Nowhere in Europe will you feel recent history more strongly than in Poland. The country's unenviable physical position through the ages -- between Germany in the west and Russia to the east, and without defensible natural borders -- has meant Polish history has been one long struggle for survival. It all reads like a giant novel. And, indeed, American author James A. Michener did write a giant novel in 1981 called Poland, chronicling the trials and tribulations of three Polish families over 8 centuries. He hardly had to make up a single word.
The Early Polish Kings
The Poles first established themselves in the areas to the west of Warsaw around the turn of the 1st millennium, descendants of migrant Slav tribes that came to Eastern Europe around A.D. 700-A.D. 800. The first documented Polish dynasty was the Piast dynasty, and the country's first ruler was Duke Mieszko I, who ruled from Poznan's Ostrów Tumski. It was Mieszko who made the decision to be baptized in 966, making Christianity Poland's official religion and setting the tone for what would remain to this day one of Europe's most deeply Christian and Catholic countries. Though it had its ups and downs, the way that any medieval kingdom would, Poland in the early centuries of its existence was one of Europe's most successful countries. From its capital in Kraków, it prospered under first the Piast and later the Jagiellon dynasties, stretching at one point from the Baltic in the north to the Hungarian kingdom in the south. It was also known as a comparatively tolerant kingdom, and it was at this time that Poland became known as a sanctuary for Jews. In 1410, the Polish king, allied with Lithuania, successfully fought off a challenge by a wayward order of crusaders, the Teutonic Knights, at the battle of Grünwald in one of the great epic battles of the late Middle Ages. The knights had originally been brought to Poland from the Holy Lands to try to subdue the pagan Prussians. The problem was that they had gotten too big for their own britches and had to be put down: The Teutonic Knights' castle at Malbork is testament to their boundless ambition.
The seat of government was moved from Kraków to Warsaw in the 16th century after a formal political union with Lithuania greatly expanded Poland's territory. The union was signed in 1569 in the city of Lublin and still bears the name "Union of Lublin." To this day, it's probably the most exciting thing to ever happen to Poland's eastern metropolis.
In the 17th century, the Poles are generally credited with saving Europe in another epic battle, this one against the Ottoman Turks. Commander Jan Sobieski saved the day for Christian Europe, repelling the Turks at the gates of Vienna in 1683.
The Rise of Rivals & the Polish Partitions
From this point, Polish history runs mostly downhill. A series of wars, first with Sweden and later with Russia, sapped the monarchy's energy and money. Complicated voting rules in Poland's early parliament, the Sejm, completely paralyzed the government. At the same time, both Prussia and tsarist Russia began their long-term rises as great powers. The result was that at the end of the 18th century, Poland was divided up like a pie, with big pieces going to both Prussia and Russia, and a smaller piece in the south going to Habsburg, Austria. This is known in history textbooks as the Polish partitions. For some 125 years, until the end of World War I, Poland disappeared from the map of Europe.
During the 19th century, various Polish heroes tried valiantly -- and fruitlessly -- to win back the country's independence. Polish patriots of the time threw in their lot with Napoleon, who was storming Europe and promising to recreate the Polish state. In fact, Napoleon did reconstitute part of old Poland in the Duchy of Warsaw in 1807, but his eventual defeat in Russia meant that Poland was divided again, losing vast tracts of territory to tsarist Russia in the east. In spite of the disappearance of the Polish state, Polish language and culture managed to survive. Kraków, at this point, reestablished itself as the center of Polish culture. It was located deep in the Austrian part of Poland, which -- compared to the Russian- and Prussian-controlled zones, at least -- was a bastion of freedom and free expression.
Local Wisdom: Napoleon & the Poles -- At the turn of the 19th century, the French leader Napoleon and Polish patriots trying to reestablish their country formed a kind of marriage of convenience. The Poles needed Napoleon to defeat the Russians, and Napoleon needed the Poles, well, for the very same thing. In the end, it all came to naught as Napoleon was rebuffed at the gates of Moscow. Nevertheless, Napoleon grew quite respectful of the abilities of Polish fighters, once saying famously: "800 Poles equal 8,000 enemy soldiers."
World War I & Polish Independence
Independent Poland was restored in 1918 after the defeat of Austria-Hungary and Germany in World War I. Indeed, Point 13 of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson's famed "14 Points," which set the terms for the surrender of Germany, called directly for the reconstitution of Poland:
An independent Polish state should be erected which should include the territories inhabited by indisputably Polish populations, which should be assured a free and secure access to the sea, and whose political and economic independence and territorial integrity should be guaranteed by international covenant.
