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National Identity in Nineteenth-Century Polish Albums

Justyna Beinek

How can a nation be remembered in albums? And what exactly is an album? The album was an important artifact of early and mid-nineteenth-century Polish culture. Its conception was imported from Western Europe along with other cultural and literary fashions of the time. To bring the album closer to twenty-first century cultural terms, one might say that the album was a “scrapbook” in which poets and other famous personages of the day and/or the album owner’s family and friends wrote down their verse and prose, often addressed to the album’s owner. Diverse and collage-like, albums contained varied verbal and iconic materials: inscriptions, quotations, letters, drawings, pressed flowers, and personal memorabilia, such as locks of hair or even drops of blood. The album flourished in the age of Romanticism because of its open form and its position at the nexus of social life and domesticity, literature and fine arts, high and low culture. The album was an important prop in the life of the Romantic salon but it was not confined to salon life. Albums assumed many different forms and infiltrated many social settings, finally becoming a phenomenon of mass culture. The album enjoyed such popularity because it was an exceptionally versatile medium. It functioned as a carrier of individual and national memory, ensuring symbolic permanence against mortality through physical preservation of human traces.

During the partitions of Poland, literary and domestic albums functioned as repositories of a national consciousness under siege. While Romantic writers turned to literature-mainly poetry and drama-to keep the memory of the country that had ceased to exist on the map of Europe in 1795, popular culture devised its own ways of preserving and constructing a national identity. This project of both remembering and creating a national community was to a large extent carried out on the pages of albums across various social strata. Free from censorship, albums provided a forum for developing, imagining, or inventing elements of national identity. These processes were embedded in the Romantic culture of memory, which created various mechanisms of remembering, heavily utilized in albums.(1) These mnemonic aids included symbolic images, such as the omnipresent flower-the forget-me-not-that represented the idea of eternal memory, as well as verbal material: poems, autographs, letters, and personal signatures that served as reduced representations of people.(2) Romantic albums had the power of erasing the fear of death and destruction on a symbolic plane; as long as the album page remained physically intact, the memory of the inscriber would live on. This popular understanding of the workings of memory was further developed by Romantic poets who treated the processes of writing and remembering as creative acts focused on the identity of the speaker’s “I;” memory aided in the construction of the poetic self. Similarly, in the case of a nation, memory could construct and preserve a national identity.

The most interesting difference between Polish albums and albums from Russia, Germany, England, and other countries is the patriotic and nation-centered character of the former. All Romantic album traditions share an interest in memory and symbolic immortality. The Romantic obsession with death and a search for ways of alleviating the fear of personal erasure was transposed in the case of Poland into a search for ways of counteracting political erasure. The existential disorientation and exile of the Romantic hero was translated into a discourse on political homelessness of the whole Polish nation. The Polish albums display fewer of the following features typical of other albums: game-playing and entertainment; ornamental excess and turning the album itself into a work of art; treating the album as a place of literary debut or a forum for shaping literary and artistic identities. The writers and keepers of Polish albums privilege one facet of identity, the national one. To use Homi K. Bhabha’s terms, in albums we “encounter the nation as it is written.” What emerges from albums is what he calls an “ambivalent figure of the nation,” with “its conceptual indeterminacy” and “wavering between vocabularies.”(3)

Polish history at the end of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries explains the insistence in Polish albums on the national question. At that time the Poles experienced three partitions of Poland (1772, 1793, and 1795), two uprisings (1830 and 1863), and several less drastic cases of social unrest, as well as the exile of large portions of the population to the West and imprisonment in Siberia of patriots in the Russian partition. Albums were most popular when the boundaries of Poland fluctuated on the map of Europe. Thus the albums became a reflection of Polish society’s preoccupation with regaining freedom and coming to terms with losses after military upheavals and exile. This trend of using the domestic album as a space to spread political ideas was also a result of severe censorship laws, which hindered the public dissemination of Polish literature that would be inconvenient to the three partitioning powers. The émigré communities enjoyed more freedom but were plagued by meager funds, a relatively small reading public, lack of support from foreign governments and social institutions, and internal arguments. In such a situation the institution of the album became a useful outlet for carrying on debates on the subject of the Polish past and future. Simultaneously, the interest of Western Romantic movements in the concept of the nation state fueled and strengthened the philosophical and, at times, theological debate on nationhood.(4) A major facet of the nascent national consciousness was a sense of loss. Among exiles, this sense of memory was especially powerful since the nostalgia for doubly “lost” Poland was conducive to imaginative and imaginary rewritings of that which had been lost.

