I’m starting to get the hang of this Polish history lark.
The Chicken War
Back in the good old days you were allowed to give wars silly names. Poland had the Chicken War, Britain had the War of Jenkin’s Ear and France had the Battle of the Improperly-Buttered Croissant (I may have made that last one up). Nowadays the Americans get all quivery lipped and start blubbing if we don’t take Our Sacrifice seriously so everything has to have a macho no-nonsense name such as Operation Black Eagle Thunder Strike or something similar. You’ve probably never heard of the Chicken War, I certainly hadn’t until I accidentally looked it up the other day while searching for nuclear combat hens (don’t ask). It turns out, none the less, to be quite illuminating.
The Chicken War in a nutshell: the landed gentry—the szlachta—whom we last met duping the king into agreeing to allow them to vote for his successor in return for a loan, were a tricky lot. Whenever the king did something they didn’t like they all got together, had one or two more barrels of vodka than is strictly advisable, and started a rebellion. If this meant they occasionally had to raid one or two nunneries along the way they were willing to selflessly put up with the inconvenience for the sake of the greater good. In 1537 they were up in arms about one thing or another and decided to meet for a massive barbecue. The plan was to hang around in a field looking tough until the king got scared and agreed to something. The other plan was to eat a large number of roasted chickens at the same time as hanging around in a field looking tough etc. It’s important to guffaw loudly, quaff ale, and toss chicken leg bones over your shoulder on these occasions. Quaffing, as Terry Pratchet once famously observed, is a lot like drinking except you spill more, guffawing is a lot like laughing except done by a bad actor and it works best if you have a large unruly beard.
This is an actual transcript of an actual imaginary phonograph recording of the event:
Szlachta: Haa Haa Haar!!! (sounds of quaffing) Haa Haa Haar!! (sounds of further quaffing)…
King: Hey szlachta! What are you doing in yonder field quaffing and tossing chicken leg bones over your shoulder? Should I be worried?
Szlachta: HAA HAA HAAR!!! (exaggerated quaffing sounds) HAA HAA HAAR!! (whispered:) all right lads, we’ve got him worried, keep it going…
King: Umm look here chaps, is it something I’ve done?
Szlachta: HAA HAA HAAAAR!! (burp)
King: Is there something I can do for you chaps?
Szlachta: HA HA HA HAAAR!! (quaff)… (protracted silence)… damn it, we’ve run out of chickens… we’ll have to go home.
King: Phew… that was a close one! Forsooth, the only casualties in this war were the chickens, I shall name this “The Chicken War.”
Szlachta: We prefer to call it Operation Rolling Rooster Thunder, but have it your own way. Anybody got a napkin? I’ve got a beak stuck in my beard…
The Polish king looking worried.
“They’ve started on the chicken legs my lord”
“Oh blimey, we’re for it now”
There are two things we can learn from the Chicken War. First, Polish people really like roast chicken. Second, getting together for a good rebellion is a long-established Polish tradition. In fact this kind of chicken-massacring was a semi-legitimate method of resistance to kingly rule in the old days. Meetings of this kind were known as rokosz. The idea was that the szlachta were entitled to get together and have a kind of impromptu parliament if they felt the king was getting too big for his boots. Later the term “rokosz” came to refer to an armed rebellion by the szlachta in any situation where they felt they should put their foot down and tell the king to go to hell. In the next phase of Polish history the idea of rebellions was to take on a whole new level of significance.
The first thing that anybody learns about Polish history is that Poland Was Partitioned. This is usually something of a let down because, to be frank, it doesn’t sound that dramatic or desperately serious. In fact it was both. It’s hard to get your head around the idea of having your country partitioned so I’ve come up with the following metaphor:
Imagine a grand Victorian house built with a fortune gained through some coal-fueled industrial enterprise. Imagine the same house a hundred years later, still splendid but far too expensive to keep going as a family home. A cut price ‘developer’ moves in and converts the pile into a series of self-contained ‘flats.’ Within six months the place is falling to pieces, there’s stinking rubbish everywhere, neighbours are screaming at each other through paper thin walls, there’s a vaguely disturbing smell of gas on the staircase, and if you’re really unlucky Australians may have moved in. This is pretty much what happened to Poland except the Australians were Austrians, which is only marginally less alarming.
