A Summary of Poland's History
Poland's history and the idea of nationhood in the minds of its people was shaped by its powerful and often aggressive neighbors and the lack of natural barriers on the western and eastern frontiers.
The Piast Dynasty
Succeeding Polish monarchs continued the difficult task of maintaining national unity and fighting off invaders. To relieve some of the pressure, a regional prince, Konrad of Mazovia, invited the Teutonic Knights, a German Crusading Order, to subdue the pagan tribes of north-eastern Poland. By 1288 the Order had conquered and established itself permanently in the area, becoming a major power.
The expansion of the Teutonic Order was halted by King Wladyslaw Lokietek (the Elbow High), at this time the kingdom of Lithuania, also threatened by the Order, came into the Polish sphere of influence. Casimir III son of Wladyslaw, consolidated the gains made by his father. He fortified the country, codified the laws and stimulated trade. He opened the country to settlement by Jews who were then being persecuted in virtually all the European states. Through diplomacy he secured treaties with the Teutonic Order and Bohemia. In Krakow, his capital, he founded the first Polish university.
Unfortunately, Casimir, from then known as "the Great" died without an heir in 1370, ending the Piast Dynasty. His nephew, Louis I of Hungary, a member of the French d'Anjou Dynasty, became king, but the end of his brief reign created a new crisis as he had only two young daughters as heirs. The younger of the two, Jadwiga was proclaimed Poland's ruler. Recognizing the needs of the state she agreed to marry Jagiello, the archduke of Lithuania, in order to cement an alliance between the two countries and consolidate their forces against the powerful Teutonic Order. Jagiello was then baptized and crowned king of Poland.
The late 15th and early 16th centuries marked the height of the Jagiellonian Dynasty. It was a Golden Age for Poland. The alliance of Poland and Lithuania, secured the eastern borders against the power of the Muscovy tsars and brought prosperity. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was also being influenced by the ideas of the Renaissance in science, literature, and artisanship.
Interest in learning increased, as Queen Jadwiga had taken the Krakow University under her patronage, donating her royal jewels to support growth of the institution which henceforth would be known as the Jagiellonian University. Italian influence in the arts and architecture arrived in Poland with Bona Sforza, the second wife of King Zygmunt the Old. Thanks to this Italian link, many works of art were exchanged abroad, the result being that Leonardo DaVinci's masterful portrait of Cecilia Gallerani "The Lady with an Ermine" found a permanent home in Krakow.
This time saw the publication of Nicholaus Copernicus' revolutionary thesis which stated that the earth and nearby planets revolved about the sun. Polish literature was coming into its own with the poetry of Jan Kochanowski, while Jan Zamoyski was creating a unique style of Polish Renaissance architecture through the reconstruction of the town of Zamosc.
Under King Zygmunt August Poland and Lithuania were joined into a Commonwealth at the Union of Lublin in 1565. The young king was the personification of the Renaissance spirit, and did much to advance the interests of Poland. However, though he married three times — his second wife was Barbara of the powerful Lithuanian Radziwill magnate family — he was unable to produce an heir, bringing the Jagiellonian dynasty to a close.
The Elected Monarchy
End of the Nobles' Republic
Two distinct political camps emerged with differing ideas as how this might be accomplished. Roman Dmowski's group advocated siding with Russia believing in the ultimate liberalization of Russian rule after an Allied victory. Jozef Pilsudski took a different way to Polish autonomy. He organized the "Polish Riflemen's League" and sided with the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As the Eastern Front rolled across Poland it left devastation and the tragedy of fratricidal warfare, since many Poles had been forcibly conscripted into the armies of both sides. Responding to the call for reinforcements on the Allied side Poles living in North America raised an army of nearly 100,000 men. Called the "Blue Army" after the color of its uniforms, it fought with distinction in France under General Jozef Haller. Dmowski's hopes were dashed as Russia withdrew from the war in 1917 - a result of the Bolshevik Revolution. But as victory came for the Allies, Polish statesman Ignacy Paderewski spoke for Poland. Recognizing the righteousness of the Polish cause US President Woodrow Wilson strongly advocated the restoration of a free and independent Poland with access to the Baltic Sea as one of the 14 Points for Peace. Armistice Day, November 11, 1918, was also Liberation Day for Poland, today celebrated as a national holiday.