The wealth of information in albums on the Polish national question has been perfunctorily treated as an expression of patriotism, or as the idea that a “person and a nation are one, grown together like Siamese twins.”(5) This traditional view glides over the complex relationship between the person and the nation, and devalues them both. The reason why it is important to reread nineteenth-century Polish albums is that Romantic ideas are still the cultural currency in Poland today. In the words of Polish literary historian Maria Janion, Romanticism is a “fundamental paradigm of the modern epoch,” one that “created not a transient and particular but a universal formula of culture, which-despite a changed course of national existence-does not lose meaning; just the opposite, it seems that in the second half of the twentieth century this formula gains even more importance.”(6) In other words, Romanticism created a symbolic language that is still used in Polish political discourses, a language that is easily recognizable to all members of the Polish national community.

However, as Ernest Gellner and Benedict Anderson have postulated, the very idea of nation, either as a seemingly necessary element for the creation of nation states or as a community of people who share a national identity, is elatively new and may prove to be problematic if accepted as a given.(7) Anderson observes thatattachments are imagined; “amor patriae does not differ . . . from the other affections, in which there is always an element of fond imagining” (154). In nineteenth-century Poland the job of constructing a national past belonged largely to poets and was disseminated with the help of domestic albums. Poets had to test the memory of the society and, if there was not much to be retrieved, create new memories and emotions. Zofia Trojanowiczowa states that Mickiewicz, as well as other writers, served as “organizer[s] of national imagination,” in accord with Norwid’s idea of that a “national artist organizes imagination, as a national politician organizes the power of state.”(8) The writers combined creative production with a program of influencing “collective imagination and national consciousness” through rhetoric (12). Mickiewicz, for example, openly spoke of a “need for developing a new model of Polish patriotism,” one that “would integrate the whole nation and therefore would effectively shield it from death” (13). Domestic albums show that this task was also carried out by average citizens, owners of domestic albums, who internalized the language of loss and transferred it from high culture to low culture, and from the public sphere into the private one.

How and why was the Polish nation remembered and imagined in domestic albums? In Maurice Halbwachs’s view, historical memory is basic for a definition of a nation.(9) This historical memory “needs continuous feeding from collective sources” (34). Halbwachs’s concept of “collective frameworks” allows us to examine the Polish nineteenth-century albums as “instruments used by the collective memory to reconstruct an image of the past which is in accord, in each epoch, with the predominant thoughts of the society” (40). Furthermore, events from the past can be “touched-up” in order to give them a “prestige that reality did not possess” (51). The development of Polish nationalism proves Halbwachs’s theory that the past is reconstructed and rearranged based on individual recollection; in the Polish case it is based largely on imaginative recollections of album owners and writers. Recollections are volatile entities that can be quite easily deleted, since “society tends to erase from its memory all that might separate individuals.” We choose recollections, eliminate them, rearrange, and institute alterations (182-83). We recollect with the help of “landmarks” (174-75). Polish Romantic albums contain several such “landmarks,” some of which have become “sacred” or “ritual” texts, to use Halbwachs’s terms (116). In Polish nineteenth-century albums such “landmarks” are the topoi that permeate Polish Romantic culture: the peasant figure, the land and folklore as repositories of Polishness; the Polish language as another retainer of Polishness; the figure of Poland as a suffering “Mother Fatherland”/”Mother Poland” (“Matka Ojczyzna,” “Matka Polska”), and a related ideal of patriotic motherhood, “The Polish Mother” (“Matka Polka”); the ancestral roots and the glorious history of the Polish state; and finally, the topos of exile that generates nostalgia and imagining of lost land and people. We may also view these topoi as what Pierre Nora has defined as “lieux de memoire [sites of memory] where memory crystallizes and secretes itself.”(10) Those sites “anchor, condense, and express the exhausted capital of. . . collective memory.” The history of these commonplaces is an “art of implementation, practiced in the fragile happiness derived from relating to rehabilitated objects,” supplemented by the emotional engagement in one’s subject (24).

