First, look at the map of Europe. You will find Poland east to Germany and south of Sweden, across the Baltic. An almost square, or rhomboidal country of a size comparable to California. Note the northern land border of Poland with the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad (formerly Koenigsberg in German Prussia) — its straight line is crossing hills, lakes and rivers alike, showing an utmost contempt to any geographic features. We owe it to Stalin himself who once had drawn the borderline with an ill-sharpened pencil. In fact, Stalin and his allies — Roosevelt and Churchill — have approved the shape of today’s Poland in Yalta (1944), bringing it back to what it used to be some 1000 years ago, at the dawn of Poland’s statehood history. Over the centuries, Poland has moved step by step to the east, ceding its western territories to Germany.
Look again at the map. Do you see something interesting there? Personally, I’m always struck by the shear number of our neighbors. There are seven nations bordering on Poland: Russia, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Germany. I would add two more neighbors across the Baltic: Denmark and Sweden. That makes a total of nine neighboring countries. In Europe, a continent of tiny states, only Germany boasts an equal number of neighboring countries (including the proud Principality of Luxembourg).
As you may know or otherwise expect, neighbors generally mean problems. With some of them we have shared a large portion of our tumultuous history, and the more we have shared in the past, the more problems tend to arise today. Take, for example, Germany — I believe that fighting the Germans was the real reason behind uniting a handful of Slavonic tribes under the rule of Poland’s first historic sovereign — Mieszko I. By wit, craft and sword the Germans have pushed to the east and their efforts were crowned in 1795 when the Kingdom of Prussia annexed Warsaw to its vast territory. After the collapse of Napoleonic Europe, Prussia ceded Warsaw and central Poland to the victorious Russia.
But take Lithuania, our neighbor in the east. For almost 300 years the two countries had formed the Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania. The King of Poland was at the same time the Grand Duke of Lithuania. But when Lithuania regained independence from Russia after WWI, huge problems arose. Obviously, Lithuanians are not very happy with the centuries-long cohabitation. “Polonization” is the main allegation. Even today they regard a sizeable Polish minority as “Polonized” Lithuanians. The golden age of Poland was under the rule of Jagiellonians, a Lithuanian dynasty. Interestingly enough, early Jagiellonian monarchs didn’t speak Polish. They didn’t speak Lithuanian, either. Belarussian was their preferred “home” tongue. And so we come to Poland’s third neighbor — Belarus, which means literally “White Ruthenia”. Historically, this country had been part of Grand Duchy of Lithuania since the Middle Ages and then joined Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1569. The main problem of Belarus is identity. Until 1995 it has shared its national emblem, “Pahonia”, with Lithuania. Polish greatest poet, Adam Mickiewicz, used to call himself “Lithuanian”, although he was born in Belarus. The same goes for the hero of the American War of Independence and the Polish uprising — Tadeusz Kosciuszko. Now, one more country claims “ownership” of that hero (heroes are always in demand, aren’t they?). He is also a hero of Belarus.
Ukraine, the next of our neighbors emerging after the collapse of the former Soviet Union, is one of the largest countries in Europe. Historically, Ukraine was also part of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, but a “rebelling” one. In fact, Ukrainians looked at Poles, making fortunes in their vast territories, with suspicion, if not hatred. The “pogroms” there were targeted at Jews and Poles alike, culminating in the slaughter of Poles of Volhyn in 1943, when according to some estimates 100,000 Poles lost their lives during the “ethnic cleansing” by Ukrainian nationalists. On the other hand, Ukrainians remember that Poland resettled to Ukraine a large Ukrainian population living in the south east of Poland. Today, Poland and Ukraine share common interests and cooperate closely, but are they able to overcome the cruel past?
Our two southern neighbors — Slovakia and the Czech Republic — appeared on the map of Europe after the collapse of Czechoslovakia. Some believe divorce is a better term than collapse. In fact, the two countries seem to do better single-handedly: Slovakia is one of the fastest growing economies in that region and the Czech Republic is an epitome of stability.
What makes the history of that region peculiar? I believe it is the number of collapses: the Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania collapsed first, partitioned by neighboring powers of Russia, Austria and Prussia in 1795. The Empire of Russia collapsed in 1918 along with that of Austria-Hungary, giving rise to a number of new states, including independent Poland. Then, the “fourth partition” of Poland took place in 1939, when Germany and Soviet Union “wiped it out of the map of Europe” under the infamous Ribbentrop-Molotov Treaty. The “Third Reich” collapsed under decisive blows of allied forces, but Poland had to wait for 45 more years to regain full independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Instability is, of course, a major consequence of the collapses. But equally important is the quest for identity. Poland at least had its “golden age” in the 16th century, when it was the most affluent and powerful country of the region. Its affluence stemmed from the exports of raw materials — like in the case of present-day “oil states”. The “oil” of those days were: grain, timber and tar. The great navies and merchant fleets of England and Netherlands were built out of Polish/Lithuanian oak, pine and spruce trees and thousands of kilometers of ropes were tanned with Polish tar. (A truly interesting fact: the English word “spruce” is believed to derive from the Polish “z Prus” (pronounced sproos) — or “from Prussia”, as spruce trees were exported via northern Polish territory of Prussia). German purveyors supplied the affluent Polish nobles with jewelry from Augsburg, a thriving Armenian community supplied them with splendid custom-made Persian carpets and silk fabric, while Jews supplied them with sweet Hungarian wine. And then, in mid-17th century Sweden, our neighbor across the Baltic, put an abrupt end to this paradise. They entered Poland without any meaningful resistance, as opulent Polish nobles believed they would swap one inept Wasa king for another gallant Wasa king. What they got was plunder, destruction and a ravaged country. Although the Swedes were driven away, Poland never recovered from that disaster.
