Home > History > Citizenship and Identity In a Multinational Commonwealth : Poland-Lithuania in Context, 1550–1772

Citizenship and Identity In a Multinational Commonwealth : Poland-Lithuania in Context, 1550–1772

  • Author: Karin Friedrich and Barbara M. Pendzich.
  • Series: Studies in Central European Histories
  • ISBN 10: 9004169830
  • ISBN 13: 9789004169838
  • Publisher: Brill Academic Publishers
  • Published: November 15, 2008
  • Pages: 307
  • Format: PDF
  • Amazon Price:$158



The practice of citizenship has been an important topic in the burgeoning democracies of east-central Europe ever since they emerged from behind the Iron Curtain in 1989. In the search for antecedents of democratic activity historians have turned their attention not only back to the interwar period, but perhaps more significantly, to a comparative re-evaluation of early modern parliaments, estates and representations in Eastern Europe. Such institutions were neither guarantors of modern notions of liberty, nor could they be embedded into a smooth teleological narrative of the birth of democracy, but they relied on ‘consensus systems’, able to create a common modus vivendi for groups with very different confessional, regional and national identities. In much of early modern Europe, after the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, attempts at integration failed or never developed much beyond medieval corporate traditions, as dynasties expanded their power—boosting, to use Weberian terms, their charismatic and their bureaucratic rule, usually insisting on mono-confessional arrangements.

In east-central Europe, and more specifically in Poland–Lithuania, the relatively peaceful co-existence of confessions, parliamentary political life and republican citizenship, however, was remarkably long-lived, until the Commonwealth’s final demise through partition—by Russia, Prussia and Austria—between 1772 and 1795. Early modern Polish political culture proves that the creation of civil society and the rule of law as preconditions for the flourishing of liberty were not the original inventions of nineteenth-century liberalism. The constitutional limitation of the ruler by laws and immunities, the mixed form of government, the free election of the monarch by the noble citizens, a bicameral parliament and representative local assemblies, the principle of unanimity, and the constitutional right to resist central power meant that the accumulation of powers by the citizenry went much further in the Commonwealth than in any other early modern state. The conscious adaptation of classical models of citizenship and representation by the learned and well-travelled elite of the Polish–Lithuanian state during the Renaissance, the influence of conciliarist theory and ideas of active toleration proved cornerstones of the development of Poland–Lithuania during the sixteenth century—its ‘golden age’ of liberty.

The Commonwealth of many nations was built on powerful ideas of self-government by a society of citizens—not on the basis of dynastic ties, a strong bureaucratic apparatus imposed on passive subjects, or ideas of ethnic nationalism. This model attracted other national and social groups, including Cossacks, Jews, and even Muslims, as well as the burghers in Lithuanian, Ruthenian or Prussian towns, to the constitution of the Commonwealth, albeit with varied consequences. An enduring crisis hit the Commonwealth in the mid-seventeenth century with the Cossack and Muscovite wars and the Swedish ‘Deluge’, from which it found it hard to recover. The romanticisation of Polish history by later writers, in particular during the partition period, as well as the damning judgement of foreigners who often misunderstood Poland–Lithuania’s exceptional constitution, has hampered the emergence of a balanced and unblinkered view of the Commonwealth.

The expansion of the European Union eastwards has fuelled doubts in ‘old Europe’ about the ability of east-central European states to build modern democracies and tolerant societies. The tradition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth is thereby often overlooked in favour of the nationalist romanticism and xenophobia of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, which arose from the specific context of the partitions. Yet citizenship in a multi-national context was a central theme of the political debate in the early modern Commonwealth. This collection of essays suggests that even if the historic context in which the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth existed was very different from today, the creative solutions and compromises it negotiated to integrate many faiths and ethnicities may still be a relevant one.

The idea to this book originated from the final seminar of the Sawyer Seminar Series, Citizens within Subjects. Political Rights and Participation in Historical and Contemporary Perspective, funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and based at the University of Aberdeen.

Collapse was not inevitable and Polish history was not a death foretold by the events of 1648–1658 or the partitions of the Commonwealth. He understood that the seeming disorder of the Polish- Lithuanian Commonwealth was an illusion resulting from scholars’ focus trained upon a few weak institutions. It was Andrzej’s brilliant insight that what bound Poland together was not, at base, institutions, but a common political culture defined by the, often rival, ideals of both constitutionalism and republicanism. This resulted in a mixed form of government where monarchy, aristocracy and democracy were entwined in a perpetual dance, balancing each other in a way that avoided the alternative extremes of tyranny, oligarchy or anarchy. What made the system work as well as it did was its foundation beliefs in liberty and tolerance together with the extraordinary ability of its practitioners to mediate and compromise. What made it work not well enough was its inability to live up to its own ideals of freedom and equality; its failure to expand the bounds of freedom to the farthest reaches of society.

This leads, of course, to the second of Andrzej Kamiński’s paradigm changing insights: The Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth was the state of all of its people. Polish history is not just the history of Poles but of all of the Commonwealth’s national and religious groups. Poland was Poland not despite the presence of non-Poles but to a great degree because of them. Its social organization, economic system and political institutions were at least tacitly premised on the existence of a diverse, richly heterogeneous population. Finally, in describing multiethnic Poland, Andrzej has emphasized that the Commonwealth’s practical pluralism was, until its demise, evolving into an example of a proto-modern civil society where people of different faiths and ethnicities could subscribe to a common political ethos, develop a supra-ethnic political culture, jointly exercise political authority, work towards mutual toleration and all consider themselves as members of the same social, economic and political entity.

His books have enriched us with some of what he knows. His probing questions and challenging observations have pushed us to learn on our own much more than we otherwise might have done. His example of comprehensive scholarship, unconventional thinking, and originality has set a standard that each of us aspires to meet.

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