History of Poland, 1797 – Today

When we left off last time, Poland had just been partitioned for the third time, resulting in ALL of the Polish lands being given to other countries. Poland was gone. Clearly, considering that Poland is a country today, that’s not where the story ends.

This statue is of Tadeusz Kościuszko, the man who led the uprising that resulted in the Third Partition. He also fought on the US side in the American Revolution and returned to Poland afterward where he joined political reformers in pushing for the creation of a constitution. In 1791, Poland became the first European country to adopt a constitution.

After the Third Partition, the Poles continued to resist, grasping at anything that might lead to their victory and independence. They fought with Napoleon Bonaparte against Russia, but he was defeated in 1815 by the “Holy Alliance” of Russia, Prussia, and Austria, formed to guarantee the elimination of any radical movements. Two more Polish uprisings were attempted in 1830 and 1863, and both were crushed.

Despite the lack of a Polish state, the Polish people continued to make their mark on the world. Frédéric Chopin (1810-49), the famous pianist and composer, grew up in Warsaw. In 1853, Polish inventor Ignacy Łukasiewicz developed the modern kerosene lamp (fun fact: his family was Armenian! Of course haha). The scientist Marie Skłodowska Curie (1867-1934) was born in Warsaw, earned two Nobel prizes for her work in physics and chemistry, and named the element “polonium” after her beloved Poland.

The Chopin memorial in Warsaw.

The Marie Curie Museum in Warsaw.

Russian was made the official language in the Russian-controlled areas in an attempt to stifle Polish culture, and the Prussians and Austrians similarly tried to keep control of their Polish subjects. However, the Polish people were determined to keep their language and history alive and operated unofficial education centers. They also advocated for Poland to the enemies of their invaders, waiting for a chance to get their land back.

That opportunity came in 1918 at the end of WWI. Poland fought with the Allies and was rewarded with land and independence. The Second Polish Republic was born, coming into the world with the simple task of rebuilding and uniting a country divided for over 120 years. Adding to this strain, Poland quickly entered a border war with Russia until an unexpected Polish victory in the 1920 Battle of Warsaw crippled the Soviet forces.

When Poland was formed, it was placed under the control of a “chief of state”, Józef Piłsudski, who had been a general during WWI. A new government and constitution were created in 1921, but the first president was assassinated after only one year. Unimpressed with the new government and certain of its collapse, Józef led a coup in 1926 to restore order and served as a quasi-dictator, working to stabilize the country, until his death in 1935.

Poland never even got a chance to catch its breath. In 1939, Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany signed an agreement to split Poland between them. On September 1, 1939, the Nazis invaded Poland from the west, marking the start of WWII. On the 17th, Russia invaded from the east, splitting the country into two. Poland fell in 27 days, and its government fled to exile in London.

I took this picture from the western side of Warsaw. This was the side occupied by the Germans and was almost completely destroyed. The Soviet-occupied side of the city was across the river.

WWII was not kind to the Polish. On the Russian side of the country, the invaders quickly worked to bring the Polish people under their control. Hundreds of thousands were imprisoned or killed. In one incident, the remains of 4,500 Polish officers were discovered in a forest in April 1943. The Soviets tried to blame the massacre on the Nazis who, despite committing countless atrocities during the war, were not responsible for that one. After the Nazis invaded Russia in 1941, Russia and the exiled Polish government signed a peace treaty. Russia released its approximately 200,000 Polish POWs, but after the discovery of the massacre and continued disagreements about where the Polish-Russian border should stand, relations between the countries remained tense.

On the Nazi side of the country, people were sent en masse to concentration and, eventually, extermination camps. The Nazi plan was to keep the Poles as slaves, but that required an uneducated population. The educated were killed, schools were closed, and any resistors were sent without second thought to concentration camps.

These wires show the outline of a bridge that used to join the two sides of the Warsaw ghetto. The only way for Jews to pass between the two sides was using this bridge.

