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Short History of Poland

In prehistoric times, the territory within Poland’s current borders was inhabited by a number of Slavic tribes; Poland’s name Polska derives from that of the Polanie tribe which dwelt in the area centered on Poznan and, it time, united the other tribes under their leadership.

Around 950, the Polanie began to experience military incursions from the Germans from the west. Quickly, Mieszko I, their ruler, accepted vassal status to the German King, Otto I, thereby protecting the lands of the Polanie from incursions by lesser German princes. However, he perceived that the paganism of the Polanie would soon provoke German military efforts aimed at their conversion. It was important then to quickly and voluntarily accept Christianity, best from someone other than the Germans. He turned to the Bohemians (Czechs), a kindred Slavic tribe. In 965, he married Dobrava, a Christian Czech Princess, and a year later accepted Christianity, from the hands of Czechs whose ecclesiastical authority derived, like that of the Germans, from the Bishop of Rome, the Pope. By so doing, he cast Poland’s lot with that of Western Europe. By contrast, in 988, Vladimir the Great of Kiev accepted Christianity from those acting under the ecclesiastical authority of the Patriarch of Constantinople. The consequences of the resultant divide between the ecclesiastical alligences of Poland and the countries to the east of it have continued to impinge on Polish history.

Mieszko I, was succeed by his son, Boleslaw I, the Brave. In 1000, Otto III, King of the Germans and Holy Roman Emperor came to Gniezno, Poland’s first capital, to participate in a Congress and to visit the tomb of his friend, St Adalbert. While there, he recognized Boleslaw as the Sovereign of an independent nation. Twenty five years later, the Pope agreed for Boleslaw to be crowned King of Poland. As a Christian King he had the authority from the Pope to appoint bishops, men whose importance in the medieval times was very high and could impinge on a nation’s sovereignty.

The Piast Dynasty continued to rule Poland for three centuries, the last Piast King was Casimir the Great. It is said of him that he found a Poland made of wood and left one made of stone. Poland, a relatively flat country, has few natural barriers that could protect it from invasions and so Casimir erected hundreds of castles built of stone that would protect the country. This was also a time when Jews were being expelled and persecuted in many countries in Europe. Casimir invited them to come and settle in Poland where they would be under his protection. And indeed so many came, then and later, that at one point three quarters of the Jews in the world were living peacefully in Poland.

Casimir died childless and his throne passed to his nephew, King Louis of Hungary and then Louis’es daughter Jadwiga (Helvig). To the east of Poland lay the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, a large and powerful state, though still pagan. Jadwiga decided to marry the Grand Duke, Wladyslaw Jagiello, and thereby to unite under their two crowns these two nations and, at the same time, to the bring about the conversion of Jagiello and his Lithuanian nation to Christianity.

To the north of Poland lay the Prussian state of the Teutonic Knights. The Knights, a powerful German monastic order, had been originally invited to the region so as to convert the area's native Prussians a Western Baltic people. This they did, mostly at the point of the sword. Having established their own state, they sought to expand it at the cost of its neighbors, primarily Poland and Lithuania. In time, this led to the biggest battle of the Middle ages, that of Grunwald where, in 1 41 0, the Polish and Lithuanian army under the leadership of Jagiello inflicted a stunning defeat on the Knights. For the next couple of hundred years the country prospered, first under Jagiello and then his descendent, members of the Jagietlonian Dynasty, Poland’s political position in Europe was strong. It was Poland’s Golden age, full of political, cultural and economic achievements. Gradually, the way the nation was governed became more democratic. A bicameral Parliament was first convened in 1493, like the U.S. Congress, of two houses, the Sejm and the Senate. In 1 1505 it enacted a statute requiring the King to the obtain the prior approval of both chambers of the Parliament before decreeing any law.

It was during this period that Renaissance came to Poland and with it a philosophy that caused people to have greater respect for each other and the freedoms they cherished. One off the great achievements of the time was and an Act, passed at the Confederation of Warsaw in 1 573, that recognized freedom for all to practice their faith without fear of persecution. Thus, while religious wars consumed much of Europe, and burning at the stake became a common event there, Poland enjoyed a era of tranquillity. The Renaissance and the many Italian artist that came to Poland during this period, have left a rich architectural heritage of many beautiful buildings and even a whole town, Zamosc. It was also during this period that literary works begun to be written in Polish rather than Latin.

