The beginning of the Polish state is deemed to the year 966, when the Duke Mieszko I of the Piast dynasty, the ruler of the Polans tribe, was baptised. With this act, he strengthened his position towards his neighbours, particularly towards expansive German princes. The young, emerging state rapidly gained recognition in the eyes of rulers of those days. In the year 1000, Mieszko’s son – Bolesław, called the Brave, organized the Congress of Gniezno, a significant event in Polish history. The meeting was attended by German Emperor Otto III who favoured Bolesław by recognizing him as a friend of the Holy Roman Empire. In 1025 Boleslaw was crowned the first king of Poland.
Subsequent centuries brought increased importance of Poland in the region, but also numerous wars – both with neighbours, as well as with tribes from the east – the Mongols and Tatars. The Piast dynasty died out with the death of King Casimir, called the Great, in 1370. In 1385, the Polish Kingdom concluded an agreement with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, under which the Duke of Lithuania, Władysław Jagiełło became the King of Poland. Jagiełło was baptised and married a descendant of the Piast dynasty – Queen Jadwiga of Anjou (later proclaimed a saint). The union of the two nationsbegan a new state, which in its heyday development period, spanned from the Baltic to the Black Sea. However, the beginning of its existence was the time of war with the Teutonic Order. The Order, which was introduced in the region to convert Baltic tribes to Christianity, transformed from the ally of Poland into its enemy. The conflict culminated in the Battle of Grunwald (1410), won by Poland. It was one of the largest battles of medieval Europe (some sources say there were up to 80 thousand soldiers on both sides).
The end of the Middle Ages brought some social changes. From the feudal forms of knighthood a new class of nobility emerged. In Poland, it was particularly large, in relation to the total population, and led to a system of power unprecedented in any other country. The Union of Lublin in 1569 was another Polish-Lithuanian agreement, resulting in creation of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (the real union). At that time, Poland was a multi-religious and a tolerant country and that is why many generations of Jews and people from different branches of the Reformation found refuge in Poland.
Childless death of the last king from the Jagiellonian dynasty – Sigismund II Augustus in 1572 started the period called in Poland the “free election”. The elective system was the oldest of the modern democratic systems in the world. Each person from the noble class had the right to vote for a candidate, who, after receiving a majority of votes, was announced the new king. The first election took place in May 1573, with participation of nearly 50,000 people eligible to vote. As a result of it, Henri de Valois became the king. Free election resulted in weakening of the king’s power and increased foreign dynasties’ influence over the years. Wars with Sweden (one of the next kings of Poland was Sigismund III Vasa, who came from Sweden) and Turkey, ravaged the country. However, failing Poland was still able to defeat the Ottoman Empire in the battle of Vienna in 1683, where King John III Sobieski came to the rescue to the capital of Austria from a Turkish onslaught.
Despite the significant economic potential, Poland became a country that was militarily weak and unable to carry out the necessary reforms. Nevertheless, there was still effort made to repair the country – May 3, 1791 the Constitution was passed, as the first in Europe and the second in the world (after the United States Constitution of 1878.) modern supreme law of the state. The Constitution was an unsuccessful attempt to transform Poland into the state that could meet the forthcoming challenges. At the same time, neighbouring countries, with authoritarian system of power, were growing in strength and aiming at expansion. In 1772 Russia, Prussia and Austria raised territorial claims and between 1772 and 1795 made sequential partitions of the Polish territory. The Kingdom of Poland did not have enough strength to resist this process. In 1794 national uprising broke out under the command of Tadeusz Kościuszko. Unfortunately, military superiority of the invaders was too large and Poland lost its independence for the following 123 years. The only country that did not recognize the end of existence of an independent Polish state was its former enemy – the Ottoman Empire.
Poles did not accept the loss of independence. Along with Napoleon’s coming to power in France and the conflict with Prussia and Russia, the Poles’ hopes for their own state revived. Unfortunately, the defeat of the French leader brought back the occupation. Repressions of the partitioning powers led to further uprisings – the largest of these broke out in 1830, 1846 and 1863. Regrettably, the insurgents had no chance to defeat the occupiers.
Partition of Poland was a time when the modern society was forming, despite the loss of sovereignty. There were many artists who upheld the Poles’s spirit with their works, among them: poets: Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855), Juliusz Słowacki (1809-1849), Cyprian Kamil Norwid (1821-1883), composers: Frederic Chopin (1810-1849), Stanisław Moniuszko (1819-1872), writers: Henryk Sienkiewicz (1846-1916, Nobel Prize 1905), Bolesław Prus (1847-1912).
