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Bismarck’s Speech to the Prussian House of Deputies on the "Polish Question" (January 28, 1886)

Bismarck’s Kulturkampf (“cultural struggle”) against the Catholic Church included – and at times appeared driven by – a determined effort to undermine Polish nationalism in Prussia’s eastern provinces. The immediate context for this long speech was a brutal operation in March and July 1885 whereby 48,000 Poles and Polish Jews were deported from these provinces. (Many of the deportees had lived in Prussia for years but had not become citizens.) These actions inaugurated a new and more ruthless phase of Prussian policy on the “Eastern Marches” question – Ostmarkenpolitik – which continued after 1900. As the historian Richard S. Levy has noted, the following speech is typical of Bismarck: it is delivered freely, not from a prepared text; it is “filled with innuendo and threats” but provides few policy specifics. Bismarck’s intention is to make the Poles appear as the aggressors. To this end, he paints the Polish-German conflict as a titanic struggle in which “all the good will comes from the German side; all the bad faith belongs to the Poles.”

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The motion with which we deal today relates to a passage from the Kaiser's speech expressing the government's conviction that the principles by which Polish-speaking areas of the state have been governed since 1840 stand in absolute necessity of change. We have received this inheritance from history. You will forgive me, when addressing a question with roots in the past, if I examine that past. We have received the inheritance of being accustomed to living, as well as we can, with two million Polish-speaking subjects within the boundaries of the Prussian state. We have not created this situation. We can say of our policy what stands written on a (I can no longer remember which) forester's academy: “We reap what we do not sow; we sow what we will not reap.”

Thus we stand in relation to the past before 1815. In the year 1815 the Prussian state created a boundary which it can in no way retreat from. It needs this boundary to connect its provinces, to connect Breslau [i.e., Wroclaw] to Königsberg, and for its commerce as well as its defense and security. [ . . . ]

In the year 1815 they did not initially realize the difficulty of the situation on which they were embarking, most probably because they gave less weight at that time to the attitude of the inhabitants than to that of the statesmen. The statesmen who stood at the rudder in 1815, at the forefront Prince [Karl August] von Hardenberg [1750-1822] and, I believe, the first president of the Posen [i.e., Poznan] district at that time, von Zerboni, (who possessed significant holdings in south Prussia on the other side of the current border) were under the influence of recently concluded negotiations in which Prussia had striven for a larger Polish territory. Herr von Zerboni possessed great estates in those parts of south Prussia that were not to be returned to Prussia.* The wish which prevailed at that time that perhaps a later compromise would move our eastern border closer to the Vistula River and the wish to propagandize on behalf of this Prussian purpose among the Polish population of the defeated regions of the Kingdom of Poland more or less dictated the pronouncement Prince Hardenberg advised his master, the king [Friedrich Wilhelm III], to make regarding the newly acquired Polish subjects. It was a policy which we would today surely disapprove of; it was clumsy. It could not have led to any sort of stipulated agreement. The proclamations by which King Friedrich Wilhelm III took possession of the south Prussian territories that fell to him contained the announcement of his intentions and of the principles according to which he thought to rule.** [But] one obligation the king did not undertake was never to alter these principles, no matter how his Polish subjects behaved themselves. (Interjection from the Polish deputies: “Aha!”) These promises, given honorably by the king, and perhaps not understood in exactly the same way by his servants, have since that time become completely untenable, null and void, because of the behavior of the inhabitants of this province. (Lively opposition from the Poles. “Quite right!,” from the right side of the House.) For my part, I don't give a hoot for any sort of appeal to the proclamations of those times. (Great unrest among the Poles and in the Catholic Center Party.)

* 1815 can be regarded as the “fourth” partition of Poland. Prussia, with designs on the Kingdom of Saxony, was willing to cede part of its booty from the partitions of 1772, 1793, and 1795, retaining only the western provinces. Poland was redistributed, with Russia getting the lion's share. (All footnotes are from Prof. Richard S. Levy, the author of this translation.)
** When the Province of Posen had been annexed in 1815, Friedrich Wilhelm III averred that no one expected Poles to change their nationality. The official languages were German and Polish; the province was administered by German and Polish noblemen.

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