In 1898, Marie Curie called “polonium” the first chemical element she discovered in her fruitful career, and the choice of that name was very conscious: with it she intended to draw the world’s attention to the situation in her country of birth, Poland, which suffered one of the most dramatic fates in Europe.
The Poland that had seen Marie born in 1867 and from which she left in 1891 was at that time subject to the heavy yoke of three occupiers who had divided the country: Russia, Prussia and Austria. In her hometown of Warsaw, under Russian rule, the Polish language was being banned, and the Tsarist colonial administration was preparing to eradicate even the name Poland and replace it with the Vistula Territory (the river that crosses the city). How had Poland gotten into that situation? Why was it not independent, despite her strong national identity? To find the explanation you have to go back many centuries.
Sandwiched between Germany and Russia, few nations like Poland have had to live surrounded by such powerful and impulsive neighbors, always threatening. Its position on the map had caused problems since the 17th century, when Russia became an empire, while Prussia nervously scrambled to expand Germanic dominions, the first attempt to achieve the Lebensraum (“living space”) to which in the 20th century would aspire to Hitler. Other nearby powers such as Sweden and Austria also stalked the fertile Polish territory.
Before, in the Middle Ages, Poland had first been a duchy (966) and then a kingdom (1295) . From the 14th century onwards it came into strong antagonism with the Order of the Teutonic Knights, whose medieval raids had led them to control East Prussia and Lithuania, achieving important possessions such as the port city of Danzig (the historical German name for present-day Gdansk). The Teutons would take the German language with them and lay the first stone of Germanic aspirations in the region.
In the 16th century Poland prospered and King Sigismund II Augustus created the Two Nations Republic, or Commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania , to guarantee the unity of what until then were his two personal fiefdoms: the kingdom of Poland and the duchy of Lithuania. Thus he intended to perpetuate his legacy, since he had no descendants. In order not to repeat the succession problem, the elective monarchy was chosen, which gave the nobles the ability to offer the crown to whoever seemed most appropriate at any given time; The first was the Frenchman Henry of Valois , in 1573. This unusual political system would encourage the interference of foreign powers to place their respective candidates for king in each successor election and led to endemic instability. With the deployment of the thriving Sweden in the Baltic Sea during the 17th century, the weakness of the Polish monarchy would be revealed. The Swedes were eager to control their coastal front, with commercial cities as prosperous as Danzig. After several defeats, Poland asked Tsar Peter the Great for help. From then on, Russia’s influence increased until it turned its western neighbor into a protectorate.
More international actors were going to claim their part of Poland: the new kingdom of Prussia , internationally accepted after the War of the Spanish Succession, was born with the aspiration of inheriting the ancient states of the Teutonic Knights. Frederick II the Great, monarch who would make Prussia great after 1740, wanted to grow towards Poland by annexing the so-called East Prussia, which he claimed as part of the Teutonic heritage.
Distributed three times
In 1772, the interests of Prussia would converge with those of Russia and Austria , the other great empires in the region, to satisfy their respective desires for expansion by dividing up Poland. The Polish nobles could barely stand up.
The attempts of the aristocracy to regain power only provoked new interventions by the Russians and Prussians, who agreed to two more divisions of their territory, in 1792 and 1795. These episodes are known as the Three Partitions of Poland and, as a result of them, the Polish territory itself became increasingly smaller.
Even so, their cultural identity never became extinct. Clustered around Catholicism and the Polish language, its persistent religious and cultural idiosyncrasy would help Polish nationalists—many of whom had taken refuge in France—to believe that the opportunity had arrived when Napoleon ‘s arrival turned the European balance upside down. to rely on the principles of the French Revolution and the Corsican general as an ally of his aspirations. He would use the Poles as a battering ram in his campaign against Russia and, in exchange, he would grant them the creation of the Duchy of Warsaw in 1807 with very advanced legislation. The clever French emperor would legitimize his campaign against Russia by naming it the Second Polish War.
But after the Napoleonic defeat, historic Poland was once again divided —this time at the Congress of Vienna in 1815—among the winning powers. It would be divided into six entities: a new kingdom of Poland (or Congress Kingdom), smaller than the previous duchy and whose head would be the Russian tsar Alexander I; the eastern area, directly annexed to the Russian Empire; the southern region of Galicia, given to Austria; Prussia was left with Pomerania and the Grand Duchy of Posen; Finally, Krakow became a republic, but protected by the powers, as a free city.
