Georg Brandes and Poland

by Michalina Petelska

The article will describe the latest results of research on Brandes' visits in Poland, his relations with Polish friends and enemies and the reception of Brandes' papers in Poland based on the author's book: Georg Brandes i Polacy czyli o fenomenie wzajemnego zainteresowania z Polską w tle

1. Visits Are Not Everything

Georg Brandes visited Polish lands on six occasions: Poznań in 1881 (Polish lands under Prussian rule), Warsaw in 1885, 1886 and in 1887, Warsaw and Pawłowice in 1894 (Polish lands under Russian rule) and Krakow and Lviv in 1898 (Polish lands under Austrian rule).

Even though, the fame of the Danish critic and activist had reached Poles long before. Interest in his writings had been growing. There were more unrealised projects of translation or publication of Brandes’ works than those ultimately published in Polish. Eliza Orzeszkowa (1841 - 1910) was a Polish author. She began her publishing career from works of positivism. Her later works are considered among the greatest works of Polish realism of the 19th century. Orzeszkowa was delighted with the content and the message of Main Currents by Brandes, yet the fate of the work worried her considerably. Even before the Polish translation was released (1881), she wrote in 1878:

I am aware they are translating it already, as if polonising it, in Warsaw. Only will that affable, brilliant, impassioned freethinker not suffer certain orthodox compromise from the pen of a translator from Warsaw? (E. Orzeszkowa, Listy zebrane, v. 8, Do literatów i ludzi nauki, E. Jankowski, Wrocław 1976, p. 550.)

In 1881 Orzeszkowa wrote of an (unrealised) publication project of Brandes’ works, placing a condition:

so that in the translated work there are no fragments either omitted or altered for the sake of benevolence, which so often tends to be seen in Warsaw. Either the whole Brandes, just as Lord God, or rather a satan of heresy, made him, or - not even a scrap. Responsibility towards orthodoxy of any means for such an accurate translation I do accept - will the translator accept it as well? (Ibid.)

Brandes arrives to Krakow and Lviv with his lectures on literature and his visits enjoy considerable acclaim. A thorough search in dozens of volumes of Polish correspondence from the 19th century allowed to discover a surprisingly warm and emphatic image of the Danish radical. Maria Konopnicka (1842-1910) was a Polish poet and an author of numerous outstanding realistic novels. In the year of the second visit of Brandes to Warsaw (March 27th, 1886) Konopnicka wrote to her uncle, Ignacy Wasiłowski:

And guess, dear uncle, whom I hosted when lying in bed ill? It was none other than Brandes. He knew I was ill, he knew I am alone and came to visit me and to ask if I needed anything. There still are good people … (M. Konopnicka, Listy do Ignacego Wasiłowskiego, J. Nowak (Ed.), Warszawa 2005, p. 175.)

Georg Brandes requested aid for Konopnicka from one of his other friends from Warsaw, Karol Benni, MD (1843 - 1916). As for Konopnicka herself, Brandes wrote in a letter to his mother: ”Mme Konopnicka er en Digterinde af stort Talent og meget elskværdig, ivrig Fritænkerske og Socialist, men bly som en Blomst” (G. Brandes, Breve til Forældrene 1872–1904, Torben Nielsen (Ed.), II 1880 – 1904, København 1994, p. 140).

Friendships and contacts initiated during Brandes’ visits continued for years to come. Antoni Sygietyński (1850 - 1923) may be described as Brandes’ “fellow colleague”: he too was an author as well as a literature and art critic, a supporter of naturalism. They corresponded until 1907. During revolution in the letters written by Sygietyński from March 1905 to December 1907, an escalation of violence and the growing feeling of danger are clearly visible there, until a final so tragic for the Sygietyński family: “arresting my young wife, the mother of three children, all still underage” (Fragment of a letter from Antoni Sygietyński to Georg Brandes on October 31st, 1907, Georg Brandes' Arkiv). Sygietynski’s correspondence kept in Brandes’ Archive breaks in a letter written shortly after, in December 1907, in which he informs of his own arrest (Fragment of a letter from Antoni Sygietyński to Georg Brandes on December 27th, 1907, Georg Brandes Arkiv).

