Polish Jewish resistance men and women, captured after the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943. Alamy

Shawls, Books, and Bombs

Reflections on Polish resistance.

Ben Sixsmith
Ben Sixsmith
8 min read

For more than a hundred years, Poland did not exist. Throughout the final quarter of the 18th century, Russia, Prussia, and the Habsburg Empire divided and consumed the nation. Poland had been a great European power, and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth had been one of the largest and most modern countries on the continent for more than two hundred years. Poles had (very briefly) occupied Moscow during the Polish-Muscovite War. King Jan Sobieski had turned back the Turks in Vienna. King Stanisław August Poniatowski signed the Constitution of May 3rd, 1791—an enlightened document that Edmund Burke called “the noblest benefit received by any nation at any time.”

Yet by 1791, it was too late. Surrounded by other rich and powerful states, Poland was not privileged geographically. The influential upper class—the szlachta—was divided and dysfunctional enough for state action to be sclerotic. Indeed, some Polish magnates betrayed their country and supported the partitioners. So, Poland disappeared—officially, at least. Of course, its people did not meekly submit. There were various uprisings—all brave and some initially successful. None succeeded in defeating the partitioners, though, and an inevitable consequence of rebellion was a tightening of the persecutory screw.

For obvious reasons, the partitioners did not act as one but there was a general desire to expunge Polish culture. The Russification of Russian-held territories included, in the words of the great historian Norman Davies, the “strangulation of all works in non-Russian languages.” In German-held territories, too, Polish art, history, and language were stifled. Bismarck had especially vivid fears about the implications of Polish freedom. “We can do nothing but exterminate them if we want to exist,” he wrote in a letter to his sister; “the wolf also cannot help that he is created by God as he is and yet we shoot him dead when we can.” Territories occupied by Habsburg Austria, including Kraków and much of what is now Western Ukraine, were treated with greater tolerance. Kraków even became known as “the Polish Athens.”

The failure of multiple uprisings split Polish intellectuals and noblemen between those of a more romantic temperament, who sought to reclaim Polish independence by bloody force, and those of more pragmatic inclinations, who sought to do the “organic work” of preserving and strengthening Poland culturally and economically. Stanisław Staszic, a philosopher and educator who co-founded the Warsaw Society of Friends of Learning, said, “Even a great nation may fall, only a corrupt one can perish.” Polish statehood was out of reach, he and his colleagues argued, but the Polish nation could still flourish as long as its cultural and economic character endured.

Promoters of this kind of organic work tended to be lofty Enlightenment liberals and positivists committed to empirical reasoning rather than metaphysics or traditional belief. Their pursuit of human progress transcended the desire for Polish independence. The writer Aleksander Świętochowski mused:

The well-being of all peoples, as we see it, is not dependent strictly on the nation’s strength and political sovereignty but on its ability to participate in the universal civilisation and to develop its own. We all know about nations that are entirely independent but at the same time half-dead, retarded in their progress, and by no means living a joyous life.

“Our nation,” he added, “should not merely grow its power, strengthen its character, and foster in people the feeling of love for homeland but also—inasmuch as it is possible—breathe the fresh breeze of humanity’s general progress.”

The most famous manifestation of organic work was the Flying University. At the turn of the 20th century, Davies wrote, the typical Polish patriot was “a young lady of good family with a textbook under her shawl.” In the second volume of God’s Playground, he reported that the university met every week at different locations. “In time, four separate faculties were organised and diplomas were issued at the end of course as rigorous as anything offered in the public sector.” Not only were Polish writers and scholars studied; so was everyone from Mill to Marx to (ironically) Nietzsche. Marie Curie was probably the most famous person to study there.

The Flying University: Towards the Emancipation of Polish Women
During the 19th century, Russian-occupied Polish lands were a difficult place to be, especially for a woman. But despite all of the oppression, a secretive group worked to provide women with higher education and support them in their fight against being secondary citizens. Alexis Angulo paints the s…

The Flying University was liberal and cosmopolitan, educating women and men alike, but it tended to attract Warsaw’s most well-connected residents. Across Poland, though, independent education flourished. “Self-education was a veritable craze,” wrote Davies, “Amazingly, it has been estimated that one-third of the population of Russian Poland, young and old, was engaged in some sort of home-study.” Educational outreach was extended to peasants under the guise of “sport associations” and “beekeeping societies.”

It was not organic work that brought partitioning to an end and restored Polish independence. As well as an increase in Polish strength, it had a lot to do with decline of Germany and upheaval in Russia. Nevertheless, preserving Polish education and culture prepared Poles to take advantage of the opportunity presented by circumstances beyond their control. It also prepared them for the difficult task of rebuilding and running an independent state. Prescience and patience were rewarded.

