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Stefan Żeromski’s historical novel Popioły [Ashes] (1904) is usually interpreted as a narrative about the Napoleonic wars, particularly about Napoleon’s campaign in Spain. The paper argues that the fast-moving war plot conceals the philosophical question to which Żeromski tried to provide an answer: did the Austrian empire represent a superior way of organizing human society, or was the liberty of the Polish “Sarmatian” republic a more appropriate answer to the question of how to live? The issue is indirectly contested by virtually all characters. It comes to a head in the relationship between two seemingly secondary characters, the Austrian tax collector Hibl and the Polish landowner Nardzewski. The former resembles William Faulkner’s Flem Snopes; the latter, the noble families of the Sartorises defeated in the Civil War. Like in Faulkner’s novels, there is an unmistakable suggestion of gloria victis in Żeromski’s opus. Unlike Faulkner, Żeromski brings to bear the issue of white-on-white colonialism in Europe, and the paper’s author suggests that the eighteenth-century seizure of parts of Poland by Europe’s three continental empires was an instance of European colonialism that delayed the development of non-Germanic Central Europe and eventually brought about twentieth-century European wars.
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