A Brief History of Poland

By Tim Lambert

Dedicated to Agnieszka Jurkowska

Poland in the Middle Ages

The written history of Poland began in the 10th century. At that time Poland was ruled by a dynasty called the Piasts. A Piast named Mieszko I reigned from about 960 to 992. In 966 he became a Christian and his people followed.

A king named Boleslaw the Wrymouth (reigned 1102-1138) decided that after his death the kingdom should be divided between his sons. (Although the eldest son was to have overall control). This decision weakened Poland.

In the 12th and 13th centuries, Poland prospered and town life flourished. A king named Henry the Bearded reigned from 1201 to 1238. His wife Jadwiga encouraged German merchants and craftsmen to come and live in Poland. They founded towns with German laws. Some Germans also came to farm uncultivated land in Poland.

However, in 1241-42 the Mongols invaded Poland. The Poles were defeated at the Battle of Legnica in April 1241 but the Mongols soon withdrew.

Another threat to Poland came from the Teutonic Knights. They were an order of fighting monks. They set out to conquer the Pagan peoples of Eastern Europe and convert them by force. In 1235 they began conquering the pagan Prussians (who lived northeast of Poland). By 1283 Teutonic the Knights had conquered the Prussians.

However, in 1308 they turned on Poland. They took eastern Pomerania including the town of Gdansk, which they renamed Danzig.

Yet in the early 14th century Poland became a strong and unified state. Kazimierz III, known as Kazimierz the Great (reigned 1333-1370) expanded east into Russia. He also reformed the law and administration. Furthermore, during his reign, the first university in Poland, Krakow, was founded.

Kazimierz also protected and supported the Jews. It was partly due to him that Poland came to have a large Jewish community.

The era from the 14th century to the 16th century was one of greatness for Poland. Nevertheless, the power of the king gradually weakened. The Polish nobility became more and more powerful.

Kazimierz was succeeded by his nephew Louis, the king of Hungary. Louis wanted his daughter to succeed as ruler of Poland but 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 the future, no important decision could be made without their consent.

The Jagiellonians Rule Poland

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 (reigned 1386-1434). Wladyslaw joined the Catholic church and his people followed.

In 1410 Poland and Lithuania utterly defeated the Teutonic Knights at the Battle of Grunwald.

Then, in 1453 the people of Pomerania rebelled against the Teutonic Knights and appealed to the Poles for help. After 13 years of fighting the Poles took Pomerania and Gdansk.

However, 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, learning flourished in Poland. The greatest Polish scholar was Copernicus (1473-1543). In his day people believed that the Sun and the planets orbited the earth. In 1543 Copernicus published a theory that the Earth and the other planets orbit the Sun. At the time it was revolutionary teaching.

However, like the rest of Europe Poland was rocked by the reformation. Polish Protestants were divided into Lutherans and Calvinists. n However 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, in 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.

When the last Jagiellonian king died in 1572 without leaving an heir the Polish monarchy became elective. The king was elected by an assembly of all the Polish nobles. Then in 1596, Warsaw became the capital of Poland instead of Krakow.

The 17th century was a troubled one for Poland. At that time the Poles controlled the Ukrainian Cossacks. However, in 1648 they rebelled and in 1654 the Russians joined them in a war against the Poles. 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 Russia ended in 1667. However, the wars left Poland devastated. Apart from the material damage, a large part of the Polish population was killed.

In the late 17th century Poland scored some great military successes. At that time the Turks ruled Southeast Europe and they tried to drive further into the continent. However, in 1673 a Pole named Jan Sobieski was elected king. In 1683 the Turks laid siege to Vienna but Sobieski defeated them and drove them back.

However, in the late 17th century, Poland was severely weakened by the lack of an effective central government. A single member of the Sejm could veto any measure. Furthermore, a single member could dissolve the Sejm. That meant all measures previously passed by that Sejm were canceled and they had to be re-submitted to a new Sejm. As a result, the government was paralyzed.

Poland in the 18th Century

In the 18th century, Poland continued its political and military decline. Prussia and Russia took advantage of the lack of a strong central government to interfere in Poland. In 1697 Frederick Augustus of Saxony became king of Poland. When he died in 1733 a Russian army marched into Poland and compelled the Sejm to elect his son king. Increasingly Poland was the plaything of the great powers.