The Jewish population, which had been thoroughly integrated into the Polish population thanks to years of tolerant policies, was separated out and placed in ghettos. The ghettos were emptied in 1943, and the Jews were sent to be killed at the Auschwitz and Treblinka extermination camps (Treblinka was about 60 miles from Warsaw and was the second deadliest camp in Poland, responsible for killing 700,000-900,000 Jews. About 1 million Jews are estimated to have been killed at Auschwitz).

This cattle car is an example of the ones the Nazis used to transport people to their concentration and extermination camps.

WWII ended in 1945, but that was too late for the approximately 6 million Poles who were murdered, 3 million of whom were Jewish.

Poland was “liberated” in 1945 by the Soviets. The exiled government returned from London, and under pressure from Russia, it became more and more communist over the next few years. The government of the “People’s Republic of Poland” was nothing more than a Soviet puppet. During the post-war negotiations, the entire country was shifted west. Russia took possession of the eastern land that it wanted, and some of the eastern part of Germany was given to Poland. About 2 million people were resettled as a result of this shifting. For much of its history, Poland was extremely multi-ethnic. Between WWII and the following resettlements, it became very homogenously Polish.

The forced communism of the post-WWII years made Poland’s rebuilding process much slower than in Western European countries. Instead of having a chance to recover from the impact of the war, the Polish people continued to fight for their rights. There was constant unrest, and protests were always brutally suppressed. In 1970, demonstrations against rising food prices were met with violence from troops, killing many of the protestors.

This monstrosity, the Palace of Culture and Science, was built as a gift by Stalin after WWII. Soviet workers were sent to construct it. As you might imagine, it’s a bit controversial. As out-of-place as it looks now, it was even more ridiculous when it was first built because most of Warsaw was in ruins from the war.

In response to this disaster, a new leader took control, Edward Gierek. He attempted to make things better by borrowing from the west to raise the standard of living. The problem came when the loans needed to be repaid, and there was no money to do so. In 1980, food as much as doubled in price, and workers went on strike across the country.

In the city of Gdansk, shipyard employees went on strike, leading to the formation of the “Solidarity” Trade Union which quickly spread across the country. At its peak, there were 9 million members or about 25% of the Polish population. Eventually, Solidarity managed to break Soviet control. In 1988, freedom of the press was finally granted, and a portion of the Polish Parliament went up for a free election. Nearly all of the available seats were won by Solidarity members, starting the transition from communist to capitalist and a new form of government, a liberal parliamentary democracy. The first elections of the Third Polish Republic were conducted in 1989.

The Cold War ended in 1991, and the Soviet Union collapsed. Poland passed a new constitution in 1997, joined NATO in 1998, and joined the EU in 2004.

What a journey, huh? After all that, I’m sure you’re ready to get out of the classroom and start exploring! Next time, Warsaw!

History of Poland, 996-1797AD

Are you ready for a Polish history adventure? I hope so because this is a long one, but in order to understand the Poland of today, I think it’s important to know the history behind it. Let’s go waaay back…

The Polish lands have been occupied on-and-off since prehistoric times. Starting in the Iron Age (around 700BC), there’s evidence that Celtic tribes and Germanic tribes settled in the area, followed by Baltic peoples and eventually, around 500AD, Slavic tribes moved in. The “Slavic” ethno-linguistic group is the largest in Europe and basically encompasses all of the European countries to the east of Poland and in the Balkan region (Croatia, Serbia, etc.).

“Poland” as a country is usually cited as being founded in 966AD when the first documented ruler, Mieszko I of the Piast Dynasty, converted to Christianity and thus declared all of Poland to be Christian. The first coronation was held in 1025AD. Bolesław the Brave became king, and the Kingdom of Poland came into existence for the first time.

Throughout the rule of the first dynasty, the Kingdom of Poland warred with the Romans and Mongols. They managed to hold their borders and even expand the Kingdom. The second-to-last Piast king, King Casimir the Great, ruled over a Polish golden age. The first university was founded in Kraków in 1364, laws were reformed, and Jews were protected, resulting in a large influx of Jewish people from less tolerant countries.

