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The History of Poland

Polish history began in the early 9th century when the Polians (dwellers in the field) obtained hegemony over the others Slavic tribes that occupied the country. Their principal dynasty (PIAST) accepted Christianity in 966. Poznan was the earliest Polish capital and Gniezno the first Episcopal see. The main line of the Piast dynasty ended in 1370 with Casimir III, and the crown passed to Casimir's nephew, Louis I of Hungary and to Louis's daughter Jadwiga. Jadwiga married Ladislaus (Wladyslaw) Jagiello, duke of Lithuania, who became king of Poland as Ladislaw II (Wladislaw). The time 1386-1572 under Jagiello's power was considered the "golden age" of Poland. King Ladislaw III (Wladislaw) killed by the Turks in the battle of Warna (1444), gave Poland the prestige of championing the Christian cause against the Moslem tide. In 1569 Poland absorbed Lithuania by the Union of Lublin. After 1572 no dynasty maintained itself for long, and the theory that the entire nobility could take part in the royal elections, applied in practice, frequently led to contested elections and civil wars.

There was considerable religious toleration in 16th century Poland, and the progress of Protestantism was arrested without coercion by the Jesuits. Much of the reigns of Stephan Batory (1575-86), and of Sigismund III (Zygmunt) (1587-1632) were taken up with schemes to conquer Russia. In 1569 Poland absorbed Lithuania by the Union of Lublin. After 1572 no dynasty maintained itself for long, and the theory that the entire nobility could take part in the royal elections, applied in practice, frequently led to contested elections and civil wars.

Sigismund III (Zygmunt), a prince of the Swedish ruling house of Vasa also became the king of Sweden. He was succeeded by his sons Ladislaus IV (Wladislaw) (1632- 48) and John II (1648-68).

In 1655 Charles X of Sweden overran the country, while tsar Alexis of Russia attacked from his side. Only the miracle of Czestochwa saved Poland from annihilation.

The Peace of Oliva (1660) cost Poland considerable territory, and by the Treaty of Andrusov (1667) Ukraine passed to Russia.

With John II the Vasa dynasty ended. John III (Jan Sobieski), the savior of Vienna temporarily restored Polish greatness, but with his death Poland virtually ceased to be an independent country.

Division and Regeneration

The three successive partitions (1772, 1793, 1795) resulted in the disappearance of Poland from European map. Russification and Germanization processes started. Only in Galicja could the Poles enjoy a considerable degree of autonomy.

The Restoration

Some two million Poles marched off to the Great War with the armies of the partitioning powers and 450,000 died, often the victim of another Pole in the opposite trench. Polish nationalists were divided. The Right led by Roman Dmowski's National Democrats urged Poles to fight for the Allies in the hope that a victorious Russia would grant Poland autonomy and eventual independence. On the Left, Josef Pilsudski, leader of the Polish Socialists, predicted the ruin of all the partition powers but argued that Poland's best hope for autonomy lay in an Austrian victory. Under the partition, the only portion of old Poland to enjoy any degree of autonomy was the Austrian province of Galicia. Pilsudski's assessment of German attitudes was less favorable when his Polish Legions were placed under German command the Marshal refused an oath of allegiance to the Kaiser and was imprisoned in Magdenburg Castle for the duration of the war.

Pilsudski was released from Magdenburg on November 10, 1918. He arrived in Warsaw on Armistice Day. The local Regency Council (a creation of the Germans) sensing an imminent uprising asked the Marshal to take over. Revolution was averted when the German garrison, following Pilsudski's suggestion, packed up and took the next train out of the Polish capital.

The victorious Allied Powers were quick to recognize the sovereignty of the new state but the Versailles Conference rejected Polish demands for a return to pre-partition boundaries. The frontiers of the new state would be determined by three years of wars and diplomacy. Allied supervised plebiscites favorable to Germany were ignored in three disputed territories. The capture of Kiev forced the Ukrainian Directorate to recognize the incorporation of the Western Ukraine (Eastern Galicia) into the Polish Republic. The greatest challenge to the new state came from the east. Poland was a bridge over which the Soviet revolution would be carried to the industrial proletariat of Germany in Lenin's view . The Red Army advanced to the to the gates of Warsaw but fell victim to the Miracle of the Vistula. Marshal Tukhachevsky's Reds were encircled by the Poles. 100,000 were captured and 40,000 fled into Germany. The Soviets were forced to sue for an armistice. The Treaty of Riga ended the Russo-Polish War of 1918-21. The agreement left Poland in possession of large tracts of previously Russian territory where Poles were only a small per-centage of the population and ended Lithuanian aspirations of establishing Wilno (Vilnius) as the capital of their newly independent state. The Poles only loss in the border wars came at the hands of the Czechs who seized the mostly Polish industrial area of Cieszyn.

The conclusion of the border wars allowed the Polish leadership to turn its attention to the difficult task of forging a national state. Seven years of conflict had left the countryside and the economy in a shambles.

