I’m not gonna lie: I’m a bit sleep-deprived as I write this, but I’ve slacked off in my blogging, so I really can’t not do it. However, Poland: A History by Adam Zamoyski is the last book in my Poland month, so I’m ready to close a chapter on a very interesting country.
A Note on Geography:
Poland is interesting geographically because, although the Oder River provides a pretty good border with Germany to the west and the Sudeten and Carpathian Mountains form a southern border, it has no natural eastern border. This has caused problems throughout history with Russia grabbing more and more land. On the west, Poland boasts fertile river valleys that tempted Germany, who took that land. Then Austria couldn’t be stopped and took the manufacturing centers of Poland to the south. Basically, Poland is in the unenviable position of being tugged between several strong European powers, and it hasn’t come away unscathed.
Poland has had a tumultuous history, shrinking, expanding, and even disappearing altogether throughout the centuries. Here are some major points in its history:
- Early Poland – Poland was settled by Slavs and generally left alone to be workers of the land. They were called Polanie or “the people of the fields.”
- Polish People – Prince Mieszko unites Polish people in 962. They soon become Christians (966).
- The Kingdom of Poland – Poland becomes a kingdom and gets a king, Boleslaw I, in 1025. However, royal dynasties eventually evolve to elected kingships with kings who don’t have to be Polish. This negatively affects the strength of the country and weakens the central government, ultimately resulting in partition.
- Polish-Lithuania Commonwealth – Poland and Lithuania combine under King Władysław Jagiełło in 1385, and then come together again in 1569.
- Teutonic Knights – Poland survives regular invasions by the Mongols, Tartars, and—in 1410—the Teutonic Knights. The Polish army defeats the Teutonic Knights, surprisingly, the start of a centuries-long feud between the Germans and the Polish.
- 1400-1500s – Although Poland is almost exclusively Roman Catholic, it had a long history of taking in persecuted Jews, other sects of Christianity, and minorities.
- Polish Golden Age – The late 1400s to 1500s are Poland’s Golden Age under Sigismund August with flowering science, literature, and music
- Wars of the 1600s – The 17th century saw war between Poland and many of her neighbors from Sweden to Russia with the Tartars and Turks thrown in.
- The Partitions of Poland – Poland is partitioned in three between Austria, Prussia, and Russia from 1772 to 1795. A weak central government and powerful magnates that didn’t want to give up power were huge factors in this. By 1795, Poland ceased to exist as a country until 1918.
- Revolt of 1863 – The Polish attempt to regain their nationhood in 1863. They fail.
- Poland Re-established – Poland’s reformed in 1918.
- German Occupation – In 1939, Germany occupies Poland until the end of the war in 1945. The Nazis believe in ethnic cleansing and killing massive numbers of the Polish. Concentration and death camps are established in Poland and are responsible for millions dead. By the end of World War II, Poland’s population had been demolished.
- Russian Occupation – Soviet Russia “liberated” Poland just to occupy it…for the next 40 years.
- A New Republic – Poland finally shakes off Russia and holds free elections in 1989.
Poland has been fighting for its nationhood for centuries. There’s been enmity between it and Russia and Germany for centuries. The last century has simply been another—ugly—manifestation of that trouble.
After reading this, I ached for the Poles, for a country that’s been beat down for the last few centuries and simply wants to be free. But throughout everything, the people are surprisingly resilient, weathering adversity and powering through the storms of history with their heads down and their focus on surviving just one more day.