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Refraining from ‘periphery’

Refraining from ‘periphery’: The first German handbook of Polish history, the concept of the ‘civilizing mission’ and its transfer to 19th-century Polish historiography


Elżbieta Kwiecińska


The idea of the ‘civilizing mission’ has been most frequently considered within the framework of Western colonialism. For instance, it was used by British Empire in India to legitimize political power. Nevertheless, it also appeared in East-Central Europe as a transfer from Western Europe: from German to Polish national thought. The same concept of the ‘civilizing mission’ used by German authors to orientalize Poles was then reinterpreted by Poles and adapted to orientalize Ukrainians.


In German national thought, the concept of the ‘civilizing mission’ appeared for the first time in Richard Roepell’s book Geschichte Polens (‘A history of Poland’), published in 1840. It was the first national history of Poland written by a German-speaking author for the German public. Unlike earlier German authors such as Leopold von Ranke, Roepell considered Poland to be a part of Europe. According to Roepell, Poland joined Europe as a result of adopting Christianity in 966 BC. After that, however, it was the Germans who ‘civilized’ Poles. Roepell adopted the Kultutaurträgertheorie (‘the theory of carrying a culture’), whereby Germans were considered a superior Kulturvolk (‘cultural nation’) and Poles were regarded as an inferior Naturvolk (‘nation in the state of nature’). As a result, Poles needed a German ‘civilizing mission’ because, according to Roepell, they were of a lower culture. [1]



The title page of the first Polish national history written in German. Richard Roepell, Geschichte Polens (Friedrich Perth: Hamburg, 1840).

The meaning of the German ‘civilizing mission’ to Poland was strictly connected to other neighboring concepts, including colonization, culture, and Bildung (‘enlightenment’, ‘education’). Roepell described ‘German colonization’ as the result of the fact that German ‘culture’ stood ‘higher’ than the Polish one. By ‘German culture’ he meant German language, customs, law, and legal acts. Roepell claimed that the ‘German culture’ carried by ‘German colonization’, together with Western Christianity, formed ‘the Western culture’, which Germany brought to Poland. The main result of the ‘German mission’, he indicated, was the increase in the Bildung of the Polish people. [2]

The concept of the ‘German civilizing mission to Poland’ was borrowed by Karol Szajnocha and reinterpreted as a ‘Polish civilizing mission to Ukraine’. Regarding Roepell’s Geschichte Polens, the Polish historian Karol Szajnocha wrote to his friend Eustachy Rylski that it is ‘very necessary’ for teaching Polish history (he did not describe the other mentioned Polish handbooks in this way [3]) and offered to lend Rylski Geschichte Polens. [4] Szajnocha’s admiration for Roepells’s book might have been the reason why he borrowed and appropriated some of his concepts. The same way in which Poland was ‘the East’ for Germany in Roepell’s Geschichte Polens, Prussia, Lithuania, and Ruthenia/Ukraine were ‘the East’ for Poland in Szajnocha’s works. In his first article, ‘View on the general history of Poland’ (Pol. ‘Pogląd na ogół dziejów Polski’) published in 1847, he used the term ‘civilizing mission’ for the first time in Polish thought. According to Szajnocha, Poland, the same as Germany in Geschichte Polens, carried in its ‘enlightenment’ mission (Pol. oświata; German Bildung) to the East. [5] Szajnocha placed Poland in the ‘universal history of an enlightened humankind’ between the ‘main team of the nations of Western Europe’ and the ‘hordes of Eastern barbarians’. He called that position the ‘double face of Polish history’. [6] Unlike Poland, which was an integral part of the West, the author insisted that Prussia, Lithuania, and Ruthenia needed to join the Polish state to enjoy ‘enlightenment’. [7]



Karol Szajnocha's first article, 'View on the general history of Poland' (1847)

Both Szajnocha and Roepell used the concept of the ‘civilizing mission’ to ‘the East’ in order to show their nation’s value and contribution to the history of ‘the West’. Edward Said famously stated that the Occident needs an Orient as a complementary concept. Following Said, both Polish and German authors created Orients of their nations in order to prove their nation’s ‘Westerness’. Examining the concept of the ‘civilizing mission’ also provides us with an insight into the intellectual history of Poland and Ukraine as European ‘peripheries’.


Elżbieta Kwiecińska is a PhD Researcher in History at the European University Institute. The working title of her PhD project is: ‘The concept of the ‘civilizing mission’ as a cultural transfer: German, Polish, Ukrainian, Jewish intelligentsia in Prussia and Habsburg Galicia and orientalism (1840-1918)’.

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[1] Roepell, Richard, Geschichte Polens (Bei Friedrich Perth: Hamburg 1840), Polish translation: Roepell, Richard, Dzieje Polski do XIV stulecia (Wydawnictwo ‘Poznańskie Towarzystwo Przyjaciól Nauk’, Poznań 2005), p. 333.

[2] Roepell, p. 334.

[3] Those other three were the following handbooks of Polish historians: Joachim Lelewel’s Dzieje Polski synowcom opowiedziane (English: “The history of Poland told to the offspring“), Jędrzej Moraczewski’s Dzieje rzeczypospolitej Polskiej (English: “The history of the Polish Republic“), Adam Naruszewicz Historia narodu polskiego (English: “The history of Polish nation”).

[4] Klemens Kantecki, Żywot Karola Szajnochy., in: Dzieła Karola Szajnochy (Józef Unger: 1878), pp. 299-300.

[5] Karol Szajnocha, Pogląd na ogół dziejów Polski, ‘Biblioteka Narodowa Zakładu Ossolińskich’, v. 1, 1847, p. 2

[6] Karol Szajnocha, pp. 9-10.

[7] Ciągłe to odbijanie jest oraz środkiem dopełnienia innej misji przeznaczenia dziejów naszego narodu, to jest środkiem bronienia Europy od barbarzyństwa wschodu, do którego i wszystkie pomniejsze w około dawnej Polski mieszkające, a przez długi czas pogańskie lub różnowierne narody, jakoto: Prusy, Ruś, Litwę policzyć także wypada. Odbijając bowiem w sobie oświatę zachodniej Europy, oświeca Polska nią także owe pomniejsze wschodnie narody, przywodzi je do przyjęcia tejże samej oświaty, rozprzestrzenia tak coraz dalej granice europejskiej cywilizacyi, usuwa przeto coraz dalej od Europy granice i niebezpieczeństwa wschodniego barbarzyństwa, i nadstawiając wreszcie pierś swoją dalszym azyjskim ludom, na których podobnegoż jak na swoich najbliższych sąsiadach dzieła ucywilizowania ich dokonać nie jest w stanie, dopełnia tak za pomocą owego ciągłego odbijajia w sobie oświaty europejskiej, przeznaczonego sobie obowiązku bronienia Europy.

in: Karol Szajnocha, pp. 24-25




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