Poles, Germans and Jews in the Grand Duchy of Poznan in 1848: From Coexistence to Conflict

Article excerpt

The revolutionary ferment associated with the Spring of Nations swept through virtually all of Europe, including the lands of partitioned Poland. Indeed, the Grand Duchy of Poznan, a part of the Prussian monarchy, belonged to the major centers of the revolutionary movement. The events that marked the Spring of Nations considerably impacted the relations between the ethnic groups inhabiting the province: Poles, Germans and Jews. It goes without saying, of course, that the national question was one of the crucial aspects of 19th century East-Central European history.

Since 1848, the Spring of Nations in Poznania has incited lively interest among historians and publicists. Most authors, however, have concentrated on the political and military aspects of the period, while the national question has received relatively little attention. Moreover, relations between Poles, Germans and Jews have been treated in general in a traditional fashion, often giving rise to over-simplifications and emotional judgments. Thus, in my study I would like to face the task of presenting the problem's complexity and plasticity in an attempt to transcend established historiographic stereotypes.

Before addressing the topic at hand, let me remind you that the Grand Duchy of Poznan, with its capital in Poznan, owed its existence to Vienna Congress, which created this political entity and placed it under Prussian rule. Prussia regarded the newly acquired province primarily as a breadbasket. Thus, the Duchy had few factories and manufacturing centers, and the ones that did exist mainly processed agricultural. Handicrafts continued to dominate the productive sphere in the first half of the 19th century. The urban population was small and was confined primarily to the lower middle class and the proletariat. The province had a distinctly agrarian profile--in 1848, 75% of the population lived in rural areas.(1) The lack of appropriate statistics prevents us from exactly recreating the Poznanians' national make-up. When one uses mainly religious identity as the criterion, then during the Spring of Nations Poles represented about 60% of the population, Germans about 30% and Jews 6%.(2)

Germans dominated numerically in the western and northern regions of the Grand Duchy of Poznan and remained clearly in the minority in the central and eastern counties. In general, Germans boasted a higher economic status than Poles, especially in the nonagrarian sector; they made up 40% of the urban population. The overwhelming majority of Poles belonged to the Catholic Church. Protestants dominated among the Germans, although several tens of thousands of Germans were Catholic.(3) In 1848, almost 80,000 Jews inhabited Poznania, making this the largest Jewish population center in the entire Prussian monarchy. Jews lived mainly in towns and constituted from 30 to 50% of the population in many of them. Their economic position displayed considerable differentiation. The wealthiest portion of Jewish society represented merely 10% of the total Jewish population, while a sizable group of Jews existed on the edge poverty.(4)

Initially, the Prussian government pursued a policy of relative tolerance towards Polish society. This situation did not change until after the November Uprising of 1830-31, when Poznanian Poles encountered repressive measures for the support lent to their countrymen in the Congress Kingdom. Among other things, the Prussian authorities restricted the Poles' linguistic rights. They also began to introduce German settlers into the Duchy on a larger scale. Prussian policies did not undergo a change until Frederick William IV's ascension to the throne in 1840, when certain concessions were again granted.

The anti-Polish steps, and above all the post-uprising repressions, spawned defensive reactions within Polish society. Some of the Polish activists--members of the landed gentry and the intelligentsia--abandoned armed insurrection and began to propagate the doctrine of organic work. …