Poland was a pioneer in Democracy, Freedom of the Press, Freedom of Religion, Human Rights, Women’s Rights, Education, and more.
For much of history, Poland dominated its neighbors. There is less sorrow and suffering in its history than that of many nations.
This is the history of Poland that you never knew.
900’s – First Polish “King” (earlier dynasties were not recognized by the rest of Europe)
966 – Poland became a Catholic Country, strictly for political advantages.
1000’s – More of a sense of nationhood at this time than France, England, or most other future states of Europe.
1000’s – 80 Castle-towns already established.
1200’s – No feudal system in Poland as in rest of Europe.
1200’s – Peasants were able to rise to a different social status.
1266 – Was criticized by the Church for allowing Jews to live without restrictions in Poland.
1300’s – Not interested in participating in Crusades.
1348 – Poland not affected by the Great Plague (Black Death), because most of population lived on farms.
1300’s – Constitutional Monarchy
1300’s – “Elected Kings” – (King selected by regional “governors”).
1400’s – Parliamentary Government (Sejm, Senate, & elected King). (Actually a democracy of sorts.)
1440 – Poland referred to as an “Amazon Society” because of the atypical position of women in public life, eg. College Professors, etc.
end of 1400’s – Polish Empire covered 1/3 of Europe. (Twice as large as the Holy Roman Empire.)
1500’s – Poland not affected by Reformation, or Counter-Reformation, because many religions, co-existed. Catholic Bishops were appointed by King of Poland, not Rome; and Kings often ignored Rome’s edicts.
As one official said, “It’s not about religion, it’s about (personal) liberty.” = Human Rights were upheld. (The spirit of legality and humanism pervaded Polish society.)
1500’s – “Sarmatian” style of dress and behavior became popular as Poles liked to believe themselves to be descended from warriors who had inhabited the steppes near the Black Sea. Sarmatism was a congenial way of life which other countries found attractive.
Poles did not like to put money away. They invested in things they could use and show off – clothes, jewels, servants (whom they also dressed in jewels), horses (which they even painted), etc. Also, ritual was introduced into every activity. This exuberance diffused passions and allowed the people to live in harmony.
1539 – Freedom of the press by royal decree.
1543 – The publication of Mikolaj Kopernik’s report that the earth revolves around the sun sent shockwaves throughout Europe.
1573 – The freedom to practice any religion without penalty or discrimination was written into the Constitution.
1573 – The szlachta were given the power to elect a king. (The szlachta were more than just the nobility – those obligated to fight for their country. They were about 10 % of the population of the Commonwealth, but included people from all classes, economic backgrounds, religions, and was multi-racial.) Such elections were unthinkable to most other European nations.
1500’s – Buildings were constructed combining functionalism with aesthetic perfection in order to create the ideal environment. And education was of primary importance. The Poles had an unbounded faith that science and learning could breed perfect citizens (rather than legislate behavior), and that ideal conditions could physically enhance life… the belief that utopia could be built was fundamental to the course Poland took. It was the product of over a century of prosperity and security, of political self-confidence based on the civil liberties of the citizen, and on an impressive legacy of political and social thought which continued to spread and develop through the printed word.
1600’s – Poland is (still) the largest state in Europe. (990,000 square kilometers, population 10 million.)
1600’s – Influenced partly by a Catholic King, and the trend in other countries, there is a change from rational values to the spiritual. Jesuit Colleges taught religious, social, and political principles replacing reason and knowledge as guides to behavior. That resulted in bigotry and chauvinism. Also, Catholicism was equated to patriotism. This changed the course of Polish History.
1600’s – Democracy proved to be its own undoing. With power successfully divided, none of the three branches of government could act without the full support of at least one other. Regional concerns of the individual members of the Sejm frequently obstructed the smoothe passage of legislation of national benefit. Also, an elected King wasn’t concerned about the future of the country, since there was no guarantee that the throne would pass to his heirs.
1600’s – Poland, the „Land of the Winged Horsemen” developed unique military strategies which were not adopted by the rest of Europe until a century later. The Poles also had unique weapons, and specially bred horses. The Polish infantry possessed ten times greater fire-power on a man-to-man basis than standard European infantries. As a result, they were able to win battles where they were outnumbered by more than ten to one.
1680 – Polish became the court language of the Kremlin, and was used by Moscovite embassies when negotiating with other European countries.
