The Baptism of Poland
Polish history begins with the semi-legendary ruler Mieszko I, who in AD 965 united the Polanie tribe of the Warta valley with neighbouring groups who were culturally related.
The descendants of Mieszko I, members of the Piast dynasty, established an independent administration and tightened the relationship between all the tribes, including Pomerania (lands in the north).
For Poland the 13th century was a time of growth due to great numbers of immigrants who arrived from Western Europe. Most of them were Jews looking for a country of religious tolerance. Coming to Poland they brought new tools and new ideas about trade and commerce. Krakow became the cultural and educational centre of Poland.
In 1226, Duke Konrad of Mazovia (central lands) invited the German Order of Teutonic Knights to help him in fighting the Prussians. They not only helped to conquer Prussia but also very quickly established their own state in this land. Soon the Order attacked and massacred the population of the great port Gdansk in Pomerania and for the next century threatened Poland from the north.
Kazimierz III Wielki
After Kazimierz's death, the Polish throne went to the Grand Duke of Lithuania, Wladyslaw Jagiello, who married the Polish queen Jadwiga. In this way Poland and Lithuania made a union which helped both countries in their fight with the German Order of Teutonic Knights. Poland's first big victory over the Order was at Grunwald in 1410, but this did not change the situation which was only finally resolved by the 1454-66 War. Gdansk gained the status of a free city.
Battle for Grunwald
In the 16th-century the Union of Poland and Lithuania was one of the largest powers in Europe, enjoying great commercial prosperity and a boom in politics and culture. This period in Polish history is called "the Golden Age of Poland".
After the death of the last Jagiellon king, Poland became the Republic of Nobles. This meant that from this time on Polish kings were elected for life by an assembly of the whole nobility, from landlords owning villages and great amounts of land to the owners of a few acres of arable land.
In fact, Poland in the 17th-century had a large electorate, which was not equalled by any other European country until the end of the 19th-century.
Due to the constant reduction in army expenditure Poland had a smaller but more effective defence force, which successfully protected Polish lands from the attacks of Swedes, Cossacks, Tatars and Turks.
Jan III Sobieski
In the second half of the 17th-century the Turks ran a campaign to conquer lands in central and western Europe. In 1683 they surrounded Vienna with forces of 140,000 soldiers; whereupon Austria asked Jan III Sobieski for help. The Polish emperor sent 29,000 men to Vienna and on the 12th September 1683 one of the most important battles in European history took place. If the Turks had won, Islam would probably have become the dominant religion in all of central Europe. However, Poland won the battle and the Turks retreated to the East.
After the victories in the 17th century Poland was mentally and economically exhausted. This allowed Russia to extend their influence in Poland, and this in turn caused the Polish revolt against Russia in 1768. The rebellion came to an end with the First Partition of Poland in 1772.
The Constitution of May
After this the Poles embarked on a wide programme of political and economic reform which ended with the first European constitution in 1791. Soon afterwards Russia invaded Poland, leading to the Second Partition in 1793. A year later General Kosciuszko launched a national uprising which gave hope to the people after his first few victories over the Russian army, especially after the Battle of Raclawice. Unfortunately the Russians sent extra forces to Poland and Kosciuszko's insurrection was crushed in 1795. In the same year the Polish king had to abdicate and Poland was obliterated from the map of Europe.
After the Napoleonic Era the Congress of Vienna decided to establish a small Polish Duchy with the Russian tsar as king (it lasted for only 8 years). This was not enough for Polish patriots, and this led to the two great Polish insurrections of 1830 and 1863. Both failed and caused further restrictions, that is to say dissolving Polish schools and institutions and forbidding the learning of the Polish language and history. In other words from that time on the Poles tried to keep at least Polish culture alive even though they had to forget about being an independent country.
During the First World War German victories over Russia helped Poland to clear the country of the Russian army. Soon afterwards Germany was attacked by the Allies and its strongly weakened army was disarmed by Pilsudski's legions. Finally the country with no frontiers, no army and no treasury proclaimed its independence on 11th November 1918.
Only two years later Poland had to face Russian soldiers once again. The Red army was on the march to the West hoping that the proletariat revolution would cover the whole continent of Europe. They got to the line of the Vistula River and in August 1920 one of the most decisive battles of Europe began. Fortunately the Polish offensive was successful and the Soviets had to retreat.
Despite domestic conflicts, the Polish economy made significant progress in the period between the two world wars. The second half of the 30's especially brought long expected results.
In September 1939 Poland was invaded by Germany and the Soviet Union from all sides. Despite the mutual defence pacts the Polish Allies did not react in any military way and after 35 days the last Polish fighting division was surrounded.
From the very beginning of the war the Poles started to create an underground army (the Home Army). In 1944 it numbered about 400,000 men. When the Red Army reached the River Vistula in Warsaw, the Home Army attacked the Germans with the aim of liberating the capital of Poland before the arrival of the Soviet Army. The Warsaw Uprising lasted for 63 days and led to the complete destruction of the city as well as to the death of many people.
However, this tragic event stopped the Red Army from its march westwards for over two months and prevented them from reaching the River Rhine. If they had done so probably the whole country of Germany would have become Communist Republic.
Poland was the country most affected by the Second World War. All in all about 7 million Poles (including 3 million Polish Jews) were killed in combat or in various Soviet and/or German concentration camps and the whole country was completely destroyed.
At the end of the war it was decided that Poland would be under the influence of the Soviet Union. This way the Poles inherited the Communist State which was supposed to bring Poland: equality of citizens, affluence and peace. It appeared to be something completely different - people were lied to by propaganda about the country's improvements and achievements. In reality the Communist economy was very ineffective, the Poles were constantly lacking in food and were denied the right to show dissatisfaction with the politicians who ruled the country.
Due to such a bad situation the Poles revolted a few times against the Communist state. It started in 1956 but the real importance for later history was the Student protest in 1968. It provided a strong foundation for organising Polish opposition and caused the wave of public strikes in the largest Polish factories in the 70's and beginning of the 80's. These led to the founding of Solidarity with the leader Lech Walesa.
Martian Law in Poland
The Kremlin disapproved of the Solidarity movement and ordered the head of the Polish Communist Party to crush it. On 13 December 1981 General Wojciech Jaruzelski proclaimed martial law and the army started to occupy the country for the next 14 months. This event changed only two things: Solidarity became an underground organization and the people came to understand that no compromise could be reached with the rulers.
Round Table Agreement
The beginning of 90's was a time of great instability in Poland. This was caused by the young age of Polish democracy and what is more the fact that Poland had to transform its political and economic system in a very short period of time to join "Europe" in the future. Although not all of the Polish reforms were successful Poland throughout the 90's was on the right track. This track had two goals: NATO (joined in 1999) and European Union (joined in May 2004).