2. Carnival Star

In 1885 Georg Brandes arrived to Warsaw and spent over a dozen winter days there. His visit was organised in a carnival time and the famous Dane became the star of the season in the salons of Warsaw. “Modrzejewska and Brandes have lately been the most famous couple” (Helena Modrzejewska mentions Brandes several times in her memoirs, see: H. Modrzejewska, Wspomnienia i wrażenia, transl. M. Promiński, Kraków 1957.) “who drew the attention of our public eye. People have been frantically keen to meet Brandes” (Jerzy Brandes w Warszawie, „Bluszcz”, R. 21, no. 8, February 25th, 1885, p. 62).

Polish press highlighted the simultaneous presence of Georg Brandes and Helena Modrzejewska (1840-1909) in Warsaw, the latter being a great Polish actress who made a successful career in the USA, where she was known under the name of Modjeska. For the researchers of Brandes’s heritage it is of great interest to follow the reception of works by the Dane, to find literary criticism influences in Polish literature etc. At the same time, however, popularity of Brandes in Warsaw was so huge that it could be addressed as a phenomenon and also treated as a full value research problem, which I have thoroughly analysed in my book. One of the weekly periodicals issued in Warsaw summed up the winter social season of 1885 in Warsaw:

The Carnival, Modrzejewska and professor Brandes, these are the three attractive powers, which in various classes of our audience cause three varieties of commotion, passion, frenzy (“Tygodnik Ilustrowany” v. 5, series 4, no. 111, February 14th, 1885, p. 103)

Interestingly enough, over ten years later in Lviv, Poles reacted identically to the presence of Brandes among them:

Brandes experienced ten days which testify of the inexhaustible endurance of that man. For ten days in a row he was being fed, given drinks, celebrated, driven around, entertained and he listened to speeches - without a break (“Kraj”, R. 17, no. 48, November 26th (December 8th) 1898, p. 15)

From the current texts dedicated to Brandes’ visits to Polish lands, an image of the Dane would emerge, who after a period of intensive contacts with Varsovians (1885 - 1886 - 1887) decided to arrive to Lviv through Krakow as late as in 1898, in response to an articulate invitation from Lvivians. Meanwhile, already in January 1885 Karol Benni was arranging the Dane’s stay in Krakow in a letter to Brandes:

I am enclosing to reference cards: 1. Tadeusz Romanowicz, a member of the Gallitian Parliament, a leader of a leftist group and the editor of “Nowa Reforma”, a liberal newspaper of Krakow. 2. Adam Asnyk, [...] the greatest of our living poets. I have already written to Romanowicz and Asnyk and gave the hope of your visit in Krakow (Fragment of a letter from K. Benni to Brandes on January 14th, 1885, Georg Brandes' Arkiv).

In 1885 Brandes arrived to Warsaw straight from Vienna. As seen from further correspondence with Benni, while planning the journey he had taken the possibility of stopping by in Krakow on his way there into consideration. One may also assume that he had already been aware of how important that city was to Poles. The epistolary dialogue between Brandes and Boleslaw Wysłouch proves that at the turn of 1885/1886 the Danish publicist had already been invited to co-create a periodical magazine Przegląd Społeczny, which was to be issued in Lviv.

3. Controversies And Benefits

In 1885 in Warsaw the speaker from Copenhagen touched upon the sphere of French and Scandinavian literature. In 1886 Georg Brandes lectured on "Odczyty o poezji polskiej w XIXem stuleciu" (Reading on Polish poetry in the 19th century). The very announcement that the guest from Denmark would talk to Poles from the former Polish capitol about Polish literature resulted in dismay if not indignation. A Polish author, the laureate of Nobel Prize in literature in 1905, Henryk Sienkiewicz (1846 - 1916) wrote in a letter to a female friend in February 1886 of the issue not without spite:

Brandes is here too. I have seen him (...) Rather hideous - and with literates showing off in front of him. He is to talk about Polish literature, thus I was persuading Chmielowski to go to Copenhagen and lecture on Danish literature (H. Sienkiewicz, Listy, v. 2, part 1 (Jadwiga and Edward Janczewscy), letters edited, with foreword and footnotes by M. Bokszczanin, Warszawa 1996, p. 133)

The Piotr Chmielowski quoted above (1848-1904) was a Polish historian of literature and a literary critic.

