Polan to Poland
During the Early Middle Ages, pre-Slavic settlers made their way to what was then East Germania, prospering during the Iron Age. However, it was the Western Polans who dominated the region from the fifth to eighth centuries and gave Poland its name.
Making friends, and losing them
The first Polish state was established in the late 10th century AD, and in 1025 the Kingdom of Poland was founded. In the 13th century, tensions between pagan Prussians and the central powers saw German knights dominate northern Poland and construct fortress strongholds, including the epic castle at Malbork.
Peace was restored, and in 1569 this region became the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. At the time, it was one of the largest countries in Europe. The 18th century saw this relationship weaken, so an effort was made to reform, but it was too little, too late. Poland was already being invaded from all sides by Russia. Poland continued to exist as a political and cultural community, despite Russian efforts to supress education and commerce. Although no Polish states existed from the 1790s until 1918, strong resistance movements operated.
Stuck in the firing line
In the 20th century, Poland was forced into battle with occupying forces. Central Powers (Austria-Hungary, Germany and Prussia) and Russia (plus Western Allies) fought World War I, with conflicts occurring on Polish soil. Since no Polish state existed, no one was fighting for Poland – they were conscripted by both sides and fought one another. An estimated one million Poles lost their lives, but amid this loss, Poland regained independence and began to rebuild. The Treaty of Versailles in 1919 awarded Poland the western part of Prussia.
A nonaggression pact between Germany and the Soviet Union was signed in August 1939, but little did Poland know that this also contained protocol to split the Polish state in two. Weeks later, World War II began with a massive German invasion of Poland. Hitler’s policy was to eradicate Poland, with almost three million Jews and one million Poles perishing in German extermination camps.
The War changed dramatically in June 1941 when Hitler attacked the Soviet Union and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin turning to Poland for help. The Soviet army moved westward, and with Hitler’s defeat at Stalingrad in 1943, the war was all but over. Poland lay in ruins, with six million people, or 20% of the pre-war population losing their lives. The Polish Jewish community declined from three million to less than 90,000. Soviet control continued in Poland, with new borders established and a government set up in 1945. Soon after Stalin died in 1953, the ‘Sovietisation’ of Poland weakened until it was almost non-existent. Traditional Polish values began to be revived.
Power to the people
During the second half of the 20th century, dissatisfied with living and working conditions in the country, Polish workers began to organise and unite. Industrial action, including strikes, led to the formation of a national trade union movement called Solidarity who pushed for workers’ rights and democratic governance. But it took until 1989 for semi-free elections to be held in Poland, when Solidarity succeeded in controlling the Senat (upper house). Communism began to collapse, and in January 1990, Poland’s political system was reformed with a return to territorial self-governance. Political instability followed, but in 1997, an alliance of Solidarity-linked political parties formed a coalition, putting an end to communist rule.
Today, Poland still finds itself in testing times politically and economically, with nationalist voices louder than ever. But the nation has been shaped into a peaceful and resilient nation by the toughest of situations.