An Outline of the History of Poland

Traces of human habitation were found on the territory on Polish soil dating back to more than 180 thousand years ago, and traces of settlements dating back to 50 thousand years ago.

In the VIII century the territories of present Poland were inhabited by a dozen or so Slavonic tribes. The largest of them were Polanians and Vistulanians.

A legend says that a long time ago three brothers, Lech, Czech and Rus, were wandering through the territories of contemporary Poland. At one moment Lech saw a white eagle in a nest and decided toestablish his abode in that place. Gniezno became the first capital of Poland and  Lech made a white eagle the emblem of Poland. Czech headed to the South and Rus went to the East (both of them set up their states there).

In order to prevent Germans, who were destroying Slavonic tribes under the pretext of converting pagans, the Duke Mieszko I of the Piast dynasty decided to accept Christianity from the Bohemians in 966. His son Boleslaw the Brave became the first Polish King. Boleslaw’s coronation took place in 1025. He constantly conducted wars against Germans (he took over Łużyce) and against Russia (he took over Kijew).

In 1038 Cracow became the capital of Poland under Casimir the Restorer.

In the XII century, before his death, King Boleslaw the Wrymouth was known for defeating the Germans on Psie Pole in 1109. He divided the power in the country between his sons. His sons and grandsons divided their principalities still further. This led to Poland’s feudal fragmentation. Small principalities (also in conflict with each other) had difficulties in resisting aggressive neighbours. One of dukes, Conrad of Mazovia, was constrained by perpetual attacks by pagan Prussians. In 1230 he brought in the Teutonic Order to christianise them. The Teutonic Knights, after conquering Prussia, soon threatened Polish principalities.

In the meantime, the Southern part of Poland suffered from assaults by Tartars and  Cracow was twice destroyed by Tatars in 1241 and 1259.

 The reunification movement in Poland was carried out by duke Wladyslaw the Elbow-High who was crowned in 1320. He stopped the expansion of the Teutonic Knights by inflicting on them heavy losses in the battle of Płowce in 1331.

The next king of Poland, Casimir the Great, focused on the economy of the country. He codified the law, reformed the army and the state budget, he founded the first university in Cracow (1364), and he accepted Jews banished from western Europe - chiefly from Germany (hence the language Yiddish was formed). Casimir the Great was the last ruler in the Piast line.

In 1385 Lithuania and Poland, threatened by the expansion of the Teutonic Knights, concluded the agreement at Kreva (the real union was established only 1569 in Lublin). Lithuania adopted Christianity and a Lithuanian duke Jagaila (therefore the Jagiellons’ dynasty) took a name of Wladyslaw and he became a King of Poland. In 1410 the Teutonic Knights were defeated in the battle of Grunwald.Their order never recovered it’s former power.

In the XVI cent. Sigismund the Old, the last but one king from Jagiellons’ dynasty, secularised Prussia. The state created by the Teutonic Knights became a secular state (as “Princely Prussia”). The last Grand Master of that state, Albrecht Hohenzollern (a Polish King’s nephew), became a duke and vassal of Poland. It was the beginning of the Prussian state which later spread over other German countries and became a superstate during the reign of Friderick II the Great.

At the end of the XVI century Poland reached the height of it’s power with the economy and armed force entering its “golden age”. At the beginning of the XVII century Poland embraced  the territory of 990 000 km2. Poland became a superstate.

After the death of the childless king Sigismund II Augustus Polish kings were chosen  by a free election (a gathering of the Polish nobility). The second elected king, Stephen Báthory, led victorious against Russia regaining Livland. After the triumphant battle of Połocek in 1569, and Wielkie Łuki in 1580, he laid siege on the city of  Pskow (1581) and threatened Moskwa itself. However, dueto an intercession of the Vatican he arrested further actions.

The third one, Sigismund III Vasa, coming from the Swedish Vasa dynasty, transferred the capital of Poland from Cracow to Warsaw.

During the reign of kings of the Vasa dynasty, Sigismund III, Wladyslaw IV and John Casimier there were armed conflicts (Kircholm 1605, Oliwa  1627) because of territorial and dynastic claims. Finally, in 1655 there was a Swedish occupation of considerable parts of the Polish territory (with Cracow included) – so-called “szwedzki potop”(the Deluge). Also during that time the expansion of Turkey reached Polish borders.

