Brief history of Poland summarized
The history of Poland offers us a vision of what happened in the last millennium in the Polish region, from wars and multiple invasions to the communist era, including the Nazi invasion.
The written history of Poland did not begin until the 10th century. At that time Poland was ruled by a dynasty called the Piasts. A Piast named Mieszko I reigned between 960 and 992. In 966 he became a Christian and his people followed in his footsteps.
A king named Boleslaus the Crookedmouth (reigned 1102-1138) decided that, after his death, the kingdom should be divided among his sons (although the eldest son was to have overall control). This decision weakened Poland.
In the 12th and 13th centuries Poland prospered and city life flourished. A king named Henry the Bearded reigned from 1201 to 1238. His wife Hedwig encouraged German merchants and craftsmen to come and live in Poland. They founded cities with German laws. Some Germans also came to cultivate land that was still uncultivated on Polish territory.
Years later, in 1241-42 the Mongols invaded Poland. The Poles were defeated at the Battle of Legnica in April 1241, but the Mongols soon withdrew.
Another threat to Poland came from the Order of Teutonic Knights, which was an order of fighting monks. They set out to conquer the pagan peoples of Eastern Europe and convert them by force. In 1235 they began to conquer the pagan Prussians (who lived in northeastern Poland).
In 1283 the Teutonic Knights had conquered the Prussians. And already in 1308 they turned against Poland. They took eastern Pomerania including the city of Gdansk, which they renamed Danzig.
At the beginning of the 14th century, Poland became a strong and unified state. Casimir III, known as Casimir the Great (reigned 1333-1370) expanded eastward to Russia. He also reformed the law and the administration. Also, during his reign the first university in Poland was founded, in Kraków.
Casimir also protected and supported the Jews. It was partly thanks to him that Poland came to have a large Jewish community.
The era from the 14th to the 16th century was a time of greatness for Poland. However, the king’s power gradually weakened in favor of the Polish nobility, who became increasingly powerful.
Casimir was succeeded by his nephew Louis, the King of Hungary. Louis wanted his daughter to succeed as ruler of Poland, but in order to obtain the agreement of the Polish nobles he was forced to make concessions.
The Privilege of Koszyce (1374) made nobles exempt from most taxes. It also gave them an important role in government. This meant that no important decision could be made without their consent.
The Jagiellonians rule Poland
In 1384 the Polish nobles finally accepted Louis’ daughter Hedwig as Queen of Poland. They also arranged for her to marry Jogaila, Grand Duke of Lithuania and the two countries became allies. Jogaila became Władysław II of Poland (reigned 1386-1434). Władysław joined the Catholic church and his people followed him.
In 1410 Poland and Lithuania completely defeated the Teutonic Knights at the Battle of Grunwald.
Then, in 1453, the Pomeranian people revolted against the Teutonic Knights and asked the Poles for help. After 13 years of fighting, the Poles took Pomerania and Gdansk.
At the end of the 15th century, the Polish nobles became increasingly powerful and the monarchy weakened. In 1505 the king agreed that no political changes would be made without the consent of the nobles.
The 16th century was a time of economic prosperity for Poland. Learning began to sprout in Poland. The greatest Polish scholar was Nicholas Copernicus (1473-1543). At that time, people believed that the Sun and the planets orbited around the earth.
In 1543, the same year as his death, Copernicus published the theory that the Earth and the other planets orbit the Sun. This idea was taken as revolutionary.
Like the rest of Europe, Poland was rocked by the Protestant Reformation. Polish Protestants divided into Lutherans and Calvinists.
In the 1560s, the Jesuits arrived in Poland. They created a network of schools and colleges throughout Poland and managed to defeat the Protestants. However, the Warsaw Confederation in 1573 introduced freedom of worship in Poland.
Meanwhile, in 1569 by the Union of Lublin, Poland and Lithuania formed a federation with the same king and parliament, but separate armies and legal codes.
When the last Jagiellonian king died in 1572 without leaving an heir, the Polish monarchy became elected. The king was elected by an assembly of all Polish noblemen. Then in 1596 Warsaw became the capital of Poland instead of Kraków.
The 17th century was a turbulent century for Poland. At that time the Poles controlled the Ukrainian Cossacks. However, in 1648 they rebelled, and in 1654 the Russians joined them in a war against the Poles. In 1655 the Swedes invaded Poland and seized most of it.
