History of Poland
Visit Poland and discover a diverse culture and history. The most famous archeological find from Poland's prehistory is from the early Iron Age, around 700 BC.
Poland began to form into a recognizable unitary and territorial entity around the middle of the 10th century under the Piast dynasty. In 1226 Konrad I of Masovia, one of the regional Piast dukes, invited the Teutonic Knights to help him fight the Baltic Prussian pagans, a decision which would ultimately lead to centuries of warfare with the Knights. In 1320, after a number of earlier unsuccessful attempts by regional rulers at uniting the Polish dukedoms, Władysław I consolidated his power, took the throne and became the first King of a reunified Poland. His son, Casimir III, is remembered as one of the greatest Polish kings and is particularly famous for extending royal protection to Jews and providing the original impetus for the establishment of Poland's first university.
The era from the 14th century to the 16th century was one of greatness for Poland. The Polish nobility became more and more powerful.
Casimir III was succeeded by his nephew Louis, the king of Hungary. Louis wanted his daughter to succeed him as ruler of Poland but in order to obtain the agreement of the Polish nobles he was forced to grant them concessions. The Privilege of Koszyce (1374) made the nobles exempt from most kinds of tax. It also gave them an important role in government. In future no important decision could be made without their consent.
In 1384 the Polish nobles finally accepted Louis' daughter Jadwiga as Queen of Poland. They also arranged for her to marry Jagiello, Grand Duke of Lithuania and the two countries became allies. Jagiello became Wladyslaw II of Poland (1386-1434). Wladyslaw joined the Catholic Church and his people followed. In 1410 Poland and Lithuania utterly defeated the Teutonic Knights.
In the late 15th century the Polish nobles became increasingly powerful and the monarchy grew weaker. In 1505 the king agreed that no political changes would be made without the consent of the nobles.
The 16th century was an age of economic prosperity for Poland. Furthermore the Renaissance reached Poland and learning flourished. The greatest Polish scholar was Nicholas Copernicus (1473-1543). Poland was rocked by the Reformation. Polish Protestants were divided into Lutherans and Calvinists. In the 1560s the Jesuits arrived in Poland. They created a network of schools and colleges across Poland and they managed to defeat the Protestants. Nevertheless the Compact of Warsaw of 1573 allowed freedom of worship in Poland. Meanwhile in 1569 by the Union of Lublin Poland and Lithuania formed a federation with the same king and parliament but separate armies and legal codes.
In 1655 the Swedes invaded Poland and overran most of it. However the Poles rallied and the war with Sweden ended in 1660. The war with Russian ended in 1667. The wars left Poland devastated. In the late 17th century Poland scored some great military successes. But in the late 17th century Poland was severely weakened by the lack of an effective central government.
In the 18th century Poland continued its political and military decline. Prussia and Russia took advantage of the lack of strong central government to interfere in Poland. In 1733 a Russian army marched into Poland. Increasingly Poland was the plaything of the great powers.
In 1767 the Russians forced Poland to accept a treaty. The treaty guaranteed the borders of Poland and the rights of Polish nobles. The noble's rights kept Poland weak, so it was in Russia's interests to protect them. Russia, Prussia and Austria decided to help themselves to Polish territory. Prussia took Pomerania (northern Poland) cutting Poland off from the sea. Austria took Galicia. Russia took a part of what is now Belarus. The shock of losing much of their territory galvanised the Poles into action. They reformed education, the army and the government. In 1794 the Poles rebelled but they were crushed by the Prussians and Russians. Finally in 1795 Prussia, Russia and Austria divided the last part of Poland between them. The Polish king abdicated and the Polish state ceased to exist.
In 1807 Napoleon turned some of the Polish territories into the Duchy of Warsaw, a French satellite state. In 1812 almost 100,000 Poles fought with Napoleon against Russia. At the Congress of Vienna in 1815 the great European powers divided up the continent. Poland was divided between Prussia, Russia and Austria. The great powers created a semi-independent Poland. The Russian part of Poland was made into the Kingdom of Poland. The Tsar was the monarch but his powers were limited and the kingdom had its own government and army.
The Poles were dissatisfied and rebellions broke in 1830, and again in 1863 for 18 months, but it was eventually crushed. Afterwards the Kingdom of Poland was dissolved and the area was renamed the 'Vistula Provinces'. Russian was made the official language of government and the Poles were forced to use it in schools - part of a policy to suppress Polish culture.
Poland eventually regained its freedom after the First World War. In 1916 the Germans conquered the Russian-held parts of Poland. The Germans promised to form a Polish kingdom after the war as a result polish General Jozef Pilsudski (1867-1935) led a Polish force in the war against the Russians. Meanwhile in January 1918 US President Wilson made clear his support for an independent Poland after the war. In January 1919 a constitutional assembly was elected in Poland. A new constitution was published in 1921. In the 1930s Poland was threatened by both Nazi Germany and Communist Russia. In 1939 the two signed a secret agreement to divide Poland between them.
At the insistence of Joseph Stalin, the Yalta Conference sanctioned the formation of a new Polish provisional and pro-Communist coalition government in Moscow, which ignored the Polish government-in-exile based in London. In 1944, Stalin had made guarantees to Churchill and Roosevelt that he would maintain Poland's sovereignty and allow democratic elections to take place; however, upon achieving victory in 1945, the occupying Soviet authorities organised an election which was ultimately used to claim the 'legitimacy' of Soviet hegemony over Polish affairs. The Soviet Union instituted a new communist government in Poland. This government agreed to the permanent garrisoning of Red Army units on Poland's territory.
The People's Republic of Poland was officially proclaimed in 1952. In 1956, the régime of Władysław Gomułka became temporarily more liberal, freeing many people from prison and expanding some personal freedoms. Labor turmoil in 1980 led to the formation of the independent trade union "Solidarity" which over time became a political force. In 1981 "Solidarity" eroded the dominance of the Communist Party and by 1989 had triumphed in Poland's first free and democratic parliamentary elections. In 1991, Poland became a member of the Visegrád Group and joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) alliance in 1999. Poland became a full member of European Union on 1 May 2004.