Lodz Uprising

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Lodz Uprising

Poland 1892


The city of Lodz in modern Poland came to prominence in the mid-nineteenth century as a textile production center. Part of the Kingdom of Poland, the city was the most important manufacturing center in the Russian Empire and the first truly industrial city in the region. Developed under the managerial expertise of capitalists from Prussia, Lodz also served as a cultural and economic crossroads of central Europe. It was in Lodz that organizers had their first successes outside of Warsaw in creating a socialist movement in Poland in the 1880s. On May Day in 1892, Lodz also witnessed a general strike and insurrection, one of the first in the Russian Empire. The protest, which was brutally suppressed in an action that ended in 46 deaths, involved at least 20,000 workers. In 1905 Lodz was once again the site of a general uprising against Russian authorities. Although this uprising began as a strike protest, it was fueled by Polish nationalism, which had been quietly gathering strength for generations. In later years one of the leading socialists to come out of Lodz, Jozef Pilsudski, would become the nation's first chief-of-state after its independence in 1919.


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  • 1888: Serbian-born American electrical engineer Nikola Tesla develops a practical system for generating and transmitting alternating current (AC), which will ultimately—and after an extremely acrimonious battle—replace Thomas Edison's direct current (DC) in most homes and businesses.
  • 1890: U.S. Congress passes the Sherman Antitrust Act, which in the years that follow will be used to break up large monopolies.
  • 1891: French troops open fire on workers during a 1 May demonstration at Fourmies, where employees of the Sans Pareille factory are striking for an eight-hour workday. Nine people are killed—two of them children—and sixty more are injured.
  • 1893: Henry Ford builds his first automobile.
  • 1893: New Zealand is the first nation in the world to grant the vote to women.
  • 1894: French army captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jew, is convicted of treason. Dreyfus will later be cleared of all charges, but the Dreyfus case illustrates—and exacerbates—the increasingly virulent anti-Semitism that pervades France.
  • 1896: First modern Olympic Games are held in Athens.
  • 1900: The first zeppelin is test-flown.

Event and Its Context

A series of partitions by Poland's neighboring powers, Prussia, Austria (later Austria-Hungary), and Russia beginning in 1772 wiped Poland off the map after 1795. In the nineteenth century a series of uprisings—including major rebellions in 1830-1831, 1846, 1848, and 1863-1864—failed to reunite and free the country from foreign dominance. The rulers of the three partitions adopted various approaches to integrate the Polish territories into their empires. The multiethnic Austrian Empire, which shared the Roman Catholic religion with its Polish subjects, pursued a relatively lenient strategy that allowed local Polish landowners to govern without much interference. In the Prussian partition, deliberate policies to Germanicize the region came into effect after 1848 and became oppressive after Prussian unification in 1871. In addition to prohibiting the use of the Polish language and the free practice of Catholicism, Prussian rulers began to buy up Polish lands for resettlement by Germans. In the Russian partition and the Kingdom of Poland, a puppet state set up under Russian dominance, similar cultural policies attempted to replace the Polish language with Russian and Catholicism with Russian Orthodoxy. The Polish nationalist November uprising in 1830-1831 and January uprising in 1863-1864 added to the political repression, which included mass executions and terms in Siberian exile for many of the rebels.

In the wake of the January uprising, a loose set of policies known as "Organic Work" came to dominate the thinking of Polish nationalists. Admitting the futility of using force against their oppressors, Polish leaders encouraged economic development as the best way to preserve Poland's cultural integrity until independence could be secured. In the Kingdom of Poland the abolition of tariffs with the Russian Empire in 1851 and the subsequent enactment of protectionist tariffs by the empire against Western countries in the 1860s supported the efforts toward development. Land reforms that ended feudalism in the 1860s also contributed by freeing up peasant labor to work in urban areas.

The Growth of Lodz

Long settled as an agricultural area, the town of Lodz was laid out in 1820 and within 10 years was home to over 1,000 families. Its first textile mill started production in 1823, and steam-powered looms started to produce cloth in 1839. By 1850 Lodz was the largest textile manufacturing center in the Kingdom of Poland. Ten years later, the town had a population of 32,000. Given that Lodz is often compared to Manchester, England, for its importance as a textile manufacturing center, Lodz's enterprises remained relatively small-scale until the 1870s. In 1870 its largest mills employed an average of 150 workers whereas in 1880 the largest cotton mills averaged 560 workers. The city experienced almost constant growth after 1850, although it was susceptible to cyclical downturns in the economy. One such depression in 1883-1884 put 2,000 Lodz mill hands, or about 20 percent of the town's working population, out of work. During the depression, 124 Lodz mills went out of business.

By far the largest number of employees in Lodz worked in the mills owned by Karl Wilhelm Scheibler, who came to Lodz in 1850. The son of a German cloth merchant and manufacturer, Scheibler was forced to flee Austria in 1848 and came to the Kingdom of Poland to work as a director of an uncle's mill. With the capital from his wife's dowry, Scheibler established his first mill at Lodz in 1855. Scheibler also began to build housing for his workers after 1865; eventually, Scheibler's buildings covered about one-seventh of the entire city of Lodz in the pre-World World I era. In the 1870s Scheibler owned and operated about 60 percent of the looms in the Kingdom of Poland.

