Szela, the Black Horse of Revolution

15. 3. 2017

Tomasz Szubert, Jak(ó)b Szela. (14)15 lipca 1787 – 21 kwietnia 1860. Wydawnictwo DiG, Warszawa 2014.

The theme of a peasant revolt or uprising appears in the history of almost all European nations, and most of the countries with a separate estate engaged in farming excluded, exploited, and deprived it of its rights. The French Jacquerie or the German peasant war, about which Marx wrote with such relish, are standard and best recognized examples, but in fact we encounter strikingly similar scenarios in the history of Finland and Netherlands, the Crimea and Castilla: everywhere, in the face of famine, a comet, or news about the defeat of the emperor, the long- haired figures in sweaty shirts made of raw linen sooner or later come together at the crossroads, at the church, or the inn; they laugh, chant, drink something to overcome fear—and then move against a nearby manor house or palace.

They indulge in terrible atrocities, raping princesses, spoiling wenches, butchering the lord as they normally do with animals before the carnival. Those offering resistance get beaten to a pulp, without showing any skill in fencing; the skulls of the lordlings crack like nuts; music scores, knickknacks, and daguerreotypes are trod into stinking mud. And then they only wander about aimlessly: here and there they will lasso a Jew or nail an itinerant scribe to a door, but the desperate certainty of impending punishment irrevocably deprives them of the fantasy of the first night. They are unable not only of forming ranks, but also of posting decent guards, and the first penal expedition makes a short work of them, leaving a memory of bulging maidens and heavy gallows for three generations.

Of course, such a bird-eye view of history cannot be completely accurate: in Castilla it was not Jews, but clergymen who were lassoed, and at Frankenhausen in 1525, until Tomasz Münzer was taken prisoner, the commoners valiantly braved cavalry. Still, almost everywhere in Western Europe from between 13th and 18th century similar spasms of “dark and unpredictable folk” were experienced, single time or repeatedly. But in the 19th and especially the 20th century the theme was usually domesticated, studied, and forgotten: a club of local Marxists took a mythologized leader of a revolt from centuries back as its patron, so that they could dwell on the wrongs suffered by the peasants in their papers, while the great-grandchildren of the mob, whether in the role of farmers or turned into proletariat, usually served as the mainstay of the social order.

Everywhere, but not in Poland, where due to the condition and geopolitical location of the country the infrequent peasant revolts not only struck at the “feudal order,” but threatened the existence of the Commonwealth itself. Such was the case of the uprising of the Khmelnytsky Cossacks in 1648, an important part of which was a rebellion of the Ruthenian poor, which triggered the collapse of the republic of the nobility. This is how koliyivshchyba was perceived, a revolt which broke out on the Ukrainian borderlands in 1768 on the instigation of Moscow: the glow of the burning manors, Catholic and Uniate churches and synagogues seems to illuminate the preparations of foreign powers to the first partition of Poland, which came four years later (1772). And finally this is what happened with the “Galician massacre” of 1846, which thwarted the plans for an independence uprising against Austria and Russia organized by the democratically minded nobility, and to no small extent contributed to the weakness of the Spring of Nations in Central Europe: in 1848 the wounds were still too fresh for the peasants and lords to trust each other.

One hundred and seventy years after these events the Poles are still trying to come to terms with them in various ways, most often suppressing—but sometimes hysterically affirming—them. Protagonists of this drama are numerous: selfish and megalomaniac noblemen, who in their larch manor houses, on ottomans worthy of Oblomov, indulged in fantasies about defeating the three strongest armies of contemporary Europe with a shotgun in hand; hosts of Austrian officials and administrators of Galicia, controlling this muddy and hilly land through statutes, mortgage books, and networks of couriers, capable of any intrigue; overly haughty officers; overly chatty noblewomen. But there is only one true hero: the 61-year-old Jakub (Jakób) Szela, an illiterate villager from Smarzowa, the “peasant king.”

