Poland - history

History of Poland

In the year 966, the chief of the Polish people, Mieszko married the Catholic girl Dobrova of Bohemia. Doing this he prevented an attack by the German Emperor Otto I who threatened to invade Poland under the pretext Poland was not Catholic. In 1000, at the congress of Gniezno, the Polish Catholic Church was founded. With the coronation of Boleslaw Chrobry (the Brave) in 1024 as the first king, Poland became an independent kingdom.

In 1138, the testament of Boleslaw III shattered the precarious unity of Poland by dividing it among his sons. The Catholic Church remained as a binding factor between the peoples in Poland.

In the years 1241, 1259 and 1287 devastating Tartar invasions took place from the east under Dzjengis Khan. In the city of Krakau, this is remembered every day by a lone trumpeter in the church tower whose song suddenly stops at the same time the warning trumpeter was struck dead by a Tartar arrow.

In the years between 1300 and 1320, Poland was reunited. But this was also the time of the invasion of Teutonic knights from Germany. These knights invaded Poland with the support of the Pope in Rome under the false pretence that Poland was not Catholic.

In the period of 1333 to 1370, Poland became a very strong central European power under Kazimierz Wielki (the great) and was 500 by 600 square kilometres large. 

In the centuries after 1370, parts of Poland formed liaisons with various nations bordering Poland: Hungary, Lithuania, Sweden and Saxony. Only the Lithuanian liaison succeeded with the marriage of Polish princess Jadwiga with Lithuanian Grand-Duke Jogaila. This union gave rise to the Polish Commonwealth which lasted until the 17th century.

Then, in 1410 at the Battle of Grunwald (Tannenburg), Wladyslaw Jagiello crushed the Teutonic Order with the help of Lithuanian pagans, Orthodox Christians, Lithuanian Muslim Tartars and "heretical" Bohemian Hussites.

In 1440, the Hungarians offered Poland the crown of Hungary. Poland’s attention shifted to the south where the Turkish Empire threatened Poland. Wladyslaw III (Wladyslaw Jagiello`s son) was killed in 1444 when the Polish and Hungarian forces were defeated at the Black Sea by the Turkish army. Many years later in 1683, the Polish army under Jan III Sobieski helped Austria to defeat an army of 130,000 Turks at Vienna. This was a turning point in history, but a job for which they never received credit.

In the Poland of the 15th and 16th century, there was a freedom of belief. King Zygmunt August, said: "I am the King of the people - not the judge of their consciences." This freedom attracted many people to Poland from all over Europe. It was in this time, 1493, that a Parliament with two houses was established, the Senate (dignitaries, archbishops, and officers of the country) and the Sejm (elected representatives).

When the last Jagiello king Zygmunt died in 1574, no one in Poland had the power to convene the Sejm. And when it was convened, every member had the ´Liberum Veto´ which in practice meant that no decisions could be taken. In the 16th century, Poland was reigned by a number of foreign kings elected by the dukes or magnates in Poland. By electing a weak foreign king, the magnates were able to preserve their power and this made Poland weak and decentralised.

From 1609 Poland became involved in a series of wars and was invaded by Swedes, Turks and Muscovites in such numbers that the country was almost submerged by enemy forces: this period became known as the "Deluge". The devastation and loss of life were tremendous and Poland was only saved by a number of outstanding military commanders (Jan Zamoyski, Stanislaw Zolkiewski, Jan Karol Chodkiewicz and Stanislaw Koniecpolski).

One historic episode during the "Deluge" was the defence of Czestochowa, Poland`s most sacred shrine containing the picture of the Virgin Mary (the "Black Madonna"), by a small force against a besieging army of 9,000 Swedes. This defence changed the course of the war.

From 1700 to 1721, King Augustus of Poland allied with Russia and Poland again became entangled in a war with the Swedes. The Swedes won in 1704, King Auustus was removed from the throne, but regained it after the Russian victory over the Swedes in 1709. In 1717, Poland was on the verge of Civil war, but a Russian mediator prevented this and turned Poland into a Russian province in the process.

In 1772, Russia, Prussia and Austria agreed to divide Poland amongst themselves. To give this some legality the Sejm was forced to ratify the partition in 1773.

In 1788, Russia was at war with Turkey and the nationalistic King Poniatowski made use of the situation to launch a reform programme in Poland: schools were set up and artists were encouraged to preserve the identity of Poland. A Polish constitution was declared which hailed by the United States, England and France. The ‘Liberum Veto’ in the Sejm was abolished.

