By Ted Rajchel
The History of Poland
The History of Poland
Background—Poland in the Middle Ages
The written history of Poland began in the 10th century. At that time Poland was ruled by a dynasty called the Piasts. A Piast named Mieszko I reigned from about 960 to 999. In 966 he became a Christian and his people followed. However, in 1241-42 the Mongols invaded Poland. The Poles were defeated at the Battle of Legnica in April of 1241, but the Mongols soon withdrew. Another threat to Poland came from the Teutonic Knights, an order of fighting monks. They set out to conquer the pagan peoples of Eastern Europe and convert them by force. In 1235 they began converting the pagan Prussians (who lived Northeast of Poland). By 1283 the Teutonic Knights had conquered the Prussians. Then in 1308 they turned on Poland. They took Eastern Pomerania including the town of Gdansk, which they renamed Danzig. In the early 14th Century Poland became a strong and unified state. Kazimierz III, known as Kazimierz, the Great (1333-1370) expanded east into Russia. He also reformed the law and administration. During his reign the first university in Poland, Krakow was founded. Kazimierz also protected and supported the Jews. This was partly due to him that Poland came to have a large Jewish community. The era from the 14th Century to the 16th Century was one of the greatest for Poland. Nevertheless, the power of the king gradually weakened. The Polish nobility became more and more powerful.
The Jagiellonians Rule Poland
In 1334 the Polish nobles finally accepted Jadwiga as Queen of Poland. They also arranged for her to marry Jagiello, Grand Duke of Lithuania and the two countries became allies. Jagiello became Wladyslaw II of Poland (1386-1434). Wladyslaw joined the Catholic Church and his people followed. In 1410 Poland and Lithuania utterly defeated the Teutonic Knights at the Battle of Grundwald. In 1453 the people of Pomerania rebelled against the Teutonic Knights and appealed to the Poles for help. After 13 years of fighting, the Poles took back Pomerania and Gdansk. The 16th Century was an age of economic prosperity for Poland. Learning greatly flourished during this time in Poland. The greatest Polish scholar was Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543). In his day people believed that the sun and the planets orbited the earth. In 1543 Copernicus published a theory that the Earth and the other planets orbit the sun. At that time, it was a revolutionary teaching. However, like the rest of Europe, Poland was rocked by the Reformation. Polish Protestants were divided into Lutherans and Calvinists. In the 1560’s the
Jesuits arrived in Poland.
They created a network of schools and colleges across Poland and managed to defeat the Protestants. Nevertheless the Compact of Warsaw in 1573, allowed freedom of worship in Poland. When the last Jagiellonian king died in 1572 without leaving an heir, the Polish monarchy became elective. The king was elected by an assembly of all the Polish nobles. Then in 1596 Warsaw became the capital of Poland instead of Krakow.
Poland in the 17th Century
The 17th Century was a troubled one for Poland. At that time the Poland controlled the Ukrainian Cossacks. However, in 1648 they rebelled and in 1654 the Russians joined them in a war against the Poles. In 1655 the Swedes invaded Poland and overran most of it. The Poles rallied and the war with Sweden ended in 1660. The war with Russia ended in 1667. These wars left Poland devastated. A large part of the Polish population was killed. In the late 17th Century, Poland scored some great military successes. At that time the Turks ruled southeast Europe and tried to drive further into the continent. In 1673 a Pole named Jan Sobieski was elected king. In 1683 the Turks laid siege to Vienna, but Sobieski defeated them and drove them back. This kept this part of Europe to remain Christian.
Poland and the 18th Century
In 1764 after the Polish king died, Catherine, the Great Empress of Russia, intervened to have her former lover, Stanislaw Poniatowski of Poland, be elected the new king of Poland. Poniatowski refused to be a Russian pawn. He and a number of other prominent Poles wanted reforms to strengthen the monarchy, but the Russians would not allow it. It was in Russia’s interests to keep Poland weak and divided. The great powers, Russia, Prussia, and Austria then decided to help themselves to Polish territory. Prussia took Pomerania–Northern Poland, cutting Poland off from the sea. Austria took Galicia. Russia took what is now Eastern Belarus. The shock of losing much of their territory galvanized the Poles into action. They reformed education and the army. They also reformed their government. A new constitution for Poland was created in 1791. In 1793 there was a second partition. Russia and Prussia took more Polish territory. The 1791 constitution was annulled. In 1794 the Poles rebelled, but they were crushed by the Prussians and Russians. Finally, in 1795 Prussia, Russia, and Austria divided the last part of Poland between them. The Polish king abdicated and the Polish State ceased to exist. In 1807 Napoleon turned some of the Polish territories into the Duchy of Warsaw, a French satellite state. In 1812 almost 100,000 Poles fought with Napoleon against Russia.