Brandes himself was aware of the situation he had put himself in. That is why it was so important to highlight the objectives he had set for his readings - they were not lectures per se where his role would be to present his audiences (readers) with a layer of facts previously unknown to them. Brandes explained his objectives:

The least educated of my listeners knows the language and the intellectual life of Poland far better than I (...) If you would notice the small number of people, who not having been in personal contact with Poland are able to read the originals of your poetic works, you will concur that what I may offer to you is of relative value as it shall point out to you how Polish literature reflects (...) in the mind of a European reader who knows it from translations only. You shall learn from me what impression your intellectual life makes in the mind of a sympathetic foreigner (J. Brandes, O poezyi polskiej w XIX stuleciu, Warszawa 1887, p. 11–12)

One of Polish press publicists described it in a similar way, yet he used far more blatant expressions and conveyed Brandes’ task more directly:

It was sneered upon when he announced his readings on Polish literature (...) what great interest it is to us to hear what a remarkable scholar thinks of our literature, even though he might have mastered it only partially? Particularly we, whose language does not reach beyond the borders of the country and who therefore rarely come across third party’s opinions of us, especially since so slothful in our own opinions of ourselves we should listen to Brandes with particular attention. We had no part in his “Main Currents in 19th Century Literature”; he omitted us as if we had not played any role in the spiritual development of Europe; and how he binds Polish literature with those “currents”, introduces it into the general picture (Prawda, R. 6, no 12, March 20th (8th), 1886, p. 141–142)

Some publicists openly hoped for a sequel volume of the Main Currents dedicated to Slavic literature:

It was these private readings that the major work of “Main Currents” by Brandes grew from (...) The thing about Polish poetry reading last year as well as this year’s readings in Petersburg on Russian literature of the 19th century will certainly compose volume six or seven of the work, as the history of Slavic romanticism (Przegląd Literacki. Dodatek do Kraju, no. 16, April 17th (29th), 1887, p. 1)

4. In Polish Eyes

Brandes’ visits, his lectures and publications apparently entered Polish literary and broader ideological disputes, and the attitude towards the Scandinavian lecturer expressed in the press coincided with the division into the “old” and the “new” press. One of the Polish supporters of Brandes was Bolesław Prus (actually Aleksander Głowacki, 1847-1912), one of the most eminent Polish realism authors. This is what he wrote in 1885:

an outstanding lecture has not found any proper reflection in our press. Several titles received Brandes with exaltation as a progressive, several others with cold courtesy, again as a progressive, whereas there were those which called him “a young Israelite” (...) Yet, nobody thinks of how to enliven the drowsy life in society. “The old” have become stagnant - “the young” are getting older, yet new forces are not to be seen; this very absence I believe to be a worse misfortune than all that American competition, German custom duties, cholera outbreak etc. (Kraj, R. 4, no. 8, February 24th (March 8th) 1885, p. 12–13)

Brandes had fought all his life to “enliven the drowsy life in society”, no wonder then that he gained such fondness by Prus.

Among authors, publicists, Polish intelligence some interesting examples of Brandes’ works being admired may be found, read also in German even before Polish translations appeared. Still, Brandes had gained tremendous popularity in Polish lands due to the publication of his Indtryk fra Polen [Impressions from Poland]. Literarily, an infinite number of positive opinions (or even hymns of praise) of the book could be quoted coming from Polish press, letters or memoirs. Poles valued works by Brandes for what they actually were. In other words, they valued only some of his work - it is pointless to look in the Polish cultural circle for any interest in, for instance, Brandes’ treatise from 1866 regarding Danish philosophy Dualismen i vor nyeste Philosophie. One may go even a step further to claim that Poles would gladly use works by Brandes to win their own cases. Here is a fragment of a foreword to the first Polish issue of Indtryk fra Polen from 1898:

Embracing the work by Brandes with just a glimpse we must confess that the author has faithfully grasped the essential tone of our life in all the fields and in all domains as well as the main struggle of our work and aspirations, foremost raising the prevalence of national element. It will be recognised by anyone who has not been a stranger to the comprehensive increase of our sense of nationality in the last dozen years. That nerve of the book was also immediately spotted by Germans who jumped with their usual Teutonic viciousness at the work by Brandes (J. Brandes, Polska, Lwów 1898, unnumbered pages)

An extensive group of sources, superficially trifling scattered references, show an important phenomenon in the Polish reception and evaluation of Brandes. Words uttered as if by chance indicate how popular Brandes’s works were, how they grew into the awareness of Polish readers. For instance, the description of a modest library in which “Brandes’ Thing on Literature” (S. Lam, Życie wśród wielu, Warszawa 1968, p. 220) or a letter containing a reference to a fragment of a text by Brandes known to both the sender and the recipient of it can be found (K. Kelles-Krauz, Listy, v. 1 1890–1897, Letters 1–366, edited and with foreword by F. Tych, collected and edited by: W. Bieńkowski, A. Garlicka, A. Kochański, Wrocław 1984, p. 149).

