We’ve gone a little bit Polish crazy here at WDF. Thanks to my lovely patrons, a massive project on 18th century in Poland will be releasing in 2018, but more immediately you should know that Patrons can access the 12-part Jan Sobieski biography, starting on Friday 6th October 2017, if they want an indication of what’s to come. With this newfound Polish obsession in mind, I’d like to explain in this blog post where the idea for the new Polish series due in 2018 came about, and what you can expect from it. Let’s begin.
WDF delves into some obscure stuff, but even I didn’t know all that much about the history of Poland, of the Polish people or of the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth before I properly began to research our next big project. When we reached $500 on Patreon, I promised that I would release a miniseries on a century in Polish history, and after letting loose a poll, the result came back that my listeners wanted to hear about the 18th century. On the one hand, 18th century Polish history happens to be a deeply depressing and dark time for Poland, so yeah, thanks to my listeners for choosing it. Yet, on the other hand, it is also inspiring and utterly fascinating in places. In fact, so inspiring and fascinating is the story of Poland in 18th century, that when I began to research and write it, things began to quickly get out of control.
The miniseries I had planned to do had been due to last 30 episodes – a perfectly reasonable stretch of episodes I thought, and one which would give us all a great grounding in the era. In my head I imagined what each episode would cover, and I even wrote down a brief plan before I started about what each episode should cover, and how I would be able to fit everything into 30 episodes. Then I set to actually working on it, and before long this miniseries became a major series, and then I decided that I was going to go the whole hog, and release the Polish series as its own podcast, with the current working title for the podcast being Poland Is Not Yet Lost, after one of the many names given to the Polish national anthem. That anthem really suits the tone of the 18th century Polish experience, and I’m currently looking to sponsor someone to do artwork for it, so do get in contact with me if you know anyone who could be of help.
Anyway, when I think back to starting out the project, compared to where I am with it now, it seems incredible to think that I had expected to fit a century of a nation’s history into only 30 episodes. To put my naivety into perspective, by the time I had actually finished the 30th script for the 30th episode, I was only up to the year 1738. I had only underestimated my task by about 62 years.
The initially advertised ‘Polish History Miniseries’ has thus taken on a life of its own, and for the last three plus months I’ve been busying myself with the 18th century and how Poland fit into it. I am of course very excited to release a new podcast, and the current plan is to get it all written up and completed before the launch date of Friday, 18th May 2018 – the 6th birthday of When Diplomacy Fails Podcast, and a fitting time I think to start a new era of history podcasting. I don’t want to give too much away about that new project, but I should make clear exactly what my listeners will be getting when they tune in for the first episode. This will be Polish history, but still in the style of WDF. In other words, we won’t be looking into the nitty gritty of the minutiae of Polish life and society, we will instead be looking at Poland’s politics and foreign policy, and how it slotted into European relations during the 18th century.
There will of course be a crash course in the form of a few episodes explaining how Poland became the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth, how its society worked, what the nobles did and what that fuss over the liberum veto was all about, but my intention is to release these episodes at the beginning and refer back to them, meaning that if you want your societal or economic history you can have it, but if you don’t, you won’t need it in order to know what’s going on. As far as the release schedule goes, the podcast will be weekly, and I expect it to take up to two years to tell the full story. Currently I am toying with the idea of releasing it all in one go to Patrons at the $2 level, although I understand that this would not appeal to all my Patrons, who had to endure the experience of suddenly getting all of WDF Remastered in one overwhelming block, so I’m all ears about any ideas that Patrons or non-Patrons might have.
This approach will enable us to tackle the big figures that towering over Poland, as much as it will allow us to relate these figures back to the Polish people and assess what their impact on the country’s history was. The 18th century is of course relatively familiar ground for us at WDF; we have for example already met Frederick the Great, we’ve watched the Swedish Empire fall and we’ve even covered the War of the Polish Succession. Yet, the coverage I’ve given these events and figures pale in comparison to the attention I’ll give them in Poland Is Not Yet Lost. At the time of writing this we’re halfway through the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-48), a conflict we’ve never covered in WDF’s timeline before, and which I’m really enjoying reading through.
Already at this point in the narrative, the major terrors of Polish history, and the major threats to Polish independence, have appeared. Maria Theresa of Austria and Frederick the Great of Prussia would be in situ from the 1740s to the 1780s, and during that tenure in office they, alongside Catherine the Great of Russia, would each do their own bit to undermine and eventually destroy Polish independence. The very real damage that these figures did to the sovereignty of the once proud Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth can be hard to believe, especially when we often hear only of the great national achievements of each of these rulers in question.