After the last of the Jagiellonian monarchs died childless, the throne passed to his nephew brought up, in Lutheran Sweden, as a fervent Catholic. His mother had taught him Polish which he spoke beautifully, but from his father, King John Ill of Sweden, he inherited the desire to be King of Sweden. Though he accepted the Polish Crown, taking the name Sigismund Ill, he continued to yearn the Swedish one. Totally unacceptable to the Swedes, because of his religious beliefs, he embroiled Poland in a series of disastrous wars with Sweden. At one point, the whole of Poland fell into Swedish hands, with the exception of the Jasna Gora monastery in Czestochowa. Although the Swedes lay siege to the monastery for over a hundred days, they did not manage to force its surrender. The ability of this one monastery to resist the Swedish siege became viewed by the Polish nation as a miracle, a divine intercession ascribed to the black Madonna icon in the Monastery’s chapel. So high is the regard that Poles continue to have for the icon that annually pilgrimages are organized from many parts of Poland to the Jasna Gora

Sigismund Ill was succeeded by his son, then by his brother. They were followed on the throne by a series of other elected kings under whom Poland, on the whole, fared poorly. In addition to the attacks by Sweden, Poland endured ones from Russia, from Prussia and from the Ottoman Turks, each of these countries seeking more power at the expense 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.

There were bright spots. One was the election of King Jan III Sobieski, a brilliant military leader who, rising in the defense of Christian Europe, routed, at the head of the Polish army, the Ottoman Turks besieging Vienna in 1 683. In general, however, 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. At the same time, Poland suffered from a surfeit of a certain kind of democracy, particularly in the form of the liberum veto, whereby any deputy in Parliament, if he felt strongly enough about a matter, could exercise a personal veto and bring the session to a close. This could make the business of governing the country very difficult and frustrating.

Over the following century, the country came under increasing domination by its autocratic neighbors. Treaties were forced upon Poland limiting the size of its armed forces, stipulating the stationing Russian troops on its soil, etc. If Poland and its freedoms were to survive, something had to be done. Some favored a military solution. They joined together in 1 768 in the Confederation of Bar, among them Kazimierz Pulaski who for four years, fought countless battles with the Russian troops stationed in Poland. A brilliant military tactician he was forced into exile in 1772. Eventually, he came to America and lent his skills in the American War of Independence organizing the U.S. Cavalry. He died, hit by a shell, at the siege of Savanna where he is buried.

Others saw the solution to Poland’s problems in a far reaching restructuring of education and government. Without it, they argued, the country would not be able to liberate itself from the foreign domination. Poland’s last King, Stanislaw August Poniatowski, sided with the latter group. With his help a Commission of National Education was created in 1 773, the first such in the world. Its task, which it performed magnificently, was to reform the nation’s educational system so as to bring better instruction to a larger proportion of the population. Another initiative supported by the King was the founding of an elite military academy, the Knights’ School. Though the treaties stipulated that Poland could only have a limited number of officers, these should be first class. One of the first graduates of the Academy was Tadeusz Kosciuszko who later was to play a crucial role in the American War of Independence.

Also, after a long and spirited debate, the Polish Parliament approved on May 3, 1791, a new democratic Constitution, which the King straightaway signed. Second only in history to the American Constitution and the first in Europe, it reorganized the government, abolished the single veto, assured religious freedom, and provided rights to the urban population. Peasants were to be protected by the court system and the monarchy was to be based on a hereditary system with executive powers vested in the King and a Council consisting of a Premier and his ministers.

The autocratic rulers in the countries surrounding Poland thought Poland’s Constitution to be a dangerous precedent. What if their subjects were to demand a greater say in government? This Constitution, in their view, could not be allowed to stand. Soon a Russian army invaded Poland. The Poles defended themselves bravely, but in the end had to agree to suspension of the Constitution. It was a bitter blow, made all the worst by a second round of annexation of Polish territory by its neighbors (the first such annexation, or partition had occurred earlier, in 1772.)

Desperate now, the Poles called on the hero of the American Revolution, Kosciuszko, to lead one in Poland. If the Americans could defeat the British, could the Poles under his command not defeat the Russians? Kosciuszko agreed and led a revolt, initially successful. Unlike America, however, no ocean, barring reinforcements, separated Poland from Russia. At the end of six months, the uprising was suppressed and Kosciuszko, badly wounded, was taken prisoner. Next the Polish King was forced to abdicate, placed under house arrest. The three powers, Russia, Prussia and Austria, annexed all the remaining Polish territory and divided it among themselves. Poland disappeared from the map of Europe for the next 123 years.

Poland was no more, but the yearning of Poles for independence never ebbed. Soon, a Polish Legion was organized in Italy and the words written in 1 797 by one the legionnaires, the poet Jozef Wybicki, “As long as we live, Poland has not perished ... “ became the bywords of repeated efforts to regain Poland’s independence. As uprising after uprising was brutally suppressed, more and more of Poland’s bravest and brightest joined the Great Emigration. Finally, World War I, in which Russia and Germany battled each other into relative impotence, gave the Poles a chance. In the first days of November 1 91 8, the Poles liberated themselves and on the 1 1th under the leadership of Marshal Jozef Pilsudski, they proclaimed their independence. During the twenty-one years of independence the Poles succeeded in their effort of reconstruction

Meanwhile, however, in Germany, Poland’s western neighbor, the fanatical Nazi party rose to power. Its leader, Adolf Hitler, preached the doctrine that the Germans were a superior race and it was their destiny to secure for themselves by force of arms “living space” to the east, by annexing territories inhabited by the “inferior” Slave race.

