Monday, May 27, 2024

The ups and downs in Polish history


The ‘Miracle on the Vistula’ – The Battle of Warsaw of August 1920 against Red Russia as imagined by the Polish painter Jerzy Kossak.


We were a powerful state and had outstanding rulers, but also one facing a growing weakness, unable to stand up to neighboring countries. Today, Poland’s rivalry with Russia, which began in the 16th century, continues. And the idea of perhaps no longer a federation, but a strong union of Poland, Ukraine, and Lithuania – and maybe also Belarus in the future – able to counter the incurable Russian imperialism is still relevant.


Tomasz Stańczyk


The year was 966, and Duke Mieszko I decided to be baptized and introduce the Christian religion in his state. We know nothing about whether he really experienced a spiritual transformation, under the influence of which he decided to abandon his pagan faith. Certainly, on the other hand, Mieszko saw enormous political benefits from his baptism. The act put him on a par with other rulers in Christian Europe and deprived the Piast[1] state’s western neighbors of an excuse to invade and convert with fire and sword (the Piast dynasty was the first ruling dynasty in Poland, whose rule span from 960–1370).  Of course, this did not completely prevent aggressions by German magnates and the German Emperor, but wars between Christian rulers were always the order of the day.

In Mieszko’s internal politics, the introduction of Christianity meant the adoption of one religion, supported by the authority of the ruler, instead of many pagan faiths. This was an important factor in the integration of many tribes into the state. On the other hand, the Christian Church supported the ruler – the anointed of God – and this placed him high above society. Significant was the fact that the Church put the clergy in charge of the ruler’s chancellery at the disposal of the duke.

The baptism of Poland – the first milestone in its history – provided a strong basis for the development of the Piast state, and this development proved to be truly impressive in the first half-century after 966. Unexpectedly and very quickly, a significant country appeared on the map of Europe. Territorial expansion – the work of Mieszko I – led to the incorporation of Silesia, Lesser Poland, and Pomerania into his state.

The first crown

It is not often that an outstanding son takes power after an outstanding father. And this is exactly what happened. Bolesław I the Brave proved to be a worthy heir of Mieszko I, he strengthened and expanded the state, and gained international recognition and respect for it. In the year 1000, the Congress of Gniezno took place. The young Emperor Otto III came to Gniezno to pray at the tomb of Saint Adalbert, a bishop who had been murdered by the Prussians. However, the religious aspect of Otto III’s pilgrimage was overshadowed by the political results of the convention, which were extremely favorable for the Polish state. The German emperor was a visionary: he wanted to create a Europe-wide state that would include Gaul, Italia, Germania, and Slavonia. He saw Bolesław I, a ruler who eminently impressed him, as the head of Slavdom. A significant gesture was the gift presented to Bolesław the Brave of a copy of St. Maurice’s spear with a nail from the cross of Christ. Also of great importance for the Piast state was the establishment, as a result of the congress, of the metropolis of Gniezno in 1000.

Unfortunately, Emperor Otto III died less than two years after the Gniezno Congress. Henry II, his successor, abandoned the policy of cooperation in favor of subjugating Poland. This is an unbroken trend in the history of our western neighbor. Bolesław had to fend off German attacks for a dozen years, defended himself in 1017 at Niemcza, and a year later concluded the Treaty of Bautzen with the German emperor, by virtue of which the Piast state retained Lusatia and Milsko. Later, Bolesław I the Brave turned to the east, took back the Cherven Gords from the Rus, and rode triumphantly into its capital, Kiev (Kyiv). An expression of Poland’s strong position was the coronation of Bolesław the Brave in 1025. The Polish ruler was becoming equal to other European monarchs.

However, this splendid prosperity, which lasted for more than half a century since Poland’s baptism, ended soon after. King Mieszko II failed to cope with an attack by Germans and Rus and a pagan uprising, and he had to flee the country. His successor, Casimir the Restorer, shared his father’s fate. The state was dealt a blow by the invasion of the Czech prince Bretislav I in 1038 and the loss of Silesia.

Casimir returned to the throne, incidentally with the support of the German emperor. He rebuilt the country following the adversities that transpired, hence he was called the Restorer. However, the kingdom was not renewed. The crown on the head of the ruler was a symbol of the strength of the state, and this was lacking under Duke Casimir the Restorer. Nevertheless, he regained Silesia, but he was obliged to pay tribute from that land.

