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Polish-American Heritage Database
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Concise History of Poland

Poland's name "Polska" is derived from the word "Polanie" or "people of the fields" one of several Slavic groups that settled the Northern European plain between the Oder and Vistula Rivers.

Poland adopted Christianity in 966 A.D. when Prince Mieszko I was baptized. Poland then became a part of Western Europe. In 1024, Boleslaw I, the Brave, was crowned the King in Gniezno, the first capital of Poland. The newly organized Polish church was placed under the direct authority of the Pope in Rome. Poland became an independent kingdom. Kings of the Piast Dynasty, descendants of Mieszko, ruled until 1370 and instituted social reform, rebuilding Poland, and established a democratic government with a Parliament.

In 1385 Poland united with Lithuania. Wladyslaw Jagiello, who at that time was the Prince of Lithuania, accepted Christianity, married the Polish queen, and became the King of Poland. In 1410, the Polish Lithuanian army defeated the Teutonic Knights at the Battle of Grunwald. Under the Jagiellonian Dynasty, Poland's political position was strengthened in Europe. Because of the political, cultural and economic achievements this period became known as the "Golden Age."

The Union of Poland and Lithuania, known as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, was based on mutual respect for all people. The Commonwealth's religious tolerance and mutual respect for different customs attracted the people of many European countries. A period of Renaissance in architecture and literature followed.

Conflicts started in the 17th century when the international balance of forces was not favorable to Poland and Lithuania. With the death of King Sigismund August who left no heir to the throne, Poland entered into a period of 222 years of elective kingship. During these years thirteen Polish kings were elected. Five of these kings were of foreign nationalities. Some kings became embroiled in wars with neighboring countries seeking more power. The period of attacks on Poland by Sweden, Russia, Prussia and the Ottoman Turks caused the loss of some of Poland's territory. Poland's army won many battles but the struggles were bitter and lasted for months resulting in the devastation of towns and villages. Thousands of Polish people were killed and wounded. The attempts to improve the situation ended in failure. The further decline started with the aggression of Russia, Prussia and Austria, all absolute monarchies. Poland, with her traditions of tolerance and freedom, was considered politically dangerous.

In 1773, the First Commission of National Education was established to reform the educational system and to allow a larger number of the population to attend schools.

On May 3, 1791, the Polish Parliament approved a new democratic Constitution, similar to the American Constitution. It was the second constitution to be enacted in the World and the first in Europe. The Constitution reorganized the government, abolished the single veto vote, provided religious freedom, and provided rights to the urban population. Peasants were now protected by the court system. The monarchy was based on a hereditary system with executive powers vested in the King and a Council consisting of a Premier and his ministers.

The attacks on Poland continued and attempts to improve the political situation failed. A further decline started with the aggression of the absolute monarchies of Russia, Prussia, and Austria. The three neighboring powers gradually (1772, 1793, 1795) divided the area of Poland among themselves. Poland disappeared from the map of Europe for almost 125 years.

"Poland has not perished as long as we live..." These words were written in 1797 by poet J. Wybicki, a soldier of the Polish Legion organized in Italy. The Poles were working and fighting for the independence of Poland wherever it was possible. Poland regained freedom in 1918 at the end of World War I. The 11th of November was declared Polish National Independence Day. Parliamentary democracy lasted from 1919 to 1935 until the death of Marshal J. Pilsudski who organized Polish Legions and was a great hero to many Poles.

During the twenty-one years of independence, the Poles succeeded in their effort of reconstruction. In September, 1939, it was Poland which suffered the first attack of Hitler's Army from the west and the Red Army from the east. The country remained under German or Soviet occupation until the end of World War Il. Poles again fought bravely against the invading forces.

Even after Russia and Germany occupied the country, the Polish Home Army constantly fought them. Poles fought in Great Britain, Italy and all possible fronts to gain freedom. They fought remarkably and helped save Great Britain from the German invasion.

On July 22, 1944, the Soviet Union established a Communist controlled government in Lublin, the area of Poland where the Red Army was advancing to the West.

On August I, 1944, the Warsaw Uprising broke out as an attempt to free Warsaw from the Germans. The leadership of the Home Army, which organized the uprising, expected to win full independence for Poland and establish a non-Communist government. However, due to the Yalta and Potsdam Agreements, the Allies were not supportive and the uprising failed.

Poland remained under Communist control until the birth of "Solidarity." It came as a result of Poland's spiraling economic and resulting crisis. On August 31, 1980, striking workers, led by Lech Walesa, negotiated an agreement guaranteeing their right to form independent trade unions. The national union movement, "Solidarity," followed the signing of the Agreement.

A rapid deterioration of the Communist Party followed. It led to a build up of Soviet troops along the Polish border resulting in Martial Law being declared on December 13, 1981. In 1990 the Communist Party dissolved and new parliamentary elections were held in October, 1991. Parliamentary elections were held again in September 1993.

Poland's parliament, called the National Assembly has two houses which consist of the "Sejm" with 460 members and the "Senate" with 100 members. The president is the head of state. The prime minister and the president are the most powerful leaders in Poland. The Supreme Court is the highest court in Poland. In 1999, Poland became a member of NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and is currently applying to become a member of the European Union.


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