On February 20, 1846, inspired by the revolutionary ideals of the exiles who fled the Polish “Stolen Lands”, the Kraków uprising broke in the Free City of Cracow. Despite its failure, it was praised by Karl Marx for being the first uprising in Europe “to plant the banner of social revolution”.
The partitions at the end of the 18th century ended the existance of Poland as an independent political entity. While an independant Polish state was briefly resurrected in 1807, when Napoleon established the Duchy of Warsaw, the downfall of the French Emperor and the ensuing Congress of Vienna solidified the long-term division of the country in 1815.
The Russian Empire received most of the Napoleonic Duchy, which was reorganised into the so-called Congress Kingdom of Poland, and the province of Poznań was given to Prussia as the Grand Duchy of Posen. The city of Kraków and its surrounding areas, on the other hand, became a semi-autonomous city republic, the Free City of Cracow, jointly controlled by Russia, Prussia and Austria.
After the failure of the November Uprising of 1830, during which Kraków served as a base for the smuggling of arms into the Russian partition, Tsar Nicholas abrogated Congress Poland’s constitution and reduced the semi-independant Kingdom to the status of a mere province in the Russian Empire. The autonomy of the Free City of Cracow was also severely restricted.
As a result, thousands of Poles, particularly political and intellectual elites, emigrated from the so-called “Stolen Lands”. The exiles settled mainly in France, where they splintered into two main factions: the moderate conservatives, who concentrated on seeking the support of Britain and France for the Polish cause, and the democrats, who distrusted governments and preached for a revolution in cooperation with other peoples that would emancipate the peasantry.
Influenced by French Utopian socialism advocating the right of citizens to own the means of production, the Polish democrats later established the socialist Polish Democratic Society, which became the first democratically run, centralized, and disciplined political party of east-central Europe. Karl Marx regarded its concept of agrarian revolution as a major Polish contribution to European revolutionary thought.
Meanwhile, inspired by the political and philosophical writings of the Polish exiles, notably those of the three Romantic “bards” – Adam Mickiewicz, Juliusz Słowacki, and Zygmunt Krasiński – a messianic conception of the Polish nation arose, which in its most extreme and mystical form characterized Poland as the Christ of nations, redeeming all oppressed peoples through its suffering and transcendence.
In the Polish partitions, emissaries of the Polish Democratic Society soon began inspiring conspiratorial activities against the imperial powers. The Free City of Cracow, due to its semi-autonomous status, became a central place for pro-Polish independence activists to discuss their plans, and after the failure of several other attempts, an uprising was planned for February 1846.
Supported by members of the Polish nobility and middle class, who desired the restoration of Polish independence, the Kraków uprising was supposed to also take place in other parts of the partitions. But poor coordination and mass arrests, mostly in Greater Poland, meant that the uprising only took off in the Free City of Cracow and in the neighbouring districts of western Galicia.
Faced with riots, demonstrations and barricades led by Jagiellonian University professor Jan Tyssowski and philosopher Edward Dembowski, the small Austrian force garrisoned in Kraków quickly retreated. A provisional government was established and a radical “Manifesto for the Polish Nation” was issued in which it ordered the end of many elements of serfdom, declared universal suffrage, and other ideas inspired by the French revolutionary ideals.
Despite being successful in quickly taking over the Free City, the insurgents of the Kraków uprising fared badly in the wider countryside. Outnumbered and badly-equipped, the rebels suffered a defeat at the Battle of Gdów and were quickly dispersed by the superior Austrian forces, supported by local peasants, who trusted the Habsburg officials over the revolutionaries.
Indeed, encouraged by the Austrian authorities, who exploited peasant antagonism toward the landowners and promised to end serfdom if they helped crushing the Kraków uprising, the peasants turned on the mostly noble insurgents, whose ideals ironically included the improvement of peasant situation, and led a counter-revolt in the course of which many manors were burned down and landowners killed.
Just nine days after taking control of the Free City, the revolutionary government surrendered, and by early March, Kraków was occupied by Russian and Austrian forces. While Edward Dembowski had been apprehended and executed by the Austrians, Jan Tyssowski crossed the Prussian border with the last insurgents who laid down their arms. He later emigrated to the United States where he became an activist for Polish liberation.
Following the defeat of the Kraków uprising, during which it is estimated that up to 2,000 Polish nobles died, Austria and Russia agreed to end the status of Kraków as a Free City. The former royal capital of Poland and its surrounding area were subsequently annexed by the Austrian Empire, as the Grand Duchy of Cracow.
But despite its failure, the Kraków uprising is still seen today as a deeply democratic movement that aimed at land reform and other pressing social questions. Praised by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels for being the first uprising in Europe “to plant the banner of social revolution”, it is widely viewed as precursor to the coming Spring of Nations which rattled Europe two years later…
Find out more about Central European history in our new On this Day series.