Poland Through Time

When describing the earliest history of particular countries, historians often have little to say because of the lack of documented historical evidence of names and dates. Most scholars prefer political history to cultural history in general, where they can discuss key leaders and events—­kings, wars, and dynasties, for example—­but pay little attention to the lives of ordinary people. A similar tendency exists in discussions of Poland’s early history. So little is known about premedieval periods in the Vistula-­
Odra region, it often appears as though a group of Slavs suddenly arrived on the scene and created their kingdom, which eventually became known as Poland.

What is now modern-­day Poland, however, was always an interesting and busy corner of Europe. As noted in the opening chapter, the Northern European Plain served as a route for various peoples who ventured through the continent. Some followed paths of previous invaders, whereas others settled and established their roots in the area. This process continued for centuries, and, by the time the first Polish state formed, various groups had left their cultural imprint.


Following the Ice Age, as weather started to warm, northern Europe became more attractive for settlement, and people began moving into the region. Once dominant in Europe, the Neanderthals exited the stage of history and were replaced by modern humans. They arrived in the region now occupied by Poland from the eastern Mediterranean and southwest Asia.

Early on, the settlers established migratory corridors, which remained important migration routes for millennia. The main path was through the stretch of land between the Black and Caspian seas and across the Caucasian Mountains into the steppes (grassland plains) of Ukraine and Russia. Small groups of wandering peoples hunted and gathered, then eventually settled permanently. Vast forests, which to many of us today would appear exceptionally claustrophobic, were quite attractive to these early people. Forests, unlike grassland steppes, offered natural shelter, ample building material, an abundance of game, and many other benefits. Some groups settled down and domesticated animals and cultivated plants. Others preferred a nomadic lifestyle.

In this mix of early groups, few cultural differences existed other than variations in language. If people communicated using similar languages, they assumed common ancestry. If not, they were perceived to be tribes of different stock. By the time of the first millennia b.c., such differences became more prominent. Groups that spoke Celtic, Germanic, and Slavic languages were establishing themselves in the territory that is now Poland. Celts left less evidence of their early presence than did Germanic and Slavic tribes. Roman and Greek chronicles described the people who inhabited northern Europe as fearsome, organized through tribal kinship, and involved in farming, hunting, and trade.

Trade, indeed, influenced settlement in Poland’s plains. Southern and southeastern shores of the Baltic Sea provided a commodity that was highly prized in the Mediterranean area for fine jewelry—­amber. A lucrative business, amber was collected from what are contemporary Poland and former Soviet Baltic states and shipped to urban centers in southern Europe. The main transportation route crossed through Poland and moved southward through river valleys and mountain passes.

At the beginning of the Christian era, fewer than half a million people lived in what is now Poland. The influence of the Roman Empire—­the cultural giant—­never spread this far north, so the local lifestyle remained relatively unchanged.

Without large cities, much of Poland’s culture and settlement revolved around small communities of people connected through blood-based kinship. Animistic beliefs—­the idea that the natural environment is the residence of gods and spirits—were based on the close relationship of the people with their natural surroundings. It would take many centuries for Christianity to reach this part of Europe and establish a maledominated religion. Slavic and Germanic residents of Poland enjoyed their animistic beliefs with much more gender equality; the females’ role as shamans and healers was customary. Even today, villagers in Slavic Eastern Europe often rely on medical help from elderly females who are herbal experts. (Ironically, even though this tradition was very old and quite successful, it was considered a pagan practice by Christians. As a result, scores of “witches” were put to death because they attempted to heal using medicinal herbs rather than prayer.) Tightly knit families contributed to the recognition among Slavs that loyalty to the family presented the highest form of integrity, an attitude that remains deeply entrenched even today.

