Germans, Poles and Jews

The Nationality Conflict in the Prussian East, 1772 - 1914

by William W. Hagen



Minor changes and notations to the text have been made to make it easier to understand. In particular, references to centuries have been changed to numeric, e.g. "eighteenth century" to "1700's")

In rough terms, these are the areas referred to (in respect to 1800's borders, and relative to Posen province)
Great Poland = west-central Poland, essentially Posen
Royal Prussia = West Prussia, the Danzig corridor, north of Posen. Poland's access to the North Sea.
Netze district = the watershed of the Netze | Notec river, which flows westward through the top of Posen
Vistula district = the watershed of the Weichsel | Vistula river, which flows northward through eastern West Prussia
Silesia = south of Posen


(Previous material to this excerpt dealt with early migrations to the Polish/German frontier lands and the degree to which various German communities became 'Polenized'.)

"Thus, in contrast to Great Poland, a sizable proportion of the medieval German colonists' descendents preserved their German ethnic character in Royal Prussia through the long period of Polish sovereignty. In both Great Poland and West Prussia, however, it was not the medieval wave of German and Jewish migrations alone which determined the character of the eighteenth century nationality frontier. From the late 1500's to the time of the partitions (late 1700's), a second wave of settlers from Germany swept over western and northern Poland.

The pioneers of this movement were not Germans but rather large numbers of Dutch Mennonites who, menaced in their religion at home, accepted the offers of the Protestant West Prussian nobility to settle as free peasants in the Vistula delta. (The Vistula | Weichsel river bends northward at Bromberg and flows through the eastern side of what was West Prussia in the late 1800's to Danzig.) In return, the immigrants built dykes to control the river channels and paid money rents to the noble lords owning the once-swampy wastes which they had converted into rich farmland. This was the beginning of a movement, running parallel to the rise of the serf-estate export economy on the already cultivated soil of Poland, in which the szlachta (Polish nobility) encouraged peasant immigration from the west in order to bring the vast stretches of Poland's still virgin forest and swampland under the plow. Unwilling to commit their own serf labor to this task, they offered attractive terms and religious toleration, at first to the Mennonites but thereafter mainly to German Protestants who fled, in the 1600's, religious persecution in Germany and, in the 1700's, military conscription and regions of land hunger to try their luck in Poland. They and their descendents constituted a privileged class of peasants among the masses of Polish serfs. They would not undertake their arduous new lives without guarantees of full personal freedom, ample fields in the wastes they had cleared, and a hereditary contractual claim to their lands in exchange for money rents. These terms of tenure were almost precisely what most Polish and Polonized serfs lacked but hungered to have. Yet, just as it was in the szlachta's interest to subject the native peasantry to serfdom and thus to create a supply of "free" labor producing for the export (grain and timber) market, so too, if foreign colonists could make a profit from previously unused land, by settling them on their estates the nobility could skim the top from theese profits and fatten their wallets.

This form of peasant colonization spread down the Vistula Valley, into the Netze | Notec' region, and beyond to Great Poland proper, where in the 1600's and 1700's it was vigorously pursued not only along the western fringes of the province adjacent to Silesia and Brandenburg, but in the heart of the land as well. After the partitions, the Polish nobility in Russian Poland began settling German farmers on their land, so that this second wave of German colonization, following upon the medieval movement, lasted into the early 1900's. In Royal Prussia and Great Poland such German colonists came to be called 'Haula"nder', a corruption of the word Hollander, recalling the Mennonite pioneers; the Poles accepted the term in the form of 'oledrzy'.

There was an urban counterpart, beginning in the second half of the 1600's and lasting through the1700's, to the second wave of German peasant settlement in western and northern Poland. The devastation wrought in these regions by the Swedish invasion (1655-60) and particularly by the second Northern War (1700-21), whose impact on Great Poland can be compared with that of the Thirty Years War on Germany, depopulated the towns as well as the villages. Since the nobility had succeeded in imposing their seigneurial authority on many of the towns, urban economic collapse meant a loss of aristocratic revenue. Thus in the 1600's and 1700's the Catholic gentry opened many town gates to Protestant German refugees, especially from Silesia, and to German Catholic immigrants as well. In 1700s' Great Poland, immigrant burghers rebuilt fifteen devastated towns and founded ten wholly new cities. In these and other towns throughout Great Poland, the Netze district, and Royal Prussia, a flourishing woolen and linen textile industry arose in the 1700's. This was the work primarily of German artisan workshops. It was organized commercially by the Jews and profitably taxed by the nobility.

Unlike their medieval forerunners, most of the settlers in the second wave of migration to Poland retained their German language and cultural character. The guarantees of religious liberty the German Protestants received from the Polish nobility, though sometimes violated, ensured the maintenance of a German-speaking clergy, German Protestant village schools, and a few secondary-level German academies. As in the past, German Catholics were more exposed to Polonization, but they were a minority among the immigrants. They maintained their ethnic identity best in the towns of a predominantly German Protestant character along the Silesian-Brandenburg border, where the Polish Catholic church's influence was limited. One may speculate, in the light of later historical experience, that, outside those towns where church practice neglected German-language services and thus wittingly or unwittingly promoted Polonization, German Catholics assimilated into Polish culture chiefly by means of intermarriage, which was comm both before and after the partitions.

In the wake of the two long waves of German eastward settlement and medieval Jewish migration to Poland, reinforced by Jewish refugees from Germany during the Reformation, the 1700's nationality frontier cut deep into the Polish Commonwealth. On the Silesian-Brandenburg border of Great Poland, second-wave Germans had reinforced first-wave survivors in Germanizing a broad frontier strip. Settlements of Haula"nder were scattered about the Poznanian villages, while Germans and Jews were numerous in all western and northern Polish towns. The Polonization of Royal Prussia after the fifteenth century had been balanced by second-wave German peasant colonization in the Vistula delta and the rise of the German-dominated textile industry in Royal Prussia, the Netze district, and Great Poland.

But the nationality frontier also crossed the political borders of Brandenburg-Prussia. In Upper Silesia, conquered together with the rest of that province by Frederick the Great, a large population of Polish-speaking peasant-serfs tilled the lands of German or Germanized Slavic noblemen and magnates. Polish was spoken among the common people in the towns as well. In central Silesia to the east of the Oder, Polish villagers and urban workers also survived in a largely Germanized setting, but most of Silesia had been lost to the Poles in the first wave of German eastward expansion. In 1348, Casimir the Great had recognized Bohemia's suzerainty over the Silesian duchies and, despite Polish strategies to regain the province in subsequent centuries, it was progressively integrated into the German political and cultural sphere as it passed from Bohemian to Habsburg to Hohenzollern rule. The Polish population in Silesia stood on an economically and culturally depressed level, speaking only a Polish dialect, out of contact with formal Polish culture and dominated by a Catholic clergy which, while it communicated to its parishioners in their own tongue, bowed to the German Bishopric of Breslau."