The Nation in the Village: The Genesis of Peasant National Identity in Austrian Poland, 1848-1914

By Weeks, Theodore R | Canadian Slavonic Papers, December 2001 | Go to article overview
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The Nation in the Village: The Genesis of Peasant National Identity in Austrian Poland, 1848-1914


Weeks, Theodore R, Canadian Slavonic Papers


Keely Stauter-Halsted. The Nation in the Village: The Genesis of Peasant National Identity in Austrian Poland, 1848-1914. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001. x, 272 pp. Bibliography. Maps. Photographs. Index. $47.50, cloth.

It is a commonplace of historical scholarship that while nationalists generally extol the peasantry as the nation's heart and soul, peasants themselves tend to be suspicious of nationalist ideology, identifying themselves more readily with village or social class than with, say, "the Polish nation." But up until recently, we knew very little indeed about just how the Polish peasantry "saw itself' in the national enterprise. The present book thus fills a significant scholarly lacuna. Professor Stauter-Halsted's book considerably advances our knowledge about the national consciousness-and sometimes lack thereof-among Galician peasants over a period of nearly seventy years.

The book is divided into two large sections, the first dealing with practical politics in Austrian Galicia and the second taking on the larger issue of "constructing a peasant Pole." Austria was unique among the three partitioning powers in allowing-at least from the later 1860s-a considerable degree of autonomy within the province of Galicia. In effect, Galicia was "Polish," but, as Stauter-Halsted shows, peasants did not always accept the definition of "Polish interests" pushed by the upper classes and landlords. Galicia was well known for its economic misery, and even after the abolition of serfdom, relations between peasants and former masters remained strained. Under such circumstances Galician peasants quite reasonably refused to accept "Polish identity" as dictated from above. Instead, they sought to mobilize their own political energies to protect and further peasant interests. In doing so, peasants helped create what Stauter-Halsted calls "a rural public sphere" (p. 15). By the end of the nineteenth century, peasants and their advocates were influential in politics and-even more important-were helping to redefine the very notion of the "Polish nation."

This process is detailed in the book's second part. The author begins by examining Polish ethnographers and their portrayal of the Polish peasant. As she makes clear, ethnography in Poland as elsewhere had a very significant political and cultural slant. In a sense, by describing peasant customs and mores, the ethnographers saw themselves as saving the unspoiled core of the Polish nation. By the end of the nineteenth century, peasants themselves (and pro-peasant publicists) were using an identical rhetoric, setting off the honest and pure peasant from the corrupt noble landowner. This process was accelerated by education and the founding of village schools. Teachers themselves both reflected and furthered this trend.

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