Poland In Prehistory
Historians have recorded that in ancient times a variety of distinct tribal groups inhabited this land now called Poland. Primary among these were Slavic tribes. Celts, Balts, Scythians, Huns, Goths and Germanic peoples also inhabited this land at various times. The earliest settlement found was the fortified settlement of Biskupin, dating from the turn of the Bronze Age and the Early Iron Age (750 - 600 BC.).
The Birth Of The Polish Nation
In 966, Duke Mieszko I of the Piast dynasty, a pagan and Poland's first recorded leader, converted to Christianity and this event is considered the birth of the Polish nation. The Slavic tribes that he united to form Poland consisted of around a million people.
Poland In The Middle Ages
In 1138, Poland was divided into four kingdoms upon the death of King Boleslaw Krzywousty (Boleslaw ‘Wry-mouthed’). In his will, he divided Poland’s territory between his four sons in an attempt to avoid arguments between them for his throne, in effect making Poland weaker. It was further weakened by the wars waged by his sons against each other.
The Christian Crusades (1095-1291) were a wide series of military campaigns fought across Europe. The First Crusade, organized by Emperor Alexus with assistance from Pope Urban II and sanctioned by the Latin Roman Catholic Church, was begun in order to restore Christian access to holy places in and around Jerusalem.
In 1226 Konrad I invited the Teutonic Knights, a crusading military order during the Middle Ages, to help him fight the Baltic pagans. This decision would ultimately lead to centuries of warfare pitting Poland against the Knights, with the Knights ruthless in their war against the Baltic pagans.
In 1241 Poland became subject to sustained attacks by the Mongol Tatars. These expert horsemen used the element of surprise and their terrific speed to attack and burn towns and villages, forcing the conquered inhabitants to pay tax to them and taking them into slavery.
In 1333 Kazimierz Wielki (Casimir the Great) was crowned king and went on to become one of Poland’s most memorable kings. He reigned over a period of peace in Poland’s history due in part to his reliance on diplomacy, rather than war, to resolve disputes with neighbours. He strengthened the country’s fortifications and its economy. In 1364 he founded the Krakow Academy, the second university to be founded in central Europe.
In 1385, Lithuania's Grand Duke Jagiello accepted Poland's offer to become its king. He consequently converted pagan Lithuania to Christianity and established a personal union between the two lands that lasted for 400 years. Under Jagiello, Poland and Lithuania defeated the Teutonic Knights in 1410 at the Battle of Grunwald, greatly weakening the Order’s hold on the country.
Poland During The Renaissance
In the 1500s the 'Renaissance' came to Poland; Polish, rather than Latin, became the official language and literature and learning flourished. In 1569, the Polish Parliament unified Poland and Lithuania into a Commonwealth (or one state).
In 1573 via the Warsaw Confederation, religious tolerance was enshrined in law. At this time, in addition to its majority Catholic population, Poland was also home to Jews, Christian Armenians, Orthodox Christians and people of other faiths.
Near the end of the century King Sigismund III moved Poland’s capital city from Krakow to Warsaw because of its central location between the Commonwealth's existing capitals of Krakow and Vilnius.
In the middle of the 17th century Sweden invaded Poland. Much of the Commonwealth was virtually destroyed as cities were burned and plundered. An estimated 4 million lay dead due to that war, as well as epidemics and the resulting famine. The 17th century was a time of much turmoil for Poland, with attacks by Mongol Tartars and Ottoman Turks and Cossack rebellions.
In 1683, under John III Sobieski, the King of Poland, the Commonwealth's military prowess was re-established. In 1687 Polish armies under John III Sobieski rode to the aid of Austrian and German armies in Vienna, who were fast losing their battle against the invading Ottoman army. The arrival of the Polish King and his armies tipped the scales in favour of the European allies, leading them to victory in this battle and halting the Ottoman Empire’s advance into Europe.
Despite this, because Poland had been subjected to almost constant warfare during this century and had suffered massive damage to its economy, the Commonwealth fell once again into decline.
The Partitions Of Poland
In the late 1700s Poland's three powerful neighbors, Austria, Prussia and Russia coveted Poland. None wanted war with each other so they just decided to divide the now-weakened Poland in a series of agreements called the Three Partitions of Poland. These took place in 1772, 1793 and 1795, with the latter effectively erasing Poland from the map. Even at this dark time, however, the country‘s government managed to ratify a constitution called the Constitution of May 3rd. It was the very first constitution in Europe and the second in the world after the U.S. constitution.
The time of the partitions was a time of oppression for Polish people. In the Prussian partition particularly, efforts were made to ban the Polish language in bureaucracy and schools. Underground schools were established for children to preserve the Polish language. Large numbers of Polish intelligentsia including writers, poets and composers such as Frederic Chopin, fled Poland to live in exile in France.
The partitions of Poland lasted 123 years and were a time of turmoil; the Poles rebelled several times against the partitioners. Russia was the most aggressive and the Poles were forced to resort to guerrilla warfare tactics. Many uprisings were organised, with the 1831-1832 and 1863-1864 uprisings being the most significant.
Fortunately there was a light at the end of the tunnel as during the partitioning large scale industrial projects were constructed and modernization programs instituted by the occupying powers, which (in the end) would help Poland develop economically once again. This was particularly true in the Prussian and German partitions, while the Russian partition was significantly poorer and less industrialized.