In 1764, after the Polish king died Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, intervened to have her former lover Stanislaw Poniatowski elected the new king of Poland. However, Poniatowski refused to be a Russian pawn. He and some other prominent Poles wanted reforms to strengthen the monarchy. However, the Russians would not allow it. It was in Russia’s interest to keep Poland weak and divided. Many conservative Polish nobles were unwilling to surrender their privileges.

In 1767 the Russians forced Poland to accept a treaty. The treaty guaranteed the borders of Poland. It also guaranteed the rights of Orthodox Christians. (Although most Poles were Roman Catholics a small minority belonged to the Eastern Orthodox Church). It also guaranteed the rights of Polish nobles. Russia would intervene if their rights were threatened. (The noble’s rights kept Poland weak and without a strong central government so it was in Russia’s interests to protect them).

Anger at Russian interference led to a Polish uprising called the Confederacy of Bar between 1768 and 1772. However, the Russians eventually crushed the rebellion.

The great powers, Russia, Prussia, and Austria then decided to help themselves to Polish territory. Prussia took Pomerania (northern Poland) cutting Poland off from the sea. Austria took Galicia. Russia took what is now eastern Belarus.

The shock of losing much of their territory galvanized the Poles into action. They reformed education and the army. They also reformed their government. The Four Years Sejm (1788-1792) created a new constitution for Poland in 1791.

However, in 1793 there was a second partition. Russia and Prussia took more Polish territory. The 1791 constitution was annulled. 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.

19th Century Poland

At the Congress of Vienna in 1815 the great European powers divided up the continent. Poland was divided between Prussia, Russia, and Austria. Prussia took the western and northern parts of Poland while Russia took the center and east. Austria kept Galicia.

The great powers were not willing to restore Polish independence. Instead, they 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 government and army.

However, the Poles were dissatisfied and in 1830 rebellion broke out. Some Polish soldiers attempted to assassinate the Tsar’s brother and the Polish Diet (parliament) declared the Tsar deposed. However, the Russian army invaded, and by September 1831 the Polish army was defeated.

Afterward, the Tsar suspended the Polish constitution and ruled by decree. The Polish army was disbanded. As a result of the repression, many Poles emigrated to France or North America.

The Poles rebelled again in 1863. The rebellion lasted for 18 months but it was eventually crushed. Afterward, 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. On the other hand, the Tsar abolished serfdom.

The Prussians tried to suppress Polish culture in the western part of the country but they could not. Polish culture flourished in the late 19th century and the Poles formed political movements including the Nationalist League, the Christian Democrats, and the Polish Socialist Party.

20th Century Poland

Poland eventually regained its freedom after the First World War. In 1916 the Germans conquered the Russian-held parts of Poland. To curry favor with the Poles the Germans promised to form a Polish kingdom after the war.

Meanwhile, polish General Jozef Pilsudski (1867-1935) led a Polish force in the war against the Russians. However, Pilsudski fell out with the Germans and in 1917 was interned. He was released just before the Germans surrendered on 11 November 1918. Meanwhile, in January 1918 US President Wilson made clear his support for an independent Poland after the war.

On 11 November 1918, the day of the German surrender the Poles took charge of their country, and the German troops were expelled. On 14 November 1918, Pilsudski became provisional head of state. In January 1919 a constitutional assembly was elected in Poland. A new constitution was published in 1921.

After the war, the allies decided that Poland should have access to the sea. They gave Poland a strip of land called the Polish corridor, which cut through Germany. It meant that East Prussia was cut off from the rest of Germany. Danzig (Gdansk) was made an independent city-state.

In its early years, Poland fought border wars. In 1919 it fought a brief war with Czechoslovakia. However, a much longer war was fought against Russia in 1919-1921.

As well as wars the Polish Republic faced other problems. In 1922 the President, Gabriel Narutowicz was assassinated. Then in May 1926 Pilsudski led a military coup and became dictator. Pilsudski kept the outward forms of democracy. The Sejm continued to meet and political parties were allowed to continue. However, Pilsudski held real power until he died in 1935.

Meanwhile, 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.

