Nat Geo feature from 1915 reveals fascinating insight into life in Poland three years before regaining independence
Contained within the pages of the National Geographic Magazine’s 1915 Issue, a surprising feature entitled ‘Partitioned Poland’ offered American readers a fascinating glimpse into Poland three years before the country regained its independence in 1918.
Written by William Joseph Showalter, the 106-year-old magazine sent to TFN by a reader, provides a unique portrait of life in pre-independence Poland from the perspective of a western observer.
Covering 18 pages, the feature describes the differences between life under the Russian, Prussian and Austro-Hungarian partitions, as well as life in Warsaw, Kraków and Lemberg (at the time the English name for the Polish city of Lwów, which is today the Ukrainian city of Lviv).
The article ends with the author’s reflections on Polish women, Poles in America and Polish immigrants.
Showalter begins by drawing a contrast between Poland and America’s divergent fortunes at the end of the 18th century, when Poland ceased to exist on the map as an independent state and was instead divided between three empires: Russia, Prussia and Austria-Hungary.
Despite this, Showalter observes that nothing could put out the “fire of fervour for their beloved Poland from the hearts of the Poles” and that the “strong national spirit” of the Polish people never ended “their dream of a rehabilitated and reunited Poland.”
He goes on to remark that a defining feature of Poles is their pride in their country and “fervent love…for all things Polish”.
Regarding Warsaw, which was under Russian partition, the article says that in the 18th century, “Warsaw, next to Paris, was the most brilliant city in Europe” and whilst it has become a “great industrial and commercial centre” under Russian rule, “it has never been able to forget that it was the capital of the Kingdom of Poland” and still maintains “the vivacious gayety for which it was famed during the days of its highest fortunes”.
The article also noted that Warsaw had become a leading centre of export of leather and coal to Russia and had been transformed into a hub of manufacturing of various kinds, including woven goods, which an accompanying photograph of the Cloth Market in Warsaw serves to illustrate.
Warsaw’s ‘magnificence palaces’, on the other hand, are being transformed into places of public use, such as the transformation of the Casimir Palace into university buildings.
Describing the prevailing conditions of the repression for Poles living within the Russian partition, the author tells readers that “for a long time the Poles were forbidden even to use their native tongue”, railway workers couldn’t answer questions in Polish and the word ‘Polish’ was banned from use in newspapers.
He continues that in some places, signs still remain inside and on public buildings saying ‘The speaking of Polish is forbidden’.
Other forbidden activities are the wearing of national dress, historical dramas in the theatre, the singing of national songs and displaying the Polish coat of arms at home, even in the frame of old pictures.
Written in 1915, a year after WWI started, Showalter is surprised to observe that even despite the resistance of Poles to oppression against them, at the outbreak of war “there is no evidence that any of them have betrayed their respective flags”, that is, remained loyal to the partitioning powers of Austria, Germany and Russia in WWI.
Whilst it may have outwardly appeared so at the time the war broke out, this was not the full picture as we now know Poles never lost sight of the fight for independence.
With the partitioning empires fighting on opposite sides of the conflict, Poles soon realised that the outbreak of WWI and the warring empires, offered Poland a chance to regain her sovereignty.
Moving on to describe life under the Austro-Hungarian partition of Poland, which lay in the Austrian region called Galicia, Showalter focuses on two major cities within it, Kraków and Lwów introducing them as “The glory of [Poland’s] past and the hope of her future”, with Kraków being a former capital and Lwów the capital of Galicia and of Poles at the time.
This, says Showalter, was Poland’s dream capital of an independent Poland.
The least repressive of the three partitions, Austria didn’t seek to “destroy the spirit of Polish nationalism” and allowed Poles to speak Polish, sing their national songs and commemorate their past.
Showalter notes that this was because of Austria’s theory that allowing this would be a source of strength rather than weakness for the Austrian government.
In Kraków, he describes how the Wawel was transformed at the time into a barracks, whilst the Kosciuszko mound was used as a fort.
Other notable aspects of Galicia mentioned by the author are its distilleries, which are the most important of the region’s industries alongside its beet and tobacco factories, but also mentioned are its salt mines, including “the world’s most famous”, Wieliczka which employed 2,000 workmen.
Finally, writing about the German, or Prussian partition, Showalter describes how “Germany has tried in every possible way to transform her Poles into Germans” and much like Russia, forbid the use of Polish in public meeting, punished children “who refused to answer the catechism in German” and tried every tactic to quell the Poles’ love for their country.
After a brief detour describing the imperfect relationship between Polish landowners and Polish peasants, Showalter describes the Polish peasants as having a “wholehearted and sincere” hospitality, though life is hard for them regardless of which partition they live in.
Regarding Polish women, Showalter delivers strong praise, commenting that “Polish women are among the most beautiful in the world. The perfect shape of their hands and feet is commented upon by every visitor to the home of the Polish aristocracy” and describing that special cases of shoes are brought out whenever a Polish woman enters a shoe store in Vienna.
Aside from admiring their beauty, Showalter remarks that Polish women are the main drivers in keeping the Polish spirit alive during Poland’s partitions, writing: “It has frequently been asserted by those who know the Poles from intimate social relations with them, that but for the women the national spirit of the Pole would long since have succumbed to the wound-healing processes of time.”
The article ends with a list of the most famous Poles, with mentions of Chopin, Copernicus, Sienkiewicz and King Sobieski, and Poles who have made contributions to America.
Chief among them are Tadeusz Kosciuszko and Casimir Pulawski, who fought for independence for Poland and America and Leopold Julian Boeck “who is credited with having led the movement for the establishment of the first polytechnic institutions in the United States.”
Showalter also writes that there were around 3 million Polish immigrants living in the US at the time, and that one inhabitant out of every 12 in Pennsylvania had Polish blood, with this figure being one in fourteen in New York and one in ten in Massachusetts and even higher in Wisconsin and Michigan were it is one in every eight.
Noting that the majority of Polish immigrants tended to settle in cities, Chicago is singled out as the city most populated with Poles and which is “said to have more Poles in it than any other city in the world except Warsaw and possibly Łódź”, whilst a key characteristic of Poles in America is their aspiration towards home ownership.
Ending his article on a summary of what led to Poland’s disappearance, Showalter describes the country as a “a victim of individualism” and the unanimous voting system of the Polish nobles before the partitions meant no vital decisions could be made.
This, he says, allowed Poland to grow weak while Russia, Prussia and Austria grew strong, with Poland’s last previous hope of regaining independence having been with the rise of Napolean, but died with his defeat at Waterloo.
Little could Showalter have realised, and nothing in his article suggests he saw it coming, that Poland would regain her independence a mere three years later with the end of WWI in 1918.