History of Poland

 

illustrated by real Polish stamps

 God comes to Poland

1000 years of Polish history commenced when a political move brought Poland into being. In 965, an ambitious and insightful Slavic leader Mieszko I married a Bohemian princess and converted to Christianity in order to counter the growing strength of his German neighbors to the west.

By inviting the Holy Roman Empire into the region the following year, Mieszko established the Piast dynasty and ensured a separate identity for the lands that soon came to be known as Poland. That diplomatic gain brought political and economic ones as well: Poles mimicked the Church administration, and quickly put to use the new ideas and technology that now flowed in from the west. With one baptizing stroke, Poland took a position which it would hold for centuries: as a buffer zone between the West and the East, its fortunes would rise and fall in a manner unique in European history.

 Individuality to a fault

Following its befitting beginning with the blessing of Christianity, Poland soon exhibited another national trait: the individual is king. In 1138, Poland was parceled out among several Piast sons, fragmenting it geographically and politically. As could be expected, the brothers began to fight among themselves, leaving Poland incapable of fighting off outsiders. The state grew weaker and weaker over the next 200 years, losing the Pomeranian region to the north and yielding to the more subtle threat of a germanized Silesia.

To counter these losses, Poland invited the Teutonic Knights in to protect its eastern and northern flank. The Knights accepted, set up shop throughout the north, and eventually grew into a threat of their own. In 1308, they took Gdansk, renamed it Danzig, and built it into a thriving trade center. By settling Germans in the area, the Teutonic Order precipitated a tug-of-war over the region which lasted until 1945. Cut off from the sea, fragmented, growing weaker each year, it was not until the early part of the 14th century that the tide turned when Wladyslaw I and his son Kazimierz III reunified and reformed Poland.

Kazimierz III in particular altered Poland, from the ground up.He codified the laws, he reformed the administration, he organized provincial governments, he established Jagiellonian University – one of the first in Europe, and he welcomed the pogrom-plagued Jews from the west. As the old saying goes, Kazimierz “received Poland of wood and left it of stone”.

 Poland for everyone

Yet his heir, a nephew from Hungary, did not last long. Louis I was quickly tossed over for his 10 year old daughter Jadwiga who was then wedded to the Grand Duke of Lithuania, Ladislaus Jagiello. Like all royal marriages, the personal union solidified a political one: the Poland-Lithuania alliance of 1386 created a multinational state that would thrive for some time to come. Although Jadwiga died in her early 20’s, Jagiello went on to rule Poland for the next 4 decades and his dynasty lasted until 1572.

Under his dynasty, Poland progressed militarily, culturally, and politically. Its military strength grew sufficient to decisively defeat the Teutonic Knights at Grunwald in 1410 – the largest medieval battle in history – weakening their hold over the north and allowing Poland to regain limited power over Danzig. But as that now familiar threat receded, a second developed to the East as Poland became increasingly engaged with the up-and-coming Muscovite czars. The balancing act between the East and the West had begun in earnest, and was to continue until the present day.

Culturally, Poland welcomed the Renaissance as did the rest of Europe, and its strong ties with Italy left their mark. Even today, Italianate architecture survives in Poland, the reminders of a time passed when Polish nobles learned in Italian universities, and Italian artisans thrived in Polish cities like Zamosc. At that time, a quarter of the population could read and write, a literacy rate which was unmatched in the rest of Europe. Enhancing these intellectual advances, the Reformation left Poland more religiously tolerant than ever. Its already growing number of non-Catholics swelled, making it one of the most diversely populated countries of that time. Politically, Poland also marched ahead. Again giving voice to its faith in the individual, it enfranchised the nobility and established the first representative body in Europe. The Sejm of 1493was further strengthened in 1505 with a constitutionally organized two house system and its power grew sufficient to take the reins when the last Jagiellonian king died without an heir in 1572.

Democracy of a sort

Left without an obvious next head of state, Poland took it upon itself to elect one. Thus began the First Republic of Poland which survived until the final partition of 1795. An apparent advance on one level, the Sejm cost Poland on others. In theory, the enfranchised nobility represented 10% of Poland’s population, but in practice, a powerful few controlled them all. Those few solidified their power by weakening the king’s, leaving the strength of the elected position dependent upon the individual that held it. If they didn’t want a strong king, they didn’t elect one.

