History - a short overview

Even for a European nation, Poland has a long and rather complex history with many tragic occurences. To put it in other words - seldomly has Poland enjoyed such a long and peaceful period then it does right now. But back to the beginning first: It is said that the Polans (today Polish) settled in the area from around the 6th century A.D. Before, the area was mainly inhabited by Goths and other tribes - at least until they were overrun by the Huns and other migrating tribes.

Slavic tribes gradually conquered the area, coming from the east and pushing westwards. Nowadays, a view on place names in Germany can clearly show where the Slavic advance came to a halt (Slavic names such as Bautzen, Delitzsch, Chemnitz vs Germanic names such as Bitterfeld, Bischofswerda or Aue). However, for a long time Slavic tribes settling in present-day Poland didn't unite. At first, small principalities were founded. Some of the bigger principalities later united in the south and formed the Great Moravian Empire (see also →Czech history) - this happened in 833 and included large parts of what belongs to Poland today. But around 500, Magyar nomadic tribes invaded (see also →History of Hungary), marauding the empire for almost half a century. In 966, Duke Mieszko I. managed to found the first Duchy of Poland, but only after converting to christianity. The territory was rather small and limited to the area around present-day →Poznań.

Mieszko's son, Bolesław I the Brave, continued his rule after his death. At that time, large parts of present-day Brandenburg (Germany) belonged to Poland, which is why one of the western provinces of Poland is still called Województwo lubuskie, although Lubus (in German Lebus) lies on the left side of the river Odra (Oder) and therefore in Germany. Boleslaw was later crowned the first Polish king by the pope in 1025.

And so Mieszko and Boleslaw founded the Piast dynasty, which was about to rule Poland for the next centuries. Thanks to many conquests, Poland soon became larger then it is today. The capital was later moved to Kraków. However, Tatars weakened the country from the south and German knights from the North. During the 14th century, the Polish kingdom lost the provinces Farther Pomerania (along the Baltic Sea) and Silesia to the Germans - both territories remained in German hands until 1945. The last ruler of the Piast dynasty, Kazimierz III Wielki (Kasimir III the Great), re-united large parts of the kingdom between 1333 and 1370 - and added even wide parts of present-day →Ukraine to the now vast Polish territory.

Since the Piasts ran out of male offsprings, arranged marriage was the only way to preserve the power. The result was a union with at that time already mighty →Lithuania - the Lithuanian king Jagiełło therefore also became the king of Poland in 1386. A side effect was the christianisation of the Lithuanians - the last pagan tribe in Europe at that time. The Jagiellon dynasty made Poland and Lithuania a prospering kingdom - one of the super powers of medieval Europe, stretching from the Adriatic Sea to the Black Sea. The Jagiellons even managed to drive out the Teutonic knights from the area in 1410.

A rather calm and peaceful period started, ensuring great achievements in science and art. In 1569, Lithuania and Poland eventually merged completely, but Poland was increasingly dominating the country. Only four years after the unification, the dynasty of the Jagiellons ended. From then on, kings were elected. The so-called elective monarchy of Poland-Lithuania included the territories of present-day →Latvia, →Belarus and large parts of the →Ukraine - making it probably the largest country of that time in Europe. Probably one of the reasons of the prosperity was the fact that the "Republic of the Two Nations" didn't have to waste its power in religious wars. Poland-Lithuania was always catholic, but tolerant towards other religions. Because of that, the Jewish culture had its heyday in the country as well. In 1596, the capital of Poland-Lithuania was finally moved to the more central →Warszawa (Warsaw).

The 17th and 18th century brought turbulent times for Poland. The country fought against Moscow, the Cossacks the Ottoman empire and others. The real decline started at the end of the 18th century. It became virtually impossible to rule the country any longer. As a result of the the First Partition of Poland in 1772, the area around Gdánsk, the Ermland (Warmia) and Western Prussia fell to Kingdom of Prussia; the eastern part of present-day Belarus was taken by Russia and Galicia - the wide area with →L'viv (Lemberg) in its centre fell to Habsburg's Austria-Hungary.

Nevertheless the remaining part of the country continued to thrive. In 1791, Poland proved to be very progressive by creating the first written constitution in Europe. But the neighbouring super powers didn't care about that. Only two years later, in 1793, the Second Partition of Poland took place. This time, Prussia got Województwo wielkopolskie (Greater Poland) around the town of Poznan, while Russia took the rest of White Ruthenia and Black Ruthenia, Podolia and parts of Little Russia (nowadays parts of the →Belarus, the →Ukraine and the →Transnistria). Several unrests shook the newly occupied, former Polish territories, and so the three super powers decided to finally dissolve Poland with the Third Partition in 1795. Western Galicia including Kraków fell to the Habsburg's monarchy of Austria-Hungary; New Eastern Prussia and New Silesia went to Prussia and the rest of present-day →Belarus together with large parts of →Lithuania as well as Couronia (Courland, eastern part of →Latvia) were governed by the Tsar from then on.

In 1807, Napoleon's army marauded in Poland. As a result of the short occupation, the Grand Duchy of Warsaw was founded, but as soon as Napoleon was driven out, the country was separated again, which was finally acknowledged by the Congress of Vienna 1815. The congress demanded that the rights of the Polish need to be obeyed vigorously, but in reality all of the three occupying powers, Prussia, Russia and Austria-Hungary, denied to grant full rights. Hence several uprisings started - some of them larger and devastating. In the eastern part, now governed by Russia, the conflict started to turn into a full-scale civil war.