Poland in the Second World War

Germany invaded Poland on 1 September 1939. The Poles fought valiantly but on 17 September the Russians invaded from the east. (The Russians and the Germans had already secretly agreed to divide Poland between them). The Polish position was hopeless but the Poles continued to fight both the Germans and the Russians. Warsaw fell on 27 September 1939 and all resistance ceased by 5 October.

Some Polish soldiers and airmen escaped through Hungary and Romania to France and some Polish warships escaped to join the British navy. A Polish army was reformed in France and by the Spring of 1940, it had almost 200,000 men. (The Poles also fought in the Norwegian campaign in May 1940). After the fall of France in June 1940 Polish airmen played a major role in the Battle of Britain.

Meanwhile, parts of Poland were absorbed into Germany. The rest of German-occupied Poland was organized under a General Government. The Russian-occupied parts of Poland were absorbed into the Soviet Union.

The German-Soviet occupation of Russia meant terrible suffering for the Polish people. Polish Jews were exterminated. Altogether about 3 million Polish Jews were murdered. About 3 million other Poles were killed.

Hitler hated Slavs and he claimed they were sub-human. The Nazis planned to turn the Poles into a nation of slaves who would do menial work for their German masters. Poles would be given as little education as possible. Therefore vast numbers of highly educated Poles were murdered. All Polish universities and secondary schools were closed. Furthermore, Polish industry and estates were confiscated by the Germans.

Any act of resistance, however slight, was punished by execution or by deportation to a concentration camp. Despite the tyranny, the Poles formed a powerful resistance movement. By 1943 partisans were fighting in the forests of Poland.

The Russians imposed their own tyranny in eastern Poland. Thousands of Polish officers were murdered.

When Germany invaded Russia in June 1941 the Polish government in exile in Britain, which was led by Prime Minister Sikorski, made an agreement with the Russians. On 30 June 1941, they signed a treaty in London, which ended the war between them.

Stalin promised to release Polish prisoners of war and the huge number of Poles who had been deported to Siberia. In Russia, there were almost 200,000 Polish prisoners of war. They were released and allowed to form a Polish army in Russia. However, in 1942 Stalin cut supplies to the Polish army fighting in Russia and they were evacuated to the Middle East.

Furthermore, relations between Stalin and the Polish government in exile deteriorated over disagreements over the border between Poland and Russia. Stalin insisted that Poland’s eastern provinces should be absorbed into the Soviet Union after the war.

Matters came to a head in April 1943 after the Germans discovered the Katyn massacre. When the Russians conquered eastern Poland they murdered 4,500 Polish officers and buried them in Katyn Forest. The Russians claimed the Germans committed the massacre after they invaded eastern Poland (and Russia) in 1941. The Polish government in exile wanted the International Red Cross to investigate but Stalin refused and broke off diplomatic relations. Prime Minister Sikorski was killed on 4 July 1943 and was replaced by Stanislaw Mikolajczyk.

However, Stalin was determined to impose a communist government on Poland and Polish communists were willing to cooperate with him. The Poles realized that if the Russians occupied Poland they would simply impose their will on the country. The only hope of preserving Polish independence was to stage an uprising in Warsaw before the Russians arrived. The Warsaw rising began on 1 August 1944. The Poles fought bravely but they could not win. They were forced to surrender on 2 October 1944. Warsaw was left in ruins. Stalin, of course, did nothing to help the uprising. All he had to do was stand by and wait for the Germans to win.

Meanwhile, in July 1944, Polish Communists formed the Committee of National Liberation, known as the Lublin Committee. It was led by Boleslaw Beirut. On 1 January 1945, the Lublin Committee declared itself the provisional government of Poland. In February 1945 Stalin met Churchill and Roosevelt at Yalta. He promised to allow free elections in Poland. As usual, Stalin had no intention of keeping his promise. The tragedy is that Poland was not liberated after the Second World War. Instead of one type of tyranny, Nazism was replaced by another type of tyranny, Communism.

The provisional government was, of course, a puppet government controlled by Stalin. At the Potsdam Conference in July 1945, the provisional government agreed to the redrawing of Poland’s borders. The western border was moved further west and most of the Germans who lived there were expelled. The eastern border was also moved west and some territory was taken by Russia.

