Poland’s long and active history is the seemingly continual tale of a nation that forms, breaks apart, forms again, ultimately reforms the form, and then, in the end, often due to factors well beyond its control, morphs into something else to start the cycle all over. Polish historians mark this ebb and flow by pointing to three key partitions and three key republics in the county’s history. We’ll start our look at Polish history a thousand years ago and go republic by republic, partition by partition until we arrive at the independent Poland of today.
Poland formed as a nation in the northern European flatlands over a thousand years ago — in 966 to be exact — when King Miesko I adopted Catholicism as his state’s religion. Over the next several centuries most Poles became Catholic and, after a few twists and turns, developed a rather unified country. In 1569 Poland joined forces with the Lithuania to form the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, called “The First Polish Republic“…until the union collapsed in 1772, when it split into territories that came under Prussian, Russian and Austrian rule (called “the First Polish Partition.”) The Second Polish Partition took place in 1793, when Prussia and Russia split up the land, then Austria got back into the game again in 1795 for the Third Polish Partition.
Poland finally unified again in 1918 as the Second Polish Republic, but in 1939 Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union invaded. Poland didn’t present much of a military challenge to these massive powers, but on the other hand, unlike the other countries the Nazis conquered, the Poles never formally surrendered. World War II was horrendous for Poland; the nation lost over six million citizens in the War — 3 million Jews, approximately 95% of its Jewish population, and 3 million Polish Christians.
Until World War II Poland was religiously diverse — a Roman Catholic nation with substantial Jewish, Protestant and Christian Orthodox minorities. Since World War II Poland has become almost entirely Roman Catholic; today, almost 90% of the population belongs to the Catholic Church.
Poland emerged from the war as “the People’s Republic of Poland” — a nation firmly within the sphere of the Soviet Union. Some Polish leaders challenged the Soviets, but the Soviets continually asserted control. In the early 1980s the independent trade union “Solidarity” became a popular and political force. (The original version of one the songs that’s on our CD, “Garnitur Spod Igly,” is a labor-era song about the power differential between well-dressed ruling class and the rest of the population, ending in a rousing call for freedom.) The Soviets tried to push back again, but by 1989 Solidarity was strong enough that it defeated the Communists in parliamentary elections, officially ushering in the Third Polish Republic. In 1990 Lech Walesa, a Solidarity candidate, even became president.
Since the end of Soviet rule Poland has embraced the free market and transformed its economy into one of the most active of all the former Warsaw Pact nations. In 1999 Poland joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and in 2004 it became part of the European Union.
Today Poland is vibrant, modern and increasingly ethnically and religiously diverse. The economy may not be booming, but it’s no longer stagnant and Soviet. Over a thousand years Poland has experienced several periods of renewal, only to fall again to the rule of an outside power. Could the Third Polish Republic last? Is this Poland’s true golden age?
Wikipedia on Poland | A timeline of Polish history | The importance of religion in Poland | Liberum veto: A Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth parliamentary device that allowed any member of the Sejm to immediately end the session and cancel all previously passed legislation by yelling, Nie pozwalam!, Polish for “I do not allow!” (Did it cause the Commonwealth’s demise?) | Historical pictures of historical Poland | What role did the Polish people play in the Holocaust? The answer is very complicated. | The recent tragic death of the Polish president and other leading Poles
Poland may once have had the reputation in the West of being a dreary Soviet nation, but since the fall of the USSR, at least according to its representation in the Flickr.com’s Poland slideshow, it has reclaimed the colors of its past. There are few images here of Soviet-style military might and more pictures of sprawling green countryside, vibrant cultural life and people (and even architecture) with a wry sense of humor. If you’d like to focus more specifically on the Poles, search flickr.com for “Polish people.” If you’re at all interested in Polish buildings, buildings, buildings — okay, they’re very pretty buildings — check out ChristopherHolt’s Poland galleries.)
Remember to take a look through these images once before showing the kids.