And so, in September 1 939, it was Poland which was the first to suffer an attack by Hitler’s Army, precipitating World War II. Within a few days, it also invaded by the Soviet Red Army from the east. There follow five years of the most brutal occupation. From their zone of occupation, the Soviets deported 1 .8 million Poles to Siberia where most of them perished. The Germans for their part, herded all the Poles who were Jewish into areas of the main cities which they walled off and called Ghettos. Tens of thousands died from starvation and epidemics. Hundreds of thousands more were shipped to death camps where they were gassed. All told, some three million perished, virtually all the Jews that had lived in Poland. Christian Poles perished in equal numbers. Executions, deportations, and imprisonment became a daily occurrence. German concentration camps wee built all over Poland.

Even after Russia and Germany occupied the country, the Polish Home Army continued to fight them constantly. Also, one way or another, mostly risking their lives, many Poles managed to find their way to the Allies and Polish units were formed that fought alongside the Allies on many fronts: as pilots in the Battle of Britain, in Norway, North Africa, on the Eastern Front, in Italy, the Netherlands, and France. By the end of the war, the Polish forces were the fourth largest in the Allied camp. Poland’s contributions to the Allied victory antedated the war itself, for in 1 939, Polish cryptologists had managed to duplicate and provide the British with the Omega machine which the Germans used to code messages they sent by radio. As a result, throughout the war, the Allies had access to the German’s secret information.

Warsaw, Poland’s capital was almost totally destroyed. It was heavily bombed during the German invasion in 1 939. Then in 1 943, following the Nazi deportation of most of the Jew confined in the Ghetto to death camps, those remaining staged an uprising preferring “death with honor” to being killed in gas chambers. The uprising lasted three weeks; there virtually no survivors and the area in which the Germans had created the Ghetto, was raised to the ground. Then again, on August 1, 1 944, with the Soviet army in close proximity, the Polish Underground Army staged an uprising in the rest of Warsaw and liberated most of it from German control. It had expected that it would link up with Soviet forces, spare the city from massive damage, and have a say in the formation of the forthcoming Polish state. The Soviets, however, halted their advance, failed to provide any assistance and left the Poles to their fate. For the next 63 days the Poles continued to fight the Germans, but were finally forced to surrender. A quarter of a million Warsaw residents died, most of the city was destroyed. Hitler, furious at the city for having defied him, ordered special units to enter the now empty city and dynamite any building left standing.

The end of the war did not signal a return of sovereignty and independence. As a result of agreements reached by Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin at Yalta, Poland was consigned to the “Soviet sphere of influence” and thereby to Communist rule. A “People’s Poland” is created behind the Iron Curtain. There was to be no free expression, much regimentation, a lack of consumer goods, and the presence of the Secret Police is everywhere. When in 1 955 workers in Poznan called a strike, tanks were used to break it. After Stalin’s death, there was some easing of controls, but the poor economic situation continued.

In 1 978, Karol Wojtyla was elected as the first Polish Pope, taking the name John Paul II. His elevation give the country hope. Two years later, in August 1980, led by the electrician Lech Walesa, the shipyard workers in Gdansk, reacting to Poland’s spiraling economic decline called a strike. They negotiated an agreement with the government that guaranteed them the right to form an independent trade union, the first such in a communist country. The formation of a national union movement, “Solidarity,” followed the signing of the agreement. Soon “Solidarity” had 10 million members. Many Communist party members tore up their membership cards and joined Solidarity. The rapid disintegration of the Communist Party led to a massing of Soviet troops along the Polish border.

On December 13, 1981, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, Poland’s communist ruler, declared a state of Marshal Law and “Solidarity” was outlawed.

In 1983, Lech Walesa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. As more and more Poles refused to cooperate with the communist government in any way, the country becomes increasingly ungovernable and the economic situation went from bad to worse. In 1989, the government proposed holding talks with “Solidarity.” A huge round table was constructed and talks were held around it. The Round Table Talks resulted in and compromise agreement between the communist regime and the leaders of Solidarity to hold semi-free elections. These led to an overwhelming victory for Solidarity and the communists were forced to cede power to a democratic government. In 1 990 the Communist Party dissolved itself and a new, now totally free, parliamentary elections were held in October 1 991.

In 1 997, a new Constitution was approved in a national referendum and in 1 999 Poland became a member of NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Also, it has applied to become a member of the European Union.

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



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