Ms. 2832 — Poland. Principles

Part One.


Chapter I.

History and Nationality.

The Polish Question.—History understood as a legal inquiry: necessity, in order to write history and judge a nation, of positing some principles.—Doctrine of immanence: that the political organism is the product of social spontaneity, and that where that spontaneity is lacking, the State becoming powerless and impossible, the nationality remains non-existent.—Exhaustion of the spontaneity in nations: Jews, Greeks, Romans and Italians.—Divisions of the history of Poland: conclusion unfavorable to the demands of the Poles.

§1.— The Polish Question.

The Polish people complain that a crime has been committed against their nationality at the end of the 18th century, by the three combined powers of Prussia, Russia and Austria. The right of peoples [droit des gens] would have been monstrously violated in their person: a free state, at peace with its neighbors, would have been caught, as in an ambush, and wiped out; a society notable for its civilization, famous in the annals, assassinated. They protest against the violence that has been done to them, against the Congress of Vienna that sanctioned it, against Europe, monarchical and conservative, democratic [3] and revolutionary, which forgets them; and that demand to be restored to their independence and to their boundaries of 1772. Among the journalists, some, while they recognize the absurdity of the former government of Poland and while they pass condemnation on its history, support the demand: as if one could resurrect, ad libitum, a nationality; others, while testifying to their sympathy for an unfortunate people, judge the thing impracticable, and counsel resignation. As for the active promoters of the Polish restoration, if some are in good faith, the far greater majority, party functionaries, adventure-seekers, unprincipled schemers, politicians of the clubs and cabarets, have no other aim but to satisfy their vanity or their ambition. As with all questions that remain obscure, ignorance and charlatanism have here taken the place of common sense; and one is not a bit astonished to see men of contrary opinions, relying on considerations that the others destroy, democrats and oligarchs, Christians and atheists, plebeians and nobles, demand with equal doggedness the reconstitution of the kingdom, according to some, or of the republic, according to others, of Poland.

Let us say, finally, that what is asked for Poland, what is desired for Greece or Italy, what is demanded for Hungary, Bohemia, Ireland, Scotland perhaps: it is the fashion today, in politics, to want to make unitary agglomerations, and to put in place the abolished states. This is called the principle of nationality.

There is, then, for each fallen people, a trial to be conducted, an international investigation to make, which demands, [along] with superior understanding, the discussion of the various social systems and of ten or fifteen centuries of history!

§2. — History conceived as a legal inquiry.

To judge such a case, principles are required. Unfortunately, for all the centuries that it has recorded the comings and goings of the nations, history has still not managed to determine general laws, laws that are obviously none other than those of the formation and the evolution of states. In short, the philosophy of history is still in its infancy: so slow is the progress of the general reason, in matters of history as well as politics, generations will be required to set up one experiment, gather one observation, express one aphorism! We speak of the judgments of posterity. But what are the rules of these judgments? By virtue of what principles does posterity render its sentences? How are we to recognize the validity of a verdict, through the chaos of so many accounts of contradictory tendencies? Do we know what to think, ultimately, of Caesar, Charlemagne and Charles IV? Who do we believe, Michelet or Voltaire, regarding the century of Louis XIV? Sir Walter Scott wrote an indictment against Napoleon; M. Thiers, while striving to remain impartial, made his eulogy. To which of the two should we give credence? Is the truth in one or the other, or in both, or rather between the two?…

I have read, in my life, a certain number of historical works: memoirs, biographies, monographs, chronological charts, narrative, expositive, political, ecclesiastical, military, and literary histories, compilations of annals, collected papers, diplomatic histories for the use of the people and for the young, etc. I do not believe that I flatter my contemporaries by saying that our century has produced, in this genre, a host of excellent writings, for which my admiration is that much more sincere as I feel myself less capable of approaching them. But neither will I be accused of presumption if I add that history, conceived as a legal inquiry, perpetual [in nature], of the nations and of humanity,—the only history, in the last analysis, which could serve the instruction and moralization of the masses, furnish rules to the public advocate, and direct the statesman,—that history, I say, does not exist. I seek judgments; I encounter everywhere only pleas and testimonies.