But at least we had Copernicus and Jan Kochanowski, a great poet and the “father” of literary Polish language. And enough identity to survive the dark ages.
Did I forget something interesting? Oh yes, of course. I should mention that the Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania was a truly democratic country, the only of this kind in Europe and elsewhere at that time. Or, to be honest, it was almost unique in the world. Venice was another democracy in Europe, ending partitioned by France, Austria and... Russia in 1797, two years after the third partition of Poland. And there was Hansa, a loose democratic organization of merchant cities in the north of Europe.
Democratic rights were reserved to the nobility, but even in ancient Athens, the cradle of democracy, not everyone enjoyed its privileges. In Poland, however, nobility accounted for as much as 10% of the total population. In addition to electing a king (with much restricted powers) at their will, they enjoyed the famous “liberum veto” consensus rule, which allowed any representative to dissolve the Diet. Some believe this rule was the key reason behind Poland’s decline, but Polish democracy worked remarkably well during the “Golden Age”.
Below you will find a 1000 years of history of Poland condensed into a list of most important facts from the 10th century until today.
Most important dates in the history of Poland
adoption of Christianity by prince Mieszko I. Traditional date of origin of Polish state.
Bolesław I (the Brave) recognized as first king of Poland.
Semi-independent Duchy of Warsaw established by Napoleon; abolished by Russian occupation, 1813; repartitioned by Congress of Vienna after Napoleon's final defeat.
Era of Romanticism in Polish culture produces such figures as Mickiewicz and Chopin.
"November Revolt" against Russia (unsuccessful).
Polish uprising in Austrian zone of partition fails.
"January Insurrection" in Russian sector culminates in failure.
World War I results in collapse of all partition powers and rise of independent Second Republic of Poland.
War with Soviet Russia; Poland avoids Soviet conquest and gains narrow victory.
National hero Józef Piłsudski gains power and establishes sanacja government that rules until 1939.
World War II begins with September invasions of Poland by Nazi Germany and Soviet Union; Polish forces defeated. Polish government-in-exile forms in London.
Soviet Union incarcerates 1.5 million Poles in labor camps and executes thousands of prisoners of war before ceding Polish lands to Germans.
All Polish territory comes under Nazi occupation, taking savage toll of Polish lives; Poland becomes main killing ground of the Holocaust; Polish resistance movements active at home and abroad.
Warsaw uprising by underground Polish Home Army (Armia Krajowa) crushed by Nazis.
Warsaw (1 million inhabitants before the war) turned into rubble.
Red Army liberates Polish territories and establishes communist-dominated coalition government.
Communists consolidate political monopoly after rigged elections.
Sovietization occurs, including nationalization of Industry and business, attacks on organized religion, and imprisonment of opposition leaders.
Stalinist period brings most severe communist rule.
Worker riots in Poznań result in numerous deaths.
Popular disenchantment with the government begins to crystallize opposition that will mature in next two decades.
Strikes and demonstrations on Baltic coast, hundreds die shot by government forces.
Edward Gierek heads communist party; his policies result in severe economic crisis and intensified opposition movement;
Strikes and riots result from economic crises.
Cardinal Karol Wojtyła, elected pope, takes the name John Paul II.
Nationwide worker strikes culminate in occupation of Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk; state authorities sign Gdansk Accords, acceding to striker demands. Birth of the Solidarity trade union.
Solidarity, spearhead of political and social reform movement, exists legally; constant friction between Solidarity and government; Warsaw Pact threatens intervention.
General Wojciech Jaruzelski becomes Communist Party head, declares martial law, and carries out military takeover in the name of communist party; Solidarity banned, its leadership imprisoned, other union activists driven underground.
Solidarity leader Lech Wałęsa receives Nobel Prize for Peace.
Father Jerzy Popiełuszko murdered by Polish secret police forces, increasing crisis and frustration.
Period of gradual liberalization corresponding to advent of Mikhail Gorbachev in Soviet Union; economic crisis and popular frustration deepen.
Renewed labor strikes lead government to initiate talks with opposition.
Round Table talks produce formula for power sharing between communists and Solidarity; partly free elections result in victory of Solidarity movement; communist regime crumbles.
First postcommunist prime minister, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, forms coalition government. Beginning of the Third Republic of Poland.
"Shock therapy" economic reform program of Finance Minister Leszek Balcerowicz goes into effect; Lech Wałęsa becomes first elected postcommunist president.
Warsaw Pact alliance dissolved.
Poland becomes a member of NATO.
Poland becomes a member of the European Union.
Poland joins Schengen area - Border posts and checks have been removed between Poland and Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Lithuania. Borders between Poland and Ukraine, Russia and Belarus became an Eastern frontier of European Union.