Let us now turn to the three albums that can serve as representative examples of how the project of creating national memories was carried out at the level of the domestic album. One album, dated 1829, belonged to a teenage girl, Maria Łubieńska; the second was kept from 1843 to the late 1860s by an educated man with political aspirations, Edward Rastawiecki.(11) The single organizing principle of these albums is the idea of Poland, yet it is executed very differently. In the teenage girl’s album the idea of nation is expressed through naive and exaggerated drawings and inscriptions that focus on Polish women’s duties as patriots. Rastawiecki’s album is a more “public” document, a forum where men (almost exclusively) exchange views on politics; they carry on a dialogue with the help of album inscriptions. Krasiński’s album (1863-64) served the community of Polish POWs as a space in which they could recollect the military insurrection and envision their future independent homeland.

Maria Łubieńska’s album has an informative first page that explains the idea behind her album. At the top of the first page there is a semicircular inscription that functions as the title of the “book”: “A laughing-stock of strangers, the memory of our tears” (“Urągowisko obcych, naszych łez zabytek”). The missing antecedent is obviously Poland. At the bottom of the page there is a cherub who puts a finger to his lips (possibly suggesting that the album is a secret document because of its political content). Under the cherub we find an inscription “Poland has not yet died as long as we are alive” (“Jeszcze Polska nie zginęła kiedy my żyjemy”), the opening verses of the Polish national anthem. The middle of the title page is occupied by a composition which includes a pedestal and an open book; both objects have names of Polish poets written on them, for example, Adam Mickiewicz, Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz, Antoni Edward Odyniec, and others. A picture of an inkwell with a quill, a lyre, and laurels points to the literary character of the album and suggests that the poets and the concept of homeland are strongly connected. The message of this composition is that Poland has not yet died as a country because of the “memory work” done by the poets, and by citizens such as the album’s owner.

The titles of copied poems best summarize the thematic trend: “Spring 1793” (“Wiosna 1793”), “Return to Poland” (“Powrót do Polski”), “Death of Traitor to the Fatherland” (“Śmierć zdrajcy Ojczyzny”), “Eagle” (“Orzeł”), “A Willow and a Weeping Birch” (“Wierzba i brzoza płacząca”). These titles point to the overarching theme of Poland realized on different planes: exile and return, history, national emblems and symbols. The album also contains several poems on the subject of a young woman’s duties toward her society and nation. The poem “A Tear” (“Łza”) describes numerous virtues desirable in a young woman; if she displays them, her reward will be motherhood. Another poem, “A Mother to her Daughter on her Wedding Day” (“Matka do córki w dzień ślubu”), compares earthly mothers to Mary, Mother of God, and lends one more dimension to the theme of the Polish Mother ensuring a continuity of the Polish nation.

