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History of Poland

History of Poland series
Piast Poland
Andegawen Poland
The Jagiellon Era
Nobles’ Democracy
Partition (1795–1914)
Poland (1914–1939)
Poland (1939–1945)
Poland (1945–1989)
Poland (1989–present)

The people of Poland took pride in their long history, filled with the struggle to get, keep, and regain freedom—the main value for Poles. Poles founded one of the first parliamentary systems in the world, invented the idea that pagans share the same human rights as Christians, and implemented one of the first systems based on religious pluralism and tolerance.

Over the past millennium, the territory ruled by Poland has shifted and varied greatly. At one time, in the 16th century, Poland was the second largest state in Europe, after Russia. At other times there was no separate Polish state at all. Poland regained its independence in 1918, after more than a century of rule by its neighbours.


Early history of Poland (until 1385)

Main article: Early history of Poland (until 1385)

Traditional histories of Poland begin with the Polanian tribe ruled by Duke Mieszko I, who became duke of the Polanian tribes around 962 and adopted Christianity in 966 following his marriage to the Czech princess Dubrawka. Generations later, his country would become Poland, but there was no unified Polish nation at that time, only an assortment of Slavic tribes speaking different dialects such as the (Pomeranian) of the North.

Some historians even question whether Mieszko was Slavic and suggest that he was Scandinavian, and have seen evidence to support this claim in one of the earliest written documents about Mieszko (the Dagome Iudex), where he appears under the name Dagome, which they say could be the Scandinavian name Dago. Some military equipment found in Poland and dated to around Mieszko's time has been claimed to be of Scandinavian appearance, though archaeologists today are generally skeptical, and there is no trace of characteristically Scandinavian architecture among the remains of the Polanian structures, not even in the leaders' quarters. (See summary of arguments at Scandinavian connections to Mieszko I).

Mieszko's successor Boleslaus I expanded the early state, and gave it an international recognition due to the meeting at the tomb of Saint Adalbert with the emperor of Holy Roman Empire. Given to him by the emperor, the title of king was taken in 1025. But with the death of Boleslaus III (1138) the kingdom was divided among his sons. During the following 192-year Fragmentation period (in Polish, Rozbicie dzielnicowe) Poland was divided into a number of principalities.

The Jagiellon Era (1385-1572)

Main article: The Jagiellon Era

The restoration of royal power under Ladislaus I (1320) and dynastic union (1386) with the grand duchy of Lithuania to the north-east paved the way for the extension of Polish power far to the east and the creation (Union of Lublin, 1569) of a unified Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (Rzeczpospolita) stretching from the Baltic and the Carpathians to present-day Belarus and western and central Ukraine.

In the north-west, the Teutonic Knights, in control of Prussia since the 13th century, were forced after their defeats by a combined Polish-Lithuanian force in the Battle of Grunwald (1410) and in the later Thirteen Years War to surrender to the Polish crown the western half of the territory they had controlled (the areas known afterwards as Royal Prussia) and to accept Polish suzerainty over the remainder (the later Ducal Prussia) in the 1466 Second Treaty of Thorn.

During this period Poland became the home to Europe's largest Jewish population, as royal edicts guaranteeing Jewish safety and religious freedom from the 13th century contrasted with bouts of persecution in western Europe, especially following the Black Death of 1348-1349, blamed by some in the West on Jews themselves. Much of Poland suffered relatively little from the outbreak, while Jewish immigration brought valuable manpower and skills for the rising state. The greatest increase in Jewish numbers occurred in the 18th century, when Jews came to make up 7% of the population.

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth(1572-1795)

Main articles: Nobles' Democracy, Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, following upon the Union of Lublin, became one of the most notable examples of democracy (limited to noble citizens) in the history of Europe. Poland-Lithuania remained an influential player in European politics and a vital cultural entity through most of the period.

Eventually, a series of civil wars undermined citizenship values among the citizens, which gradually eroded the parliament's function and authority. Foreign domination of neighbours made Poland weak, but eventually the people of Poland awoke and reforms were started. The final account is signed with the adoption of the Constitution of May 3, the first constitution on the European continent.