Historian Tomasz Szubert, doctor of the University of Vienna, spent eight years in the archives of the Austrian capital tracking down every possible mention of Szela to find an answer to the question which is still unresolved today, although it already haunted Polish democrats one and a half-century ago: to what extent the revolt of the Małopolska peasantry was “authentic,” and to what extent it was manipulated by Vienna? (And if it was, was it only by Vienna?) Finding the answer is crucial for many reasons, and it is not just about reconstructing the historical truth, lamenting the frustrated hopes of the insurrectionists and of the estimated almost thousand victims of the peasant rebellion (since that time Poland has experienced incomparably more frustrated insurrections or hopes and incomparably more victims). It is about a much more fundamental question: the roots and self-definition of the nation.

In mid-19th century and in the deplorable situation of the Poles—perhaps the most politically awakened nation of contemporary Europe, lamenting the loss of its homeland, divided between three reactionary empires—no other issue was more urgent. The question “if Poland can achieve independence by itself” was asked almost from the day of the Partitions (this is the title of a pamphlet published in 1800 by Józef Pawlikowski, secretary of Tadeusz Kościuszko), and after the failure of the November Rising (1830– 1831), directed against Russia, but suppressed with a silent support of Berlin and Vienna, it was becoming obvious that it could not be done by using a regular army. If it can be achieved by an uprising, then how to execute it without the support of the peasants—“the locals,” illiterate, living in misery, and tormented with serfdom? How would the descendants of noble families muster the feeling that they were “brothers” and “fellow citizens” of the commoners?

Polish thinkers and conspirators struggled with this issue for much of the 19th century, neglecting the questions of steam engines, colonies, and capital. Some, like Henryk Kamieński, perfected the theories of “people’s war.” Others, such as one of the greatest Polish historians Joachim Lelewel, creatively transformed old theories about the “nation of the nobility” separate from the rest of Polish inhabitants (according to some this separation was due to their legal status, according to others to their merits, and according to yet others to the mythical origins of the “Sarmathian tribe”), claiming that what should occur in Polish lands was not so much an egalitarian granting equal rights to everyone, but a gradual “raising” of all people to noble status. Radicals, gathered in the émigré Companies of Polish People, postulated an immediate abolition of serfdom and granting the peasants equal rights with all other estates. They smuggled this agenda across cordons to foment an insurrection which would also be a social revolution—and sharing the tragic fate of many noble revolutionaries, they came under the scythes and sticks of Szela and his companions.

So perhaps in native Polish lands (for the sake of clarity let us omit here the huge question of Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Lithuanian “borderlands” of the former Commonwealth, as well as the local bloody ethnogenesis, occurring throughout the 19th century and early 20th century) only two nations really existed—the “masters,” blue blooded, exploiting, and alienated, and the “local” peasant nation, powerful, most numerous, and up to a point silent, loyal to emperors, and declaring that “my fatherland is my father’s land”? For the noble conspirators, ready for any sacrifice to restore the Commonwealth, this was the greatest nightmare: they were faced with it for the first time in 1846, when the peasant groups declared themselves as “imperials” and ravaged Galician villages in search of “Polish masters” or “ciarachs,” who could be gutted on the spot or, in the worst case, led hog-tied to the district authorities—although the latter solution was not very profitable, for rumors had it that the Austrians paid five florins for a living noble and ten florins for a dead one… It was not just about losing your life and the destruction of your property: it was about the destruction of all hopes, which is well illustrated by the rebels’ ditty, smoothened out but probably not invented by Henryk Słotwiński, a survivor of the massacre: “They won, they won, our gentlemen, / They won their homeland flailing the enemy in the head. / I will sit on his throat, I will rip out his guts, / I will be the gentleman in his place.”