University of Krakow

In 1384, the only Piast remaining was a woman, Jadwiga. She was crowned king at age 11, reigned until her death at age 25, and is known as one of Poland’s greatest monarchs, establishing and restoring schools, hospitals, and churches across the country. At the beginning of her reign, she chose to marry the ‘elderly’, 35-year-old Lithuanian Grand Duke Jagiello (called Władysław after his baptism) for political reasons, rather than her young Habsburg fiancée. This was the start of the Jagiellonian Dynasty period, and the marriage joined Lithuania and Poland in a union that lasted for 400 years.

This is inside the courtyard of the palace in Warsaw. There are three coats of arms represented – Poland, Lithuania, and Austria. These are the countries of origin of the wives of the last Jagiellonian king.

The strength of the Polish-Lithuanian Union helped in fighting outside threats. The greatest threat of this time was the Teutonic Order, a Christian crusading army that arrived in 1226 to convert the neighboring Prussians to Christianity. Eventually, however, they began to attack the union, despite the fact that Poland and Lithuania were both converted countries. The Order was decisively defeated at a battle in 1410, and a treaty was signed in 1466.

In the early 1500s, the government was reorganized, giving the nobles a great deal of power. No decisions could be made without their approval. Despite this, Poland experienced its greatest golden age and the Polish Renaissance. Nicolaus Copernicus published his heliocentric theory of the universe in 1543. There was a policy of religious tolerance that attracted persecuted people of all religions. Prominent artists from across Europe moved to Kraków, the Polish capital. Poland was influential in Europe, both culturally and politically, and it grew territorially.

The Academy of Sciences in Warsaw with a monument to Copernicus in front.

Then, in 1572, the last Jagiellonian king died without an heir, and the government was restructured again. The nobles continued to hold most of the power, and the “king” became an elected position. Poland and Lithuania made an even stronger union, joining together to become the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. It was the largest, and perhaps most powerful, country in Europe.

The whole “elected king” concept is a bit strange… it resulted in the election of kings who were also eligible for the throne in other countries. For example, the first elected king left soon after beginning his rule… to claim the throne in France as King Henry II. Later, Polish King Zygmunt III was heir to the Swedish throne and was crowned King of Sweden DURING his rule as monarch of Poland. So he was king in two countries at once. He is also the one responsible for moving the Polish capital from Kraków to Warsaw so that it would be closer to Sweden.

King Zygmunt III stands on top of this column outside of the palace in Warsaw.

The mid-1600s were the beginning of the end for the Kingdom of Poland. The country was weakened by internal uprisings by their vassals and an invasion by Sweden called the “Swedish Deluge”. The conflicts ended with Poland as “victor”, but they took a toll, both economically and physically. In Warsaw, about 80% of the population was killed as the city was captured and recaptured repeatedly during the conflicts.

The last great victory of the Kingdom occurred in 1683. At the Battle of Vienna, the armies of Poland, the Roman Empire, and the Habsburgs joined together to fight the Ottoman Empire as it attempted to expand farther into Europe. Led by Polish King Jan III Sobieski, the Ottomans were defeated and their European expansion halted.

The palace in Warsaw

By the 1760s, Poland was a disaster. The governing structure meant that a single noble could veto any measure, and the government was completely paralyzed. Stanisław Poniatowski was elected king in 1764. He was romantically involved with Russia’s Catherine the Great, and she helped to place him on the Polish throne, as it was in Russia’s best interests to keep Poland weak and divided. However, after his election, he refused to be a puppet king under the Russians and tried to stop the country’s collapse by introducing reforms.

Meanwhile, Russia was in the middle of a war with the Ottomans. They were doing well, and Austria began to worry that it would lose territory to Russia. It threatened to join the war on the Ottoman side. To avoid this, Russia and Austria agreed to redirect Russia’s expansion to the west, into Poland. Poland was weak and unable to resist, so on August 2, 1772, the Polish Parliament (called the Sejm) ratified a treaty between Russia, Prussia, and Austria that took about 1/3 of Poland’s land (and ½ the population) and divided it between the three. This was the “First Partition of Poland”.