Frederick the Great propelled Prussia to new heights, with a power base equalled only by Austria. Maria Theresa of Austria defended her ancestral Habsburg lands against the ambitions of that same Frederick, and won much deserved plaudits for standing up defiantly to Frederick’s chauvinism as much as the overbearing challenge he presented. To complete the picture, Catherine the Great rose from the position of a petty German princess to Europe’s most powerful woman in the late 18th century, transforming Russia in the process from great power to world power by the time of her death a year after Poland was partitioned, in 1796.
Our podcast cannot ignore the achievements of any of these three figures, and they thus feature prominently in the second half of Poland Is Not Yet Lost, yet we would be wise to remember that their fame and success came at the direct expense of their common neighbour whom they all squeezed ruthlessly between them. This is an important point to make, because in Poland I don’t want to just give you guys the narrative history of what happened in the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth in the 18th century, I want to present you guys with a set of ideas and theories, I want us to be able to discuss the period together intelligently, and see if we can arrive at an explanation for why Poland was partitioned in 1795.
Arriving at that answer is not as simple a task as you may expect. For many decades, particularly when Poland was under foreign occupation, the common argument went that the Poles had destroyed their state through their own negligence, through their greed and through their self-interest. They ceased to care for the national interests of their Republic, and sought instead merely to gain advantages in bribes and land whenever a new King of Poland was due to be elected or a new ruler sought to make their presence felt in the Commonwealth. I have always been wary of allowing history to fuel oppression, and there can be no doubt that the partitions of Poland greatly benefited the regimes of Austria, Prussia and Russia in the 120 years that followed.
Through each Polish revolt against Russian authority in the 19th century, further criticism was brought to bear against the Polish people, and the old arguments from 18th century observers were trotted out once more. The Polish state had been unstable, its institutions had been archaic and unworkable; through this toxic combination the Poles had brought the entire ordeal of occupation upon themselves, because the sheer anarchy caused by their slow constitutional processes and the greed of their nobility paralysed the Commonwealth, and brought about its destruction from within. If they did anything, then the three eastern powers merely pushed the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth over the edge. By so doing they did the rest of Europe a favour, because at its core was no longer a rogue state which spawned nothing but revolts, rebels and rioting against lawful governmental processes.
How convenient it would be for the nationalist historians writing in the 19th and early 20th century if such facts were true. How much easier it would be for the historian if the 18th century Polish experience was such a simple open and shut case. How much stronger would be the claim to possess a legitimate mandate to rule over the pieces of the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth, if such pieces could be demonstrated as ill-fitting and rotted from the start. Through such a whitewashing of Polish history, not only would it be claimed that the eastern powers had saved the Poles and the rest of Europe from a dangerously unstable regime, but all of the progress, all of the genuine gains and selfless, inspiring examples given throughout the history of the Polish experience would all be forgotten.
Of course, we live in a world today where the Republic of Poland is not under occupation, and so history is not still warped as a means to justify that state of affairs. Still, this does not mean that everything has been set to rights. When we consider that only in the last generation has Poland truly become a sovereign state, we would be wise to watch for any remnants of those old arguments which claim that what happened to Poland was in fact justified. I aim to rally against these views, whether they are held from a genuine lack of knowledge about the Polish experience, or for some other more nefarious purpose.
My aim with Poland Is Not Yet Lost is to present a considerate, accurate and above all entertaining account of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the 18th century, from the moment its new King Augustus II opened the Great Northern War to its final moments as the Partition Sejm stole independence away. It is – even from what I’ve seen only in the first half of the century – an utterly compelling tale, made all the more so by the striking level of activity the Commonwealth still exerted on the continent. Far from silenced at the first displays of the Russian supremacy, regular and continued spurts of political reinvention and constitutional reform defied the eastern powers. Such activity on the part of the Poles commends the idea that Poland may have been partitioned into oblivion because it was dangerously defiant, rather than dangerously unstable.
There is so much good to come with When Diplomacy Fails, and I felt it was only right to send out this blog post to make it clear exactly what has been happening in the production suite (my desk) over the last few months. For those of you that like your histories told with passion, about a people and a republic scarcely known in the historical discourse, Poland Is Not Yet Lost is definitely for you. I really hope you will join me for the story of Poland in the 18th century then, and I’d like to take this opportunity to thank my Patrons for voting for the 18th century in that poll all those months ago. Thanks to you guys, I now have not merely a new podcast on the way, but I have found a new era of history which captivates and enthrals me like few others could. From Friday, 18th May 2018, I hope to involve you guys in this experience, and bring the formula of When Diplomacy Fails Podcast to Poland Is Not Yet Lost.
Thanks for reading history friends and patrons, and if you’re interested in the prospect of a new podcast on Poland in the 18th century, please do let me know through the usual channels, as I’d love to hear from you! Remember that I release a new blog post every Wednesday, so be sure to check in here if you like to read things in my voice! Thanksssss!