In Galicia itself matters took a course which would gain the acceptance of Hegel: after a month of peasant Saturnalia the army restored order, and the “peasant king” first landed in house arrest and then received a property at the other end of the Empire, in a Carpathian range today belonging to Romania. Almost exactly two years later, in face of the incipient Spring of Nations, an imperial edict from 17 April 1848 abolished serfdom. Two generations later it was in the Austrian partition zone, liberal and increasingly benevolent towards the Poles, that the first Polish peasant parties were formed, the descendants of villagers started to go not only to religious orders and seminars (which until the middle of the 19th century represented the only “path of advancement” open to them), but also to military schools and to universities, and sometimes even became professors, and those, who despite all that found it too hard amid the famous Galician misery, ventured across the ocean, forming the core of the several-million-strong Polish job migration in the United States and endowing the émigré community there with a native peasant character. And those raised in the manors tried to preserve appearances by saying in Stanisław Wyspiański’s The Wedding (1901), one of the greatest Polish dramatic works, the countlessly often quoted words which could (and perhaps at some point will) become the motto of the Polish school of psychoanalysis, studying the defense mechanisms of acting out, suppression, and denial: “We have forgotten everything; / My grandfather was cut with a saw… / We have forgotten everything. […] My father was stabbed somewhere, / clubbed, shoved; driven over ice with sticks and hoes, all bloodied.”

The thing is that as every reader of Dr. Freud (a native of Galicia) knows, no suppression can be done with impunity—and especially one which we are constantly aware of (like the Host and Poet in the quote above). It means that Szela remains present on the margins of Polish awareness. What is more, we could venture a claim that at least until 1918 (and perhaps even after that date) he was present on the pages of Polish literature more often than any other real-life representative of the „third estate.” It is true that a number of paeans celebrated the heroes of the Kościuszko Insurrection (1794): Jan Kiliński and Bartosz Głowacki. The positivists, bemoaning the wrongs suffered by peasants, created an entire gallery of clichéd, but sometimes endearing peasant silhouettes, formerly known mainly to secondary school graduates and today only to specialists. How about Szela and his accomplishment?

This theme merits a separate anthology. The experience of the Galician revolt may be heard in the argument between the two greatest poets of the romantic epoch, Zygmunt Krasiński and Juliusz Słowacki. Just a few weeks after the massacre, Kornel Ujejski will publish “Chorał” containing a phrase deeply ingrained in the collective memory: “Other devils were active there.” Wyspiański tormented himself with the revolt not only in The Wedding, but also in the today forgotten rhapsody “Piast. Rok 1846,” while Stefan Żeromski devoted his only dramatic piece („Turoń”, 1923) to Szela. An epic poem about Jakub Szela will be written (in 1926) by the greatest talent among the Polish 20th-century poets seduced by Communism, Bruno Jasieński—with prosody which still makes you shudder: “Snow came. Frost caught. / The escaped man grew into the frost. / Blood from the mouth—an ace of hearts. / Fog of sparks over the firewood.”

Also the historians of that period made attempts at vindicating Szela: in the 1930s Michał Janik, Piotr Rysiewicz, and even the already very old intellectual ex-leader of Galician conservatives, Michał Bobrzyński, started the first thorough archival research, intended at recovering other testimonies from the era than the accounts of the shaken nobility.

Significantly, however, they failed to develop a “white legend” which would offer an alternative to the image of a “bloody ghost:” neither Jasieński, nor the committed historians, nor the radical activists of the peasant movement in the interwar period managed to overcome the horror triggered by shedding fraternal blood. Even the Communist propagandists, which were not known as particularly enamored with the traditions of the landed nobility, for some mysterious reason tended to avoid the subject of Szela: his native village Siedliska-Bogusz was ultimately not renamed as Siedliska-Szela, no monument to him was erected in Tarnów, and probably the only street bearing his name was the former Hohenzollernplatz in Wrocław: after 1989, to the relief of the inhabitants, it was innocently rechristened “Bird Grove Square.” To make matters worse, even in the powerful play by Paweł Demirski In the name of Jakub S. (2011), dealing with the miseries of the Polish precariat, the radical from Galicia appears as a symbolic figure, the „possibility of carnage” which will neither materialize, nor bring liberation.