A single economy would have to be constructed from the remains of three regional ones that had been developed in isolation. Each of the previously Russian, German and Austrian provinces had its own currency and rail gauge and the tracks ran towards Vienna, Berlin and Saint Petersburg. A high birthrate outstripped the economy's ability to create jobs and housing. The Polish was just beginning to recover when the Depression struck.

Victory in the border conflicts created a Poland in which a third of the citizenry was composed of non-Polish Germans, Lithuanians, Byelorussians, Ukrainians or Yiddish speaking Jews. Jewish leaders were the only minority spokesmen to express any eagerness for reconciliation with the new state of affairs. Ukrainian nationalists continued attacks on the Polish state into the 1930s.

Given, the chaotic state of affairs, the failure of parliamentary democracy to flourish seems hardly surprising. Rumors of a rightist coup inspired Marshal Pilsudski to launch a pre-emptive power seizure in 1926. The President and Premier were forced to resign. Pilsudski refused to assume direct power and kept the trappings of a parliamentary republic but it meant the end of free political discourse. After Pilsudski's death in 1935 the military began to take a more prominent role in shaping the policies of the increasingly authoritarian Sanacja regime.

The internal problems of the Polish Republic, great as they were, played only a small part in the country's demise. The signing of the Nazi-Soviet Non-aggression Pact of August 23, 1939 doomed Poland to a fourth partition. The Germans invaded without a declaration in the early morning hours of September 1, 1939. Hitler claimed that he was responding to Polish attacks. The western allies, true to their word, declared war and then did little while Germans (joined later by the Soviets) rolled over the outnumbered and outgunned Poles in a five week campaign. Poland was divided in accordance with the secret protocols of the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact. Stalin seized territories east of the Curzon Line and handed Wilno (Vilnius) to Lithuania. Those portions of Polish territory that had been German prior to the Versailles Treaty were annexed directly to the Reich. A General Government of Poland administered by Nazi Governor Hans Frank was established in the remainder.

Poles would suffer six years of the harshest occupation in modern European history. 6,028,000 citizens of the Polish Republic would perish of these 644,000 died as a direct result of combat operations. The rest would have their lives ended in extermination camps, executions or pacification operations. German occupied lands were designated Arbeitsbereich (work areas) ruled by martial law with death or deportation to a concentration camp - the only penalties stipulated for even the slightest offence. Rationing allotted 4,000 calories a day to Reichdeutsche (Germans born within the pre-World War I boundaries of the Reich). Poles were expected to subsist on 900 calories. Hitler concentrated on the elimination of those whom Nazi ideology deemed racially inferior, Stalin on those he deemed political or classes enemies. A million and a half Poles were deported to work camps in Siberia and the Soviet arctic.

Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union, began on June 22, 1941. The Wehrmacht was soon at the gates of Leningrad and Moscow. The new state of affairs forced Stalin to make an about-face in his policies regarding Poland in order to secure aid from the western allies. The Soviets recognized the Polish Government in Exile, agreed to parole Poles held in the work camps and announced that question of post-war boundaries was open to negotiation. Polish prisoners were sent to the western front via Iran where they were formed into two corps attached to the British Army. The 1st Corps fought in Normandy and northwestern Europe, the 2nd served in Italy where it won distinction as the first allied unit to reach the peak of Monte Cassino.

Stalin began implementing his plan for the "liberation" of Poland while the Red Army was still in retreat. The Polish Workers Party was founded in Moscow in January, 1942 to replace the old Polish Communist Party that had been liquidated in a 1938 purge. After the Red Army turned the tide at Stalingrad, the Soviet dictator felt strong enough to challenge the policies of the western allies. Soviet recognition was withdrawn from the London based Government in Exile following its request for an International Red Cross investigation of the Katyn Forest massacre. Soviet forces pushed the Germans back to the old Polish - Soviet frontier in January, 1944. Seven months later they had advanced to within striking distance of Warsaw. The Home Army launched an uprising at the urging of the Soviets who then halted their advance for five months while the Germans eliminated the non-Communist Polish Resistance. A Polish National Committee of Liberation was installed in Lublin as the Soviet recognized government of the liberated areas. The Lublin Committee signed a Treaty granting the Soviets free reign in the administration of areas under their control. The Committee declared itself the Provisional Government of the Polish Republic on December 31, 1944 and was quickly granted recognition by the Soviet Union.

Stalin's demand that the post-war Polish-Soviet border be demarcated along the Curzon Line was acceded to by Roosevelt and Churchill at the Yalta Conference in December, 1944. The settlement shifted the borders of the Polish state 150 miles westward. Slightly more than half of its pre-war territory lies within the borders of present day Poland. 178,220 sq. km. were ceded to the Soviet Union. The Poles were compensated with 101,200 sq. km. of German territory lying between the old frontier and the new boundary along the Oder and Niesse Rivers. Five million Germans living in what is usually termed by the Polish "recovered territories" were quickly expelled to make room for Poles leaving the now Soviet eastern territories. Some sources claim that around two million Germans living in these areas died in the process.

The new Poland was quickly pulled into the Soviet orbit despite the protest of the Western Allies and the Government in Exile. The final liberation of Poland would take another 45 years.