Partitioned Poland (1795-1914)

Main article: Partitioned Poland (1795-1914)

Polish independence ended in a series of partitions (1772, 1793 and 1795) undertaken by Russia, Prussia and Austria, with Russia gaining most of the Commonwealth's territory including nearly all of the former Lithuania (except Podlasie and lands West from Niemen river), Volhynia and Ukraine. Austria gained the populous southern region henceforth named Galicia-Lodomeria, named after the Duchy of Halicz and Volodymyr. (The Duchy was briefly occupied by Hungary between 1372 and 1399 and Habsburgs claimed were inherited after Hungarian Kings, despite the fact, that Volodymyr was not a part of Galicia). In 1795 Austria also gained the land between Kraków and Warsaw, between Vistula river and Pilica river . Prussia acquired the western lands from the Baltic through Greater Poland to Kraków, as well as Warsaw and Lithuanian territories to the north-east (Augustow, Mariampol) and Podlasie. The last heroic attempt to save Poland's independence was a national uprising (1794) led by Tadeusz Kosciuszko, however it was eventually quenched.

Following the French emperor Napoleon I's defeat of Prussia, a Polish state was again set up in 1807 under French tutelage as the Duchy of Warsaw. Upon Austria's defeat in 1809, Lodomeria was added, giving the new state a population of some 3.75 million, a quarter of that of the former commonwealth. Polish nationalists were to remain among the staunchest allies of the French as the tide of war turned against them, inaugurating a relationship that continued into the twentieth century.

With Napoleon's defeat, the Congress of Vienna in 1815 converted most of the grand duchy into a Kingdom of Poland ruled by the Russian Tsar. Several national uprisings were bloodily subdued by the partitioning powers. However, Polish patriotism and striving for regaining independence could not extinguished by them. The opportunity for freedom appeared only after the World War I when the opressing states were defeated or weakened.

Independence Regained (1914-1939)

Main article: Independence of Poland Regained

The upcoming World War I and the political turbulence that was sweeping throughout Europe in 1914 offered the Polish nation hopes for regaining independence. By the end of World War I, Poland had seen the defeat or retreat of all three occupying powers.

The Polish independence was eventually proclaimed on November 3, 1918 and later confirmed by the Treaty of Versailles in 1919; the same treaty also gave Poland some German and Austrian territories (see Polish Corridor).

Polish independence has boosted the development of culture and economy; however, the new Polish state had had only 20 years of relative stability and uneasy peace before Poland's aggressive, totalitarian neighbours tried to wipe her from the map of Europe again.

World War II in Poland (1939-1945)

Main article: History of Poland (1939-1945)

On August 23, 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union signed the Ribbentrop-Molotov non-aggression pact, which secretly provided for the dismemberment of Poland into Nazi and Soviet-controlled zones. On September 1, 1939, Hitler ordered his troops into Poland. On September 17, Soviet troops invaded and then occupied most of the areas of eastern Poland having significant Ukrainian and Belarusian populations under the terms of this agreement. After Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, Poland was completely occupied by German troops.

The Poles formed an underground resistance movement and a government in exile, first in Paris and later in London, which was recognized by the Soviet Union. During World War II, 400,000 Poles fought under Soviet command, and 200,000 went into combat on Western fronts in units loyal to the Polish government in exile. Many Polish refugee camps were set up, including one in Valdivadé, near Kohlapur in India. The camp numbered about 5000, and the Polish embassy in exile had its office in Bombay. The camp existed from 1943 to 1948.

In April 1943, the Soviet Union broke relations with the Polish government inexile after the German military announced that they had discovered mass graves of murdered Polish army officers at Katyń, in the U.S.S.R. (The Soviets claimed that the Poles had insulted them by requesting that the Red Cross investigate these reports.) In July 1944, the Soviet Red Army entered Poland and established a communist-controlled "Polish Committee of National Liberation" at Lublin.

Resistance against the Nazis in Warsaw, including uprising by Jews in the Warsaw ghetto and the Warsaw Uprising by the Polish underground, was brutally suppressed. As the Germans retreated in January 1945, they leveled the city.

During the war, about 6 million Polish citizens were killed, and 2.5 million were deported to Germany for forced labor. About 1,5-2 million were deported to Soviet Union, many of them to concentration camps and labor camps (Gulag). About 3 million Jews (all but about 300,000-500,000 of the Jewish population) died of starvation in ghettos and labor camps or were killed in extermination camps of Oswiecim (Auschwitz II), Treblinka, Majdanek, Belzec, Sobibór, Chelmno, List of Polish Martyrology sites.