Old Polish bill
Red, redder, Polish communism - old bill

During the First World War, Germany lured Poland with the prospect of creating an independent Kingdom of Poland, which was eventually implemented in 1916. The Russian October revolution in 1917 had its influence on the further development, but nevertheless Poland gained full independence for the first time in 122 years. The independence was finally acknowledged in 1918 with the Treaty of →Brest-Litovsk. Although the treaty was nullified after the defeat of Germany in the same year, Poland remained independent. Additionally, Poland got control over former Russian territory in the east and also over territory which was occupied by Germany before. This included direct access to the Baltic Sea around Gdynia (Gdingen).

In Russia, a bloody civil war between Bolsheviki, Mensheviki and some other minor groups was about to devastate the country. Poland used its chances and pushed eastwards to gain control again over large parts of its former territory under Marshal Piłsudski. The Polish Army advanced rapidly and managed to get control over large areas in the east. The young Red Army held against the advance and even pushed the invaders back to the suburbs of Warsaw, but in the end it was the Red Army that suffered heavy losses. Poland occupied the area around →Vilnius and the wider area around →L'viv (Lemberg). In 1921, Poland and the Soviet Union signed a peace deal in →Riga and stopped the war.

After a coup in 1926, Piłsudski abolished parliamentary democracy and continued to rule the country more like a dictator. However, his death in 1935 weakened the country substantially. On Sep 1 1939, Poland faced the next desaster. Already before, Germany and the Soviet Union decided on the now fourth partition of Poland in the Secret Protocol of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (aka Treaty of Nonaggression between Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics). Germany made the first move. A made-up attack on the German radio station of Gliwice (also known as the Gleiwitz Incident) served as the pretence to attack Poland. At first, a small Polish town, chosen at random, was air-raided. Next, the full force of the German Wehrmacht crossed the border at several points. Poland resisted, but the invasion was too powerful. A comparatively new and very successful strategy called Blitzkrieg overran the Polish army and marked the beginning of World War II, since Polands allies, namely Great Britain and France, declared war on Germany immediately after the invasion started.

The way the German Nazis advanced told the Polish already, what would come to them next. From the very beginning, it was not limited to a military operation. Several cities - among them the capital - suffered massive air raids during the advance, regardless of civilians. Starting on 17 September the same year, the Soviets started to fulfill their part of the Secret Protocol and advanced westwards all the way to the river Bug. Three weeks after the invasion started, Poland was completely overrun. The Third Reich immediately started to show its ugliest side. The country was about to be systematically destroyed. Historians estimate that around 2.8 million Poles and at least the same number of Jews were killed. Nevertheless, uprisings and frequent guerrilla activities, partially organized from the exil government in London, showed that the country could not be brought under total control by Germany. Two events, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943 and another uprising in Warsaw, which was organized by the Armia Krajowa (Polish resistance army) in 1944, shook the occupied country, but both uprisings failed and had bitter consequences.

The latter was particularly tragic - the Red Army was already on the other side of the river, when the German Wehrmacht crushed the large and well organized uprising in →Warsaw. Most of the participants were killed and Warsaw almost leveled to the ground. Only after the uprising was completely opressed, the Red Army continued to advance westwards. Eventually, Poland was completely liberated in the beginning of 1945. Liberated? The Soviets didn't hesitate either and soon killed almost every Polish army officer and many intellectuals which might have posed a threat to the new occupants.

The fate of post-war Poland was mainly decided during the conferences in Tehrān, →Yalta and Potsdam. Poland's border was about to be redrawn. The bottom line was that the entire country was to be shifted a few hundred kilometres to the west. This meant that the Soviet Union got a large part of former Poland, whereas Poland now included large, traditionally German territories. From then on, the new western border was dubbed Oder-Neiße- Peace Border (river names, marking the border) in the new-speak of Eastern Germany. As a result of the war, Germany lost Eastern Prussia, Farther Pomerania, Silesia and some other territories. Soon after the final decision on the new border was made, massive ethnic cleansing started. Poles were brutally expelled from the eastern neighbour, the →Ukraine. Ukraines were expelled from Poland. And millions of Germans were equally brutally expelled from Poland. What was left was much hatred between Poles, Germans and Soviets. Partially even until today.

Stalin himself once expressed that "...introducing communism in Poland would be the same as trying to saddle a cow". History proved that he was probably right. Several uprisings, mainly in 1956, 1968, 1970 and 1976 caused great chaos in the country. In 1980/81, a massive strike crippled the country in such a way that martial law was imposed for a longer time. The communist leadership was virtually isolated. For years, Eastern Germans were not allowed to travel to Poland because of the situation that didn't really fit in the picture of the ideal socialist country. Economically, too, Poland did not very well. Although (or because) Poland was a centrally planned economy, inflation was higher then everywhere else in the east. The oppositional union Solidarność (Solidarity) grew stronger and stronger. Following the trend in other ex-communist countries, Poland's government gave way to free and democratic elections in 1989. The communist party didn't even get one single seat in parliament.

This marked the end of trying to introduce communism. In 1990, the very unpopular Jaruzelski stepped back and gave space to the very popular union leader Lech Wałęsa, who became the first democratically elected president of Poland. Things started to change quickly. The church, which always had a strong influence, grew stronger again. The Polish economy as well as the political system were widely reformed. In May 2004, Poland joined the European Union and already before the NATO. Poland advanced to the probably most important and fanatic partner of the US in the mainland of Europe. Consequently, Poland joined the allied forces in Iraq. But there's still much to do. A high unemployment rate, increasing crime rates and severe poverty of certain groups in Poland remain a challenge. But on the other side, the relation to its neighbours - most of all the Ukraine and Germany, improved a lot. At least until 2006/07, when the twins Kaczyński - one of them president, the other one prime minister - took over and started to adopt nationalist resentments and Euro-scepticism as their political guideline.

 

 

 

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