Even more interesting are the sparse yet essential mentions which we find with Polish “colleagues” of Brandes, authors and critics, even after many years since Brandes’ visit when the top of his popularity had already long been foregone in Poland. They show the permanent value of his works. Zofia Nałkowska (1884-1954), an author, among other readings in her Diary under the year 1915 lists four volumes of Main Currents... (Z. Nałkowska, Dzienniki, v. 2 1909–1917, H. Kirchner (Ed.), Warszawa 1976, p. 371–376). Karol Irzykowski (1873 - 1944), an author and literary critic, wrote in 1943 of books by Brandes he would find in occupied and destroyed Warsaw (K. Irzykowski, Notatki z życia, obserwacje i motywy, A. Dobosz (Ed.), Warszawa 1964, p. 459). He was killed a year later from a wound he had received in the Warsaw Uprising.

5. Jewish Origins

Brandes in Warsaw and in Lviv would evoke numerous controversies - as a progressive, a liberal and a literature and culture critic and a literature historian courageously promoting innovative ideas. Presenting the disputes in the Polish press yet another aspect needs to be mentioned: the issue of Georg Brandes’ Jewish origin. That fact was of course eagerly noticed by some of the press. The anti-Semitic Rola took the lead among his prosecutors. Rola was a weekly magazine issued in Warsaw throughout several decades at the turn of the 20th century before World War I. The magazine was definitely anti-Semitic, its contributors turned against the developing laicisation of the society and advocated for nationalisation of economy.

In 1885 Rola informed its readers about the Dane’s stay in Warsaw: "Brandes is a Jew and not an ordinary one but... a non-denominational one" (Rola R. 3, no. 7, February 14th, 1885, p. 79) and his views were defined as "non-denominational and cosmopolitan theories" (Ibid.) as well as a "scientific fraud" and "cynical anti-Christian prophesies" (Rola R. 3, no. 16, April 18th, 1885, p. 188); the Dane was classified among the "ultra-progressives" (Rola R. 3, no. 7, February 14th, 1885, p. 79). Such terms as a "Danish Semite" (Rola, R. 3, no. 8, February 21st, 1885, p. 90) an "Apologist of Germans" (Rola, R. 3, no. 9, February 28th, 1885, p. 103) or an "apostle of materialism" (Rola, R. 3, no. 11, March 14th, 1885, p. 127) also appeared in the magazine. A thorough analysis of publications in Rola in 1885 and 1886 allowed to state that although the magazine attacked Brandes repeatedly, in reality, he himself was not their major objective. The Jewish origins of the critic from Copenhagen was only a pretext for the continuation of a permanent ideological struggle conducted by the magazine. A columnist from Rola expressed it clearly when he wrote on the lectures and publications by Brandes in the following way:

and when it so necessarily comes to “breaking the wall of rusted traditions and superstitions” we have unfortunately already had enough domestically made “rams”, thus we do not need to import them from as far as Denmark. Don’t we have enough Świętochowski, Wiślicki and other exquisite personas of that sort? (Rola, R.3, no. 7, February 14th, 1885, p. 79–80. Comp. „Rola”, R. 3, no. 8, February 21st, 1885, p. 93: "Positivism and non-denominational ideas are of no use - to society which ought to respect its ideas and trust in God")

Allegations formulated against Brandes in Rola and other periodicals constitute a certain wholeness. Besides being reminded of his Jewish origins he was accused of being non-denominational, cosmopolitan, progressive and liberal. Identifying the threat as coming from Jews and liberals was characteristic of the époque.

Among Warsaw magazines the pole opposite to the anti-Semitic Rola was occupied by “Izraelita” presenting views of assimilation supporters. The weekly magazine dedicated surprisingly little space to Brandes during his visits to Warsaw.

The Jewish question in relations between Brandes and Poles in a new context returned in 1914, yet these were already different times than during Brandes’ visits to Polish lands in the eighties and nineties of the nineteenth century.

6. It Is Not Over At All

In 1914 Georg Brandes resolutely spoke on the issue of pogroms. His article entitled "Tilstande i russisk Polen" appeared in the daily Politiken in two parts on October 25th and 26th, 1914, in which Brandes categorically condemned acts of violence committed on Jewish population living in Polish lands. Although he dedicates much space in his text to descriptions of the hardships experienced by Poles themselves, Polish society reacted exceptionally negatively to that publication. In the current literature of the subject a conviction prevails claiming that the year 1914 in fact meant the end of friendship between Poles and Brandes. Using new source materials not analysed yet in Polish historiography allowed me to revise considerably that simplified statement.

