With Fire and Sword, IV: The Political Dimension

Sienkiewicz has set  his narrative in the most troubled period of Polish history. This is not one of the historical subjects I know at all well and will content myself with a brief comment that will probably do as much to distort as to clarify the context.

From today's perspective, Poles frequently comment on the tragedy of their nation, caught between two ruthless imperial peoples, German and Russian.  One might add, that the Swedes to the North were also a threat.  That is a valid way of looking at the situation, but there is another:  Poland was in a good position to expand in several directions, and in the glory years, she did exactly that.

The Germans, even as barbarians, were among the greatest warriors the world has ever known, and, despite their constant feuding,  they eventually developed a capacity for building and sustaining state apparatus, as we can see in the history of Merovingian and Carolingian France, England under Alfred and his successors, and the absurd and unwieldy Holy Roman Empire.  Like all feudal polities--Polish, French, Spanish--the German states were torn between centralizing impulses I call centripetal and the centrifugal forces that always threatened to split kingdoms into duchies, duchies into baronies, and baronies into petty fiefdoms.  In the hands of strong dynasties, Germans could be formidable in their unity of purpose, and they had been taught by Saint Boniface (I believe) to equate Slav with Slave.  They suppressed various Slavic groups within Germany (e.g. Sorbs) and pushed the Poles to the East, where they found it easier to expand into the Ukraine, a name that means border region.

The Russians, who had been conquered and oppressed by Mongols and Tartars, had been checked in their state-building, and the more or less Russian peoples of the region did not offer much resistance to the expansion of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth.   The wild-cards were the various Cossack groups, predominantly Slavic (probably) but with a mixture of Tartars and renegades of every type.  As federate shock troops, the Cossacks had been very important in the Polish expansion and defense of their empire, but the misgovernment of the Polish nobility had aroused resentments among both Cossacks and the peasantry of the Ukraine.

The 17th century was a key period for the Poles, since their empire was assailed by Cossacks, Tartars, and, from time to time, the Swedes.  Their great strength was the heroism of the independent Polish nobility, and their great weakness was the independence of the heroic and not-so-heroic Polish nobility.

Among political historians and theorists, the commonplace judgment is that the Poles could not form a proper state because of not just their turbulence but also the anarchism of a political structure in which all members of the ruling class, that is the nobles, were regarded in principle as equal.  They all had a vote in choosing, a king and anyone could propose a measure.  During the 17th and 18th century, they developed the liberum veto--the free veto--that required unanimity in major decisions.

Such a commonwealth, so the cliche runs, had to he unstable, and it was not simply the unanimity rule or the power of  their parliament but the entire society that fundamentally rejected good order.  From the perspective of the state-building nations of France, Spain, and England, the cliche appears true, and yet the Poles for a time were among the largest and most powerful nations in Europe.  Some of their greatness certainly derived from their ability to take care of business in all their little principalities and fiefdoms, and  in the greatness of people like Prince Yeremi.

I have only been to Poland once, to meet with a group of independent Catholic intellectuals in Cracow.  Much of the conversation turned on their defense of the old Polish system.   But let us postpone further discussion of this after a number of readers have been able to comment.  Obviously, none of us is able to speak with authority but let us test the contesting theses by applying them to the novel.

Avatar photo

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

8 Responses

  1. Allen Wilson says:

    The edition I’m reading was downloaded from the internet archive, and so I keep fighting off the guilt and shame of having to read an electronic version of a book I had been meaning to buy for years but never did. It has an introduction explaining the historical background of the period, which I did not read because I wanted to get on with the book, and because I had listened to podcasts concerning various aspects of Ukrainian and Russian history, including Hemlnitsky, and thought I knew the bare essentials.

    I always assumed that the Polish system worked well at first, but then broke down as it became corrupt. After all, Calhoun used it as an example in his famous treatise, so it must have had some good qualities. Perhaps it’s weakness was indeed the reliance on the nobility. As long as you have such a great nobility, and they don’t quarrel amongst themselves, everything might work, but it’s easy to see how quarrels amongst nobility, or a softening of the class upon which so much depends, might lead to disaster. A little more stable and better developed bureaucracy and state might have helped, but then we all know where developed bureaucracy and state can lead. I’m not sure they made a mistake here.

    Certainly, as far as the novel is concerned, the nobility has dropped the ball, and let it roll right into Cossack hands.

    There is no doubt that the system had become oppressive to the Ukrainians, and I wonder also about the Polish peasantry, since the nobility had come to speak Latin and claimed to be descended from Sarmations, and not from lowly Slavs like the peasants. This suggests quite a big rift in Polish society which could have cause great weakness.

  2. Clyde Wilson says:

    We would appreciate a little preliminary heads up on the two sequels.

  3. Jacob Johnson says:

    As I see it Mr. Wilson outlines this well. As I read, I was unsure about the Cossack complaints because I do not know the history. They sounded somewhat similar to the Intolerable acts, some of them. But my question after reading them was “is this true?’ The standard high school textbook account of the French Revolution is that the court spent all the money on frivolities and starved the people, so these things I reserve judgment on. As the narrative goes on, it seems clear that the parliament of nobility is inattentive to the conditions and thinks that appeasement is prudent, lamenting the spilling of Christian blood as the Cossacks employ the Tartars who may not even know what a truce is. “More fit for feasts than for war”, as is said of them.

  4. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Sinkiewicz, it seems to me, succeeds because he does not start from a partisan or ideological position but tries to make sense of an historical period by telling its story in a microcosm. If people are interested, they should certainly go on, when they have time, to read the other volumes. As I have said repeatedly, I have not even an amateur’s knowledge of the period and the culture, and I can be of too little help.

    I shall be starting a new book this week. Last time,. when I was proposing possible books, the list included:

    Aeschylus, The Seven Against Thebes.

    Xenophon’s Anabasis, which Gibbon regarded as one of the greatest historical narratives, or Oeconomicus, which deals with household and family management.

    Several of Tennyson’s Arthurian Idyls.

    The strongest support seemed to be for Xenophon or Aeschylus, but someone also nominated the Heart of Midlothian, one of Scott’s best works.

    How do you vote?

  5. Allen Wilson says:

    There is a Polish movie based on this volume, with the same name, on Youtube. The battle scenes are quite good if not filmed exactly the way the book describes.

  6. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    The film was positively reviewed, as I understand it, in Poland. We’re going to watch it soon.

  7. Jacob Johnson says:

    It takes a mature author to write such a book I think. I look froward to reading the next two someday. I’ve just started reading Oeconomicus in the morning and the Heart of Midlothian at night, but I have no preference and am enthused to use all of them as bricks in the fortification against invasions from Boringland in whatever order.

  8. Allen Wilson says:

    Can anyone give advice on a good print edition? I was reading a electronic copy of the Jeremiah Curtin translation. It seems that printed versions available online are either printed by small single-run publishers and of questionable quality, or are expensive.