Communist Poland

After World War II Poland was left devastated. As well as the material damage nearly 25% of the population was killed. Furthermore, Communism was imposed on the Poles. The Communists took power in stages between 1945 and 1947. At first, a provisional government was formed with Communists in key positions – backed by the Soviet army. Elections were finally held in January 1947 but they were carefully rigged. As a result, the Communists and Socialists won a landslide victory as the So-called Democratic Bloc.

Then in December 1948, the Socialist Party was purged of its right-wing members and the rest were forced to merge with the Communists to form the Polish United Workers Party. A new constitution was introduced in 1952 and Poland became an entirely Communist country.

The Communists nationalized industry but they failed to collectivize Polish agriculture. They also failed to break the power of the Catholic Church.

In June 1956 dissatisfaction with the Communist regime in Poland led to riots in the city of Poznan. The government crushed the riots by force. However, the government realized some reform was necessary.

Meanwhile, in 1951 Wladyslaw Gomulka the First Secretary of the Party was deposed and imprisoned. In October 1956 he was released and the Polish Communists made him their leader – without consulting Moscow. The Russians were enraged that the Poles had dared to take independent action and they came close to invading Poland. Nevertheless, Gomulka failed to carry out any fundamental reforms and Poland stagnated under his rule.

Then on 12 December 1970, the government announced massive food prices. The result was demonstrations and strikes in northern Poland, especially in Gdansk. Troops shot and killed many demonstrators, which only made things worse. The demonstrations spread.

On 20 December 1970, Gomulka was forced to resign. He was replaced by Edward Gierek. He froze prices and introduced a new economic plan. Peace returned. Gierek borrowed heavily from the West. As a result, living standards in Poland rose. In the early 1970s, food became cheaper and consumer goods became common.

However, a rise in oil prices ended the economic boom and by 1976 it was clear the loans had been squandered. Polish industry was unable to buy enough hard currency to pay back the loans. n The government introduced huge increases in the price of food. The result was more strikes. This time the government ended the strikes by force. Many strikers were imprisoned. However, the Poles began to organize themselves.

In July 1980 the government announced a 100% rise in the price of some foods. The result was striking across Poland. In August 1980 the Lenin shipyards in Gdansk went on strike. Led by an electrician named Lech Walesa the workers occupied the yards. They drew up a list of demands including freedom of the press, the release of political prisoners, and the right to form independent trade unions. On 31 August the Communists surrendered. They made the Gdansk agreement and accepted the worker’s demands.

The workers formed the Solidarity Trade Union, which soon became a mass movement. However, the Communists fought back. In December 1981 General Wojciech Jaruzelski imposed martial law on Poland. Solidarity was banned and its leaders were arrested.

Jaruzelski declared a ‘state of war’. However, the war between the workers and the Communists continued. The economic crisis continued. Poland’s debts grew larger and larger. Wages did not keep up with price rises. Meanwhile, the workers continued to hold strikes and Solidarity went underground. n Eventually, in 1988 the Communists gave in and Jaruzelski called for a ‘courageous turnaround’.

In 1989 the Communists and Solidarity held talks. The government agreed to legalize Solidarity and allow freedom of the press. The Communists also agreed that the Sejm (Polish parliament) should be partly democratically elected. The Communists would keep at least 65% of the seats in the lower house but the other 35% would be freely elected. All the seats in the upper house would be freely elected. The elections were held on 4 June 1989. Solidarity won 35% of the seats in the lower house and 99% of the seats in the upper house. It was a humiliating defeat for the Communists. In August 1989 Tadeusz Mazowiecki became Prime Minister of Poland. The Communist tyranny was over.

Modern Poland

In 1990 Lech Walesa was elected President. In October 1991 completely free elections for the Sejm were held. However, the new democratic Poland inherited severe economic problems from the Communists. Nevertheless, Poland underwent a transition from Communism to Capitalism. Industry was privatized and today the Polish economy is growing steadily. Unemployment was high for a time but it has fallen in recent years. In September 2018 it fell to 5.7%.

In 1997 Poland gained a new constitution. Lech Kaczynski became President of Poland in 2005. Meanwhile, Poland joined NATO in 1999 and the EU in 2004.

Poland launched its first satellite, PW-Sat in 2012. In 2024 the population of Poland was 37 million.


Last Revised 2024