In the first millennium, Slavs accounted for a majority of Poland’s residents. Their settlements spread deep into modern Germany. A chain of Slavic-speaking tribes lived around the Elbe River and even on Rügen Island in the Baltic Sea. Occasionally, Germanic tribes, such as the Goths arrived from southern Sweden and established temporary control over central and eastern Poland. Unable to find enough resources in the Scandinavian peninsula, Goths packed their belongings and migrated southeast, following the Baltic coast. Eventually they reached central Poland, around the middle Vistula, and established dominance over the local Slavs.

This was a major event in early Slavic history, because the Goths managed to split Slavic tribes into two groups that even today remain separate: western Slavs (Poles, Czechs, Slovakians, and Luzice Serbs) and eastern Slavs (Russians, White Russians, and Ukrainians). A third large Slavic group, southern Slavs, settled southeastern Europe in later centuries when the Huns triggered mass movements of peoples in the fourth and fifth centuries. Although their rule was temporary, the Goths strongly affected the Slavs. In many ways, they set the stage for the future interaction between the Germanic and Slavic peoples. This interaction continues today, with German-speaking groups advancing culturally and Slavic speakers retreating.


With the fall of the Roman Empire the continent entered a different era. Now the focus was on religion and the time would be known as the Middle Ages period of European history. Western Europe unified around the Franks, and the eastern part of the former Roman Empire—­was ruled from Constantinople. For Slavs in Poland, this was also the beginning of a new era. For the first time, they managed to organize loosely connected tribes into a larger political unit.

In the midtenth century, Slavs claimed the lands between Bug and Odra, the central Vistula, and the entire Warta river regions. Northern Poland, attached to the Baltic Sea, remained in the hands of Germans. Slavs—­hardly known as seafarers—valued the interior region, whereas Germans strongly opposed any challenges to their control of the southern Baltic. It is important to remember that the concept of “country” had an entirely different meaning then than it has today. Demarcation lines, border crossings, and customs services are modern developments associated with contemporary nation-states.

In the Middle Ages, kingdoms stretched as far as their rulers could conquer that year and collect taxes from the peasants they pressured to pay tribute. Little in the way of centralized administrative powers were exercised over these “countries,” and boundaries were simply broad transition zones.

The idea of “country” meant nothing to ordinary people who noticed no differences in their lifestyle under various rulers. When the local warlord Mieszko I consolidated Slavic tribes in certain regions, around the year 965, he was considered just another tax collector. Because he was of Slavic stock, rather than German or otherwise, Mieszko I is today celebrated as the first leader of Poland. He founded the House of Piast, a dynasty of kings who ruled Poland for four centuries.

Slavs living outside of Mieszko’s domain, west of the Odra, were left exposed to strong German influence and, through time, their identity became affiliated with German culture. Slavic Brlin, for example, eventually became Berlin, and Brunabor became Brandenburg. The Germans, who accepted Christianity earlier than the still-pagan Slavs, managed to erase numerous elements of the Slavic culture, although how that process evolved still remains blurred. One theory supports a peaceful acculturation (the process of cultural absorption) of Slavs into the German culture by social and economic, rather than forceful, means. An impenetrable German cultural barrier in the West left the conquest of the East as a plausible option in terms of Poland’s geographic expansion.


Surrounded by lakes, forests, and marshes in a less-than-desirable area, medieval Poland was a mixture of scattered dukedoms. Westward expansion was difficult because of the strong Germanic presence described above. Eastward, however, the Poles were able to move into sparsely populated lands that were beyond the reach of Tatars or Russians. During this era, Poland also came to accept Roman Catholic Christianity.

The expansion and the new religion marked the beginning of solidification of the Polish national character. They also heavily influenced the future economic and social development of Poland or, for a while, the lack thereof.

Despite territorial expansion, medieval Poland remained a feudal backwater. It was predominantly rural and agrarian and was unable to catch up with the urbanization that was evolving in the West. The growth of cities in the West meant the creation of a secular middle socioeconomic class. Urban living also brought exposure to new ideas and expanded educational opportunities and cultural growth in general. Poland’s feudal leaders, on the other hand, resisted urban development and its advantages, because it meant the loss of power. They owned the land and most settlements, tightly controlled the peasants, and collaborated with Catholic clergy to maintain strict control over society.