The Republic also ensured that the feudal state survived, and it kept capitalism captive in the mostly German and Jewish dominated cities. Self-interested nobles failed to raise the taxes to support a standing army, and the advances achieved under the Jagiellonian dynasty quickly crumbled away. In the mid-17th century, Poland was invaded and pillaged by Sweden. The resulting war devastated the country and the people.

But for a brief time afterwards, Poland re-emerged under the reign of Jan III Sobieski, most noted for his decisive role in the Battle of Vienna. In 1683, the Ottoman Empire had advanced northward, eventually laying siege to Vienna. Considered unbeatable at the time, a Christian Europe was given up for lost until Sobieski showed on the scene. Saving the Austrian Empire cost Sobieski on another front; the Prussians took advantage of the battle-wearied Poland, which barely resisted.

Also under the First Republic, Sejm members began to misuse one of their most serious privileges: the right of veto. Assuming that an elected body acted according to the wishes of the people, all decisions were to be unanimous. This meant that any member could veto an act of the Sejm, voiding it for good. The first time such a veto was used, in 1652, the dissenting deputy left and the session ended without final approval of any legislation. An idea with the best of intentions in practice led to the downfall and eventual loss of the country itself. With Sejm business at the mercy of any self-interested member, the resulting fragmented power base left an opening for the land-hungry empires of Prussia-Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia.

Each in their own time began to chip away at the unity of Poland, buying a vote here and there, and eventually bought enough to bring governance to a standstill. By the time Poles woke up, it was a bit too late. The first partition of Poland took place in 1772 when Russia realized it would be easier to cede land to Austria and Prussia than fight for it. The shock did Poland some good, and in the next twenty years a mini-Renaissance briefly revived the country and culminated in the first Constitution in Europe in 1791.

But the neighboring powers were not satisfied with their initial land grabs, so in 1793 and 1795 they finished what they started and Poland as a political and geographic entity ceased to exist. It was not to emerge again until the end of World War I.

 Erased, but not forgotten

Disappearing from the map of Europe for over a hundred years forced Poles to rethink the basis of their identity. Each of the three powers ruled their ill-gotten lands differently, but in attempting to achieve the same end — eradicate Polish culture — they ensured failure because what was once a state now became a people.

Initially, Poles tried to physically regain their sovereignty – one uprising of in 1793 was led by Tadeusz Kosciuszko who also fought for American independence. But the many uprisings failed, and the one bright spark lit by Napoleon went out with his own flame.

Eventually, Poles yielded on the surface, and while many emigrated, others dug in and began channeling their frustrated desires into a new area of expression: the arts. During the Partitions, some of Poland’s greatest literature gave masked voice to their barely-hidden longings, wrapping up dangerous political wishes in subtle symbolism. Adam Mickiewicz’s work became legendary while Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis sparked imaginations everywhere.

 

 Independent at last: the Second Republic

Poland landed back on the map of Europe when the three empires destroyed one another in World War I. Following the war, its borders shifted somewhat over the next few years, but one early decision proved fatal 20 years later. Given the strongly German population of Danzig and the surrounding Pomeranian region, the Treaty of Versailles established Danzig as a ‘free city’ and east Pomerania as German. But Poland required access to the sea, and was granted it as a thin sliver which isolated these German lands from the Fatherland. Reclaiming them in 1939, Hitler ignited World War Two.

But in the interim, Poland forged full-steam ahead to make up for lost time. With a great deal of energy and desire, Poland went about rebuilding its industries and its military. Headed by Jozef Pilsduski, its army successfully repelled the ever-ambitious Soviet Union in 1920 and at the same time expanded its borders eastward to encompass parts of Lithuania and Ukraine. Yet the considerable advances were not enough. Poland resisted but could not repel the dual-pronged invasion of Germany and the Soviet Union in 1939. Once again, it fell prey to the ambitions of its powerful neighbors at a cost higher than any paid previously.

 

 

 The War

Skipping over the obvious, some lesser known facts about Poland’s role during World War II may prove illuminating. First, it supported a resistance movement larger than any other in Europe. Sensitized by the Partitions, Poles possibly felt they were fighting for their country in a way no other European could appreciate. Second, the worst of the camps existed and the greatest number of victims were claimed here. This horrific distinction rests on the simple fact that Poland’s long history of religious and cultural tolerance resulted in the largest Jewish population in Europe. In contrast to received opinion, Poles did aid and abet their neighbors and friends, to the degree that such aid was punishable by death. That distinction was also unique to Poland.