19th Century Poland
At the Congress of Vienna in 1815, the great European powers divided up the continent. Poland was divided between Prussia, Russia, and Austria. Prussia took the western and northern part of Poland, while Russia took the center and east. Austria kept Galicia. The great powers were not willing to restore Polish independence; instead they created a semi-independent Poland. The Russian part of Poland was made into the Kingdom of Poland. The Tsar was the monarch, but his powers were limited and the kingdom had its own government and army. Afterwards the Tsar suspended the Polish constitution and ruled by decrees. The Polish army was disbanded. As a result of the repression, many Poles emigrated to France or North America. Then Russian was made the official language of government and the Poles were forced to use it in schools—part of a policy to suppress Polish culture, but Polish culture flourished in the late 19th Century and the Poles formed political movements including the Nationalist League, the Christian Democrats, and the Polish Socialist Party.
20th Century Poland—
The First World War
Poland eventually regained its freedom after The First World War. Meanwhile in January, 1918, US President Wilson made clear his support for an independent Poland after the war. On November 11, 1918, the day of the German surrender, the Poles took charge of their country and the German troops were expelled. On November 14, 1918 General Jozef Pilsudski (1867-1935) led a Polish force in the war against the Russians and became provisional head of state. In January, 1919 a constitutional assembly was elected in Poland. A new constitution was published in 1921. After the war, the Allies decided that Poland should have access to the sea. They gave Poland a strip of land called the Polish Corridor, which cut through Germany. It meant that East Prussia was cut off from the rest of Germany; Danzig (Gdansk) was made an independent city state. Meanwhile in the 1930s, Poland was threatened by both Nazi Germany and Communist Russia. In 1939 the two signed a secret agreement to divide Poland between them.
Poland and The Second World War
Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. The Poles fought valiantly, but on the 17th of September, the Russians invaded from the East. (The Russians and the Germans had already secretly agreed to divide Poland between them.) The Polish position was hopeless, but the Poles continued to fight both the Germans and the Russians. Warsaw fell on the 27th of September, 1939, and all resistance ceased by the 5th of October. The German-Soviet occupation meant terrible suffering for the Polish people.
Polish Jews were exterminated.
Altogether about 3 million Polish Jews were murdered. About 3 million other Poles were killed. Hitler hated Slavs and claimed they were sub-human. The Nazis planned to turn the Poles into a nation of slaves, who would do menial work for their German masters. Poles would be given as little education as possible.
Therefore, vast numbers of highly educated Poles were murdered. All Polish universities and secondary schools were closed. All Polish industry and estates were confiscated by the Germans. The tragedy is the Poland was not liberated after the Second World War. Instead, one type of tyranny, Nazism was replaced by another type of tyranny, Communism. In 1989 the Communists and Solidarity held talks. The government agreed to legalize Solidarity and allow freedom of the press. An election was held on June 4, 1989. Solidarity won 355 of the seats of the Lower House and 99% of the seats in the Upper House. It was a humiliating defeat for the Communists. In August, 1989 Tadeusz-Mazowiecki became Prime Minister of Poland. The Communist tyranny was over!
Modern Poland Today
In 1990 Lech Walesa was elected president. In October, 1991, completely free elections for the Polish people were held. The new democratic Poland inherited severe economic problems from the Communists. Nevertheless Poland underwent transition from Communism to Capitalism. Industry was privatized and today the Polish economy is growing strongly. Russian troops left Poland and now Poland is a 100% free country. Thank God for this. In 1997 Poland gained a new constitution. Lech Kaczynski became president of Poland in 2005. Meanwhile, Poland joined NATO in 1999 and the European Union (EU) in 2004. President Obama sent 5,000 American military troops to Poland with heavy military equipment to stay. Finally peace and freedom have come to Poland.
- A Short History of Poland—A Brief History of Poland by Tim Lambert