A little later the Poles recovered and the war with Sweden ended in 1660. The war with the Russians ended in 1667. These wars left Poland heavily devastated. Apart from material damage, a large part of the Polish population was killed.
At the end of the 17th century, Poland achieved great military successes. At that time, the Ottomans dominated southeastern Europe and were trying to expand across the European continent. In 1683 the Turks besieged Vienna, but the Polish king John Sobieski defeated them and drove them back.
Poland was severely weakened by the lack of an effective central government. It only took a member of the Sejm (Polish parliament) to veto any measure. Similarly, only one member could dissolve the Sejm. This meant that all measures already approved by the Sejm had to be canceled and resubmitted to a new Sejm. As a result, the government was paralyzed.
In the 18th century Poland continued its political and military decline. Prussia and Russia took advantage of the lack of a strong central government to interfere in Poland. In 1697 Frederick Augustus of Saxony became King of Poland. When he died in 1733, the Russian army entered Poland and forced the Sejm to elect his son king. Poland was becoming more and more the plaything of the great powers.
In 1764, after the death of the Polish king, Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, intervened to have her former lover Stanislaus Poniatowski elect the new king of Poland. However, Poniatowski refused to be a mere Russian pawn. He and several prominent Poles wanted reforms to strengthen the monarchy.
This is something the Russians did not allow. It was in Russia ‘s interest to keep Poland weak and divided. There were also many conservative Polish nobles who were unwilling to give up their privileges.
In 1767 the Russians forced Poland to accept a treaty. The treaty guaranteed Poland’s borders. It also guaranteed the rights of Orthodox Christians (although most Poles were Roman Catholic, a small minority belonged to the Eastern Orthodox Church).
Likewise, it guaranteed the rights of the Polish nobles. Russia would intervene if their rights were threatened. The rights of the nobles kept Poland weak and without a strong central government, so it was in Russia’s interest to protect them.
Anger against Russian interference led to a Polish uprising called the Bar Confederation between 1768 and 1772, albeit unsuccessfully, as the Russians would eventually crush the rebellion.
The Great Powers, Russia, Prussia and Austria, then decided to help themselves on Polish territory. Prussia took Pomerania (northern Poland) isolating Poland from the sea. Austria took Galicia. Russia took what is now eastern Belarus.
The tremendous shock of losing much of their territory galvanized the Poles into action. They reformed education and the military, as well as their government. The Four Years Sejm (1788-1792) created a new constitution for Poland in 1791.
However, in 1793 there was a second partition. Russia and Prussia invaded even more Polish territory. The 1791 constitution was annulled. In 1794 the Poles rose in revolt, but were crushed by the Prussians and the Russians. Finally in 1795 Prussia, Russia and Austria divided the last part of Poland among themselves. The Polish king abdicated and the Polish state ceased to exist.
At the Congress of Vienna in 1815, the great European powers divided the continent. Poland was partitioned between Prussia, Russia, and Austria. Prussia occupied the western and northern part of Poland, while Russia occupied the center and the east. Austria stayed with Galicia.
The great powers were unwilling to restore Polish independence. Instead they created a semi-independent Poland. The Russian part of Poland became the Kingdom of Poland. The Tsar was the monarch, but his powers were limited and the kingdom had its own government and army.
Despite this “independence”, the Poles were dissatisfied, and in 1830 the rebellion broke out. Some Polish soldiers attempted to assassinate the Tsar’s brother, and the Sejm declared the Tsar dismissed. However, the Russian army invaded them, and in September 1831 the Polish army was defeated.
Later, the Tsar suspended the Polish constitution and ruled by decree. The Polish Army was disbanded. As a result of the repression, many Poles emigrated to France or North America.
The Poles revolted again in 1863. The rebellion lasted 18 months but was eventually crushed. The Kingdom of Poland was later dissolved and the area was renamed the Vistula Nations. Russian became the official language of the government and Poles were forced to use it in schools, as part of a policy to suppress Polish culture . On the other hand, the Tsar abolished serfdom.
The Prussians tried to suppress Polish culture in the western part of the country, but could not. Polish culture flourished in the late 19th century, and Poles formed political movements such as the National League, the Christian Democrats, and the Polish Socialist Party.
Poland finally regained its freedom after World War I. In 1916, the Germans conquered the Russian parts of Poland. To curry favor with the Poles, the Germans promised to form a Polish kingdom after the war.