Third, the Soviet Union skillfully played its expansionist card throughout the war. With a mind to move westward, the Russians rounded up Poles and carted them off to the east, or simply shot the more promising types – 4,231 Polish officers – at the Katyn massacre in 1940. On the political front, Stalin established a pseudo-Polish communist party which later served as the backbone for the emergent Polish Worker’s Party. Yet the most troublesome of his antics took place near the end of the war. In 1944, Soviet soldiers sat by while the cream of the Polish military exhausted itself against the Nazis for the better part of three months in the Warsaw Uprising. Defeated, Poles helplessly watched as the now retreating German army systematically destroyed 85% of Warsaw over the next two months. Having been camped across the river for the better part of 6 months, the Soviet army finally crossed it to enter Warsaw in January of 1945. The brutal self-interest behind such a decision is still difficult to accept.

Last, Poland lost more than any other country involved in the War: 25% of its population, its capital in ruins, its previously diverse population now almost 100% Polish, and its political future determined without so much as one free vote.

 

 Occupied again: The People’s Republic

Communism came to Poland, but was never invited. Stalin’s pseudo-Polish ‘Union of Polish Patriots’, headed by Boleslaw Bierut, grabbed power as the retreating Nazis relinquished it. Teaming up with the domestic product, the ‘Polish Worker’s Party’ was formed and headed by Wladyslaw Gomulka. To signal a new era, the communist rulers removed the crown from the Polish eagle. In 1947, a faked election let the world know that Poland ‘chose’ communism, and in 1948 the ruling ‘Polish United Worker’s Party’ (PZPR) was established.Regardless of name, the game was the same. The Soviet Union was determined to maintain its expanded sphere of influence as the Cold War commenced, and it did so by hook and crook for the next 40 years.

Unlike the Soviet Union proper, Poland did experience some internal independence. For instance, deposed leaders were not assassinated, purges stopped short of outright genocide, and suppression only went so deep. Most importantly, the Church survived and even flourished as a counterpoint to Soviet repression. Things weren’t all bad: Poland did manage to rebuild its war-devastated iron, steel, shipping, and mining industries. But it never regained a decent standard of living and it was that failure, primarily in the form of sky-rocketing food prices, which eventually toppled Soviet rule.

The first sign of discontent surfaced in 1956 when Khrushchev opened the door himself by admitting Stalin’s crimes in February of that year. By June, strikes broke out in Poznan, and in October a reform-promising Gomulka was elected without the stamp of Moscow approval. This unheard of defiance elicited a visit from Khrushchev coupled with several armies massing at the Polish border, but Gomulka effectively deflected the threat. The openness and reforms which followed lasted about as long as any decent cynic would expect, and quickly enough, everything went back to normal. After another decade of this, high food prices again sparked unrest in Gdansk in 1970 but this time around the solution proved more dangerous.

Earlier that year, the chancellor of West Germany, Willy Brandt, visited Poland and opened the east to the west for the first time since the war. Grabbing the opportunity, Party Secretary Gierek began borrowing money, and he borrowed Poland into debt, leaving it far worse off than before. When the food prices announced several years later proved far higher than those which sparked the borrowing in the first place, Gierek was ready.

By suppressing all resistance, the government ensured the birth of the eventually fatal union between the workers, the intellectuals, and the Church. Historically, once the students and the workers get together with the clergy, serious counter-trouble starts.

And did, in the early 1980’s. Unrelated, yet so connected, was the election of the Polish-born Pope John Paul II in 1979. Spiritually supported, Poles became bolder. Another price rise sparked yet another strike in Gdansk, and continuing unrest paved the way for some cooperation. The Gdansk shipbuilders wrote out their demands – the 21 Points – and the government agreed to them in August of 1980. With that, the Solidarity Trade Union was born.

Unfortunately, Poland’s neighbors didn’t take kindly to this development, started complaining to the Kremlin, and the countermeasures began. They ended with martial law in December of 1981: Solidarity was banned, its leaders jailed, and life went back to normal. But not for good: the underlying discontent with life under Soviet hegemony resurfaced again and again, until strikes in 1988 forced the government to negotiate. The Round Table Talks followed in 1989 and soon thereafter the first noncommunist government in Central Europe since WWII was installed.