Your Country Has Ceased to Exist, And That’s For Your Own Good

Well, I have finished Frederick Shoberl’s little guide to early 19th century Imperial Austria, Austria; Containing a Description of the Manners, Customs, Character and Costumes of the People of That Empire, and it appears that he saved the worst for last.

Generally, Shoberl thinks most highly of those in the Western part of the Austrian Empire, and his opinion of people decline as he travels east. German Austrians in all their permutations are perfectly wonderful, if somewhat quaint, followed by the western Slavs (Czechs and Slovaks), and then the southern Slavs (Croats), and then the Magyars, and finally, he has little good to say about those Romanians living within the confines of the Austrian Empire.

But his worst opinions are saved for those Poles who came under Austrian rule following the multiple partitions of Poland by Russia, Prussia and Austria in the second half of the 18th century. Apparently, the disappearance of Poland — something lamented by Polish nationalists well into the 20th century — was a benefit for the Poles themselves, since they were incapable of enlightened self-rule:

Much as it has been the fashion to deplore the “fatal partition” of Poland, and to execrate the powers concerned in it, we have now the satisfaction to know that to the Poles themselves this measure has proved one of the greatest blessings. Every individual has gained by it, excepting a few selfish, pampered magnates, who abused their overgrown power, and inflicted perpetual misery on the serfs whom Providence had subjected to their rule.  

If ever there was a country where “might constituted right,” that country was Poland. The most dreadful oppression, the most execrable tyranny, and the most wanton cruelties, were daily exercised by the nobles on their unfortunate peasants. Dr. Neale in his Travels adduces a few facts which prove but too clearly their miserable condition.  

The life of a peasant was held of no greater value than that of one of his horned cattle; and if his lord killed him he was merely fined a hundred Polish florins, or two pounds sixteen shillings of our money. If, on the contrary, a man of low birth presumed to raise his hand against a nobleman, death was the inevitable punishment. If any one dared to question the nobility of a magnat, he was required to prove his assertion, or doomed to die: nay, if a powerful man took a fancy to the field of his humbler neighbour and erected a land-mark upon it, and if that land-mark remained three days, the poor man lost his possession.  

The atrocious cruelties habitually exercised almost exceed credibility. A Masalki caused his hounds to devour a peasant who chanced to fright his horse; a Radzivil had the belly of one of his serfs ripped open, that he might thrust his feet into it, in the hope of being cured of a malady with which he was afflicted. Still there were laws in Poland, but how were they executed? A peasant, going to the market at Warsaw, met a man who had just assassinated another: he seized the murderer, bound him, and having placed him in his wagon together with the body of his victim, he went to deliver him up to the nearest Starost. On his arrival, he was asked if he had ten ducats to pay for his interference, and on his answering in the negative, he was sent back with his dead and living lumber. After this fact, the reader will not be surprised to learn, that it cost a merchant of Warsaw fourteen hundred dollars to prosecute to conviction and execution two robbers who had plundered him.

Of course, we all know that the lives of the poor — peasant, urban dweller, Irish — were sacred in the United Kingdom. We all know in 1828 Britain, a rich man could never take the life of a poor one with impunity, could never steal the small holding of a peasant legally, and the lives of the poor were respected as if they mattered as much as those of the wealthy or were of the gentry.

But enough. Let’s go on. Because it gets worse:

The morals of the people, were then, as they still continue to be, nearly at the lowest point of debasement. Female chastity is a virtue unknown in Poland. Among persons of all ranks, from the highest to the lowest, with very few exceptions, the most dreadful licentiousness prevails. The men are equally profligate; and debauchery of every kind prevails among them to a degree unknown in other countries of Europe. Education is in general much neglected, the lower classes being unable to obtain the means of instruction: and among the higher, where no man is assured of the legitimacy of his offspring, a total indifference prevails as to the training of the doubtful brood. They are therefore neglected from their cradles, and left to the indulgence of every passion, undisciplined, untutored and uncontrolled. Endowed by nature with great personal beauty, the young Polish noble makes the tour of France and Germany, engrafts the vices of every capital that he visits on his own native stock; and after dilapidating his revenues returns to his paternal estate with a train of French cooks, valets, parasites and all the paraphernalia of modern luxury, to wallow in sensuality, and to die prematurely of acquired disease.

I read this and was reminded of the really bad joke, “So, why wasn’t Jesus born in Poland?” It reads like some moralist’s lecture on the evils of, well, being Polish. As if that were a choice, or something. I’d like to say this is as bad as it gets, but … it does get worse.