On a somewhat positive side, cultural isolation did result in the solidification of a Polish ethnic identity. Most people in the core area eventually developed a strong sense of belonging to the Polish ancestry—that is, they identified themselves as Poles and felt a growing sense of pride in their ethnic identity. This was particularly true following the origin and spread of the Protestant Reformation during the sixteenth century. Surrounded by a growing number of Protestants (Germany and the Baltic region) and Eastern Orthodox (Russia), Poland’s Roman Catholics began to associate religion with ethnicity. This relationship would play a very important role in shaping the future of Poland and Polish society.

The various leaders from the Piast dynasty were better known for the sharpness of their swords than their enlightened ideas. One Piast king, however, stands out: Casimir the Great, who ruled from 1330 to 1370. Unlike his predecessors, Casimir was skilled at using diplomacy and dialogue to settle issues during difficult times. And times were indeed difficult. The Teutonic Knights, who had been invited to Poland a century earlier to help thwart the Prussian menace, extended their military presence between the lower Vistula and areas adjacent to the Baltic. To the south, Poland faced increased pressure from the rulers of Bohemia; their goal to achieve control over Silesia threatened to diminish Polish control beyond the marshlands of central Vistula and Warta.

Casimir earned the title “the Great” for preserving Poland and much more. At that time, it was unusual for a leader to assume interest over benign matters. Most rulers engaged primarily in fighting wars, pillaging, participating in royal marriages, and keeping the local nobles from thinking about deposing the king. Casimir reformed administrative powers and made many positive changes in both legal and taxation systems. He also supervised the establishment of the University of Cracow, the first such institution in this part of Europe.

During Casimir’s reign, Jews—­who were continuously persecuted elsewhere in Europe—­ immigrated to Poland in ever-increasing numbers. The contributions of the Jews were particularly significant in Polish towns still isolated from the rest of Europe. Their understanding of manufacturing and services helped pave the road to faster development of cities.

Casimir even took a Jewish mistress, which caused no problem for the Catholic king of Poland, as he was removed—­bothgeographically and culturally—­from the European mainstream and the close scrutiny of the Catholic Inquisition.

The isolation of Casimir’s Poland was also a benefit in the 1340s, when the Bubonic Plague epidemic devastated the rest of Europe. During one of the most destructive events to ever hit the continent, Poland remained plague free. The country being sparsely populated, with few transportation routes and great distances between larger cities saved it from the deadly disease, which spread rapidly through areas with high population density and human interaction.


Poland entered the fifteenth century in an alliance with Lithuania, an arrangement that eventually became a full-­blown union in 1569. Casimir’s legacy of only female heirs led to a royal marriage that joined Poles and Lithuanians in their peak of their historic glory. The new alliance relegated the Teutonic Knights to history’s dustbin by the mid-fifteenth century. It also extended Poland’s territorial reach across the Dnieper (Dnepr) River into eastern Ukraine. Yet some scholars believe that, despite the glory of the time, this expansion ultimately had disastrous consequences. By overextending itself, the groundwork was in place for the ultimate eighteenth-­century partitioning of Poland by three great European powers.

With the acquired land came the burden of integrating thousands of new residents who were not ethnic Poles. Furthermore, these new residents practiced the Eastern Orthodox faith rather than Roman Catholicism, which caused new problems. Between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries, Russia evolved from the Great Horde’s small vassal state into the largest empire in Eurasia. Moscow’s belief that it had a divine right to serve as the leader of all Orthodox Slavs grew stronger with the increase in its military power. After Constantinople’s 1453 collapse under Turkish attack, Moscow assumed leadership of the Eastern Orthodox world. When the Tatars’ khanates (or chieftans) retreated to Asia, they left a spatial void between Moscow and Poland-Lithuania’s kingdom. It took several attempts, but eventually Russia gained control of Poland-­Lithuania’s eastern provinces. Internal strife and weak central power hastened the fall of the commonwealth. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, Peter the Great had successfully expanded Russian territory westward to the shores of the Baltic. This helped Russia become a first-rate European power, and it also forever changed Poland’s destiny.

