A Short Outline of the History of Poland

in the last two and a half centuries.


by Peter K. Gessner


Preamble:     966 - Poland accepts Christianity and Polish history begins. The state had more or less existed for a couple of centuries before that but only after the introduction of Christianity and with it of writing, could events be recorded.


966 to1772 - Many centuries during which the Polish State became one of the largest in Europe and in which gradually it moved away from absolute hereditary monarchs to a form of democracy of the landed classes and to monarchs who are elected for life by Parliament and who cannot levy taxes without the consent of Parliament. This weakens the state. At the same time the increasing democratic tendencies of Poland are, philosophically, a threat to the three absolutist monarchies that surrounded Poland: Prussia (a Germanic kingdom on the shores of the Baltic Sea, now subsumed into the Germany), Russia, and Austro-Hungary (an empire to encompassed not only to-day’s Austria and Hungary, but also Rumania, parts if Italy, Slovenia, Croatia and Serbia.)


1764 - Sanislaw August Poniatowski is elected King of Poland. Destined to be the nation’s last King, he is the choice of the Russian Empress whose money and troops help him win the election. He is to be the monarch of a much weakened state, yet proves much less compliant with the desires of the Russians, instituting many reforms in education, the armed forces, etc.


1772 - Russia, Prussia and Austro-Hungary annex a total of some 30% of Poland into their respective territories. This is referred to as the first partition. Poland is too weak to prevent this.


1791 - On May 3, the Polish Parliament adopts a written Constitution, the second such in the world, the United States Constitution having been in 1787. It strengthens the state’s democratic nature, provides for religious tolerance, equality and liberty for all. It’s philosophical basis are a threat to the absolute monarchs of the surrounding states. Russian troops invade Poland. The ensuing Russo-Polish War lasts over a year and results in a Russian victory.


1793 - A second partition takes place. The Polish Parliament is forced to rescind the Constitution of May 3rd and to approve the partition. It leaves Poland, a rump state with only 29% of its former territory. It’s a state in which the Russian ambassador has enormous power. Although nominally sovereign, Poland has Russian troops permanently stationed on its Polish territory.


1794 - Seeing the writing on the wall, the Poles, led by the hero of the American War of Independence, Tadeusz Kosciuszko, rise in revolt against the Russian occupier. After initial success, the rising is put down.


1795 - The third partition leads to the disappearance of Poland from the map of Europe, all of its territory being annexed. Stanislaw August abdicates, is removed to St. Petersburg where he dies


1775 to 1918 - Years of Poland’s captivity, during which the occupiers - particularly Prussia and Russia - will make efforts to wipe out all vestiges of Polishness, including the language.


1806 to1814 - A brief respite to the above occasioned by the French who, led by Napoleon, defeat Prussia, and set up the Duchy of Warsaw (not wanting to upset the Russians, Napoleon shies from calling it Poland, though its armed forces are called the Polish Army), but then in 1812 Napoleon invades Russia and is defeated.


1815 - The victorious powers (again Austro-Hungary, Prussia and Russia) agree, at the Congress of Vienna, to revise the way Poland is partitioned. Part of the Russian occupied territory is to be a so-called “Congress Kingdom of Poland” with the Russian Tsar (Emperor) as its King, the rest is to become part of Russia proper. Also, out of the Austro-Hungarian zone of occupation, a small area around the ancient city of Krakow is to be called the "Krakow Republic," possessing a modicum of self-government though it remains under the control of Austro-Hungary.


1830 - On November 29 an uprising starts in Warsaw, the capital of the “Congress Kingdom.” It is perpetrated primarily by the intelligentsia and the landed gentry. After 352 days, it is crushed. Thousands of participants flee abroad, primarily to Paris. This is called the Great Emigration, not because of its overall numbers but because so much of Poland’s cultural elite is involved - for instance, Chopin the composer.


1846 - An aborted uprising in Krakow causes it to lose its status as a Republic. It is incorporated into the Zone of Austro-Hungarian occupation.


1863 - On January 14 another uprising starts in Warsaw. It spreads to all of the zone of Russian occupation. After nine months, it is put down. Severe repression follows. Anyone involved is hunted down by the Russian police and sent, with their families to Siberia. Many are made to literally walk the hundreds of miles from Poland to Siberia, most never to return. The Congress Kingdom ceases to exist, direct Russian Rule is imposed. The Poles are plunged into despair and turn against further attempts are regaining independence through revolts.


1871 - As a result of the reunification of Germany, William I King of Prussia become Emperor of Germany. The Prussian zone of occupation becomes part of Germany.


1914 to1918 - The First World War, a war without a good reason in which Germany and Austro-Hungary declare war on Russia. To aid Russia, France, Britain, and Italy declare war on Germany and Austro-Hungary. The Poles hope that the Russians - on one side - and the Germans and Austro-Hungarians on the other, will bleed each other to the point that the Poles can emerge as an independent entity. The war is indeed very bloody but it becomes a stalemate. The United States steps in on the side of the British and French, that and the introduction of tanks and planes leads to the defeat of Germany and Austro-Hungary. There is a revolution in Russia; the Russian soldiers refuse to fight any further. The Communists stage a revolt and gain power. All of Russian occupied Poland falls into German hands. An armistice is signed between the Western Allies (Britain, France, Italy, USA) and Germany on November 11.