Historian, your narratives enchant me: there is no novel or epic that approaches, in terms of interest, these realities by turns hideous, vulgar or splendid; these unforeseen reversals and these relations where Providence seems to appear in person and which far surpass all the twists and turns and dénouements of the theater. But it is necessary to conclude; above all, it is necessary to justify your conclusions. Now, you never conclude; you have neither definitions, nor principles, nor maxims by means of which you could form a judgment; one could even say that, according to you, the perfection of history is to present, with more or less clarity, the facts of which it is composed and then, the reader caught, to abandon the judgment to their conscience. But the reader is incapable of judging if you do not given them the key to all these enigmas: so that history, the highest manifestation of truth, I almost said of the divine being, deprived of the juridical torches, becomes a chasm of doubt.

It is a question, for example of the fall and resurrection of a State. And, well, what is this thing that we call a State? What is it made up of, and by what sign can we perceive that it can exist, that it exists? Is it a reality or an abstraction? Is the State subject to sickness and death, or only to modification and termination? On what basis does an agglomeration of men have the right to govern themselves, without any foreign influence, and consequently to maintain their autonomy toward and against all others? If this right is absolute, how to explain, to justify so many fusions of States, so many absorptions of nationalities, about which no complaints have been raised? If it is only conditional, what are its limits? How, by what causes, in what cases, can it be lost?

What, then, is the relation between the State and the nation? Are they distinguished from one another, or are they always just the same thing, considered from two different sides? Is the State the product of the nation, the manifestation of its thought, the form of its being, or simply an accident of its existence? Are the State and the nation so linked to one another that if one of the two should perish, the death of the other necessarily follows? We can very well imagine this result: No more nation, no more State. But the reverse is not true; the abolition of the State does not bring about the death of the nation; more than once, on the contrary, a nation has found it advantageous to place itself under the direction of another, and to follow its destiny. Consequently, what [   ] of shame can a nation, in which the political link is dissolved, feel to see itself incorporated, despite itself, in another state!

The State, like every concrete greatness, is liable, as much from the point of view of its organization [organisme], as from that of the territory it occupies, of increase as of reduction, so what are the laws of the organization and circumscription of States? Do there exist, for it, natural limits, and who are they recognized? Is the gathering of two different races, and consequently of their respective territories, in a single body as nation and State, contrary or in accordance with the law of civilization? In the latter case, what makes it legitimate? When can it be pursued, at need, by force? What relations, what disputes, what rights, what political combinations can arise from the diversity of races and from the proximity of states?… [6(7)]

These questions, and many other that we will see loom as we progress in this study, must be resolved in advance, if we are determined to make a reasoned judgment on history in general and on the revolutions of states. But it is this with which the creators of political reorganizations hardly trouble themselves. For twenty-five year, there have been thousands of volumes published in support of Poland: I do not believe that the question of right has been seriously posed in a single one. Do we then imagine, however, that the disputes between private individuals are the subject of some many prescriptions and formalities, that the international disagreements can be resolved, if I dare make use of this popular expression, with a rough guess, and that it is sufficient, in order to resolve such questions, to speak to the imaginations and excite the [   ]!

Called to retract, or to justify in a more explicit manner, an opinion regarding Poland ventured by us in passing, I have understood that what we lack above all in politics and in history is principles. In order to correctly assess the catastrophe that ended the Polish drama, it is necessary to know not only the facts that preceded it and led up to it, but the laws that govern the facts themselves, and give them, for good or evil, their meaning. Now, I repeat, the knowledge of these laws is precisely what history lacks.

Certainly, I do not delude myself. In an essay that is, as it were, impromptu, I would not dare to flatter myself with filling the gap left by so many deep and laborious histories. I believe that I have, at most, managed to indicate it. The infinite is in history as in nature: even if the past and future were assembled before us, it would still take centuries to complete its philosophy. But the most modest seeker might be permitted to take a few steps in a very nearly unexplored career, and as he would not need a great knowledge of anatomy and physiology to state with certainty that the deprivation of food leads necessarily to the death of the animal, or the removal of the genital parts to the loss of the generative function, just so it seems to me that a simple lover [amateur] of history could recognize its essential conditions and set down the basis of its judicature. It is these elements and these laws, the basis of right, that I would call historical, although the word or thing has thus far obtained little favor, that I propose to study in this first part.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.