And what do we learn from the biography by Tomasz Szubert, setting a new standard of research on the Galician rebellion for many years to come? The Wrocław-Vienna historian went to extraordinary lengths, looking through the annals of several dozen Polish and Western European press titles from the middle of the 19th century, reconstructing (from registry books) partially burned files of the Österreiches Staatsarchiv, gaining access to parish books, rummaging through antique shops in search of mock medals dedicated to “Metternich and Szela” by horror- stricken Polish emigrants.. He established dozens of facts, from such elementary ones (neglected for one and a half century!) as the date of Szela’s death (21 April 1860, but the place of his burial still remains unknown), questions of his lineage, marriages, participation in the “sobriety movement” in the 1830s (perhaps the first social initiative to speak of in the backwater Galicia), or the hour by hour reconstruction of the events in the crucial days 19, 20, and 21 of February 1846, when the noble Bogusz family, with which Szela had a bone to pick, was murdered in Siedliska.

Perhaps the most interesting and certainly the most far-reaching is another hypothesis, put forward for the first time on the pages of Kwartalnik Historyczny in 2013: it is highly probable (although requires further research) that the Galician massacre, being in the best interest of all three partitioning courts, was organized with a significant involvement of at least two powers: Russia and Austria. The author places the origins of this intrigue in 1833, when the Holy Alliance was restored in Münchengrätz in order to stem the scourge of the “Polish committees“ (that is Polish conspirators); the agreement was to be finalized in late autumn of 1845, during the visit of Tsar Nicholas I in Vienna. The idea of provoking an uprising of the nobility, suppressing it with peasant hands, and as a consequence stamping out the activity of the Poles for at least a few years, and also the idea of Austrian territorial gains (the Free City of Kraków), and strengthening of the image of Russia as the mainstay of justice and traditional order, must have seemed nice both to Metternich and his Russian partners.

Other sources quoted by Szubert—from the letter of the Prague police commissioner Moritz Deym to minister Sedlnitzki from 19 January 1846 (“We now hold a weapon against Polish nobility, and when all the estates will rise against it, we will mercilessly direct them against it.”), to lists of expenses, and the career of the Tarnów alderman Joseph Breinl, who oversaw the entire “Galicia Operation”—read a bit like the fiction by le Carré and a bit like Teodor Parnicki’s Death of Aetius. For now we can still treat this hypothesis as political fiction, but we could also reflect on the devilish efficiency of the “divide et impera” method when used against Poles.

And what shall we do with Szela himself? On the dozen or so surviving sketches and watercolor portraits (Tomasz Szubert found them in the collections of the Wrocław Ossolineum, in Lviv, and in Paris) he almost always stands in the same outfit and pose: a white, slightly soiled linen shirt, a black felt hat held in a helplessly limping arm (on some images it is replaced with a hat made of a black ram), linen trousers, and high leather boots, according to legend made of a pair of oxen killed in a fit of rage. The apostle of carnage, a plaything of the Metternichs, a patron of utopian projects of the radical left (last year, two authors connected with Krytyka Polityczna, Piotr Kozak and Hanna Gill-Piątek, independently of each other came forward with an idea of paying „the Polish countryside” compensation for many centuries of serfdom), makes a passive and lost impression: an individual with “an antisocial personality, the dominant vectors being rapacious, narcissistic and hostile,” to quote a fragment of Szela’s psychological profile written by a modern psychiatrist Dr Ryszard Dembiński.

And yet the gallery of Szela’s portraits still gives you food for thought, and the dilemma if we are dealing with an antisocial rebel or with a would-be leader of the „second Polish nation” remains relevant. One clue seems particularly alarming, namely Jakub’s hairstyle and physiognomy: the hair partly combed on the forehead and dropping on the back of the neck, two strands almost covering the ears, a narrow moustache just over the upper lip, and the eyelids slightly drooping on bluish-green eyes—this is the most faithful possible image of an average Polish footballer, builder, and above all the two titans of disco-polo: Zenon Martyniuk and Sławomir Świerzyński.

Wojciech Stanislawski

Wojciech Stanislawski is a historian and a columnist. His main topics of interest include Polish intellectual history in 20th century and nation-building processes in Bosnia, Macedonia, and Kosovo. Until 2017 he was the editor of Plus Minus, the weekend edition of Rzeczpospolita daily. Recently he joined the Polish History Museum. In 2016 he published the translation of Solomon Volkov’s Magical Chorus: A History of Russian Culture from Tolstoy to Solzhenitsyn.

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