Prosperity returned under Bolesław II the Shy, also called the Bold. Following in the footsteps of his namesake, the Brave, he ventured into Ruthenia and entered Kiev. He deftly took advantage of the emperor’s dispute with the Pope, siding with the latter, which brought him the crown in 1076. Unfortunately, the internal strife ended quite violently, with the murder of – with or without the verdict of the royal court, at the behest of Bolesław the Bold, or perhaps personally by the king – Stanislaus of Szczepanów, Bishop of Cracow. The king considered him a traitor. In any case, the bishop was in opposition to the king. He was not the only one. The nobles and knights were also unhappy with the impulsive and sometimes cruel ruler. Bolesław II remained in exile for the rest of his life.

The chance for the Polish state to strengthen itself, to return to the power it had under Bolesław I the Brave, ended with the fall of Bolesław II the Bold. To make matters worse, his successor was the incompetent Władysław I Herman.

The third Bolesław on the throne – Wrymouth – proved to be as outstanding a ruler as his namesakes. He prevented Poland from splitting into two principalities – one belonging to him and the other to his half-brother, Zbigniew. The rivalry, including an armed one, paid off with Zbigniew’s blindness. Bolesław repelled the German invasion of Henry V, memorably defending Glogow in 1109, subjugated Western Pomerania – though had to pay tribute to the emperor from it – and incorporated Gdansk Pomerania into the Piast state.

Wrymouth’s testament, which separated four districts to his sons, led to the disintegration of the Polish state initially into four principalities, later increasing in number.

However, this was not a political mistake on the part of Wrymouth. If he had wanted to preserve the integrity of the state, he would have had to disinherit three sons to give power to one. And this would certainly have caused an immediate civil war. Another thing is that Bolesław Wrymouth imagined that his sons and their heirs would submit to the authority of a senior duke, the eldest Piast, to whom he assigned a separate district. This, however, did not happen. For nearly two centuries, the Piast dukes would fight amongst themselves. In fact, it could not have been otherwise.

Disintegrating and uniting

However, part of this fighting – as well as diplomatic efforts – was aimed at unifying the Piast lands and, consequently, reactivating the kingdom. Such an attempt was made by Henry the Bearded, Duke of Wroclaw and Opole, who occupied Lesser Poland and part of Greater Poland. There was a chance of overcoming the division, but all hopes were dashed in 1241 by the defeat and death of the Bearded’s successor, Henry the Pious, in the battle with the Mongols at Legnica.

The legend of St. Stanislaus of Szczepanów, who was canonized in 1253, played no small part in the drive to unite the Polish lands, with many Piast dukes attending the Krakow celebrations. The legend said that the bishop’s dismembered body had miraculously reunited, and so would the Polish lands. However, supernatural intervention was not expected, but that a duke would appear who would restore the unity of the Piast domains with his energy, diplomacy, and strength. And that role was eventually filled by Henry IV the Right (Probus), Duke of Wroclaw, who had royal ambitions. He captured Krakow in 1289, and his rival, the Duke of Kuyavia, Władysław Łokietek, had to flee the city. However, two years later Probus died, possibly poisoned.

He handed the principality of Cracow to Przemysł II, Duke of Greater Poland. But Przemysł’s reign in Krakow turned out to be only temporary. Instead, the Piast of Greater Poland came into possession of Gdansk Pomerania, which he took over in accordance with a treaty with Mściwój II after the latter’s death in 1294. A year later, Przemysł crowned himself king of Poland in Gniezno, and this showed his ambitions to further unify the Piast lands. The following year, however, he was assassinated, probably by representatives of the Margraviate of Brandenburg, who wanted to control Gdansk Pomerania.

Partial unification of Polish lands took place at the turn of the 13th and 14th centuries, but its author was a foreign monarch, Wenceslaus II, prince and then king of Bohemia. Wenceslaus captured Lesser Poland in 1291. Wladyslaw Lokietek, Duke of Sandomierz and Kuyavia, had to recognize his supremacy. Later, the Bohemian king occupied Greater Poland and Kuyavia, as well as Gdansk Pomerania, and crowned his successes with his coronation as king of Poland in 1300.