1700’s – With the King out of the country most of the time, the country ran itself, with the rich magnates in control. Thus the rich became richer and the poor became poorer. However the landless peasants were free to contract for their services, and disputes were handled in court. Thus, unlike almost everywhere else in Europe, there were no peasant revolts after the Middle Ages in Poland.
1747 – First Public Reference Library on the European Mainland – in Warsaw. (Had 500,000 volumes by 1795.)
1750’s – The people got used to a lack of government, and the resultant anarchy made the Polish Commonwealth the most chaotic and backward state in Europe. But, 40 years later, (simply by restating the old principles of Fatherland, publication of the law so that reform could take place, and upgrading the schools), Poland was the most progressive state in Europe. Hailed by the French Revolutionists, Poland’s Constitution was an example in Westminster and Washington.
1772 – Attempts were made to reform Polish government, resulting in the threat of civil war. This prompted Russia, Prussia, and Austria to begin their takeover of Poland, with the First Partition. They claimed the Poles were ungovernable and dangerous.
1773 – The king appointed a Commission for National Education, the first of its kind in Europe. It set curriculum, chose and published textbooks, and supervised standards and teachers.
1791 – On May 3rd, Poland adopted a written Constitution. The first ever in Europe. Its legislative reforms would enable social and economic reforms to begin.
1792 – The Poles were not given the time to become a world power once again. Alarmed by this “hotbed of liberalism” and the constitution (considered to be better than England’s), Russia, Prussia, and Austria took over even more of Poland, so that by 1795, it was completely partitioned by these three countries.
1794 – American Revolutionary War hero, and founder of West Point, General Tadeusz Kosciuszko led an insurrection, which eventually failed.
1797-1814 – Poland is now Duchy of Warsaw, but Polish legion assists France and other countries in Napoleonic Wars.
1815 – Kingdom of Poland re-established. Though under Russian control, Poland operated according to it’s liberal constitution, and the Polish Commonwealth continued to exist in defiance of its boundaries.
1800’s – The Poles protect and transmit all that was finest in the country’s past by building more libraries and museums and schools.
1831 – Another insurrection failed, following which the Russian Tsar declared the Polish Constitution null and void, abolished the Sejm, closed schools, and confiscated estates. (Marx saw the collapse of the insurrection as the most important event of that century.)
Poles believe that Russians are hopeless primitives, incapable of grasping the concept of civilization, and too brutish to allow others to enjoy it. Meanwhile the Russians never understood the Polish preoccupation with civil liberty and constitutional legality. They thought Poles were spoiled.
1863 – Polish nobles formed a spy network performing various covert activities, and engaging in guerilla warfare against Russian troops stationed in Poland. Though they were joined by soldiers from other counties, no foreign government would get involved for fear of tipping the balance of power in Europe. Thus, after 18 months, this insurrection also failed. (And yet, the Poles still fought for France in the Franco-Russian war in 1886, and Polish soldiers fought in civil wars in France, Spain, Persia, the USA, Portugal, Turkey, etc.
As the Polish state melted away, the nation grew stronger, as the words of the Polish national anthem say, “Poland has not disappeared, as long as we still live.”
1918 – Poland took advantage of internal problems in Russia, Prussia, and Austria to regain it’s independence from the 3 nations.
1939 – With only 20 years to rebuild itself as a nation, Poland was too weak to fend off the combined attacks from Germany and Russia.
1945 – Poland lost World War II. It’s borders were shrunk and moved by Western “allies”, and Soviet control created an economic disaster. The population was now no longer multi-ethnic, but entirely Polish.
Meanwhile, the Poles worked internally to free themselves from Soviet control with strikes, uprisings, and defiance.
1970’s – Despite the Iron Curtain and the West’s lack of interest, (the West thought the Poles were reactionary), Polish society grew more assertive when dealing with the socialist government.
1978 – For the second time, a Pole was elected Pope = Pope John Paul II. He became the most widely traveled Pope ever, and lit the fire that eventually brought down Communism..
1980 – Lech Wałęsa led the first authentic workers revolution in European History.
1989 – Poland voted the communists out of the Senate, and the collapse of Communism in Poland was followed by similar actions being taken in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and finally, East Germany, where, 6 months after the Polish vote, the Berlin Wall was torn down. The Soviet Union was no more.
The Moral of the Story is to remember your Triumphs when faced with Tragedy. This is the strength that enabled Poland to once again, become the First… the first to defeat Communism.
*map from: The Polish Way by Adam Zamoyski