A History of the Boycott: Economic Nationalism in Russian Poland, 1880-1914
“This history of Łódź is also a history of Russian imperialism,” noted Yedida Kanfer, Title VIII-Supported Research Scholar, Kennan Institute, at a 5 March 2012 Kennan Institute discussion. Kanfer examined the notions of economic nationalism and economic self-sufficiency as they developed in Russian Poland over the years 1880 through 1914. Specifically, the speaker examined those concepts through the prism of the city of Łódź, the ethnically diverse industrial center of Russian Poland.
Kanfer began with a brief history of Łódź in the nineteenth century. The Polish administration initially enjoyed a significant level of autonomy under the Russian imperial regime. It launched a campaign of industrial development, providing incentives for the migration of ethnic German textile entrepreneurs from Prussian, Silesian, and Bohemian lands. Łódź, a village rich in natural resources, was designated as a state-sponsored “factory settlement.” It quickly emerged as a leader of cotton textile production in the region. The construction of Russian railroads following the Crimean War, along with favorable tariff policies, enabled Łódź industrialists to take advantage of vast Russian markets to their west. By the end of the nineteenth century, Łódź rivaled the city of Moscow in its textile production. “From a village in the early 1820s,” according to Kanfer, “Łódź had turned into the ‘Polish Manchester.’”
Jews joined ethnic Germans as industrialists in Łódź. The working population was primarily Polish in large industrial plants, with Jewish and German hand-weavers in smaller workshops. The society was deeply divided by class, the speaker noted—even more divided were workers, by their respective languages and religions.
The financial and cultural influence of ethnic Germans in Łódź troubled Moscow industrialists, who viewed Moscow and its textiles as a symbol of all that was Russian. They petitioned the Russian Finance Ministry to take action against the “foreign” industrialists of Łódź, warning of German influence and arguing that the city “enjoyed better industrial conditions than in the Russian center.” At stake in these discussions were questions central to Russian modernization: Russia’s relationship to the West, questions of Russian national identity, and the role of the Finance Ministry in actively promoting the interests of Russian industry.
Kanfer proceeded to address the parallel development of ideas of economic nationalism in Poland. Operating in the absence of a national state, and within the limitations imposed by Russification, Polish patriots adopted positivistic notions of organic national growth: social cooperation and economic development. They viewed Jewish social integration as intrinsic to this larger goal. “While Warsaw intellectuals, both Polish and Jewish, had historically focused on the Jewish question,” Kanfer explained, “Łódź, in contrast, had no history of intellectual debate.” When the first Polish-language newspaper was founded in Łódź in the 1890s, it advocated German integration into Polish cultural life. Funded by the German industrialist elite, it celebrated the financial contribution of Łódź German-speaking industrialists to the larger Russian economy.
With the development of the Polish nationalist movement in the 1890s, organic growth gave way to ideas of economic self-sufficiency. The cooperative movement in Russian Poland sought to promote such self-sufficiency through the establishment of cooperative stores for workers. During the Revolution of 1905-7, Łódź became a center of worker cooperatives. The architects of Polish cooperativism envisioned a higher ethical system of economics and one that was fundamentally democratic. Exclusivity, however, was often accompanied by expressions of anti-Semitism. The goal was to eliminate the third party—the middleman—from economic transactions, and “in the Polish context,” Kanfer explained, “the middleman was implicitly Jewish.”
Contemporary events that transpired in the German empire’s partitioned territories directly affected ethnic relations in Russian Poland. Polish nationalists protested repressive German policy towards Polish populations, and the issue of Polish-language education became a main forum for activism. In the Russian empire, the regime was forced to allow the use of Polish as the medium of instruction in schools after protests during the Revolution of 1905-7. Shortly thereafter, it extended the same right of national elementary education to ethnic Germans.
“This all had direct implications for Łódź,” Kanfer asserted, where the formation of separate German and Polish public schools in 1907 replaced a municipal public school system long organized along confessional lines. The “nationalization of education” in Łódź resulted in confusion and protests that attracted attention throughout Russian Poland. These tensions concerned not only education politics but national resources, as taxpayer funds were involved.
Meanwhile, events in the German empire once again directly impacted ethnic relations in Russian Poland and Łódź. In response to anti-Polish German policies, Polish nationalists declared an economic boycott of German goods. Discussions of Polish-German relations could not ignore the question of Jewish national identity—which ultimately created political and cultural divisions between the three groups that lasted through World War II.
“The history of ethnic politics in Poland is usually written as a narrative of Polish-Jewish relations,” Kanfer concluded, adding, “the story is usually told as one of escalating political tensions between Polish and Jewish national leaders.” In 1912, Polish nationalist leaders in Warsaw declared an economic boycott against Jews, ending hopes for Jewish social integration. “Followed through to its logical conclusion,” the speaker emphasized, “this story ultimately ends in the Holocaust.” Kanfer argued for the promotion of a history of Polish-Jewish relations that restores to social memory Łódź’s earlier history as the industrial center of Russian Poland—as well as for a broader understanding of ethnic politics in Poland that examines the relations of those who identified as Poles, Jews, and Germans.
Blair Ruble, Director, Kennan Institute