1918 - In Warsaw, on November 11, the Poles disarm the German Army units and proclaim an independent Polish State. The Zone of German occupation, Wielkopolska (Great Poland), long incorporated into Germany continues to be seen as part of Germany by the victorious allies. But on December 27 an uprising starts and it forces the Germans to abandon the territory which becomes part of Poland. Poland’s western borders ratified by the 1919 Versailles Treaty.


1920 - A long struggle in Russia between the Communists and the “White Russians,” supporters of the former regime, resolves in favor of the Communists (or Soviets). The Soviet "Red Army" is now posed to invade Western Europe and install Communist regimes in Poland, Germany, maybe France. As a first step the Red Army invades Poland and gets withing a taxi ride of Warsaw. In what is regarded as one of the ten most important battle in history, the Poles under their leader Marshal Pilsudski manage to defeat and rout the Red Army. A treaty signed in Riga in 1921. It gives Poland sizable territories in the East in the areas that were once part of the Polish state but were the Poles are in a minority.


1939 - On September 1, Germany invades Poland. This is the start of WWII. The Germans far outnumber the Poles in number of soldiers, tanks, planes. The Poles are forced to retreat eastwards. On September 17, the Soviet Union - under a secret pact it had signed to with Germany - invades Poland from the East. Polish resistance collapses. Many members of the Polish Armed forces escape through Rumania, Hungary, etc and join the Allies in reformed Polish Army Units. The Polish Armed forces continue to fight throughout WWII. These are the fourth largest armed forces on the Allied side.


1940 - The Germans create ghettos in Warsaw, Krakow, Lodz, and other towns by walling off a part of the town. They force Poles of Jewish ancestry to move into the ghettos from which other Poles are excluded. Terribly crowded with meager supplies of food, the mortality in the ghettos skyrockets, but not sufficiently in the estimates of the Germans who begin to deport the Jews from the ghettos to death camps where, upon arrival, they are killed in gas chambers.


1943 - An uprising breaks out on April 19 in the Warsaw ghetto whose population has been reduced from 500,000 plus to 70,000. Over a period of three weeks, the German armed forces burn and literally level the ghetto; all caprued fighters are shot on the spot. Civilian survivors are sent to death camps.


1944 - August 1: with the Soviet Red Army within earshot of Warsaw, the Polish underground army stages an uprising liberating much of Warsaw. The expectation that the Red Army will aid the uprising proves false. Over the next 63 days the Red Army front remains stationary as the Germans are permitted to quell the uprising. Over 250,000 people perish in Warsaw before an October 3 surrender.


1945 - At a conference in Yalta, a Russian resort town on the Black Sea, Roosevelt and Churchill, the leaders respectively of the USA and Britain, agree to Stalin's demand that both the eastern and western frontiers of postwar Poland be shifted 200 miles to the west and that the Poles from the eastern parts of Poland will be displaced. Also that after the war, Poland will be in the “Soviet sphere of influence.” While this was a betrayal of Poland by the Western Allies, the reality of the situation was that Roosevelt and Churchill had little choice. Stalin held most of the cards: the brunt of the German Army was still fighting on the Eastern Front which was where it sustained most of its 3.5 million losses at the hands of the Red Army which itself also suffered incredible losses. (See table)

WWII Losses in European Theater






13 million





16-19 million



6 million*

*of these 2.3 to 3 million Poles of Jewish ancestry


1946 - The Soviet insure that the elections in Poland are rigged to result in election of a Communist Polish Government. The Soviet influence is so strong that the Minister of Defense in the Polish government is a Soviet Marshal. Sovereign in name, Poland becomes a Soviet satellite. Stalin personally rewrites the Polish Constitution which the Polish Communist Parliament then passes - unanimously. In 1956, the brutal repression by the Red Army of an uprising in Hungary, another Soviet satellite sovereign in name only, provides a warning.


1980 - Polish workers by their thousands go on strike against the Communist government forming the Solidarity Trade Union, first in Gdansk, then throughout Poland. In quick order, 10 million Poles join Solidarity becoming its members. Solidarity wins many concessions from the Communist Government. Alarmed, the Soviet leader warn the Polish Communist leadership that unless this is "taken care of," the Soviets will invade Poland to put the union movement down.


1981 - December 13 - The Polish Government declares a “State of War,” imprisons all the Union leaders, institutes draconian measures throughout the country. The response of the Polish population is “Internal Emigration,” a refusal to cooperate in any even the smallest way with the authorities. The country becomes increasing ungovernable.


1989 - The Communist Government, at wits end, decides to negotiate with the opposition as represented by the Solidarity Trade Union and others. The resulting “Round Table” talks lead to an agreement for elections in which some non-communist candidates will be able to participate. The defeat of the government is so resounding that it has to resign. Soon Poland is able to return to a fully democratic system of government.


1999 - March 12, Poland becomes a member of the NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization)


2004 - May 1, Poland becomes a member of the European Union