Exactly how this came about is a very long and very boring story that I’ve researched thoroughly by asking a Polish person. “It was the szlachta, they sold us” she said. Naughty szlachta.
The first partition took place in 1772. The Prussians, Russians, and Austrians each helped themselves to a massive slices of Polish-Lithuanian territory. There weren’t really any exciting wars or invasions, it was all done behind the scenes with political jiggery-pokery. Another partition in 1793 and a third in 1795 brought the curtain down on a very final and depressing way on Polish independence. Poland completely ceased to exist as a national entity within the space of 23 years and continued to not exist for the next 120 years. They were not best pleased.
Austria: Another slice of Poland anyone?
Prussia: (extending belt) oooh I couldn’t, honestly, I’m stuffed.
Austria: Oh go on, just a little slice off the bottom.
Russia: I could manage another bit. Something with Warsaw in it perhaps?
Austria: Greedy guts! I might just have this little slither since it’s stuck to the knife… mmmm…
Tadeusz Rejtan: The First Modern Pole
To my mind Tadeusz Rejtan is the prototype of the modern Pole, or at least the modern Pole up until about 1990. Rejtan was a minor noble who took it upon himself to kick up a fuss about the first partition of Poland. The first partition was all done legally and above board at a puppet meeting of the Polish parliament, the Sejm. The lad Rejtan could see what was going on, however, and didn’t like it one bit. In a sterling performance Rejtan laid down in front of the doors of the parliament chamber, bared his chest and no doubt said something worthy about plucking his heart from his breast. He then stole the ceremonial mace, kicked peoples chairs from under them, and generally made a nuisance of himself. These activities made not the slightest difference to the outcome of the steamroller forces that were already in motion, but he made the effort.
Rejtan deploying his massive moustache and bare chest in defense of Poland.
Rejtan is a kind of low-key national hero. He’s not celebrated much but, mention his name, and a peculiar smile comes to the faces of Polish people. At the time he was probably seen as a bit of a boneheaded bumpkin who didn’t understand the greater socio-political forces in operation. Over the next 200 years Poles discovered that sticking two fingers up to the “greater socio-political forces in operation” was the only sensible way forward and the only way to retain some level of self-respect. That and rebellions of course. For me there’s something in Rejtan that set the mold for generations of Poles to come; he didn’t stand a bat’s chance in hell but he stood up, ranted and raved, kicked up an unseemly fuss, and got completely flattened. Also he had a ridiculously huge moustache.
There’s nothing the Poles like better than a good rebellion, if there’s roast chicken involved all the better. Under Prussian, Austrian, or Russian rule the vast majority of Poles got on with the age-old business of breaking their backs in the fields, dying of cholera, and thanking god for their good fortunes. Some, however, felt that ‘something must be done’ and that this ‘something’ should probably involve galloping about the countryside with swords. The Age of Rebellions was born. There were so many of them in fact that they started running out of names:
Rebel 1: Seems like ages since we last had a rebellion.
Rebel 2: We had one last Tuesday.
Rebel 1: Oh yes? I must have missed it, doctor’s appointment. How did it go?
Rebel 2: We got flattened.
Rebel 1: The bastards! Let’s have a rebellion!
Rebel 2: Well…
Rebel 1: We’ll call it the Great Spring Rebellion! Avante!
Rebel 2: Sorry, we had a Great Spring Rebellion last year, just after the Great Winter Rebellion.
Rebel 1: The Great LATE Spring Rebellion?
Rebel 2: 1798.
Rebel 1: The Thursday Uprising!
Rebel 2: 1804… and again in 1806…
Rebel 1: The Late Friday Afternoon Just Before Tea Time Rebellion?
Rebel 2: Hmmm… you might have something there. To horse!!
Rebel 1: I like your moustache by the way.
Rebel 2: Really? Thanks…
Rebellion number 37. This time they tried having a woman as leader. Do you know I only just realized that Emilia Plater was a woman!
Things carried on like this for a very long time indeed. Finally, in 1918, with half of Europe bled dry by World War I or otherwise engaged in burying people Poland got its independence back. It was number 13 of Woodrow Wilson’s 14 points.
Rebel 1: Well that’s it then. We won!
Rebel 2: Things are going to be pretty quiet around here now I suppose.
Rebel 1: Twentieth century here we come! What could possibly go wrong?
…and there, I think, we will leave it.