The next Polish king, John III Sobieski, was asked by the Vatican to help Austria and he routed Turkish troops in the battle of Vienna (1683). Rescued Austria took part in the Partitions of Polandless than 100 years later.

During the rule of Saxon, elected kings from the Wettin dynasty, Poland reached the top of structural and political disorganisation. The Polish state was defenceless towards three neighbouring superstates: Russia, Prussia and Austria.

In 1772 there was the First Partition of Poland (1/4 of the Polish territory was dropped). Attempts to improve the state during the reign of Stanislaw August Poniatowski could not change anything.The Polish army numbered merely 57 000. In 1793 there was the Second Partition - leaving 1/4 of the original territory. An uprising directed by Tadeusz Kościuszko against Russia in 1794 was suppressed bloodily; after that there was the Third Partition of Poland in1795. Poland stopped existing as a country.

In 1797 General Henry Dąbrowski formed Polish Legions serving in the French army with hopes of regaining Polish freedom. However, Napoleon created only a Duchy of Warsaw (1807-1815). The army of the Duchy reached a number of  91 000 soldiers.

After Napoleon’s defeat, the victorious countries accepted the establishment of a Polish Kingdom which was smaller than the Duchy of Warsaw and Cracow as a free city embracing its closest neighbourhood of Cracow. That Kingdom was connected with Russia by a personal union and a czar became a Polish king. The Polish army of the Kingdom consisted of  40 000 people and was subjected to the czarist governor the Great Duke  Konstanty.

In 1830 an uprising broke out against the rule of  the Russia Empire. The uprising was called the November Uprising. Despite several initial successes, the Polish army was eventually destroyed by the numerically superior Russian army in October 1831. After the November Uprising, the autonomy of the Polish Kingdom was seriously limited, among other things the Kingdom did not possess its armyany longer.

The January Uprising against Russia began in 1863. The uprising  were actions by guerilla embracing the Polish Kingdom, Lithuania, Belarus and a part of Ukraine. After the fall of the uprising in autumn 1864, the autonomy of the Polish Kingdom was abolished. That territory became “Kraj Przywiślański” -  ”a land laying by the Vistula river” of the Russian Empire.

The Poland’s  hope of regaining freedom was raised in 1914 when there was a conflict between Russia and the central countries of Prussia and Austria. The First World War was a civil war for Poles because on both sides of the front there were hundreds of thousands of Polish people. In addition to that, the “Polish Legions” existed, fighting on the Austrian side and the “Polish Corps” on the Russian side.

On the grounds of disintegration of czarist Russia and the capitulating central countries in 1918, Poland had an opportunity to be free. Joseph Piłsudski became the Chief of State. In the years 1919-1920, Poland drove off the Bolshevic invasion which threatened all of Europe. The victorious battle of Warsaw was put by English lord D’Abernon in the 18th place of battles playing the greatest role in the history of the world. Nevertheless, Poland had to fight with Germans for its borders (and even with Czechs and Lithuanians) till June 1921.

The period of prosperity since September, 1939, involving success in the economic field - the stabilisation of the monetary system, building a new harbour in Gdynia and the Central Industrial District - was too short to build a strong country.

In 1939, in spite of heroic resistance, Poland was subject to numerical and technological predomination of the German army and a treacherous blow of Soviets from the East. Promised help of allies from France and England never came. Poland was subject to a division between Germans and Soviets.

Many European countries were under German occupation; including mighty France. Later all those countries formed authorities collaborating with the Germans. Only Poland did not join. On  Polish territory, there was the government’s delegacy and the National Army. That army was the biggest underground army in Europe with 350 thousands of soldiers.

The regular Polish Army fought from the first to the last day of the war. East and  West. In 1945 it numbered a half a million soldiers. It was the third largest army in Europe after the Soviets and England, but before France.

As a result of the collusion of triumphant world-powers at Jałta, Poland found itself under Russian influence, despite the fact that it made a great contribution in the fight against Germans. It was almost a half a century later that, together with the dissolution of the Soviet Union,  Poland could gain independence.

Zbigniew Markowiak

Tłumaczenie: Dorota i Urszula Markowiak


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