The initial years for the independent Polish state were rocky. The first order of business was to fend off attack by the Soviet Union in the Polish-Soviet war of 1919-1921. Polish forces, led by Marshal Józef Pisudski, succeeded in repelling the Red Army at the 1920 Battle of Warsaw, called the "Miracle on the Vistula." Victory, though, could not guarantee the success of Poland's fledgling democracy, and in 1926, amid rampant hyperinflation, Pisudski came to power in a military coup. Pisudski guided the Poles until his death in 1935, and is widely credited with preserving the Polish state under difficult times. Though in effect a dictator, he is fondly remembered and buried with the Polish kings (and now the late president Lech Kaczynski) at Kraków's Wawel Castle.
World War II & the Holocaust
If the interwar years were hard, World War II was Poland's worst nightmare come to life. Nazi Germany fired the first shot of the war at Polish forces garrisoned near Gdansk harbor on September 1, 1939. Soviet Russia, under terms of a nonaggression pact with Germany, then seized the eastern part of the country a few weeks later. In June 1941, the Nazis violated their nonaggression pact and declared war on Russia, initially pushing the Soviet Red Army out of Poland and deep into Russian territory. In the ensuing battle between Fascism and Communism, Poland was literally caught in the middle. Nearly a quarter of all Poles died in the war, including some 3 million Polish Jews.
For Poles, the most poignant memories of the war include the 1940 massacre of Polish army officers by Soviet forces at the Katyn forest. For years, the Soviets denied they had carried out the mass killing, instead blaming the Nazis. Only after the fall of the Soviet Union was the historical record made clear. The story of the massacre was later made into a blockbuster movie by director Andrzej Wajda (Katyn). Poles also recall the ultimately futile uprising of 1944, when the residents of Warsaw rose up against the Nazis. The Soviet Red Army was closing in on German positions from the East, and the Poles expected the Soviets to join in the fight. Instead, the Red Army chose to watch the fighting from across the Vistula River. The Poles scored some initial successes, but the Germans ultimately prevailed and retaliated ruthlessly. Hitler ordered that Warsaw be destroyed, building by building.
The war itself was bad enough, but the Nazis used Polish soil for the worst of their plans to exterminate Europe's Jewish population and to reduce the Polish and Russian residents to slaves. The Nazis established extermination camps around the country. The most famous of these were at Auschwitz-Birkenau and Treblinka, but smaller or less-well-known extermination camps were established in all parts of the country. In addition, the Nazis set up huge ghettos to forcibly hold Poland's once-enormous Jewish population before they could be sent to the camps. Today, you can tour several of the death camps, as well as walk around the former ghettos at Warsaw, Lódz, Kraków-Kazimierz, and Lublin, among others. Though these types of Holocaust visits sound depressing, they will likely constitute the most moving memories you bring home from your trip to Poland.
Though ethnic Poles were generally spared the organized genocide of the Holocaust, they too suffered greatly under the Nazis. Countless numbers of Polish POWs, resisters, and ordinary citizens, as well as thousands of Russian POWs, died at Auschwitz and at the other camps alongside Jewish Poles.
The destruction of Poland's physical property during the war is hard to exaggerate. Take Warsaw as an example. Following the 1944 failed Warsaw uprising, the Nazis ordered Poland's once-handsome capital razed to the ground. The buildings were dynamited one by one in order of their importance. By the end of the war, 85% of the city lay in ruins. The numbers are similar for other large cities. Gdansk was nearly totally destroyed. Wrocaw (the former German city of Breslau) was a smoking ash heap.
The Communist Period & the Rise of Solidarity
Poland was reconstituted at the end of the war, but with radically different borders. Bowing to Soviet leader Josef Stalin's demands, the U.S. and U.K. ceded vast tracts of formerly Polish territory in the east to the Soviet Union. In turn, the new Poland was compensated with former German territory in the west. The Polish borders were shifted some 200km (124 miles) westward. The ethnic German population was expelled and replaced by Poles transferred from the east of the country.
But the end of the war brought little relief. Poland fell on the Soviet side of the Iron Curtain, and though Communism as an ideology held little appeal for most Poles, a series of Soviet-backed Communist governments uneasily led the country for the next 4 decades, until 1989.
The government managed to maintain order through massive borrowing on international financial markets, but mismanagement of the economy led to one crisis after another, including bloody riots in 1970 that killed more than 40 people and shocked the country and the world.
