Europe in the Family
The Polish landed gentry in the 20th century

About the Exhibition

The exhibition “Europe in the Family. The Polish landed gentry in the 20th century”, prepared by the Institute of National Remembrance [Instytut Pamięci Narodowej, IPN] and the Polish Landowners’ Association [Polskie Towarzystwo Ziemiańskie, PTZ], tells about the history of the Polish landed gentry and its fate in the 20th century.

“Europe in the Family” is not only about the family connections between Polish aristocracy and European families. A landed gentry family and the landed estate often imported new civilisational solutions and technical innovations (for instance, specialised methods of animal husbandry and agriculture) from the capitalist West. Frequently, this took place owing to young landowners who studied at western universities, professional apprenticeships in western estates, economic contacts and travelling abroad. “Above all, belonging to the upper class entails greater responsibility, and not only privileges”, wrote Wincenty Lutosławski in 1939. The landowners often took on the role of local social leaders, contributing to the economic and cultural growth in their regions.

“Europe in the Family” is also a metaphor of the fate of many landowners after the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. It resulted in the dispersion of landowner families all around the world—many of them are emigrants to this day, but strong family ties indeed allowed them to maintain close contact with the country and act to its benefit.

The exhibition tells about the Polish landed gentry by presenting the history of a selection of several families. Its authors feel that only specific examples and specific people will make the visitors aware of the fact that it was a social group the representatives of which may be called the elite, or in the present meaning of this word—local leaders. They were active in many areas: economic, political, philanthropic and cultural. Nearly in every landowner family one may find figures engaged in events known from history books; personalities that participated in Polish history and influenced its course.

The exhibition project of IPN and PTZ—“Europe in the Family. The Polish landed gentry in the 20th century” also tells about the elimination of this social group in the years 1939–1945 by the Nazi and Communist totalitarian regimes, about its expropriation after 1944, in the times of the Polish People’s Republic and about the losses which were a result of the liquidation of this social stratum.

The exhibition is in Polish, English and French.

From the review of professor Andrzej Kwilecki

“‘The Polish Landed Gentry in the 20th Century’ exhibition will surely become a cultural sensation of 2015. I expect that the society will take keen interest in it. This is a good occasion to recall an exhibition from the last century, opened in 1929 to commemorate the tenth anniversary of Poland regaining her independence, that is, the Public National Exhibition (Powszechna Wystawa Krajowa, commonly referred to as ‘PeWuKa’) organised in Poznań, with a separate section devoted to the landed gentry. The reason why I mention that popular exhibition is that it was the most momentous event in the life of the landed gentry milieu during the entire period of the Second Republic of Poland: it emphasised the landed gentry‘s contribution to the preservation of Polishness during the partitions and the subsequent rebirth of the Polish state after WWI; it tried to convince the government of the great importance that vast land estates had for the economy; and it also showed that the landed gentry milieu had substantial organisational potential and that many of its representatives had ambitions to change the country and society. And it became a meeting place for the landed gentry arriving from all parts of the country.

During the period between the 1929 and 2015 exhibitions there were events and changes in Poland with tragic consequences for the landed gentry. First, came the difficulties and losses occasioned by the Great Depression during 1929–1934; then during WWII the landed gentry suffered the persecutions and extermination policy implemented by the two occupiers; and after the war, in communist Poland, the landed gentry were removed from their manors and their property was confiscated.

The exhibition ‘Europe in the Family…’ shows the altered historic circumstances. The visitors will be moved not only by the tragic situations and fates, but also by the landed gentry‘s resistance to life hardships and their ability to adapt and maintain family ties despite territorial dispersion.

In this context I feel I must quote Ludwik Gumplowicz, a classic Polish sociologist, who over a hundred years ago declared adaptation the most important social process pertaining to both groups of people and individuals.

Those adaptive skills of the Polish landed gentry of the 20th century might be seen today as an effect of the upbringing in manors and palaces, based on a regular rhythm of life, discipline, cultivation of tradition, respect for knowledge, and regular carrying out of duties from an early age. I think that the content of the exhibition will induce many a visitor to individual reflection and participation in the discussion on the characteristic social traits of the Polish landed gentry.

To conclude my remarks, let me mention yet another significant social function performed by the ‘Europe in the Family...’ exhibition: by presenting new facts from the life of the landed gentry, it broadens our knowledge, and by presenting the abundance and diversity of these facts, it stimulates our imagination and induces us to formulate new questions.”