The Galician Slaughter, also known as the Peasant Uprising of 1846 or the Szela uprising (German: Galizischer Bauernaufstand; Polish: Rzeź galicyjska or Rabacja galicyjska), was a two-month uprising of Galician[a] peasants that led to the suppression of the szlachta uprising (Kraków Uprising) and the massacre of szlachta in Galicia in the Austrian partition in early 1846. The uprising, which lasted from February to March, primarily affected the lands around the town of Tarnów.
It was a revolt against serfdom, directed against manorial property and oppression (for example, the manorial prisons); Galician peasants killed about 1,000 noblemen and destroyed about 500 manors. The Austrian government used the uprising to decimate nationalist Polish nobles, who were organizing an uprising against Austria.
In the semi-autonomous Free City of Kraków, patriotic Polish intellectuals and nobles (szlachta) had made plans for a general uprising in partitioned Poland, intending to reestablish an independent Poland. A similar uprising of nobility was planned in Poznań, but police quickly caught the ringleaders. The Kraków Uprising began on the night of February 20, and initially met with limited successes.
In the meantime, the recent poor harvests resulted in significant unrest among the local peasantry.
The Kraków uprising was a spark that ignited the peasants' rebellion. The insurgent nobles made appeals to the peasants, reminding them of the popular hero Tadeusz Kościuszko and promising an end to serfdom. Some peasants indeed sided with the nobles. Narkiewicz and Hahn, among others, note that the peasants around Kraków, many of whom remembered the promises made by Kościuszko and peasant soldiers who fought beside him, were sympathetic to the noble insurgents. Another account is of the peasants in Chochołów, who gathered under a Polish flag and fought the Austrians.
Most sources agree that the Austrians encouraged the peasants to revolt. A number of sources point to the actions of the Austrian Tarnów administration, in particular an official identified as the District Officer of Tarnów, Johann Breindl von Wallerstein. Wallerstein reached out to peasant leader Jakub Szela. Serfs were promised the end of their feudal duties if they helped to put down the insurgent Polish noblemen, and were also paid in money and salt for the heads of nobles. Hahn notes "it is generally accepted as proven that the Austrian authorities deliberately exploited peasant dissatisfaction in order to suppress the national uprising." Magosci et al. write that "most contemporaries condemned the Austrian authorities for their perfidious use of the peasantry for counter-revolutionary aims."
It was ironic, as historian Eric Hobsbawm has noted, that the peasants turned their anger on the revolutionaries, whose ideals also included improvement of the peasants' situation. The progressive ideals of the Polish insurgents were praised, among others, by Karl Marx, who called it a "deeply democratic movement that aimed at land reform and other pressing social questions". As noted by several historians, the peasants were not so much acting out of loyalty to the Austrians, as revolting against the oppressive feudal system, of which the Polish nobles were prime representatives and beneficiaries in the Galician region. Wolff takes a different stance here, by noting that it is likely that the Austrian authorities held greater sway with the peasants, who saw improvement in their living conditions in the recent decades, which they associated with the new Austrian rule.
Bideleux and Jeffries (2007) are among the dissenters to that view, citing Alan Sked's 1989 research that contends that "the Habsburg authorities – despite later chargers of connivance – knew nothing about what was going on and were appalled at the results of the blood-lust." Hahn notes that during the events of 1846 "the Austrian bureaucracy played a dubious role that has not been completely explained, down to the present day."
Peasants attacked the manor houses of the rebel noble leaders as well as of suspected rebel nobles and killed many hundreds of the estate owners and their families; about 90% of the manor houses in the Tarnów region are estimated to have been destroyed. At least 470 manor houses were destroyed. Estimates of the number of lives lost by Polish estate owners and officials range from 1,000 to 2,000. Jezierski notes that most of the victims were not nobles (he estimates those constituted maybe about 200 of the fatalities) but their direct employees. Most of the victims had no direct involvement with the Polish insurgents other than being a part of the same social class. (Davies also notes that near Bochnia, Austrian officials were attacked by overzealous peasantry.) Bideleux and Jeffries discuss the total number of victims noting that "more than two thousand lives were lost on both sides", which suggests that most of the victims were from among the Polish nobility.
The uprising was eventually put down by Austrian troops. Accounts of the pacification vary. Bideleux and Jeffries note it was "brutally put down by the Austrian troops". Jezierski notes the use of flagellation by the authorities. Nance describes the arrest and exile of the anti-Austrian peasants in Chochołów. Magocsi et al. note that the peasants were punished by being forced to resume their feudal obligations, while their leader, Szela, received a medal and a land grant.
For the Polish nobles and reformers, this event was a lesson that class lines are a powerful force, and that peasants cannot be expected to support a cause of independent Poland without education and reform.
The massacre of the gentry in 1846 was the historical memory that haunted Stanisław Wyspiański's play The Wedding. The uprising was also described in the stories "Der Kreisphysikus" and "Jacob Szela" by Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach.
a ^ The nationality of the peasants is a complex issue. A number of sources describe them as Polish. Hahn notes that the peasants in the region affected by the uprising were not Ruthenian, but rather "Polish speaking Catholics". Others, however, note that the peasants had little national identity and considered themselves Masurians; to quote one of the peasants as late as end of World War I: "The older peasants called themselves Masurians, and their speech Masurian ... I myself did not know that I was a Pole till I began to read books and papers, and I fancy that other villagers came to be aware of the national attachment in much the same way." In turn Wolff prefers to talk of "Galician peasants".
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