In the end, it was the desire for higher living standards -- perhaps even more than a desire for political freedom -- that led to the creation of the Solidarity trade union and the genesis of the anti-Communist movement. Solidarity began at the shipyards in Gdansk, but eventually spread to the rest of the country. The union's breakthrough came in 1980, under the leadership of the young, charismatic Lech Waesa. The Polish government had been forced to raise food prices in the summer of 1980, sparking nationwide protests and strikes. The workers of the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk called a strike and refused to back down, ultimately forcing the government to recognize Solidarity as a free and independent trade union, the first of its kind in Eastern Europe. The strike led to the August 1980 Gdansk Accords and the first step in what would be Poland's decade-long struggle to break the bonds of Communism. The low point came a year later, as the Communist authorities -- pushed by their Soviet overlords -- were forced to declare martial law in December 1981 to prevent a complete loss of control. Thousands of people were arrested and some 100 died in the crackdown.
In 1978, at around the same time that all this was happening, the Catholic Church had elevated another charismatic Pole, a cardinal from Kraków named Karol Woytya, to be pope. If Solidarity provided the organizational framework for Poles to resist, Pope John Paul, through his visits and sermons, provided the moral inspiration.
In early 1989, the Poles held their first semi-free election -- a landmark vote that bolstered anti-Communist activists across Eastern Europe. By the end of that epic year, Poland, and the entire Eastern bloc, was free.
Local Voices: Josef Stalin on Bringing Communism to Poland -- Former Soviet dictator Josef Stalin was under no illusions when it came to the problems of establishing Communism in a staunchly conservative and Catholic country like Poland. He once famously quipped that imposing Communism on Poland was like "putting a saddle on a cow."
The Period Since 1989
The period since 1989 has been hugely chaotic, but the result has been the creation of a stable, democratic Polish state that's a member of both NATO and the European Union. Each of the former Soviet satellite states chose a different path toward democratization and creation of a free market, and Poland's contribution in this regard has accurately been called "shock therapy." Designed by Poland's finance minister at the time, Leszek Balcerowicz, shock therapy essentially meant allowing wages and prices to float freely and indebted Communist companies to go bankrupt. Understandably, it caused massive disruption in the economy, and millions lost their jobs. The jury is still out on whether shock therapy was good or bad, but it's generally credited with promoting high rates of growth, albeit at a high social cost. Politically, however, the country stagnated. Lech Waesa's early stint as president (1990-95) proved to be disastrous -- he was a much better labor leader than national leader -- and since then, Poland has lurched left and right without finding a stable middle. The high point of the post-Communist period came in 2004, when Poland, along with seven other formerly Communist states, joined the European Union.
Important Historical Events
- 966: Duke Mieszko I, in Poznan, agrees to be baptized, making Christianity Poland's official religion and creating what would become the modern Polish state.
- February 19, 1473: Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus is born in the city of Torun.
- July 1, 1569: At a signing ceremony in Lublin, the kingdoms of Poland and Lithuania agree to merge, creating Europe's largest country at the time.
- 1596: Poland's capital is shifted from Kraków to Warsaw following the union with Lithuania and the enormous expansion of Polish territory.
- March 1, 1810: Polish composer Frédéric Chopin is born in the village of Zelazowa Wola in what was then the Duchy of Warsaw.
- 1894: Stanisaw Witkiewicz finishes the giant wooden Willa Koliba in Zakopane, the first building to use the groundbreaking "Zakopane style" of architecture.
- 1899: Rail workers extend the line south to the Tatra resort of Zakopane, paving the way for the town to emerge as the cultural center of Polish art and architecture.
- November 11, 1918: Poland regains its independence after 125 years, with Warsaw to be the country's new capital.
- September 1, 1939: World War II begins as Nazi Germany fires on Polish forces at Westerplatte, across from Gdansk harbor.
- July 20, 1944: German army officer Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg fails in his attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler at Hitler's command bunker (the Wolf's Lair) in the former East Prussia.
- January 27, 1945: The Soviet Red Army liberates the Auschwitz concentration camp, finding the remains of thousands dead and just around 7,500 survivors.
- October 16, 1978: The Vatican elevates Kraków cardinal Karol Woytya to pope, anointing him Pope John Paul II.
- August 31, 1980: The "Gdansk Accords" are signed in the port city between Poland's Communist regime and the Solidarity trade union led by Lech Waesa, legitimizing Eastern Europe's first non-Communist labor union and paving the way for the end of Communism 9 years later.
- May 1, 2004: Poland fulfills its long-term foreign-policy goal of joining the European Union with celebrations in the capital, Warsaw, and around the country.