Once a serious regional player, Poland entered the eighteenth century as more of a nuisance to Russians, Prussians, and the Habsburg Monarchy. Each of them looked upon the lands around the Vistula as little more than a resting stop. Russia’s sights were on securing warm-water seaports on the Baltic and elsewhere. The Prussian kingdom’s vision included connecting north-central Europe to its domain. The Habsburgs, as always, would take whatever seemed available under the circumstances.


The partition of Poland, which occurred in three stages proved devastating. Millions of Poles lost their country for more than a century. They faced pressures of assimilation (Germanization and Russification) from all sides. Still, the Poles managed to preserve their ethnic sense of belonging and gathered around the Roman Catholic Church as the institutional leader of the Polish nation. This was especially clear in rural areas, where the Church’s authority remained unquestioned and secular policies meant little.

The first partition occurred in 1772 and resulted in the reduction of one-third of Poland’s territory. Russia annexed the land east of the Dvina River into present-­day Belarus. The Habsburgs expanded the monarchy’s control over the hills of Slovakia beyond the river Dniester into western Ukraine. Galicia, along with the city of Lvov and its surroundings, became Austrian as well. Several centuries of Polish rule in this region meant that a majority of its residents belonged to the Roman Catholic faith or other non-­Eastern Orthodox faiths.

Not that the peasantry had any voice in geopolitical decisions, but they preferred Austrian rule to Russian rule because it was less oppressive. The life of serfs in imperial Russia was one of enormous hardship under the czars’ autocratic iron fists. Prussia solidified its status as the main power in the Baltic region. Its major gain was the territory surrounding the lower Vistula valley and the rest of land that was left in northern Poland. With this move, Prussians finally established a firm connection between their eastern and western territories.

After the initial partitioning, Poland still controlled its ethnic core. But in the 1793 partition, it suffered a heavy blow from both Prussians and Russians. Eager to extend their grasp to Silesia, the Prussians annexed much of Poland’s southwest. Prussians believed that the mineral and coal deposits in Silesian basins were too rich to leave under Polish control or to fall under Austrian domination. Gdansk, a survivor of the first partition, failed to preserve its independence from land-­hungry Prussians. In a fashion that the Soviet Union would follow in 1939, the Russian Empire erased the eastern boundary and brought scores of fellow Slavs back under its wing.

By 1795, the Russians suggested to Prussia and the Habsburg Monarchy an idea for the third partitioning of Poland. During this period when the Russian Empire was expanding in all directions, it was most interested in moving westward, to bring it closer to Europe. The empress Catherine II “The Great,” herself of German origin, was keen to acquire as much of Poland’s territory as possible. Even though a majority of what Russia annexed was undeveloped countryside, it tremendously extended its western boundaries. The other two partners in this partition—­Prussians and Austrians—­received smaller amounts of land than the Russians, but the territory they gained was more densely populated and of greater economic importance. Absent from the second partition, the Habsburgs gladly agreed to eliminate the Polish state once and for all. This time they took the upper Vistula, from its source to south of Warsaw, and made the Bug River the boundary with Russia. Prussia expanded its influence to Warsaw and the land north of the Bug. Everything that was once the Lithuanian part of the commonwealth was now Russian. In less than a quarter century, the nation of Poland had disappeared from the world, and Poles found themselves living in three different countries.


