What Happened in Polish History: Part III

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.

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37 thoughts on “What Happened in Polish History: Part III

  1. Lena says:

    “The Late Friday Afternoon Just Before Tea Time Rebellion” :) :) :)

  2. reidar says:

    “Also he had a ridiculously huge moustache.” back then nearly everybody had one ;) it was a sign of being mature, brave etc.

    great post!

  3. guest says:

    “Polish glass makers built and operated the New World’s first factory in Jamestown, Virginia in 1608. Seeking the fight to vote, those same Poles also staged the New World’s first labor strike. They succeeded- (Laughter.) It seems the Poles have been keeping the world honest for a long period of time.”

    George Bush June 11, 2001


  4. Andre says:

    I believe that the one with the biggest mustache got to be king. It was called a “beardocrachy”.

  5. wlodzimierz l. says:

    George Bush and his pappy were strikebreakers and anti-union in the US and they would have been communists in Poland and done the same there..

  6. Piotr says:

    Fun stuff. I didn’t know about Rejtan…

  7. island1 says:

    There’s clearly a History of the Polish Mustache to be written.

  8. Andre says:

    Also, I’m always amused to hear about exactly how many important decisions were made under the influence: JFK was on morphine, Stalin was a raging alcoholic, and so on.

    Looks like Polish history is just following well established norms!

  9. darthsida says:

    Andre, Island, Reidar

    Must-ache’s a must-have. A state-of-mind thing here, a non-verbal shibboleth. Every Polish president had to wear it, Mr Kaczynski included, Moscow lackeys (and some disoriented in-exiles) excluded.

  10. Pinki says:

    I love it!!!

    The conversation between two rebels is hilarious! :)

  11. The Ghost of Jakub Szela says:

    Kosciuszko, pictured above in the photo for rebellion 37, is not a woman.

    No peasants in your written history though, heh?

    Only kings and szlachta, heh?

    Who do you think those folks with scythes are in that same painting?

  12. island1 says:

    The Late Jakub Szela: It’s not Kosciuszko it’s Emilia Plater; she’s riding side saddle and doesn’t have a mustache, definitely not Kosciuszko. Same uprising though it’s true (I think).

  13. gJS says:

    You are right about Emilia on that horse in that painting but Kosciuszko did not have a mustache, either. And her uprising was later. K croaked in 1817. And you still left us out of the your written history.

  14. Jacek says:

    She is riding a horse in “womans” way (now forgonnten). This is NOT Kosciuszko.

  15. Anonymous says:

    Kosciuszko did not have a mustache but Pulaski had one.

  16. guest says:

    Kosciuszko did not have a mustache but Pulaski had one.

  17. guest says:

    Pulaski had a mustache

  18. guest says:

    double post.sorry

  19. rosie luxemburger says:

    Emilia looks a bit like Kosciuszko, though. At least in that painting, from the waist up anyway.

  20. raul says:

    me gusta mucho tu blog t visito todos los dias visita mi blog y deja un comentario de si t gusto o no y si quieres enlazamos nuestros blogs

  21. Sylwia says:

    There were only a few bad nobles (all very rich), and they were hanged by the good (and poorer) ones yet before the 3rd partition took place, so you forgot to add nobles’-hanging to your list of our favourite pastimes!

    Moustache was an element of the Sarmatian outfit, just like kontusz, a sabre etc. It had to be huge, not just any moustache. It meant that one was a Pole, and became especially popular in the 19th century when it was the only way to distinguish oneself from non-Poles. Some foreigners, like Nietzsche, had the Polish moustache as a sign of solidarity.

    You thought that Emilia was an Emil? LOL

  22. Sylwia says:

    BTW Jakub Szela was an Austrian agent. Is his ghost now paying for his dishonesty by pretending to take care of peasants?

  23. The Ghost of Jakub Szela says:

    I suppose you think, too, that Pilsudski was a German agent?

    And you believe Walesa was a traitor, too?

    And all of my fellow peasants back in the day had a very different idea of the szlachta than the fanciful, utterly romantic version you hold now; otherwise, they would not have followed me in giving those exploiters their just deserts — at least for a brief spell before the dogs’ superior fire power and money to buy soldiers to do their bidding did me and the rest of us in.

    No justice in the world you’re in. . .

  24. Romain says:

    Hi fellows,

    Just to tell you I’m in Krakow ;) and it is AWESOME !

    Talk to you later about my first steps there.

  25. Sylwia says:

    Jakub Szela -> Nope. But I think that Feliks Dzierżyński, or better yet Felix Edmundovich Dzerzhinsky, (grand)fathered KGB if that helps.

    Romain -> Have a good time in Kraków!

  26. rosie luxemburger says:

    And now Feliks was a Russian?

  27. ghost of maly wladziu says:

    Felix also invented the polka so that proves he wasn’t Polish.

  28. rosie luxemburger says:

    Actually, Feliks was Polish szlachta from Belarus.

  29. scatts says:


    Dos sangria por favor!

    Oops, this isn’t the poolside bar is it. Sorry. As you were.

  30. Gabriela says:

    Very interesting story.
    I just wanted to tell you I’ve included this blog of your among my five favorites for BlogDay.
    Although my blog is written in Spanish, I have a translation tool at the right so that you can understand the text… somehow! :S
    All the best from Peru.

  31. […] fine solid building, little changed in a hundred years. Krakow’s monument to Rejtan is right in front of this […]

  32. […] – bookmarked by 5 members originally found by corriganjc on 2008-10-19 What Happened in Polish History: Part III https://polandian.wordpress.com/2008/08/26/what-happened-in-polish-history-part-iii/ – bookmarked […]

  33. Polonium says:

    Dear Island 1,

    that’s quite funny… and now, after reading your posts for the last 3 hours instead of diligently racking up on the beauty z’s (I’ll need them for the next time I’m in Poland if I’m to stand any chance at all) I must get to bed. But I couldn’t go without voicing my appreciation- thank you for being witty and British all about Poland. It’s a particularly pleasing combination.

  34. island1 says:

    Dear Polonium: Despite your inherent radioactivity I gratefully acknowledge your kind words of support. You are clearly a woman of great good taste.

  35. Karolina says:

    I had a good, hearty laugh just now, many thanks! Although just a tad simplistic and largely sarcastic it is a fair digest – equally amusing as ‘An Utterly Impartial History of Britain’ by John O’Farrell (and this is a complement, mind you).

    On another note – of course by now you surely realise that one cannot fully understand our Polish soul without learning everything about our history, martyrology and the doomed heroes’ hall-of-fame (and it is in your best interest to have all this knowledge inflicted upon you!). Abandon hope all ye who enter here… Maybe this Polish ‘thing’ for history is something that other nations cannot get their heads around. By the same token, I cannot quite comprehend my (British) students’ ignorance of their own history. It would be nice if we could find some kind of balance in both cases. Well, at least it would stop me from grinding my teeth every time undergrads deny any knowledge about events between the Roman invasion and the Industrial Revolution.

  36. island1 says:

    Karolina: A “tad” sarcastic?! I must have had my sarcasm setting on low-to-medium by mistake. It was entirely tongue-in-check, and I hope nobody thinks it wasn’t.

    We were invaded by the Romans?! Surely not. Bloody Romans!

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