Here’s a map from the Encyclopaedia Brittanica that shows the land lost in the First and subsequent partitions. It explains the losses much better than I could with words.

This map from the Encyclopaedia Brittanica shows the land lost in the three partitions of Poland.
In the first, green went to Austria, dark red to Prussia, and dark grey to Russia.
In the second, bright orange to Prussia and light purple to Russia.
In the third, yellow to Austria, dull orange to Prussia, and pink to Russia.

So as you can see from that map, the First Partition wasn’t the end. Poland continued trying to pull itself together by adopting a more liberal constitution. A conservative confederation was formed in response, and it asked Russia to help bring back the old constitution (because who better to ask for help than one of the countries that clearly has an interest in destroying you). Russia said, “Sure!” and came into the country with the Prussians. They forced the Sejm to sign another agreement that led to the Second Partition of Poland, giving away more than half of Poland’s remaining land.

Finally, in 1794, an uprising in Poland was squashed by Russia and Prussia. The two of them, along with Austria, made a deal to divide the remaining Polish lands. On January 26, 1797, the Third Partition of Poland was officially settled, and Poland was completely wiped from the map of Europe.

The End.

Just kidding! Obviously Poland exists as a country today. So, what happened between 1797 and today? Read the next post to find out!

Welcome to Poland!

I know it feels like we’ve been in Iceland forever, but in realtime, it was only a week (ha!). My Icelandic adventure ended a bit anticlimactically… with a 16-hour stay in the airport. My brother’s flight home was in the morning, and since we only had one car, we went together to the airport around 8:30AM. I had chosen Poland as my next destination, and the cheapest flights there were overnight flights leaving at 12:30AM. And so, that’s how I found myself sitting on a bench in the airport, throwing back mini chocolate chip muffins like they were popcorn, pretending to get work done, and trying not to have to go to the bathroom (because then you have to get up, lose your seat, and haul all of your crap with you. I maintain that this is the worst part of travelling alone).

Pretty!

Is it weird that I really don’t mind spending a lot of time in airports? I did actually manage to have a productive day, and when it was time to go through security, I was surprised at how quickly the hours had passed. I even had the insane thought that I wouldn’t have minded a few more. That can’t be normal.

The flight from Iceland to Warsaw, Poland is about 4 hours, and I spent all four of them completely unconscious. My eyes were closed from the instant I sat down until we pulled into the gate in Poland. As you might imagine, I wasn’t exactly feeling fresh when I woke up. Unfortunately, it was only 6:30AM, so there were still a LOT of hours standing between me and bedtime.

I took my time leaving the airport. I like giving myself a moment to get oriented and washing my face and brushing my teeth before facing a new country. When I was feeling slightly more like myself (and slightly less like a zombie), I grabbed my bags and set off to find the bus into the city. It ended up being super easy to find and figure out… which leads me to my next list of first impressions!

Strolling through one of the parks in Warsaw…

Here are some of the first things that stuck out to me when I arrived in Warsaw:

This guy is buying his bus ticket! The buses have machines where you can buy a ticket when you get on (and you can change the language to English!). Or, if you already have a ticket, you can validate it using the yellow box to the left.

  1. Public Transportation – SO easy to figure out and SO inexpensive. The buses announced every stop which is something I have come to appreciate because there’s nothing worse than being on a bus with no concept of where you are or where you’re going.
  2. Polish Language – Speaking of the buses announcing every stop… this was my first exposure to the Polish language, and it was baffling. For each stop, I’d read the name in my head and guess how it was going to be pronounced… and then the automated voice would read it and I’d question if we were even looking at the same word. I spent about 1 minute considering trying to learn the Polish pronunciation rules until I looked them up and saw that there were WAY too many. As usual, there were plenty of locals who claimed that their language is one of the hardest to learn (it seems like this is a mandatory claim anytime someone is talking to me about their native language), and I accepted that as fact because it looks plenty hard to me. For example, “Excuse me/sorry, I don’t speak Polish” is “Przepraszam, nie mówię po polsku” (pshuh-PRASH-em, nyE MOO-vee-uh po POLS-koo). Simple, right? (To read about the struggles of learning Polish, check out this funny article!)
  3. Money – WHY SO MANY COINS??? My wallet weighed a ton because THERE ARE SO MANY COINS. Their “dollar” is “złoty”, pronounced kind of like “zwoh-tih” and if you needed more proof about the language, there you go. The “cents” are called “groszy”.

