By Joachim Lelewel. Introduction by Jan Kieniewicz. Warsaw: OBTA Warsaw University and DiG Publishers (http://www.dig.com.pl), 2006. 72 pages. ISBN 83-7181-412-7 (DiG), ISBN 83-923482-2-2 (OBTA Warsaw University). Hardcover. Illustrations, bibliography. In Polish.
Attracted by the apparent similarities in the historical development of Poland and Spain, Joachim Lelewel (1786-1861), Poland’s Jacobinic historian, set out to outline A Historical Parallel of Spain and Poland in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. Lelewel’s work is an early example of a comparative approach to history. His methodology derives from a broad range of sources, from antiquity (Plutarch’s Parallel Lives) to Enlightenment and Romanticism. The notorious anti-Catholicism of the Enlightenment is amply present, while Romantic liberal nationalism supplies the central ideological message. Unlike his illustrious contemporary Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), Lelewel eschews telling the tales about “the great men in history.” He insists that “comparisons cannot focus on a brief moment. They must be based upon the entire course of the life of a nation. They do not look for identical elements; rather, they pinpoint the differences concealed in the apparent and incidental similarities” (19). For Lelewel, the nation is more important than the state, and therefore he downplays the institutional forces that have been so strongly emphasized by his other famous contemporary, Heinrich von Ranke (1798-1876).
That Lelewel was a nationalist is obvious. However, his brand of Romantic nationalism is firmly planted in the tradition of the multiethnic Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The scholar’s Polishness was a conscious choice and not a function of “blood and soil,” as has been the case in German history. Lelewel recognized the rights of non-Poles in the Commonwealth. In Lelewel’s case, this was not just theory. His grandfather, Heinrich Löllhöffel von Löwensprung, was a Polonized Prussian noble who traced his roots to Austria. In fact, the entire Löllhöffel von Löwensprung family became staunch Polish patriots. One thus chose to be Polish, which entailed a duty to fight for the nation’s freedom.
According to Lelewel, “progress” is the hidden hand that inevitably propels the engine of history. However, the development of humanity has been slowed down by the nefarious reactionary forces of the Throne and the Altar. At the same time, however, Lelewel has no doubts that Western civilization was created by Christianity. The nations that adopted the Christian faith relatively late in history were therefore less developed than those that embraced it early on. Poland modeled itself after the West, but it joined the West only in the second millenium AD. Spain was Christianized before it became a state, and thus was located on the other side of the scale. Spain dominated both land and sea; Poland was a land power. Both were magnificent, and the latter in particular was resplendent in the liberty that it afforded its noble citizens.
However, by the seventeenth century both nations suffered serious internal problems. “Internal factors of the decline of the states can remain dormant for a very long time, but they come to life under the influence of extermal factors” (30). Predatory neighbors provided the external stimuli to Poland’s and Spain’s collapse. What Russia was for the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, France was for its Iberian neighbor. These crafty enemies first used the pretext of religion, then later dropped the pretenses and acted to satisfy their “mercantile and military interests” (35). Their subversive actions and then brute force destroyed Spain and Poland. The former was reduced to the status of a French dependency; the latter was completely eradicated from the map by Russia, Prussia, and Austria.
Yes, affairs were rotten in Poland and Spain. The former was paralyzed by a “noble democracy” (demokratyzm szlachecki) run amuck; the latter sufferedfrom “somber and reckless despotism” (posępny nieprzezorny despotyzm) (38). However, Lelewel never tires of repeating that “if the external forces did not meddle,” the once glorious states would not have collapsed. Could the Poles and the Spaniards have dealt successfully with both internal and external problems to prevent the collapse? Lelewel doubts it: “It all stemmed from the universal flow of things. To reverse, stop, and predict it was not in human power” (38).
Thus, in Lelewel’s view, the overwhelming and unassailable forces of history control human events. The scholar clearly believes in historical determinism:“For eight hundred years the European family has been on the track of progress” (44). Because of its “mad political freedom” (41), Poland fell afoul of the forces that determine winners and losers in history. This begs the question, was the destruction and partition of Poland “progress”? Lelewel fails to posit such a question. Instead, he wistfully proposes that when Poland latches herself to the train of progress, she will virtually automatically regain her freedom. In other words, Lelewel believes that if Poland becomes progressive and left-leaning, she will free herself. Unfortunately, many in the Polish elite shared this mad vision, which bore no good fruit.
Aside from crude determinism, Lelewel subscribes to a number of other prejudices befitting a Jacobin. He claims in effect that Christianity cripples one’s brain, because religious injunctions “bound one’s mind, chained one’s free genius, created moral captivity, narrowed one’s thought, and forced the abasement of one’s reason and heart” (39). The Catholics are more afflicted by the malady than the Protestants. According to Lelewel, the Jesuits serve the role that the Jews play for the anti-Semites, and the Inquisition contains all the elements with which antireligious propaganda endowed it over the centuries.
Lelewel’s interesting technical innovation consists in analyzing each nation in separate and parallel columns, periodically interrupted by synthesizing comments in standard text format. Lelewel also indulges in an excessive use of metaphors and poetic shortcuts. He peppers his work with such images as “the Spaniard bloated with smugness and arrogance,” and “the Pole smitten by his own pride” (39). He speaks of “the predilection of [the Spanish] nation toward a greater excitability of the senses and cruelty of the heart [which led to]. . . savage and terrible fanaticism” (31). As for the Poles, “the inclination of the nation, which was more gentle and moderate, never allowed any overly violent steps; hence, Poland’s fanaticism was slow in arriving and it failed to develop in quite as rabid a form” (31).
All in all, according to Lelewel, Spain and Poland are different nations. The most salient similarity was that each of them, for a variety of complex and often unrelated reasons, fell off the train of progress. Lelewel argues quite correctly that it is extremely hard for a nation to succeed if it fails to conform to the spirit of the times. Success requires operating in congruity with the historical forces, even if one is against them. True patriots of all stripes should take a cue from Lelewel on this point, but it is difficult to learn statecraft from him because of the unwieldiness of his prose and the staleness of his Jacobinic thought. I therefore cannot fully agree with Jan Kieniewicz, who edited the latest edition of A Historical Parallel, in his proposition that “Lelewel ought to be read.” That would be a task perhaps grudgingly indispensable for a specialist, but hardly advisable for a layman. Try Edmund Burke or Zygmunt Krasiński instead.