Evaluations of the state of affairs in Poland in the late eighteenth century have conflicted sharply. Up through the Second World War, German authors tended to regard the situation in Poland as dismal. They emphasized the dysfunctional nature of Poland’s political order and the stultification of its culture. In German circles, the phrase “Polish economy” (polnische Wirtschaft) long signaled a ludicrous oxymoron. Such assessments were used to justify, directly or indirectly, Prussia’s role in the partitioning of Poland. If it can be argued that Poland was a failing state, then Prussia emerges as its redeemer, introducing stability and the flowering of civilization to the territories it absorbed.
Polish authors usually offer different readings. While quick to admit the many problems besetting the country, they tend to emphasize the great strides made during the final decades of the eighteenth century. According to this view, Poland was solving its problems and evolving into a strong, progressive, constitutional monarchy. Its very success, in fact, led to its demise. Because reactionary, autocratic neighbors feared that Poland’s transformation could destabilize their own regimes, they crushed the experiment.
Both perspectives can draw comfort from the historical record. Certainly Poland, or the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, as it was known at the time, was burdened by enormous challenges, and the process of reform ignited bitter conflicts that threatened to rip the fabric of the state apart. At the same time, it made some impressive strides forward. In the twilight of its existence the commonwealth, long a study in torpor, displayed uncharacteristic vitality. Driven by the very real threat of dissolution, its leaders undertook bold measures. Its residents, suspended between despair and hope, persevered as best they could….
For all the noise of this tumultuous period, life in Poznan proceeded in large measure according to long-established patterns…. Its population was fragmented into dozens of insular communities with few occasions for generating an overarching sense of communitas across the urban area, let alone wider expanses. Regarding nationalism, the climate of late eighteenth-century Poznan was not conducive to such forms of identity. Its inhabitants continued to find meaning and their widest sense of social belonging within the confines of their locale, caste, and confession.
Hmm. I wonder why this sounds so familiar.