Because apparently Poland has far too many Jews in it. And one of Emperor Joseph II’s great attempts to better Polish life was to place restrictions on what Jews could do in Galicia, that part of Poland the Austrian Empire acquired in the dicing up of Poland:

In no country in Europe have the Jews obtained such firm footing as in Poland, where Casimir the Great, at the instigation of his Jewish mistress, Esther, took them, four centuries ago, into his especial favour and protection. Enjoying privileges and immunities which they possess in no other region, with opportunities of engaging deeply in traffic and accumulating immense fortunes; masters of all the specie and most of the commerce of Poland; mortgagees of the land, and sometimes masters of the glebe—the Jewish interlopers appear to be more the lords of the country then even the Poles themselves.  

All the distilleries throughout Poland are farmed out to Jews, who pay large sums to the nobles for the privilege of poisoning and intoxicating their serfs. Mr. Burnett states, that when he was in Poland, a company of Jews paid to Count Zaymoski the sum of three thousand pounds sterling annually for the mere privilege of distilling spirituous liquors on the largest of his estates, which, to be sure, comprehends at least four thousand square miles. Hence some estimate may be formed of the enormous quantity that is consumed. 

When Joseph II. obtained possession of Galicia, that judicious prince perceived the necessity of limiting the privileges of the Jews. He took from them the power of cultivating the lands belonging to the serfs subject to contributions, and prohibited them from keeping inns and distilling spirits: but at his death these regulations ceased to be enforced, and the Jews have since been silently regaining their former influence.  

The inns, as has been already observed, are now altogether in their hands, as well as the fabrication of ardent spirits and liqueurs. They have all the traffic in peltry, the precious metals, diamonds and other jewels, and they are also the principal agents in the corn-trade. Of late years many of these Jewish families who had amassed great wealth by commerce, having affected to abjure their religion and to embrace the Catholic faith, have been ennobled and permitted to purchase extensive estates: still true, however, to their own nation, they have built large towns and villages on these estates, and peopled them exclusively with Jewish families; for from a singular instinct the Poles seem to detest their fellowship, and generally herd together in their own miastas.  

The enjoyment of liberty and civil rights seems to have produced a strong effect on the physical constitution and physiognomy of the Hebrew race, and to have bestowed on them a dignity and energy of character, which we may look for in vain in the Jews of other countries. The men, clothed in long black robes reaching to their ankles, and sometimes adorned in front with silver agraffes, their heads covered with fur caps, their chesnut or auburn locks parted in front, and falling gracefully on their shoulders in spiral curls, display much manly beauty. In feminine beauty, the women are likewise distinguished; but beauty is not uncommon among the Jewesses of other countries. When looking at them, says Dr. Neale, seated, according to their usual custom, on a wooden sofa, by the doors of their houses, on the evenings of their sabbath, dressed in their richest stuffs and pearl head-dresses, I have imagined that I could trace a strong resemblance between their present head-ornaments and those sculptured on the heads of the Egyptian sphynxes. Nor do I think it at all improbable, that the dresses of the Hebrews of both sexes in Poland, are at this day nearly the same as those of their ancestors when they quitted the “house of bondage.”

Ahh, those wretched, thieving, king-seducing and utterly unchanging Jews bereft of any civic spirit and poisoning the people with your vile liquors and your miserable hostels!

In this chapter, Shoberl quotes a lot from a Dr. Neale’s Travels (a book I cannot find with a cursory Google search), and at first it seems like he’s not even bothered to visit Galicia himself. But he adds that he found Dr. Neale’s account hard to believe, and wouldn’t have believed if it he hadn’t seen with his own eyes the mean state of those in Austrian Poland. I’m trying to consider the nature of Shoberl’s animus toward the Poles — could it be that they were enthusiastic supporters of Napoleon (and the country was temporarily revived during the Napoleonic Wars) and thus on the wrong side of what, by 1828, were The Late Unpleasantries? It’s hard to tell.

I have a difficult time believing the state of your typical Pole was all that different than the Magyar peasants describes, and yet he doesn’t call their subjugation by their Magyar overlords something done for their own good. And he doesn’t single out Jews for such abysmal treatment until he gets to Poland. (Indeed, aside from noting that Austria is full of Jews, he doesn’t even describe how they live until he gets to Poland.)

Well, I’ve had another armchair tour of the continent from the early 19th century. These are fun to read. Even when they aren’t.