On one hand it is true that the speech by Brandes in defence of Jews in 1914 completely changed the character of his relationship with Poles: more often than not a personal friendship would break up, the tone of publications in the Polish press changed (not just in the very 1914 but also throughout the whole 20-year interwar period), whereas Brandes’ cooperation with Poles was characterised through attempts to rebuild former relations with them.

On the other, though, one cannot by any means speak of the ultimate end to relations between Poles and Brandes or of complete reluctance in Polish publications. Preserved in Georg Brandes’ Arkiv there is an extremely interesting block of letters from Julia Ledóchowska (St. Urszula Ledóchowska) from 1915 - 1917. Julia Ledóchowska (1865 - 1939) was a countess by birth, a sister of Włodzimierz Ledóchowski, the supervisor of the General Society of Jesus. During WWI she organised a shelter for Polish orphans in Denmark. This extremely energetic nun pedagogue invited Brandes to cooperate in organising speeches where in Denmark, Sweden or Norway during WWI she would talk about Poland. It was due to her request that Georg Brandes supported her actively with his publications. In one of her letters to Brandes Ledóchowska wrote:

Je ferai tout mon possible pour me faire trait d’union entre vous et les polonais – je leur ferai comprendre que vous avez agi d’une façon noble – et tous ceux à qui je parle le comprendront très bien (Letter from Julia Ledóchowska to Georg Brandes on November 29th, 1915, Georg Brandes' Arkiv)

In 1924 yet another attempt to publish again several works by Brandes in Polish was undertaken, ultimately without success (Letter from Stanisław Pazurkiewicz to Georg Brandes on November 22nd, 1924, Georg Brandes' Arkiv)

In the interwar period two waves of interest in Brandes occurred in the Polish press. On February 4th, 1927, the 85th birth anniversary of the famous Dane occurred. Numerous Polish newspapers and magazines took note of that occasion. The tone of the message of those publications depended on the idealistic bias of a given periodical: it varied form very positive to extremely negative assessments of his works and professional activities of the critic from Copenhagen. Unfortunately, several days after his birthday the news of Brandes’ death arrived. It triggered yet another wave of publications in the Polish press.

7. The Research And The Book

The above article summarises selected motifs from the monograph Georg Brandes and Poles: on the phenomenon of mutual interest with Poland in the background published in 2017 (University of Gdansk Publishing House, Gdansk 2017, 344 pages).

Apart from the motifs highlighted above I have also analysed in the book what Brandes wrote and did to publicise the issue of Polish independence in Europe. They are not, however, highlighted in the text above, as these are motifs accessible to researchers of Brandes’ heritage in the Danish language.

I have developed and added to the book two annexes, which are particularly interesting to the researchers of Brandes’ life and heritage. Annex 1 is “Works of Brandes published in Polish”. The material in the Annex has been divided into three parts: 1) cohesive texts; 2) books published in Polish with foreword by Brandes; 3) press articles. It is worth highlighting that the list of articles by Brandes which have appeared in the Polish press was compiled from overview. It combines Polish press titles published by Poles in all three partitioning powers.

Annex 2 comprises “Letters from Poles and Polish institutions kept in Georg Brandes’ Archive in 2012”. The book also contains bibliography constituting the most complete census where Polish publications (articles and contributions) concerning Georg Brandes from the twentieth and the twenty-first centuries are collected and kept in one location.

The findings presented above were acquired on the basis of diverse source material. Apparently, I reached to the archives kept in Brandes’ Archive in the Royal Danish Library in Copenhagen as well as to „Breve til Forældrene 1872–1904” among others in order to familiarise myself with letters sent by Brandes during his trip around Polish lands. Still, their main goal was to include into the international knowledge and discussion over Brandes such source materials, which are unavailable to many researchers from Denmark and other countries due to language barriers. The research results presented here have been conducted on the basis of analysis of the following, among others:

1) Polish press (monthly and weekly magazines, daily newspapers: morning and afternoon issues);

2) Polish memoirs and diaries, journals of people who had met Brandes;

3) Polish epistolary collections.

It should be noted that I reached and collected the sparse preserved letters from Brandes to his Polish friends and fellows. They have been scattered around in various libraries in Poland.