the number of priests became fewer which, in turn, disorganised the pastoral services. Recovering from this was particularly difficult on the Polish territories as it was no coincidence that the end of Kulturkampf (1878) came together with an intensification of the anti-Polish policy of the government. Here, the fight was transferred to the ethnic ground and continued ruthlessly by the H-K-T and Settlement Commission.

2. Catholic Church and Polish ethnic issues

Taking into account the systematic elimination of all Polish institutions on the territory annexed by Prussia, and the eradication of the Polish language from the public sphere, in practice, the possibility of the cultivation of old Polish traditions existed only on ecclesiastical ground. The circumstances which were conducive to this were as follows: the necessity to use Polish during pastoral services among the Polish people and the opposition against the tendency to protestantism combined with Germanisation. The mere fact of belonging to the Catholic Church contributed to the preservation of the Polish identity particularly among the lower classes of society, however, the conscious fight with the deprivation of national identity and even independent thought can be noticed only in those cases where also the clergy, including the highest religious authorities, had some sense of Polish identity. This fact contributed to the situation that the Church did not create an equally effective barrier against Germanisation in all the districts taken by Prussia, even if it took into account the rights of the Poles to their language.

The most advantageous ethnic situation could be observed in the Grand Duchy of Poznań. A certain separateness of this area in relation to other parts of the partition was provided for in the occupation patent of 15 May 1815, in which Poles were guaranteed far-reaching national freedoms, not to mention the freedom of denomination. From the year 1830, Prussia did not even bother to conceal their Germanisation plans in relation to the Poznań region. The ten-year rule of Eduard Flottwell, a disciple of L. Schön, was characterised by a consequent strengthening of the German element and the establishment of foundations for the subsequent, more and more ruthless discrimination of Poles. The Catholic Church was the only institution which managed to preserve its absolutely Polish characteristics.

The Polish nature of the Church in the Poznań region was fully evident in the year 1848. Archbishop Leon Przyłuski and an even larger portion of the clergy took the side of the Polish movement. The preference of legal measures by the church authorities to fight for national rights with extreme caution with regards to involvement in military action did not, by any means lessen the fault of the clergy in the eyes of the Prussian authorities. The propaganda undertaken by priests with regards to the identification of Polish identity with Catholicism was a particularly sensitive issue. The ground for these types of slogans was particularly fertile in the Poznań region, they were used by all kinds of non-ecclesiastic centres of Polish political and social life. By connecting religious issues with national ones, the pulpit became a tool of effective agitation. Priests taught writing and reading on their own and also supplied Polish handbooks and books (in the year 1896, several clergymen were accused of the illegal teaching of the Polish language during religion classes). In the area of education, the clergy made efforts, both on its own and also by contributing to the work “on educating the common people and maintaining the national spirit” inspired by lay activists. Priests actively cooperated with the Pedagogical Society, the People’s Education Society and the People’s Libraries Society established in 1878 by Priest Antoni Ludwiczak. They organised agricultural circles in their parishes to raise the professional and intellectual level of the Polish farmers. They popularised and established the Polish Workers Society in the year 1892, which set religious, educational, professional-economic and self-assistance goals for itself. 

As a result of this, they left themselves open to the repressions of the Prussian authorities, but this did not prevent them from further efforts in this direction which gained unobtrusive support from Archbishop Florian Stablewski. In the year 1901, a childrens’ strike, where they refused to pray and attend religion classes in German, broke out in Września, The strict sanctions applied to them by the Prussian authorities were widely discussed in many European countries, and served as an inspiration for Maria Konopnicką to write ”Rota”.[Oath]. The spirit and the driving force behind these events was a vicar from Września, Priest Jan Laskowski (previously punished for giving private Polish lessons). 

The administrators of dioceses got directly involved in the Polish movement, depending on their political affiliations and the conditions in which they were able to act. However, what was important was the fact that the parish clergy, which had the closest contact with society, was able to find support in archbishops (except in certain sporadic situations) for its patriotic activity. It was an accomplishment of the clergy that the Poznań Church remained Polish, which continuously reminded everyone who the original host of this land was. A very significant role was played by clergymen in the excellent development of cooperatives in the Prussian partition. They worked in the administration of credit unions, often occupying managerial positions. One of the specialists in this field wrote that “it is only due to the selfless and dedicated work of the clergy that the activity of rural cooperatives which had started to crumble under the influence of the agricultural crisis in 1870s did not end in failure, but rather developed excellently, overcoming all economic difficulties.”. The most prominent activists included: Priest Piotr Wawrzyniak (+1910) - a parish priest in Mogilno and the actual leader of Polish society in the Prussian partition, and the lesser known Priest Józef Duczmal, a parish priest in Chojno. 

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