Protestant Paranoia in Poland in the 1700s

As committed as they may have been to the [Polish-Lithuanian] commonwealth, Protestants remained keenly insecure about their place within the state. They regarded radical Catholics as the greatest threat to their well-being, perceiving in them a tremendous capacity for intolerance and cruelty. The depth of their fear emerges time and again in the journals the Lutheran community maintained. Some entries soberly record improbable hearsay information about Catholic excesses, which the author obviously regarded as factual. During the period of the Confederation of Bar‘s insurrection, for instance, the chronicler lamented the purported plan of the confederates to deliver all Protestants, Jews, and Orthodox Christians “into lifelong slavery to the Turks.” In a subsequent entry the chronicler recorded the case of a certain Malachowski, a monk from a nearby discalced [i.e., barefoot] Carmelite monastery who abandoned cloister life in 1768, fled to Berlin, and converted to the Reformed faith. When Malachowski returned to the Poznan area a year later, the Carmelites supposedly seized him, spirited him off to a monastery, and walled him into a tiny basement cell, providing only a small hole for air and minimal sustenance. He would have suffered there indefinitely had not a contingent of Russian troops under General Roenne passed by the monastery. Hearing foreign voices, Malachowski cried out in French for help and was saved.

This story is difficult to verify, but it illustrates aspects of the Protestant sense of place in Poland. They saw themselves surrounded by a religion as mysterious and towering as the churches and monasteries that Catholics built. Although most Protestants knew little about what actually went on within such churches and behind monastery walls, they were quick to believe the worst. The story also highlights the geopolitical perspective of Poznan’s Protestants. They had long placed their faith in neighboring non-Catholic states to keep the commonwealth’s Catholic establishment in check. Just as the Russian general Roenne had freed Malachowski, so had Poland’s neighbors helped secure greater religious freedoms for minorities. In the eighteenth century Russia, Prussia, Sweden, and Denmark had all pressured the commonwealth in this regard. At the same time Protestants also shared a measure of the Catholic population’s ambivalence toward neighboring states. During the Confederation of Bar rebellion, Russian troops occupied Poznan on more than one occasion. They committed numerous excesses against the civilian population, thereby dampening Protestant enthusiasm for their supposed defenders. The Lutheran chronicler took a dimmer view of Prussia. The author identified Prussia’s successful attempt to destabilize the commonwealth’s economy in this period as a “second confederation,” comparing it to the loathed Confederation of Bar.

SOURCE: Religion and the Rise of Nationalism: A Profile of an East-Central European City, by Robert E. Alvis (Syracuse U. Press, 2005), pp. 38-39

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