Magazine article History Today

Napoleon and Polish Identity

Magazine article History Today

Napoleon and Polish Identity

Article excerpt

Poland is the only country in the world to invoke Napoleon in its national anthem. Andrzej Nieuwazny explains how Bonaparte has retained a hold over Polish imagination throughout the last two centuries.

Edouard Driault, the great historian of the Napoleonic period, used to say that Poland `is more Napoleonic than France'. Although this remark may seem to be exaggerated, the durability and the strength of the legend of Napoleon in Poland cannot be doubted. The Poles are the only people in the world to sing about Bonaparte in their national anthem.

Napoleon's rule in France lasted for only fifteen years, but it continued to shape the institutions and society of the country for almost two centuries. In Poland, or rather in the part known as the Duchy of Warsaw, the Napoleonic era lasted only from 1807 until 1815, and after 1813 the country was under Russian occupation. It is a short period of time, even if we treat the Kingdom of Poland created by Tsar Alexander I (sometimes called Congress Poland and which maintained a distinct identity until the suppression of the Polish rising in 1830), as a continuation of it. From 1874 (when, after another uprising in 1863, the residual Kingdom was fully absorbed into the Russian Empire) until 1918, the Polish people were again partitioned among Russia, Prussia and Austria and did not have their own state, even as a satellite of another power.

The heritage of Napoleonic Poland, though, is quite significant. The abolition of serfdom and overthrow of the feudal system; the foundations of a new, bourgeois society with a modern bureaucracy; the introduction of the Napoleonic Code; all these decisively affected the future development of Polish society. However, only the Napoleonic Code survived after 1831; the judicial system was modified in 1876, and social change was slow.

If Poland seemed `Napoleonic' to Driault, he was primarily thinking of the contribution of the Napoleonic legend, and its irrational elements embedded in the Polish psyche, more than of institutional change. This legend did not result from Napoleon's own attitude towards Poland, but emerged, as the historian Marceli Handelsman put it, `as the reflection in the national awareness of the short period of fight and hope, embodied in the formula centred upon the person of Napoleon'. Poles wanted to believe that the rest of Europe was interested in Poland, and maintained the delusion that Westerners would help them. Napoleon provided them with a role model on whom to pin their hopes.

Before Napoleon's intervention, Poland's existence as a separate kingdom had ended at the Third Partition in 1795. Only two years later the young General Bonaparte agreed to have Polish Legions created in Italy by Polish emigres, prisoners of war and deserters from the Austrian army. Their commander, General Jan Henryk Dabrowski, was immortalised in the Legion's song which, sung at home, in exile or in prison, became the Polish national anthem in 1926. For 200 years the Poles have sung at dramatic or ceremonious moments:

Poland teas not perished yet

So long as we still live.

That which foreign force has seized

We at swordpoint shall retrieve.

We will pass Vistula and Warta

We shall be Polish.

Bonaparte has shown us

How to win.

March, march Dabrowski!

From Italy to our Polish land.

Let us now unite the nation

Under Thy command.

The Legions met a tragic end. Unwanted after France's treaty concluded with Austria in Luneville (1801), they were sent by Napoleon to Saint-Domingue (Haiti) to suppress the slave revolt of Toussaint Louverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines. There they perished. And although their sad end diminished Bonaparte's reputation, the Poles for the most part continued to believe in his star, to forget their function as his cannon fodder and to form new units fighting at the French Emperor's side. …

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