Pilsudski became head of state and with minimal bloodshed was able to secure Poland's western border. The eastern border would prove much more troublesome. When Polish troops with allied Ukrainian units entered Kiev, the Red Army launched an attack to the west. Pushed back to the outskirts of Warsaw the Polish army fought a battle known as "The Miracle on the Vistula" and turned the tide. The smashed Red Army was forced to retreat beyond the Zbrucz River. The Peace of Riga earned through this victory defined Poland's eastern border and provided security to Western Europe from the Bolshevik threat.
The Interwar Period
Struggle among political factions tore at the core of the newly emerging nation. Though Pilsudski retired from political life after the restoration of a democratic government, in 1926 he staged a coup d'etat against what he perceived as a government mired in factionalism and corruption. This resulted in the creation an authoritarian regime that limited opposition and continued even after his death in 1935.
During this time Polish diplomacy tried to minimize the threats of the rising power of Germany and the Soviet Union through non-aggression pacts, and military alliances with Great Britain and France. The non-aggression pacts, however, were only a means which the Germans and Soviets used to buy time until they were ready for open aggression. Repeated attempts of the major powers to pacify Hitler failed, and on September 1, 1939 Poland was the first country to oppose the aggression of the German armed forces, and some days later, that of the Soviet Red Army.
As Polish territory was being occupied Soviet secret police rounded up over 15,000 Polish army officers, reservists, and intellectuals. Their fate remained unknown until mass graves were found at Katyn Forest and in other locations.
World War II
As their country was overrun by the German and Soviet armies, many Polish soldiers, sailors and airmen fled to reform and fight again in the Allied ranks. By May of 1940 over 100,000 Polish troops who escaped via Romania and Hungary were in France. After the surrender of France the Poles moved to Britain. Especially notable were the efforts of the Polish pilots who fought as part of the Royal Air Force denying control of the air to the German Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain.
Frustrated in his attempt to conquer Britain, Hitler turned against the Soviet Union, his one-time ally, and Stalin joined the Allied cause. Soon the policy toward the thousands of Polish prisoners of war in the Soviet Union softened. General Wladyslaw Anders formed a Polish Corps that marched through the Middle East to join British and American forces fighting in the African theater. These troops proved themselves during the defense of Tobruk. On the eastern front General Zygmunt Berling commanded the "Tadeusz Kosciuszko" division, a Polish unit formed to fight alongside the Soviet Army.
At this time the situation within Poland was grim. The population was terrorized by a German military regime that sacked the country at its discretion. Intellectuals and clergy endured persecution, millions were rounded up for forced labor. The large Jewish population was first confined to overcrowded ghettos, then shipped to labor and extermination camps that had been set up in Poland, Germany and Austria. Jan Karski, a member of the underground resistance, made a special mission to inform President Roosevelt of the atrocities being committed by the Nazis. In 1943 the Jews penned up in the Warsaw Ghetto flared up in open rebellion against their tormentors. Though the fighting was intense, the uprising was crushed after 28 days of fighting leaving only a few survivors.
Meanwhile, Polish Army units attached to Allied armies were involved in the taking of Monte Casino, a vital defense point held by the Germans, baring the way to Rome. Polish armored divisions formed in England later took part in the Normandy Landings.
As the Soviet Army pushed toward the west, crossed into Poland and approached Warsaw, the Home Army and allied groups initiated an action to liberate the capital. The intention was to push the Germans out and have a government in place at the arrival of the liberating Soviet army. Fighting began on August 1, 1944 but the Soviet offensive halted at the outskirts of Warsaw. Though attempts were made to air drop supplies these efforts were of little help. After 63 days the uprising collapsed leaving 200,000 dead and a completely devastated city.
The Post War Years
At the time the Soviet Army entered Poland it had brought with it a provisional government made up of Polish communists who had earlier sought refuge in Russia. This group, dubbed the "Provisional Government of National Unity" eventually allowed the inclusion of representatives from other political groups, including Stanislaw Mikolajczyk from the London government, and promised free elections, receiving the recognition of the Allies.
The first post-war elections were rigged by the communists who then proceeded to suppress all opposition. The communists consolidated power by forming the United Polish Workers Party, leaving only the Peasant Party and the Democratic Party as token opposition.