    This is the most different coins I managed to collect at once, but even with this many, I’m missing the 1gr and 5gr. Why. So. Many. Coins. And look at that 5zl! It’s massive!

  4. History-filled – If you like history, Poland is the place for you. Well, probably all of Europe and the Middle East are good spots for you, but I knew nothing about Polish history before I went there, making everything I learned even more interesting. Just wait for my Polish history post… it’s fascinating.
  5. WWII Impact – I don’t know if this is just because of the things I did or where I was or what, but it seemed like you could constantly feel and see the impact of WWII. So many places have a heaviness to them that I guess you learn to ignore when you’re there for long enough, but I felt it very clearly. Poland was hit incredibly hard by the Germans. The Jewish population was decimated, and the other Poles were heavily persecuted and imprisoned and executed in huge numbers. Warsaw was almost completely destroyed during the war, and it was painstakingly rebuilt by the Polish people, a fact that they are incredibly proud of. Which leads me to my next point…

    There are reminders like this all over the place, if you’re looking for them. This line on the ground follows the footprint of the wall surrounding the Warsaw Jewish ghetto during WWII.

  6. Polish Pride – People are so proud to be Polish. It almost rivals Armenian pride and has a similar “we’re going to take credit for anyone and anything even almost kind of tangentially related to us” thing going on. They may not be thrilled with everything about Poland, but they are incredibly Polish proud.
  7. Underrated – Spoiler alert: I loved Poland. LOVED it. I don’t know that it’s a huge vacation destination, but it SHOULD be because it’s beautiful and interesting and I loved it and everyone else should too.
  8. Food – One of the things I loved was the FOOD! I feel lucky to have experienced pierogies pre-Poland (shout out to my college roommate, Carissa, for bringing them into my life) because they are phenomenal. Dumplings are my #1 favorite food, and pierogies are basically the Polish version of dumplings. You can get practically any type… there are even fruit filled “dessert” ones, but whoever decided fruit is dessert is no friend to me. The classic version is filled with mashed potatoes. So it’s a carb-wrapped carb nugget, and I’m obsessed. I could eat them for every single meal, and while I was in Poland, I nearly did. There are other Polish foods, but for me, there are only pierogies. I guess you’ll just have to go to Poland if you want to learn about the others. (I know I should have taken a picture, but I was always too busy gobbling them down to even think of that before they were all gone.)
  9. Bike Lanes – Bike lanes exist, and people use them. And people who aren’t on bikes respect them. This is a completely foreign concept to me because bike lanes in the US turn into idling lanes, parking spots, good places to open a car door into, etc. Bikers are seen as a menace and an inconvenience. Not in Poland! We need to learn some lessons from Europe on sustainable transport!

I spent most of my time in Poland walking around and thinking, “I could totally live here.” There are livable-feeling cities, and there are the ones that you visit and then feel happy to leave behind. I visited Warsaw and Krakow, and in both of them (Warsaw especially), I felt like I could easily settle in and stay for a while. It’s always nice to feel that level of comfort when you’re on the road!

I thought this was awesome… in one of the parks in Warsaw, there’s a bouldering wall! There were a bunch of people rock climbing on it when I walked by.

Before I launch into a tour of all the things I saw and did in Poland, I think it’s important to get some historical context. So, next time we talk, prepare yourself for a gripping Lara-style retelling of Polish history! It’s going to be fun, I promise.