Secret Societies of All Ages: Vol 2 - Charles Heckethorn

VIII. Polish Societies

601. Polish Patriotism.—It is the fashion to express great sympathy with the Poles and a corresponding degree of indignation against Russia, Austria, and Prussia; the Poles are looked upon as a patriotic race, oppressed by their more powerful neighbours. But all this rests on mere misapprehension and ignorance of facts. The Polish people under their native rulers were abject serfs. The aristocracy were everything, and possessed everything; the people possessed nothing, not even political or civil rights, when these clashed with the whims or interests of the nobles. It is these last whose power has been overthrown—it is they who make war on and conspire against Russia, to recover (as is admitted by some of their own writers) their ancient privileges over their own countrymen, who blindly, like most nations, allow themselves to be slaughtered for the benefit of those who only seek again to rivet on the limbs of their dupes the chains which have been broken. It is like the French and Spaniards and Neapolitans fighting against their deliverer Napoleon, to bring back the Bourbon tyrants, and with them the people's political nullity, clerical intolerance, lettres de cachet, and the Inquisition. How John Bull has been gulled by these Polish patriots! Many of them were criminals of all kinds, who succeeded in breaking out of prison, or escaping before they could be captured; and, managing to come over to this country, have here called themselves political fugitives, victims of Russian persecution, and have lived luxuriously on the credulity of Englishmen! Moreover, the documents published by Adolf Beer from the Vienna, and by Max Duncker from the Berlin archives (1874), show that the statement of Frederick the Great, that the partition of Poland was the only way of avoiding a great European war, was perfectly true.

602. Various Revolutionary Sects.—One of the first societies formed in Poland to organise the revolutionary forces of the country was that of the "True Poles"; but, consisting of few persons only, it did not last long. In 1818 another sect arose, that of "National Freemasonry," which borrowed the rites, degrees, and language of Freemasonry, but aimed at national independence. The society was open to persons of all classes, but sought chiefly to enlist soldiers and officials, so as to turn their technical knowledge to account in the day of the struggle. But though numerous, the society lasted only a few years; for disunion arose among the members, and it escaped total dissolution only by transformation. It altered its rites and ceremonies, and henceforth called itself the "Scythers," in remembrance of the revolution of 1794, in which whole regiments, armed with scythes, had gone into battle. They met in 1821 at Warsaw, and drew up a new revolutionary scheme, adopting at the same time the new denomination of "Patriotic Society."

In the meanwhile the students of the University of Wilna had formed themselves into a secret society; which, however, was discovered by the Prussian Government and dissolved. In 1822 the Patriotic Society combined with the masonic rite of "Modern Templars," founded in Poland by Captain Maiewski; to the three rites of symbolical masonry was added a fourth, in which the initiated swore to do all in his power towards the liberation of his country. These combined societies brought about the insurrection of 1830. In 1834 was established the society of "Young Poland"; one of its most distinguished members and chiefs being Simon Konarski, who had already distinguished himself in the insurrection of 1830. He then made his escape, and in order better to conceal himself learned the art of watchmaking. Having returned to Poland and joined "Young Poland," he was discovered in 1838, and subjected to the torture to extort from him the names of his accomplices. But no revelations could be obtained from him, and he bore his sufferings with such courage that the military governor of Wilna exclaimed, "This is a man of iron!" A Prussian officer offered to assist him in escaping, and being detected, was sent to the Caucasian army for life. Konarski was executed in 1839, the people tearing his clothes to pieces to possess a relic of him. The chains he had been loaded with were formed into rings and worn by his admirers. Men like these redeem the sins of many so-called "Polish patriots."

603. Secret National Government.—Some time before the outbreak of the Crimean war a secret national government was formed in Poland, of course with the object of organising an insurrection against Russia. Little was known for a long time about their proceedings. Strange stories were circulated of midnight meetings in subterranean passages; of traitors condemned by courts composed of masked and hooded judges, from whose sentence there was no appeal and no escape; of domiciliary visits from which neither the palace nor the hovel was exempt; and of corpses found nightly in the most crowded streets of the city, or on the loneliest wastes of the open country, the dagger which had killed the victim bearing a label stamped with the well-known device of the insurrectionary committee. So perfectly was the secret of the modern Vehmgericht kept that the Russian police were completely baffled in their attempts to discover its members.

At that period the Poles were divided into two parties, the "whites" and the "reds"; the former representing the aristocratic, the latter the democratic element of the nation. Each had its own organisation. The whites were mostly in favour of strictly constitutional resistance; the reds were for open rebellion and an immediate appeal to arms. But a union was brought about between the two parties in consequence of the conscription introduced by Russia into Poland in 1863, which set fire to the train of rebellion that had so long been preparing. But Langiewicz, the Polish leader, having been defeated, the movements of the insurgents in the open field were arrested; though the rebellion was prolonged in other ways, chiefly with a view of inducing the Western Powers to interfere in behalf of Poland. But these naturally thought that as the Polish people, the peasantry, had taken very little share in the insurrection, and as Alexander II. had really introduced a series of reforms which materially improved the position of his Polish subjects, there was no justification for the outbreak; and therefore justice was allowed to take its course. Subsequent attempts at insurrection, with a view to re-establish the independence of Poland, were defeated by the action of Italian and other revolutionary sects, because, as Petrucelli della Gatina declared in the Chamber of Deputies at Turin in 1864, the Poles, being Roman Catholics, would, immediately on their emancipation, throw themselves at the feet of the pope and offer him their swords, blood, and fortunes. These revolutionists are far more astute than our beloved diplomatists.