Origins of Polish Socialism

The depression of 1883-1884 caused great distress for workers in Lodz, most of whom were the first generation to engage in urban wage work without relying on subsistence agriculture to see them through hard times. A working-class consciousness was slow to develop, although socialist organizers had attempted to make inroads in the city as early as 1878. In 1883 socialists under the banner of the Proletariat started to organize small workers' circles that eventually included as many as 200 of the region's mill workers. Faced with a largely illiterate workforce, organizers taught the tenets of socialism by adopting the framework of Catholic imagery, most notably by referring to Jesus Christ as the first socialist. Although the Proletariat was all but destroyed as a workers organization by the Russian regime in 1886, its attempt to create a form of Polish socialism outlived it and flourished in succeeding years.

The 1892 Uprising

Labor disturbances in Lodz were recorded as far back as 1861, when workers destroyed power looms. The misery of 1883-1884 and agitation by the Proletariat failed to stir workers to open protest, although authorities noted some instances of machinery breakage. After the economy recovered, the city continued to grow and by 1885 the textile industry employed over 23,000 workers. Worker dissatisfaction with conditions became more overt in the 1890s. In 1890 May Day demonstrations cropped up around the Kingdom of Poland and as many as 8,000 Lodz workers participated. Two years later May Day in Lodz once again occasioned demonstrations, which this time turned violent.

The uprising of 1892 began with a strike by the city's masons, which quickly gathered public support among other Lodz workers. On 1 May 1892 the strike and general demonstrations turned into a violent battle when about 20,000 strikers and their supporters began to battle with troops in the crowded streets. The soldiers crushed the uprising and killed 46 protesters. The event appeared to be a fatal blow to working-class organization in the city; yet by the end of the year, former members of the Proletariat had formed the Union of Polish Socialists Abroad with other socialists from the Russian partition. The new organization quickly evolved into the Polish Socialist Party (Polska Partia Socjalistyczna, or PPS). Founded in Warsaw in 1893, the PPS had its greatest support in Lodz. Authorities banned the organization, which forced the PPS to operate in secret. It covertly published Robotnik (The Worker) from 1894 onward. The editor of Robotnik, Jozef Pilsudski, operated out of Lodz from 1899 to 1900 until his arrest by Russian authorities. Pilsudski later led Poland's military efforts in World War I and served as the independent nation's first chief-of-state in 1919.

In addition to its importance in forming the PPS, the labor history of Lodz also contributed to one of the outstanding works of Polish literature, Wladyslaw Reymont's Ziemia Obiecana (The Promised Land), published in 1899. Reymont grew up near Lodz and trained as a tailor until his alleged participation in the 1892 uprising led to his dismissal from the tailor's guild. Ziemia Obiecana depicted the dehumanizing aspects of industrialization on mill owners and workers and was twice made into films, the second time by leading Polish director Andrzej Wajda in 1975. Reymont received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1924.

The 1905 Uprising

Lodz witnessed another historic upheaval in 1905, a year in which the widely publicized violence of January's "Bloody Sunday" in St. Petersburg, Russia, stirred emotions. On 20 June 1905 workers at several of Lodz's largest textile mills walked off the job; they were met in the streets by bullets that killed as many as a dozen protesters. The workers' funerals inspired more protests and a call for a general strike, which took place on 22 June. The action quickly spiraled out of control as workers and anarchists threw up dozens of barricades around the city. Troops sent in to crush the rebellion killed as many as 300 during a day of violence, and up to 1500 were injured. The episode was the first urban revolt in the Russian Empire and fore-shadowed similar future events during the Russian Revolution.

Key Players

Pilsudski, Jozef Klemens (1867-1935): Inspired by the Lodz Uprising, Pilsudski joined the Polish Socialist Party in 1892 and became editor of the party's newsletter, Robotnik (The Worker) in 1895. He settled in Lodz in 1899 and was arrested in 1900 by Russian officials for subversive activities. Pilsudski spent a brief time in prison and exile but reemerged as a leader of the socialist movement. While playing a key role in the battles against Russian authority during the Polish-Bolshevik War of 1918-1920, Pilsudski assumed the office of head of state from 1919 to 1922. He served as prime minister between 1926 and 1928 but continued to rule over Poland with increasing authoritarian overtones until his death in 1935.

Reymont, Wladyslaw (1867-1925): Reymont grew up in the small town of Kobiele Wielki, not far from Lodz. He trained and worked as a tailor but was expelled from his craft guild by Russian authorities who suspected him of taking part in the Lodz Uprising in 1892. Reymont turned to writing and published his first book in 1894. Inspired by his experiences in the industrial city of Lodz, Reymont wrote Ziemia Obiecana (The Promised Land) in 1899. Reymont won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1924, one year before his death. Ziemia Obiecana has been filmed twice, once during the silent era and the second time by Poland's great film director, Andrzej Wajda, in 1975.

Scheibler, Karl Wilhelm (1820-1881): The largest textile mill operator in Lodz, Scheibler took advantage of the tariff reductions between the Kingdom of Poland and the Russian Empire in the 1850s and the rail links from Lodz that began operating in 1866. Scheibler built the first company-owned housing for workers in Lodz at his complex in 1865-1868. By 1900 his family's textile operations were by far the largest in Lodz and among the largest in the world.

See also: Bloody Sunday.



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—Timothy G. Borden