Prince Władysław was named Lokietek, but he might as well have been called Władysław the Steadfast. He did not give up after defeats in the battle for the Cracow district. He returned from exile, regained the Sandomierz land and Kujawy, Gdansk Pomerania (which, however, was later seized by the Teutonic Knights in 1309), and captured Greater Poland in 1314. Six years later he crowned himself king of Poland in Cracow. The restoration – in a permanent manner – of the monarchy was a milestone in Polish history. Of the Piast lands, however, the Silesian principalities of the Piasts, effectively and soon formally subordinated to the Czechs – with the exception of the principality of Świdnica until 1368 – remained beyond the reach of Lokietek’s power – as well as Mazovia. The greatest threat to Lokietek’s Poland was the Teutonic Knights. As a result of the war of 1329-1332, they captured the Dobrzyń Land and Kujawy.

The reign of Casimir III the Great marked an increase in the position of the Polish Kingdom, strengthening its economic and military power. The Piast state gained importance not seen since the reign of Bolesław the Brave. Until the end of his life, King Casimir tried to incorporate the Silesian principalities of the Piasts into the borders of his state, even though he formally renounced his rights to Silesia. The king also sought to subjugate Piast Mazovia.

In 1340, after the death of Bolesław II, prince of Red Ruthenia from the Mazovian Piast dynasty, the rivalry between Poland, Lithuania, and Hungary for his inheritance began, eventually ending with the incorporation of Red Ruthenia with Lvov (Lviv) into the Polish Kingdom, a dozen years after Bolesław’s death, in 1387, during the reigns of Jadwiga and Jagiełło.

Union with Lithuania

A year earlier, a fundamental event took place – another milestone in the history of Poland – the coronation of the Grand Duke of Lithuania, Władysław II Jagiello, and the resulting conclusion of the Polish-Lithuanian Union. The two states were united by the common threat of the Teutonic Order, and the alliance resulted in victory at the battle of Grunwald in 1410, permanently weakening the state of the Teutonic Order. Although the grand masters of the Teutonic Order in Malbork continued to wage wars against Poland and Lithuania, they recorded only defeats. The Peace of Torun of 1466 under Casimir IV Jagiellon incorporated Gdansk Pomerania – the Piast lands – and Warmia into Poland. The reign of this king was marked by the incorporation into the Crown of the lands of the Mazovian Piasts – Gostynin, Sochaczew, Rawa (1462, 1476).

Beyond the reach of the possibilities of our then-powerful state was the recovery of Silesia. Nevertheless, Casimir IV bought the Duchy of Oswiecim from the Silesian Piasts, and his successor Jan Olbracht the Duchy of Zator. Of the Silesian principalities, the Duchy of Siewierz was in the Polish orbit, as it had belonged to the Bishops of Cracow since the 15th century, and was incorporated into its borders in 1790.

During the reign of Sigismund I the Old – after the death of the last Mazovian Piasts – the remaining part of Mazovia with Warsaw was finally incorporated into the crown in 1526.

The Polish-Lithuanian unions, with the last and fundamental Union of Lublin in 1569, directed the foreign policy of the joint state eastward, where the Grand Duchy of Moscow, which had been rivaling the Grand Duchy of Lithuania since the 14th century, was growing in strength, also under the banner of uniting the Ruthenian lands. The pinnacle of the conflict took place in the 17th century. Things went well for the Commonwealth at first. The period of the Time of Troubles in the Muscovite state was marked by a brilliant Polish victory at Klushino in 1610, the presence of Hetman Stanisław Żółkiewski army in Moscow, and the designation of Prince Władysław IV Vasa as Czar of Russia.

The Time of Troubles was a period of deep social crisis and lawlessness in the Grand Duchy of Moscow following the death of Feodor I, which ended the Rurik dynasty and led to a crisis in succession filled with war and famine. This period ended with the election of Michael Romanov as tsar in 1613 by the Zemsky Sobor, establishing the Romanov dynasty which would rule until 1917.

Although the armistice at Deulino in 1618 marked the end of Moscow’s attempt to subjugate the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, also known as the Republic of the Two Nations, it brought acquisitions in the form of the Smolensk, Chernihiv, and Severian lands. The territory of the  Republic of the Two Nations then reached its largest size: 1 million sq. km. (three times more than the lands of today’s Poland).

Disastrous consequences came with the Cossack uprising of Bohdan Khmelnytsky in 1648 and the crash of the project of the Republic of Three Nations. The Treaty of Hadiach of 1658, establishing the Ruthenian Principality as the third member of the Republic, did not come into effect. Four years earlier, Khmelnytsky had concluded the Pereiaslav Agreement with Russia, beginning Moscow’s expansion into Ukrainian lands. An expansion that remains unfinished to this day, as evidenced by Russia’s 2014 and 2022 aggressions.