While we may call Łubieńska’s album a typically “feminine” (derivative, sentimentally framed) project of a young woman who wanted to participate in her own way in the discourse on Polish national identity, Edward Rastawiecki’s album has a stereotypically “masculine” design. It is organized solely around a discussion of the national identity, carried out on the pages of the album. The album’s “official” name, akin to the title of a journal or a public document, makes the purpose of its existence explicit: “National Album of Edward Rastawiecki” (“Imiennik narodowy Edwarda Rastawieckiego”). All entries refer to the idea of Poland. In contrast to Łubieńska’s album filled with copied poetry and self-made drawings, prose dominates in Rastawiecki’s album. The album includes polemics on political topics, carried on mostly by men; the album is a forum for exchanges of political ideas. It is a semipublic document of political life and a means of circumventing censorship during partitions. Called a “book of national memories” (“książka narodowych pamiątek,” 324), the album touches on all aspects of Polish nationhood and discusses competing programs of achieving independence and creating a nation-state. Adrian Krzyżanowski reflects on how Germans are a “power without a nation. . . cobbled together from other nations” (“Mocarstwo bez narodu. . . z obcych tylko sklejone narodów”). He also writes that Africa and Asia have “governments,” but not “nations.” According to him, “nations are created in America. Europe has a few, our Polish nation among them” (“Narody powstają w Ameryce. Europa ma ich kilka, a w tych poczcie jest nasz, polski”).(12) However, Krzyżanowski does not list his criteria for what a nation is and he does not specify what makes Poland one of the few existing nations. Such a stance certainly gives Poles some self-confidence, since to be a nation, in this context, is to possess a rare quality that is inborn (Poland just happens to have it and others do not).

Most entries in Rastawiecki’s album make some use of the idea of historical continuity with previous generations of fellow countrymen. In 1844, Łukasz Gołębiowski wrote that “the past is linked to the future by a diamond chain of eternity” (“Przeszłość diamentowym wieczności łańcuchem spojona z przyszłością”). The “womb of the past” contains “the nation of succeeding ages” (“W jej łonie naród następnych wieków”). The past should be a “holy book” (“święta księga”) and a “mirror in which the character of their kin is reflected” (“zwierciadło, gdzie się odbija cecha ich rodu,” 314). Twelve years later, Józef Gołuchowski agreed that the foundation of the nation is its “traditional past” (“tradycyjne przeszłości,” 315). In 1848, Józef Ignacy Kraszewski called on his readers to “collect the cut-up body of the past” (“zbierajmy przeszłości rozsiekane ciało,” 316-7). This leads to generalizations such as “everything is beautiful in the Polish past” (“W przeszłości polskiej wszystko jest piękne,” Julian Bartoszewicz, 1852; 322).

The imagery and arguments included in Łubieńska’s and Rastawiecki’s albums may serve as a summary of the ways in which post-Commonwealth Poles attempted to define themselves as a Polish nation. The purpose of that endeavor was to find a way of creating a new nation state, a task that coincided with the concrete historical situation, but also more general sociopolitical trends of (re)inventing national communities in a new style, with all the fashionable props such as anthems, emblems, flags, illustrious past and heroes, and an essential folk tradition.

Benedict Anderson’s celebrated term “imagined political community” is perhaps the best short description of the idea of Poland that emerges from nineteenth-century albums (6). The album writers and keepers were active participants in the imagining of both a synchronic and diachronic national community. They were doing so with the help of the frequently imperfect or creative recollections of the non-existent past. This process of “remembering forward,” as it were, was in fact a wishful projection of the future. Polish Romantic writers and readers created a new language to remember and create a nation. According to the Polish critic Ewa Graczyk, the language of Romanticism “has become in [the last] hundred and fifty years the archetypal language of Poles, building . . . a structure of Polish identity.”(13)

The vitality of Polish Romantic paradigms and imagery invites speculations as to what has kept them alive. It is as if Polish culture has not yet realized that “the very concepts of homogenous national cultures, the consensual or contiguous transmission of historical traditions, or ‘organic’ ethnic communities-as the grounds of cultural comparativism-are in a profound process of redefiniton,” to use Bhabha’s formulation.(14) Svetlana Boym’s reflections on Halbwachs’s collective frameworks of memory provide an interesting direction for considering the undying impact that Romantic culture has had on Polish national consciousness. To use Boym’s metaphor, one realizes the existence of such frameworks when a community “enters the moment of twilight” because “collective frameworks of memory are rediscovered in mourning.”(15) Mourning, in turn, is a reaction to loss, be it of homeland or freedom. While the main characteristic of mourning is intensity, the essence of a related phenomenon-melancholy-lies in its duration (54-55). It seems that in the Polish case, mourning, in the postpartition period, led not only to a rediscovery of certain vestiges of the past, but also to their hurried generation. However, the length of political subjugation (1772-1918), followed by a short interval of finding a “political roof” (1918-39), the subsequent war, and the Communist experience, lasting until 1989, may have caused a prolonged period of national “melancholy.”(16) In that period Romantic culture itself, with its references to a glorious Polish past, love and sympathy for a personified “Mother Poland,” and belief in the power of language and religion, became a collective framework of memory, helpful in facing everyday reality. The albums of nineteenth-century Poland serve as tangible symbols of this framework.