The post-war fate of the Polish state and its territorial shape was decided by the Soviets and the western Allies over the heads of the Polish government-in-exile based in London ( famous Poland's betrayal by the Western Allies). The Soviet government insisted on retaining the territories captured in the course of the Nazi-Soviet pact (now western Ukraine and western Belarus), compensating Poland with the return of Regained Territories, from which remaining Germans were to be removed to Germany.

People's Republic of Poland (1945-1989)

Main article: People's Republic of Poland

Following the Yalta Conference in February 1945, a Polish Provisional Government of National Unity was formed in June 1945; the U.S. recognized it the next month. Although the Yalta agreement called for free elections, those held in January 1947 were controlled by the Communist Party. The communists then established a regime entirely under their domination.

In October 1956, after the 20th ("de-Stalinization") Soviet Party Congress at Moscow and riots by workers in Poznan, there was a shakeup in the communist regime. While retaining most traditional communist economic and social aims, the regime of First Secretary Wladyslaw Gomulka liberalized Polish internal life.

In 1968, the trend reversed when student demonstrations were suppressed and an "anti-Zionist" campaign initially directed against Gomulka supporters within the party eventually led to the emigration of much of Poland's remaining Jewish population. In December 1970, disturbances and strikes in the port cities of Gdansk, Gdynia, and Szczecin, triggered by a price increase for essential consumer goods, reflected deep dissatisfaction with living and working conditions in the country. Edward Gierek replaced Gomulka as First Secretary.

Fueled by large infusions of Western credit, Poland's economic growth rate was one of the worlds highest during the first half of the 1970s. But much of the borrowed capital was misspent, and the centrally planned economy was unable to use the new resources effectively. The growing debt burden became insupportable in the late 1970s, and economic growth had become negative by 1979.

In October 1978, the Bishop of Kraków, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, became Pope John Paul II, head of the Roman Catholic Church. Polish Catholics rejoiced at the elevation of a Pole to the papacy and greeted his June 1979 visit to Poland with an outpouring of emotion.

Onn July 1 1980, with the Polish foreign debt at more than $20 billion, the government made another attempt to increase meat prices. A chain reaction of strikes virtually paralyzed the Baltic coast by the end of August and, for the first time, closed most coal mines in Silesia. Poland was entering into an extended crisis that would change the course of its future development.

On 31 August 1980, workers at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk, led by an electrician named Lech Walesa, signed a 21-point agreement with the government that ended their strike. Similar agreements were signed at Szczecin and in Silesia. The key provision of these agreements was the guarantee of the workers' right to form independent trade unions and the right to strike. After the Gdansk agreement was signed, a new national union movement "Solidarity" swept Poland.

The discontent underlying the strikes was intensified by revelations of widespread corruption and mismanagement within the Polish state and party leadership. In September 1980, Gierek was replaced by Stanislaw Kania as First Secretary.

Alarmed by the rapid deterioration of the PZPR's authority following the Gdansk agreement, the Soviet Union proceeded with a massive military buildup along Poland's border in December 1980. In February 1981, Defense Minister Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski assumed the position of Prime Minister as well, and in October 1981, he also was named party First Secretary. At the first Solidarity national congress in September-October 1981, Lech Walesa was elected national chairman of the union.

Martial law

On December 12-13, the regime declared martial law, under which the army and ZOMO riot police were used to crush the union. Virtually all Solidarity leaders and many affiliated intellectuals were arrested or detained. The United States and other Western countries responded to martial law by imposing economic sanctions against the Polish regime and against the Soviet Union. Unrest in Poland continued for several years thereafter.

In a series of slow, uneven steps, the Polish regime rescinded martial law. In December 1982, martial law was suspended, and a small number of political prisoners were released. Although martial law formally ended in July 1983 and a general amnesty was enacted, several hundred political prisoners remained in jail.

In July 1984, another general amnesty was declared, and 2 years later, the government had released nearly all political prisoners. The authorities continued, however, to harass dissidents and Solidarity activists. Solidarity remained proscribed and its publications banned. Independent publications were censored.

The Third Republic (1989-present)

Main article: History of Poland (1989-present)

A shock therapy program during the early 1990s enabled the country to transform its economy into one of the most robust in Central Europe. Hopes for early admission to the European Union were realized on April 16, 2003, when Poland and nine other countries signed a Treaty for EU membership from May 1, 2004. Poland joined NATO in March 1999.

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Last updated: 10-24-2004 05:10:45