The new divisions were going to complicate the consolidation of a Polish resistance. In May 1829, Alexander I’s successor, his son Nicholas I , would take possession as constitutional king of the areas under Russian control through a formal coronation in Warsaw, a concession on the part of the absolutist tsar. Despite this, on November 29, 1830, in the heat of the bourgeois revolutions in Western Europe, there was an insurrection of young officers who attempted to assassinate Grand Duke Constantine, the tsar’s viceroy. Although they were unsuccessful in their coup d’état, this episode, known as the Cadet Revolution, would light a bonfire fueled by civil society and the Warsaw Diet (Parliament), which appointed a “dictator” in December, General Józef. Chlopicki, veteran of the Napoleonic wars. In January, the Polish legislature took a further step in its confrontation, formally deposing the tsar. From there the escalation would be unstoppable with new defiant acts by the Diet, such as proclaiming a constitutional hereditary monarchy or the annexation of the territories incorporated into Russia.
All of this meant a breakdown in the distribution of the Congress of Vienna and dragged the tsar into the war if he did not want to see Russia’s great power status questioned . To the surprise of the world, Polish resistance turned out to be much stronger than expected, and the conflict lasted until September 1831. Russian armies had to besiege Warsaw and reduce it. The revolutionary flame would be rekindled after a generation, in 1846, with the “people’s war”, which sought to add the peasant population to the national cause and had its main focus in Galicia (a region controlled by Austria). The class contradictions between bourgeois and nobles, on the one hand, and peasants, on the other (the latter were more concerned with improving their access to land ownership), hampered the attempt. The revolt would only gain support in Krakow, but it was easy for the Austrians to reduce the rebels. The final result was that the Republic of Krakow lost its status of semi-freedom and Austria annexed it , with Emperor Ferdinand I assuming a new title—Grand Duke of Krakow—with the approval of Russia and Prussia. Another revolutionary attempt in Krakow in 1848, a year of turmoil throughout Europe, would end with the rebels fleeing and joining European national liberation movements, such as the Hungarian or Italian, a participation that would make their cause famous, despite its lack of success.
The Poland where Marie grew up
In 1863 the January Uprising took place , named after its start date, the 22nd of that month. It began as a protest against conscription into the imperial Russian army, organized by the Reds—as the most rebellious youth groups were known at the time—some of whom had supported Garibaldi, their model, in Italy. The Polish insurgents launched the uprising, creating the Provisional National Government, which, from its hideouts in Warsaw, would confront the armies of Emperor Alexander II. The reaction of the Russian rulers, who did not manage to crush the uprising until 1864, was very harsh and would reach all areas of daily life. Russia reduced Polish autonomy to a minimum. Their language was banned and Russian was imposed as the language of administration, justice and secondary school. In this difficult context, Marie Curie was born in 1867.
Marie herself would later recall that “even children, constantly under suspicion and spied on, knew that a simple conversation in Polish or a careless word could cause serious harm not only to themselves, but also to their families. ” She used to tell the anecdote of how, at the age of eleven, a school inspector humiliated her and her classmates by forcing them to pray the Lord’s Prayer in Russian and recite the list of the entire tsarist imperial family. Years later, in 1885, the imposition of Russian was completed, making it also a mandatory language for elementary school.
The loss of identity
In the Polish part dominated by Prussia the situation was not much better. Bismarck erased the traces of differentiation , autonomy or privilege between all the territories that his country had governed since the Congress of Vienna: thus, Pomerania, Posen and Danzig were completely integrated into Prussia starting in 1871, the year that marks, with its victory over France , the beginning of the era of maximum Prussian splendor. German became the school language in 1887 and the Polish Catholic Church was heavily harassed as it was considered hostile to the centralization of the new Reich. Thus, the dissolution of monasteries, the arrests of parish priests and the closure of parishes were ordered.
Paradoxically, it was the Austrian area that experienced an improvement for Polish aspirations, contrary to what had happened half a century ago. The Austrian Empire was no longer what it used to be. Weakened militarily by defeats against the other European powers, and politically by Hungarian nationalist aspirations, it ended up giving in to them and became an Austro-Hungarian monarchy. He offered constitutional modifications and slightly increased the autonomy of Galicia and the power of the Polish elite in this region. From 1867 until 1918, the positions of viceroy and minister of Galicia would always fall to Poles. The nobles and landowners, thanks to a limited census suffrage, were able to be the majority in the local Diet of Lwow (present-day Lviv, in Ukraine) and in the parliamentary representation of Galicia in the Austrian central Parliament. The use of Polish was reestablished in courts, administration and universities, such as that of Krakow, a city that revived its tradition as a cultural center and from then on became the main metropolis of Polish art and creation.
But all that flourishing was very far away for Marie Curie , who lived in Warsaw under Russian oppression, in very precarious economic conditions and studying at the clandestine “Floating University of Warsaw” to be able to train, also in the Polish language. Thanks to this furtive education, Curie was able to circumvent the Russian norm that prevented women from entering the university.
“I have a very vivid memory of the friendly atmosphere of intellectual and social camaraderie that I enjoyed,” Marie Curie would write about that heroic time. She would never forget those times trying to escape submission, nor would she forget her country. Polonium is a perennial testimony of this .