The Russians did not accept and attacked Poland with some Polish Magnates loyal to Russia. The King's nephew, Joseph Poniatowski and Tadeusz Kosciuszko, a veteran of the American War of Independence, put up heroic resistance but all hope faded away when the Prussians joined the Russians, attacking the Polish armies in the rear. The Russians slaughtered all people in the suburbs of Warsaw including women and children. Many captured Poles were sent to Siberia but many escaped to Italy where, in 1797, they formed a Polish Legion, led by General Henryk Dabrowski, fighting for Napoleon Bonaparte against Austria.

The Poles continued to side with Napoleon hoping that with the Emperor, they could defeat the powers that held Poland. Napoleon used the Polish Legions in all his campaigns; against Russia, Austria and Prussia, in Egypt, in the West Indies, and in Spain.

In 1806, the French armies defeated the Prussians. A year later, a Polish state was set up in the area reconquered from Prussia: the Duchy of Warsaw. Napoleon manipulated Poland into a war with Russia in 1812. 98,000 Poles covered the disastrous French retreat of this Napoleonic campaign, 72,000 never returned. 

In 1815, at a congress in Vienna, the Duchy was partitioned again and a large part went to Russia. But Tsar Alexander I was a liberal ruler who allowed the Poles to set up a semi-autonomous Kingdom. When Tsar Nicholas I returned to the throne in 1825, Poland faced a more oppressive regime.

Tsar Nicolas I had seen the unrest in Holland and France and decided to intervene in 1830. He wanted to use the Polish army to suppress the Polish freedom, but by doing this actually triggered an uprise by Polish cadets of the Warsaw Military College. This insurrection started an uprise in Lithuania also, but despite the brave fighting of the Poles, it was put to a stop in 1831. 25,000 were sent to Siberia.

The 1830 Revolution inspired the work of two great Poles living in exile: the composer Chopin and the poet Mickiewicz.

Until 1865, different groups of Poles organised themselves and tried to regain Polish independence. Then, Russia decided to Russifie their part of Poland: schools and the University of Warsaw were closed, the Polish language was forbidden and Catholics were prosecuted. The Prussians acted similar in their part but in Galicia, the Austrian part was more freedom.

This situation lasted until the 1900´s. Then the Poles started to go on strike and oppose the Russians. Paramilitary organisations were set up and attacked Tzarist officials and raided post offices, tax-offices and mail-trains.

In the Great War from 1914 to 1918, the Poles were forced to fight with the Germans, Austrians and Russians. When the Germans lost the war, Polish independence was proclaimed.

Poland has been reigned by foreign forces for 120 years. Setting up the new Poland was not an easy task: the country was devastated. But at the end of the 1930´s, Poland was the 8th largest steel producer in the world and had mining, textile and chemical industries.

In 1939 Poland was invaded by 1.8 million Germans. Poland had not mobilised the country under pressure from England and France because this could be explained by Hitler as aggressive behaviour. Poland defended with 180 tanks and 420 aircrafts. The Germans had 2600 tanks and 2000 aircrafts.

2 weeks later, Soviet forces invaded Poland from the east. Many people fled and the navy managed to escape. Poland fought bravely on 2 fronts and did a lot of damage to the German forces, but after a few weeks was occupied once again.

During the World War, the free Poles fought with the allied forces. Polish underground intelligence services found a V1 rocket and information on the production site of the V2 rockets. All was sent to London.

Polish played an important role in the liberation of Europe in 1944 and 1945 but they were not victorious: years before, in 1939 in Teheran, the British and Americans had agreed to let the Russians profit from their invasion of Poland, allowing them to keep the conquered land.

The World War had cost a half million fighting Polish men and women, six million civilians.

After the war elections were held in 1947. Non communist politicians were defeated through fraud and violence. An era of full Stalinist dictatorship started.

In 1956, 15,000 Polish workers went on strike when they did not receive their salary. The workers were attacked and they started a riot. Stalinism was overthrown and a more independent relation with the USSR was established.

In the 1970´s the enormous increase of prices of food caused nation wide strikes in 1980. Lech Walesa became leader of the strikes and created Solidarinosc, an independent trade union.

In 1988, a referendum was held about the future of Poland. This resulted in return to democracy in 1989. In 1990, Lech Walesa was the first non communist Polish President since the war.

(Almost all information is extracted from http://www.kasprzyk.demon.co.uk/www/history/index.html .)