1. Nineteenth-century Europe was preoccupied with the idea of memory and remembering, a preoccupation that had grown out of the Sentimentalist discourse of death. According to Phillipe Aries, the human fear of death generated various institutional channels through which the fear could be “tamed” and symbolically controlled. The “cult of memory” in the nineteenth century assumed many new forms: funeral processions, mourning clothes, new concepts and designs of cemeteries, and pilgrimages to the places of burial. Phillipe Aries, Western Attitudes Toward Death: From the Middle Ages to the Present, translated by Patricia M. Ranum (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974), 56. For a sociological reading of cultural production as a means of counteracting mortality see Zygmunt Bauman, Mortality, Immortality, and Other Life Strategies (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1992).

2. Images, such as the forget-me-not (popular since the nineteenth century) have represented the workings of memory throughout centuries; since antiquity, images have served as “forms, marks, simulacra of what we wish to remember,” writes Frances Yates in The Art of Memory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966), 6. Aristotle, Plato, Cicero, Aquinas, and da Vinci, among others, believed that “remembrance of things [was] held by images” (51).

3. Homi K. Bhabha, “Introduction,” Nation and Narration, edited by Homi K. Bhabha (London and New York: Routledge, 1990), 2.

4. For an excellent analysis of the rise of nationalism in Poland in the Romantic age, see Andrzej Walicki, Philosophy and Romantic Nationalism: The Case of Poland (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982).

5. Maria Dernałowicz, “Przedmowa,” Andrzej Biernacki, Sztambuch romantyczny (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1994), 21.

6. Maria Janion, Prace wybrane, vol. 1, Gorączka romantyczna (Kraków: Universitas, 2000), 6.

7. Ernest Gellner, Nations and Nationalism [1983], 6th ed. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994); Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism [1983], 10th ed. (London and New York: Verso, 2000). Other books on the topic of national consciousness as a sum of inventions and myths include E. J. Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism Since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992); Commemorations: The Politics of National Identity, edited by John R. Gillis, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994); Myths and Nationhood, edited by Geoffrey Hosking and George Schöpflin (New York: Routledge, 1997).

8. Zofia Trojanowiczowa, “Organizator narodowej wyobraźni,” Księga Mickiewiczowska, edited by Zofia Trojanowiczowa and Zbigniew Przychodniak (Poznań: Wydawnictwo Naukowe, 1998), 11. Cyprian Kamil Norwid, Promethidion, quoted in Trojanowiczowa, 11.

9. Maurice Halbwachs, The Collective Memory, translated by Francis J. Ditter, Jr. and Vida Yazdi Ditter (New York: Harper & Row, 1980), 24-25.

10. Pierre Nora, “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Memoire,” Representations 26 (1989): 7.

11. Maria Łubieńska’s album, the National Library, Warsaw, Poland, ms. I 5796, mf. 49890. Edward Rastawiecki’s album, the Jagiellonian University Archives, Kraków, Poland. A selection of entries from Rastawiecki’s album has been published in Andrzej Biernacki, Sztambuch romantyczny (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1994), 311-33.

12. Reprinted in Biernacki, 312-13.

13. Ewa Graczyk, “Przeżyć dzień, napisać księgę?” Nasze pojedynki o romantyzm, edited by Dorota Siwicka and Marek Bieńczyk (Warsaw: IBL, 1995), 35.

14. Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), 5.

15. Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (New York: Basic Books, 2001), 54.

16. The phrase “political roof” comes from Gellner (48).

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