The five years of war with Sweden, which ended with the Treaty of Oliva in 1660, were marked, among other things, by the first projected partition of the Republic of the Two Nations by its neighbors – with the Treaty of Radnot (December 6th, 1656) – between Sweden, the Duchy of Transylvania and Brandenburg. The beneficiaries of the partition were also to be Prince Boguslaw Radziwill and – possibly – Bohdan Khmelnytsky. However, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was still strong enough to defend its independence, surviving the Swedish deluge and, at the same time, the war with Russia. Not enough, however, to emerge without territorial losses. It eventually lost most of Inflanty to Sweden.

In the east, it retreated in the face of Russian expansion. In 1667, the Truce of Andrusovo was concluded, marking the loss of Smolensk, Chernihiv, and half of Kiev provinces, including Kiev itself. This was the first stage of the absorption of the lands of the Republic of the Two Nations into Russia which would eventually end with the Third Partition of Poland in 1795. The loss of Podolia to Turkey in 1672 was evidence of the decline of the Polish state’s power.

The Polish-Lithuanian nobles’ Republic was still able to demonstrate its strength, as evidenced by the victory at Vienna in 1683, which the anti-Turkish coalition owed to Polish king John III Sobieski. However, the state was no longer strong enough to take back the Turkish-occupied Podolia on its own. And three years after the Vienna Victory, Sobieski had to come to terms with the losses suffered in the Treaty of Perpetual Peace which confirmed the Truce of Andrusovo.

The last one hundred years of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth is a history of decline, resulting both from the weakness of the state, the lack of a strong government, and the aggressiveness of its neighbors. Historians have argued and continue to argue about what was the main cause of the fall of the Polish state and its erasure from the map of Europe. All attempts to strengthen the royal power in the Republic of the Two Nations ended in failure. The idea of civil liberty of the nobility won out over absolutist tendencies, and its extreme manifestation was the abuse of the liberum veto, leading to the breaking off of the sessions of the Sejm by just one deputy.

The liberum veto was a parliamentary device in the form of a unanimity voting rule which allowed any member of the Sejm to force an end to the session and nullify any legislation that has been adopted on that day. The liberum veto was a key democratic element of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth when the rest of Europe was characterized by an absolute monarchy. Nevertheless, the liberum veto resulted in the eventual collapse of the Commonwealth due to corruption in the voting process driven by foreign powers aiming to destabilize and manipulate Sejm proceedings

However, it was not so much the nobility that benefited from this freedom and the lack of strong royal power, but the magnates. This also had disastrous consequences for the Republic, unable to resist neighboring absolute monarchies. In 1795, Poland was wiped off the map of Europe for 123 years!

Resisting Russian imperialism

When in 1918, Poland regained its independence, and the Partition Treaties were dissolved, the natural tendency was for Poles to think about returning to the borders from 1772, before the First Partition. However, this conflicted with the aspirations of Lithuanians and Ukrainians to create their own states. Jozef Pilsudski understood this well, which is why – while not intending to confine Poland within ethnic boundaries – he tried to implement the idea of a federation. It was aimed against Russia, regardless of its system, white or red. Pilsudski noted that any Russia is (to this day!) imperialist. At the time, it threatened Ukraine, Lithuania, and Poland, which had proclaimed their independence in 1918.

Poland, thanks to its victory in 1920, defended its independence, and with it the independence of Lithuania. However, it failed to bring about the rebirth of the Ukrainian state, which was the goal of the Kiev expedition of the Polish Army and the troops of the Ukrainian People’s Republic. Poland was exhausted by the war, and perhaps society and politicians lacked the determination to definitively smash Bolshevik Russia – if indeed there were the moral and material forces to achieve this.

1920 was a military victory as well as a geopolitical defeat, sealed by the Treaty of Riga. Indeed, without an independent Ukraine, Poland’s independence was precarious and was lost in 1939 largely for this reason. But even today, without an independent Ukraine, Poland’s independence is at risk. The Republic’s rivalry with Russia, which began in the 16th century, continues. And the idea of perhaps no longer a federation, but a strong union of Poland, Ukraine, and Lithuania – and maybe also Belarus in the future – able to counter the incurable Russian imperialism is still relevant.


This article was first published in Polish in the Historia Do Rzeczy monthly in December 2022.