Not everyone in Europe was pleased with the three powers’ growth in strength and size. The French, still reeling from their own decline in power following the 1789 revolution, were hopeful that Napoleon Bonaparte’s military aspirations to conquer the continent would be successful. During a brief period of French domination in Europe, Poland had equally brief hope for the return of its independence. Napoleon’s disastrous campaign in Russia, however, left France defeated and Polish hopes dashed. Napoleon lost power and was exiled to Elba, and the Poles were unable to realize their dream of renewed independence.

Following the disintegration of their country, Poles were treated in different same ways by their new rulers. Those left in Prussia, later Germany, benefited from industrialization and economic progress, growth of the middle class, and education. Those integrated into the Russian Empire did not fared less well. Most saw their freedom and quality of life deteriorate. It was not until the 1860s that Russia abolished serfdom, among the last countries in Europe to do so. Throughout the nine-teenth century, it remained an unprogressive country without a middle class and in which only a few benefited. Masses of lower-class workers and peasants enjoyed barely any of the rights that their counterparts in the West now took for granted.

Periodic attempts to regain some degree of Polish political independence were thwarted. It was enormously difficult to coordinate a movement that would overcome the obstacles of being divided into three countries. It took a global geopolitical shift to revive Poland’s dream of independence. Few expected that World War I, or the “Great War,” would last longer than several months, but four years of bloody and exhausting warfare left Europe on its knees. By the end of the war, the Habsburg Monarchy—­which had been the powerhouse of central Europe for several centuries—­was in ruins. Russians suffered badly from Germany’s superior military power and, in 1917, retreated to fight their own (February and October) revolutions. The Russian defeat increased the chances for Polish independence, with the approval of Germany and the weakened Habsburg Monarchy. Territorial concessions made by the Russian Empire as the condition for ending the conflict worked somewhat to Poland’s advantage. The land the Russians lost was the same territory they had acquired earlier. It also was land that was occupied by huge numbers of ethnic Poles. The following year when Germany was defeated at last, the fate of the Poles was uncertain.


Finally, by the end of 1918, the political situation in central Europe became more stable, allowing the nation of Poland to be reborn. The Treaty of Versailles confirmed its independence a year later, in 1919. American president Woodrow Wilson strongly supported the idea of Poland’s restoration.

For some years following independence, Poland remained relatively undisturbed by its neighbors, most of whom were entangled in their own problems. After its 1917 revolution, the newly formed Soviet Union was too busy and too weak to assert authority in the West. The Poles were thrilled to regain what Russia had annexed in the third partition of 1795 without provoking conflict with the Soviet Union. By 1922, the Soviets were fatigued by their own civil war, and the government was too busy establishing control over its vast country to turn its sights elsewhere.

Poland’s independence, as one would expect, lasted only as long as it took Germans and Russians to regain their former strength and threaten Poland’s sovereignty. In September of 1939, German troops initiated a new war tactic: blitzkrieg.

They bombed Poland and then overran the country with ground forces in several weeks. The Soviets, waiting at the eastern border, were willing to make yet another partition of their Slavic cousins in a secret agreement with Nazis. This proved to be a major mistake by the Soviet Union. Two years later, the
German army arrived at Moscow’s gates, the Russians resisted as they had Napoleon’s army, and millions of lives were lost on both sides. World War II proved to be disastrous to Poland and its people. Many perished in the Holocaust (the genocide of the Jews), whereas others died in the course of wartime activities. By 1945, when the war finally finished, Poland had lost a higher percentage of its population than had any other country.

Following World War II, Poland’s boundaries were changed once again, this time to the country’s current shape. During negotiations among the Allies (United States, Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom), the American delegation insisted that Poland emerge as an independent democratic country.

As a U.S. voting block, Polish-­Americans overwhelmingly supported the Democratic Party in battleground states such as Illinois. As a result, the Truman administration sought to capitalize politically by supporting Poland’s independence in return for electoral support. The Soviets honored this agreement briefly and then took control over Poland’s affairs for the following 45 years. The country became a satellite state of the Soviet Union, lying behind the “Iron Curtain.”