Meanwhile, the Polish general Józef Piłsudski (1867-1935) led a Polish force in the war against the Russians. But Piłsudski fell out with the Germans and in 1917 he was interned. He was released just before the Germans surrendered on November 11, 1918. Meanwhile, in January 1918, US President Wilson made clear his support of him for an independent Poland after the war.
On November 11, 1918, the day of the German surrender, the Poles took over their country and the German troops were expelled. On November 14, 1918 Piłsudski became provisional head of state. In January 1919 a constitutional assembly was elected in Poland. In 1921 a new constitution was published.
After the war, the Allies decided that Poland should have access to the sea. They gave Poland a strip of land called the Polish Corridor, which runs through Germany. It meant that East Prussia was isolated from the rest of Germany. Danzig (Gdansk) became an independent city-state.
In addition to wars, the Polish republic faced other problems. In 1922 President Gabriel Narutowicz was assassinated. Then, in May 1926, Piłsudski staged a military coup and became dictator.
Piłsudski maintained the external forms of democracy. The Sejm continued to meet and political parties were allowed to continue. However, Pilsudski held royal power until his death in 1935.
Poland in World War II
Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. The Poles fought bravely, but on September 17 the Russians invaded from the east (the Russians and Germans had already secretly agreed to divide Poland between them).
Some Polish soldiers and airmen escaped through Hungary and Romania to France and some Polish warships escaped to join the British navy. A small Polish army was formed in France and in the spring of 1940 it numbered almost 200,000 men.
Meanwhile, parts of Poland were absorbed into Germany. The rest of German-occupied Poland was organized under a General Government. The Russian occupied parts of Poland were absorbed into the Soviet Union.
The German-Soviet occupation of Poland meant terrible suffering for the Polish people. Polish Jews were exterminated. In total, some 3 million Polish Jews were murdered. Another 3 million Poles died.
Hitler hated the Slavs and claimed that they were subhuman. The Nazis planned to turn the Poles into a nation of slaves who would do menial labor for their German masters. Poles would be given as little education as possible.
Thus, a large number of highly educated Poles were killed. All Polish universities and high schools were closed. Furthermore, Polish industry and property were confiscated by the Germans.
Any act of resistance, no matter how slight, was punishable by execution or deportation to a concentration camp. Despite the tyranny, the Poles formed a powerful resistance movement. In 1943 partisans were fighting for the forests of Poland.
The Russians imposed their own tyranny on eastern Poland. Thousands of Polish officers were killed.
When Germany invaded Russia in June 1941, the Polish government-in-exile (Great Britain), headed by Prime Minister Sikorski, reached an agreement with the Russians. On June 30, 1941, they signed a treaty in London that ended the war between them.
Stalin promised to free the Polish prisoners of war and the large number of Poles who had been deported to Siberia. In Russia there were almost 200,000 Polish prisoners of war. They were released and allowed to raise a Polish army in Russia. However, in 1942 Stalin cut off supplies to the Polish army fighting in Russia and they were evacuated to the Middle East.
Furthermore, relations between Stalin and the Polish government-in-exile deteriorated due to disagreements over the Polish– Russian border. Stalin insisted that the eastern provinces of Poland should be absorbed into the Soviet Union after the war.
Matters came to a head in April 1943, after the Germans discovered the Katyn massacre. When the Russians conquered eastern Poland, they killed 4,500 Polish officers and buried them in the Katyn Forest. The Russians claimed that the Germans committed the massacre after they invaded eastern Poland (and Russia) in 1941.
The Polish government in exile wanted the International Red Cross to investigate, but Stalin refused and broke off diplomatic relations. Prime Minister Sikorski was assassinated on July 4, 1943 and replaced by Stanisław Mikołajczyk.
Stalin was determined to impose a communist government in Poland, and the Polish communists were willing to cooperate with him. The Poles realized that if the Russians occupied Poland, they would impose their will on the country. The only hope of preserving Polish independence was to organize an uprising in Warsaw before the arrival of the Russians.
The Warsaw Uprising began on August 1, 1944. The Poles fought bravely but could not win. They were forced to surrender on October 2, 1944. Warsaw was left in ruins. Stalin, of course, did nothing to help the uprising. All he had to do was wait for the Germans to win.
Meanwhile, in July 1944, the Polish Communists formed the Polish Committee for National Liberation, known as the Government of Lublin. It was led by Bolesław Bierut. On January 1, 1945, the Lublin Committee declared itself a provisional government of Poland.
