The importance of the national question in central Europe became obvious in 1848 in the 'springtime of the European peoples'. But it was only the collapse of the three ruling empires in the years 1917-18 that demonstrated the profound strength of national movements and at the same time the difficulties of constructing a new order. In fact, only after the paroxysms of the twentieth century, culminating in the events of 1989, has a new map of the nation-states of central-eastern Europe emerged, together with aspirations to find a place in the European Union. With our long perspective, we can better understand the weakness ofthe great powers ofthe nineteenth century, and appreciate the importance of the national movements, including their fundamental religious elements.

The originality of the Polish experience

In the context of central-eastern Europe, it is necessary to recall the originality of the Polish national movement, involving the very notion of Poland and the Poles. The legacy of the 'political nation' of the Polish-Lithuanian federation remained alive throughout the nineteenth century. This idea embraced the very numerous multi-ethnic nobility - at least a million people, including their families. The Lithuanian political nation of the Grand Duchy was to be distinguished from that of the crown of Poland in a more limited sense. Less frequently, the word 'Polish' was used for all the Poles of the federated states, the more so because the cultural Polonisation of this nobility, of varied ethnic origin, was well advanced in the eighteenth century. The elites of the nineteenth century liked to call 'Polish' all the inhabitants of the former state (Rzeczpospolita). A great historian and one of the leaders of the Polish democrats, Joachim Lelewel, said before 1850: 'Do not distinguish among the sons of Poland, because they speak Ruthenian, Polish or Lithuanian, or because they are of such or such confession.' He added that there was no difference among the peoples who formed this Poland: Poles, Lithuanians, Germans, Ruthenians (Ukrainians and Belorussians in the twentieth century), and the others, such as Polish Jews and Muslims. There was here a significant democratic programme for the extension of the Polish nation to the wider population, a process of ennoblement of different ethnic groups from their 'inferior' status. The question of the consciousness of the masses who made up the majority of the population was at the centre of this question, recognised as crucial for the very survival of the Polish nation.

Before going into the details of religious history, it is useful to chart the effects of the Poles' great struggle for independence in the years 1815-1914.

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