The period was marked by a patriotic effort to rebuild the country, especially the capital city which was 88 percent destroyed. By 1948 the communists had eliminated the private sector and instituted a central economy planned around industrial enterprises that mainly favored heavy industry. This was a time of intense pressure to remake Poland on the Stalinist model. The church, a final refuge for opposition, came under attack with the arrest of Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski. The pressure eased with the death of Joseph Stalin, and Polish society sought political concessions.
Dissatisfaction with economic conditions manifested itself in strikes and open protest in Poznan in 1956, and this was suppressed with armed force. (That year Soviet tanks put down an anti-communist uprising in Hungary.) The action set the precedent for a pattern behavior that was to be repeated by the Communist government of Poland. But at the time it ushered in a more liberal government headed by Wladyslaw Gomulka. As time went on Gomulka's Government fell back on force to stifle student protest in 1968. (A few months later troops from the Soviet Block countries were used to bring the liberal Communist regime in Czechoslovakia into line.) That same year a nationalist group within the Polish Communist party moved against Jewish party members and intellectuals, forcing many to emigrate.
When in 1970 strikers were fired upon in Gdansk, Gomulka was replaced by Edward Gierek. His government tried to improve economic conditions in Poland by taking out loans from the West. The plan was to use the capital to improve Polish industry and infrastructure, and make Poland competitive on world markets. It failed because of bad management, corruption, and waste. A prime example of resource misallocation was the giant Katowice Steel Mill in Silesia that connected to the Soviet Union via a special wide-track rail line. Dissatisfaction with rising prices among workers manifested itself in strikes, especially in the shipbuilding industry of Gdansk, whose products were being exported to the Soviet Union at an unfavorable rate of exchange.
The Solidarity Movement
Unfortunately, the cultural and social bloom of the Solidarity movement was not to last. On December 13, 1981 General Wojciech Jaruzelski, now the leading official of the communist party and the government, declared martial law and interred 10,000 Solidarity activists. Early resistance by coal miners at the Wojek coal mine in Silesia was ruthlessly crushed by special anti-strike units. In the first days of martial law regular army units patrolled city streets, while Solidarity, disbanded by the government, went underground.
Resistance took the form of an underground press and unsanctioned lecture circuits that became the training ground for a new generation of activists. In 1984 the murder by security police of Jerzy Popieluszko, a pro-Solidarity priest, aroused widespread indignation and revulsion toward the regime. Though martial law was gradually rescinded, the economy was still in disorder, and in 1989 a new wave of strikes pushed the government into serious discussions with representatives of Solidarity at talks popularly called the "Round Table Negotiations." The agreement that was hammered out enacted major changes in the government structure and ushered in new elections. Solidarity candidates prevailed and Tadeusz Mazowiecki was appointed the first non-communist Prime Minister. The Polish United Worker's Party (communist party) dissolved. The changes that began in Poland spread to other nations of the so-called in Eastern Block. A few years later Lech Walesa was elected Poland's president.
Polish diplomacy had advanced as well. A crucial step in improving relations was the admission by Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin that at the beginning of World War II Soviet security troops murdered over 15,000 Polish officers, and other prisoners, in what is known as the Katyn Forest Massacre. By the end of 1992 all Soviet military bases in Poland had been closed and the troops sent home. The Warsaw Pact, a defensive alliance of the Eastern-Block countries, dissolved. Then Poland sought to stabilize its relationship with the Russian Federation, still its major trading partner, and an important market for manufactured products.
The political scene within the country has been stabilizing as well. Initially there was a large number of political parties, which consolidated with time, forming coalitions. In 1995 Alexander Kwasniewski, from the Democratic Left Alliance, was elected president, demonstrating that the democratic process was working in Poland. In 1997 a new constitution was ratified. It formalized the changes made to the government in 1989 and defined citizens' rights and duties.
The most recent parliamentary election took place in September 1997 and brought into power a new coalition government made formed by the Solidarity Election Action party and the Freedom Union party. This government confirmed Jerzy Buzek as prime-minister, replacing Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz, who headed the previous government created by a coalition of left wing parties.
In 1997 Poland was invited to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and since then has been approved for membership by most of the NATO countries, including the United States.