In February 1945, Stalin met with Churchill and Roosevelt at Yalta. He promised to allow free elections in Poland. As usual, Stalin had no intention of keeping his promise. Poland was not liberated after World War II. Nazism was replaced by communism.
The provisional government was, of course, a puppet government controlled by Stalin. At the Potsdam Conference in July 1945, the provisional government agreed to redefine Poland’s borders.
After World War II, Poland was devastated. In addition to the material damage, almost 25% of the population was killed. In addition, communism was imposed on the Poles. The communists took power in stages between 1945 and 1947. At first a provisional government was formed with communists in key positions, backed by the Soviet Army.
Elections were finally held in January 1947, but were carefully rigged. As a result, the communists and socialists won a landslide victory with the so-called Democratic Bloc.
Then, in December 1948, the Socialist Party was purged of its right-wing members, the rest forced to merge with the communists to form the Polish United Workers’ Party. A new constitution was introduced in 1952 and Poland became a fully communist country.
The communists nationalized industry, but failed to collectivize Polish agriculture. They also failed to break the power of the Catholic Church.
In June 1956, discontent with the communist regime in Poland caused riots in the city of Poznan. The government crushed the riots by force. This made the government realize that reform was necessary.
Meanwhile, in 1951, Władysław Gomułka, the First Secretary of the Party, was dismissed and imprisoned. In October 1956 he was released and the Polish communists made him their leader, without consulting Moscow.
The Russians were furious that the Poles had dared to take independent action and came close to invading Poland. However, Gomułka did not carry out any fundamental reforms and Poland stagnated under his rule.
Later, on December 12, 1970, the government announced massive food price hikes. The result was demonstrations and strikes in the north of Poland, especially in Gdansk. Troops shot and killed many protesters, which only made matters worse. The demonstrations spread.
On December 20, 1970, Gomu lka was forced to resign. He was replaced by Edward Gierek. He froze prices and introduced a new economic plan. Peace returned. Gierek borrowed a lot of money from the west. As a result, the standard of living in Poland increased. In the early 1970s, food became cheaper and consumer goods became commonplace.
However, rising oil prices put an end to the economic boom, and by 1976, the loans were found to have been wasted. Polish industry was unable to buy enough hard currency to repay the loans.
The government again introduced large increases in food prices. The result was more strikes. This time the government ended the strikes by force. Many strikers were jailed. This would cause the Poles to start organizing.
In July 1980 the government announced 100% increases in the price of some foods. The result was even more strikes throughout Poland. In August 1980, the Lenin Shipyards in Gdansk went on strike. Led by an electrician named Lech Wałęsa, the workers occupied the shipyards.
They drew up a list of demands that included freedom of the press, the release of political prisoners, and the right to form independent trade unions. On August 31, the communists surrendered. They made the Gdansk agreement and accepted the demands of the workers.
The workers formed the Solidarity union, which soon became a mass movement. However, the communists fought back. In December 1981, General Wojciech Jaruzelski imposed martial law on Poland. Solidarity was banned and its leaders were arrested.
Jaruzelski declared a ” state of war “. The war between the workers and the communists continued and the economic crisis continued. Poland’s debt increased more and more. Wages did not keep pace with price increases. Meanwhile, the workers continued to strike and Solidaridad went underground.
Finally, in 1988, the communists gave in and Jaruzelski called for “courageous change.” In 1989, the communists and Solidarity held talks. The government agreed to legalize Solidarity and allow freedom of the press.
The communists also agreed that the Sejm should be partly democratically elected. The communists would keep at least 65% of the seats in the lower house, but the other 35% would be freely elected. All seats in the Upper House will be freely elected.
Elections were held on June 4, 1989. Solidarity won 35% of the seats in the lower house and 99% of the seats in the upper house. It was a humiliating defeat for the communists. In August 1989 Tadeusz Mazowiecki was appointed Prime Minister of Poland. Communist tyranny was over.
In 1990 Lech Wałęsa was elected President. Completely free elections for the Sejm were held in October 1991. However, the new democratic Poland inherited serious economic problems from the communists. Poland underwent the transition from communism to capitalism. The industry was privatized and today the Polish economy is constantly growing. Unemployment is high but falling.
In 1997 Poland got a new constitution. Lech Kaczyński became the President of Poland in 2005. Poland joined NATO in 1999 and the EU in 2004.
Poland launched its first satellite, PW-Sat, in 2012. Currently, the population of Poland is 38.5 million.
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