Poles were not able to enjoy independence for long, however. In 1939, Poland was subjected to brutal invasions by the Nazis and Russians. During the 18th century, the Prussians had hoped to neutralise Polish culture and absorb Poles into their kingdom through a gradual but inexorable process of Germanisation. Hitler saw no need to be gradual about it, and he had no qualms about killing those Poles who, by ethnicity or ideology, had no place in his schemes. Still, Poles resisted, militarily and intellectually. The Nazis saw Poles as a crude and savage people, so they closed their universities, theatres, cinemas, and newspapers and allowed them only basic education. “Polish civilization is not worth consideration,” said Joseph Goebbels, which was a bit like breaking someone’s arms and legs and then announcing that they should not be considered an athlete.

Yet the Polish tradition of underground culture and education was renewed even so. Underground schools and universities were established, with the former educating more than a million children and the latter educating thousands of older students. These underground institutions were sophisticated as well as secretive. The University of Western Lands alone, based primarily in Warsaw, boasted—or rather, hid—17 units and six departments. Underground seminaries operated as well, and one of the students in Kraków was a young man named Karol Wojtyła, who would later become Pope John Paul II.

All this required considerable courage. In July 1941, German soldiers killed 25 professors in the city of Lwów (which was then Polish) for no reason at all. In Kraków, almost two hundred academics were abruptly arrested and sent to concentration camps. Nineteen of them froze to death. But amid the barbaric gloom of Nazi occupation, extraordinary faith survived. Of course, people were fighting courageously under Nazi occupation across Europe. But history had prepared Poles for such circumstances. After all, their anthem was (and remains) titled “Poland Is Not Yet Lost.”

In this way, young Poles were being prepared for all aspects of their future freedom. In his paper, ‘Polish Universities During the Second World War,’ Adam Redzik writes, “Teaching also took place in the department of diplomacy, which, in the spirit of the prewar diplomatic studies programme, was intended for the preparation of future diplomats.” Many academics and teachers died at the hands of the Nazis and the Soviets (including during the notorious Katyń massacre, which targeted intellectuals as well army officers in an attempt to behead Polish society). “As a result of the war,” Redzik writes, “around 450 professors and associate professors at Polish post-secondary institutions perished, along with several hundred young academic workers. Additionally, around 8000 secondary and post-secondary educators lost their lives during this period.”

Many more students perished. Young, passionate men and women spearheaded the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, rising like flames from the embers of the Polish culture they had been nurturing through the years of occupation.

Polish resistance fighters during the Warsaw uprising (1944). Alamy

Men like Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński, Tadeusz Gajcy, and Andrzej Trzebiński were among the students of the underground education system who subsequently took up arms in the covert struggle with their occupiers. But they also took up their pens, writing poems and commentary for underground magazines.

Professor Paweł Rodak of the University of Warsaw told me that around 1,500 underground periodicals were produced during the war. These publications reflected different perspectives. Some, like Płomienie, were socialist; others, like Sztuka i Naród, were nationalist; still others, like Pravda, were Catholic. Many of them breathed hot cultural and ideological air infused with bold ideas and romantic lyricism. They pursued organic work, in a sense, but their authors wrote and acted with the stench of genocide in their nostrils. They had, in other words, little time for patience.

It would be facile to reduce the radical ideas of young Poles to this sense of existential urgency but it must have been significant. It fuelled the literary and the physical resistance of nationalists like Baczyński, Gajcy, and Trzebiński, all of whom died during the war. The reputation of the tendency they represented has suffered due to its regrettable anti-Jewish elements, but there were more idealistic, even universalist aspects as well. One can hear the faintest echoes of Świętochowski in a passage from a nationalist statement quoted in Marek Chodakiewicz’s So Poland Be Poland:

Our nationalism, as a Catholic nationalism, stands for the respect of the humanity of the individual and the separateness of the national communities, their rights and their goods. At the same time, in the name of the instinct for self-preservation and the principles of justice, we demand the same of others and, if the need arises, we shall fight for it. By serving our nation on the basis of this idea and its principles we are not only carrying out our duty towards the community in which we were born and raised, but we are also fighting for a healthy and just tomorrow and better order in the world.

The cocktail of romanticism and resistance that young Poles drank has proved controversial. In his book The Captive Mind, the great poet Czesław Miłosz criticised the initiation of the Warsaw Uprising for encouraging “frenzies of voluntary sacrifice” that amounted to “a gesture in the face of an indifferent world.” Certainly, people who resist oppression should be realistic about the limits of what they can achieve. The Polish tradition of organic work speaks of patience and prudence and abandoning catharsis in favour of calm and pragmatic yet industrious development towards one’s goals. But when lives are at risk and freedom is at stake, one needs spiritual heat not just intellectual cool. It motivates that first step towards the possibility of death—be it breaking cover to attack your enemy or stepping into an underground tutorial. Any act of rebellion worth remembering requires at least an element of fanaticism.


The research for this article was conducted with the support or the Bobkowski Fellowship Program, run by the Zamoyski Institute.

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Ben Sixsmith is Contributing Editor at The Critic. His most recent book is “Noughties: Eleven Echoes of a Dismal Decade.”