The twentieth century began with the weakening of the partitioning powers, and the First World War (1914-1918) led to their final collapse. Much of the fighting took place on the territory of the former Kingdom of Poland. The Poles took advantage of the wartime not only to create military units (Józef Piłsudski), but also to participate actively in diplomatic life (Roman Dmowski, Ignacy Paderewski, Henryk Sienkiewicz). The failure of Russia and defeat of Germany and Austria, along with diplomatic activity of the Poles brought the so called “Polish matter” into international agenda. The final surrender of Germany and the end of the war in 1918 gave an impulse to proclaim the independence of Poland. In Poland, the day of the end of war became the Independence Day.
The young Polish state revived with incredible zeal. But in less than two years the country had to face another threat. The Bolsheviks, who seized power in Russia, invaded Poland and in August 1920 became a menace to Warsaw. On 15 August 1920, i.e. on the day of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Poles counterattacked and managed to defeat the Soviets. This allowed to stop the expansion of communism for nearly 20 years. Polish victory was assigned to Saint Mary’s miraculous protection and called “the Miracle of the Vistula”. The years between 1920 and 1939 were a short period of vigorous development and reconstruction of the country.It was dramatically broken by Hitler’s attack on 1 September 1939. What is more, on 17 September 1939 the Soviet Russia joined the German invasion of Poland. Poland, attacked simultaneously by two neighbouring countries, had no chance to defend itself. Furthermore, Poland received no help from its allied countries: Great Britain and France. That is how a five-year World War began. Both aggressors acted with unprecedented cruelty and aimed at extermination of the Poles. During the war over 6 million people were killed on the Polish lands. 3 million of these were Jews. Before the war, Jews constituted 1/3 of Poland’s population. Poland for ages was a country of unique religious freedom which attracted the Jews expelled from other countries. The occupier, having seen a mass aid provided to the Jews by the Poles, forbade it under the death penalty. The penalty was enforced only in Poland. Also, during the war, The Home Army (Armia Krajowa), the largest resistance movement in occupied Europe, was formed in Poland.
Hitler’s military attack on Russia in 1941 changed the alignment of powers at war. From this moment on, Russia – the aggressor in this war, changed into an ally of the European countries. Unluckily, that fact resulted in deterioration of Poland’s situation; after the war, Poland lost a considerable part of its territory and was transferred to the sphere of influence of the Soviet Russia. In such a course of action, even a suicidal plan to organise armed uprisings against Germans in order to “welcome” the Soviet army in Polish cities as winners and hosts, had no chance to succeed (the Warsaw Uprising 1944).
After the war, the Poles were still trying to fight for independence – the last Polish partisan was shot in 1963, which is 18 years after the war. Nonetheless, the communist regime in Poland was weakening year after year. Polish citizens, not militarily, but in a non-violent way, manifested their opposition to the Communists. Between 1945 and 1989 the Poles repeatedly protested against the communist rule through demonstrations and strikes, which were brutally suppressed by the government.
A direct stimulus to release Poland from the communist regime came with the pontificate of John Paul II (1978 – 2005), whose attitude, speeches and frequent pilgrimages to Poland induced changes. In 1980 The Independent Self-governing Trade Union “Solidarity”, a mass movement opposing to the Communists, was founded. The Communists, in fear of losing power, declared martial law, followed by numerous arrests and repressions against members of Solidarity. All these only prolonged the agony of the socialism, which was inefficiently managed by the army and finally collapsed in 1989 at the time of the first semi-free elections in Poland. In the course of changesin 1989,the Communists handed over some power which allowed carrying out free elections and withdrawing Russian troops in 1993. Since then, Poland aimed at integration with Western Europe countries, which was topped with joining the NATO (1999) and the European Union (2004).
On 10 April 2010 the President of The Republic of Poland – Lech Kaczyński, together with 95 people, were killed in a plane crash at the neglected Smoleńsk Airport (Russia). They were en route from Warsaw to attend an event marking the 70th anniversary of the Katyń massacre. Among the victims there were: the First Lady- Maria Kaczyńska, the former President of Poland in exile – Ryszard Kaczorowski, Deputy Marshals of the Sejm and Senat, a group of Members of Polish parliament, commanders of all kinds of Polish armed forces, some staff of the Chancellery of the President, heads of state institutions, members of the Polish clergy, Polish government officials, representatives of war veterans and other social organisations, other persons from Polish delegation as well as plane crew. The catastrophe still raises many doubts and many people believe it has not been properly clarified.
Watch the animated film about the history of Poland by a well-known, Oscar winner graphic artist Tomasz Bagiński: