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Since the Middle Ages Poland has ranked among the great European states. It had its heyday in the 16C when it became a centre of Renaissance art and of religious peace. However, the nobility, powerless to deal with the decline of the major trade routes, handed the country over to her powerful neighbours. Poland ceased to exist as an independent country between 1795 and 1918, yet it was during this period that the stateless nation took shape. After 1945, the country, by then ethnically homogeneous, stood up to the USSR through the Church and the working class yearning for the end of socialism. Differences in the 20C led some observers in the West to think there was ‘another Europe’, but the entry of Poland into the EU in 2004 served as a reminder that her history fully shares in the major events that shaped the continent’s political landscape.

Origins and the Slavs

The oldest traces of mining activity on Polish soil go back to 3 500 B.C. Krzemionki Opatowskie, near Kielce, is one of the world’s best-preserved flint- quarrying sites. The sandy subsoil covering a major part of the country prevented the first settlers from establishing structures that could have left traces still visible today. The best known sites were preserved in mud and silt which covered them over after they were abandoned. The first town mentioned in written records was situated in Greater Poland : Kalisz was quoted in the 2C AD as being a trading port on the amber route , between the Baltic and the Mediterranean. The Poznań region seems to have been an important stopover along this trade route. And it was here that the Slavonic tribe of the Polanie settled around the 6C; later they gave their name and her first kings to their country.

Christian Kings and Conquerors (10C and 11C)

The 10C and 11C saw periods of intense struggle in the region between Western and Eastern Christians. Whereas the great majority of Slavonic leaders opted for Byzantium, the Piast dynasty of the Polanie joined Rome in order to halt the expansionist intentions of the Holy German Empire. Prince Mieszko was christened in Gniezno and his son Bolesław was crowned as the first king of Poland by the Pope in 1025. Strengthened by their Roman support, the two men managed to conquer vast territories (Pomerania, Silesia, Little Poland). In AD 1000, the borders of the kingdom were already those of present-day Poland. Many missionaries Christianised the region. These events created a bond between Poland and the Latin world. The Spaniard Ibrahim ibn Yaqub and the Frenchman Gallus Anonymus left detailed descriptions of their visit to Piast country.

Political Disruption and Economic Expansion (12C and 13C)

During the 12C and 13C, rivalry between heirs to the crown and feudal division of land left Poland wide open to invasion. Faced with incursions by the Teutonic Knights and the Mongols or Tatars , the Piast kings chose to transfer their capital to Kraków. Following the invasions, which left whole territories deserted, Polish princes welcomed German and Dutch settlers and allowed them to retain their legal and fiscal structures, well adapted to a trade-based economy. Many Jews, persecuted in Western Europe, also found refuge here. The arrival of these people resulted in urban and commercial expansion. Thousands of villages and scores of towns were created and granted liberties and privileges (Wrocław in 1242, Poznań in 1253, Kraków in 1257). Many monasteries were built, in particular by the Cistercians who brought with them their know-how in farming.

Kazimierz the Great (1333-1370)

The last king of the Piast dynasty, Kazimierz III , appropriately known as “the Great”, accomplished many things: he unified the kingdom and strengthened the State, he welcomed immigrants, in particular Jews, he built churches and fortresses, he encouraged the development of towns (the towns of Kazimierz Dolny and Kazimierz, now a district of Kraków, are named after him). Kraków, in fact, became an important European centre: its university (1364) was one of the first in Europe. One should not therefore be surprised by what Jan Długosz, the first Polish historian, wrote around 1470: “Kazimierz received a country built of wood and left it built of bricks”.

Union with Lithuania

Kazimierz having no legal heir, the great Polish lords decided to join in matrimony one of their queens and a still pagan Lithuanian duke. The union between the two states was then sealed for four centuries and the new Jagiellonian dynasty took charge of a huge territory able to face the threatening Teutonic Knights. The task was completed in 1410 with the resounding victory at Grunwald (Tannenberg) and at the end of the Thirteen Years War (1454-1466), when Poland recovered the city of Gdańsk. The country then stretched from the Black Sea to the Baltic and included part of Ukraine and Belarus, being thus the largest European State.

Golden Age (16C)

Poland’s Golden Age came in the 16C. The Baltic towns, liberated once and for all from Prussian domination, could form associations with the wealthy merchant cities of the Hanseatic League . In 1569, The Lublin Union enabled Poland and Lithuania to have one single Diet (or Parliament) and the same sovereign. The country’s economy prospered, thanks to a dynamic middle-class, a large number of peasants and a powerful nobility. The “ Nihil Novi ” constitution (1505) forbade the monarch to take important decisions without the Diet’s agreement. It was these magnates and the urban élite who opened Poland to the influence of humanism (symbolized by the astronomer Copernicus ), of the Renaissance and of the Reformation. The Renaissance first flourished in Kraków, at the Jagiellonian Court, where King Sigismund, a patron of the arts, commissioned the construction of a new chapel for the royal castle from two Italian artists, Francesco Fiorentino and Bartolomeo Berecci. Important Polish towns had sumptuous town halls (ratusz) built: the Poznań town hall, the largest in the country, was built by Giovanni Battista Quadro. Others were erected in Tarnów (Giovanni Maria Padovano) and Chełmno. In 1581, Bernardo Morando began the construction of Zamość, the pearl of the Polish Renaissance, also known as “the Padua of the North”. The magnates’ castles and palaces were also commissioned from Italian artists: Santi Gucci for Baranów, Galeazzo Appiani for Krasiczyn, Matteo Trapola for Łańcut and Nowy Wiśnicz, the Parra Brothers and Bernardo Neurone for Brzeg. At the end of the century and at the beginning of the next century, the city of Gdańsk, then the country’s largest town, called on the best Flemish architects and artists : the Van den Block family, Johan Voigt, Anton van Opberghen. The ­ Reformation met with a certain success as the elite wished to oppose the monarch and to seize the clergy’s estates. As early as 1564, the Jesuits, who were Catholic agents of the Counter-Reformation, arrived in Poland with the aim of founding a number of colleges. However, whereas Europe was torn apart by the wars of religion, Poland appeared like an oasis of peace and a refuge for heretics. In 1573, one year after the St Bartholomew massacre, the Warsaw Confederation proclaimed that all religions were equal. The development of Protestantism, based on the reading of holy texts in the national language, was accompanied by the emergence of Polish, which gradually replaced Latin. At the end of the 16C, Russian first names were given a Polish flavour and finally disappeared. Prompted by the development of printing, the national literature expanded.

A King under Supervision and a Divided Nobility (17C)

Like the Piasts before them, the Jagiellonians left the annals of history through lack of heirs. Worried about the hostile intentions of their neighbours, Polish aristocrats decided to elect their new king themselves and did not rule out foreigners. However, each election gave rise to intrigues between the magnates and foreign powers. Between 1587 and 1668, Poland was governed by a Catholic branch of the Swedish Vasa dynasty who, at the very beginning of the 17C, decided to transfer the Polish capital from Kraków to Warsaw . With the help of the Jesuits, the Vasa undertook to convert the country and its neighbours to Catholicism. Polish patriotism then became mixed with religious fanaticism and this was the cause of constant bad relations with the neighbours. There were successive wars against the Swedish Protestants, the Moslem Turks and Tatars and the Orthodox Russians and Ukrainians. After the terrible Swedish invasion of 1655-60, nicknamed “deluge”, the country lay waste and the population, depleted by the black death, was reduced by a third. Polish art of that time is heavily marked by the macabre and the need for atonement. There was a sudden abundance of miraculous Virgins, dances of death, hermitages and calvaries. The magnates adapted palaces, churches and monasteries to the Baroque style. These edifices are full of portraits of aristocrats sporting long Turkish-style caftans and wearing a long moustache and a feathered bonnet over a partly shaved head. The term “ Sarmatism ” derived from the name of the nobility’s mythical ancestors, describes the cultural specificity of this megalomaniac class shutting itself off from the rest of the world. The aristocracy dealt a second fatal blow to the kingdom in 1652 by demanding that decisions taken by the Diet be unanimous (“ liberum veto ”). The fact that King Jan III Sobieski was acknowledged as the saviour of Christendom after he liberated Vienna besieged by the Turks, did not empower him to halt the country’s political decline. The last scuttling of Poland’s independence took place in 1717, when the aristocrats granted Russia a say in their privileges: Poland then became in reality a Russian protectorate .

The Last Polish King (1764-1795)

In 1764, Prussia and Russia imposed their candidate to the crown, the Pole Stanisław August Poniatowski . This open-minded aristocrat, influenced by the spirit of the Enlightenment, chose as his second name that of the first Roman Emperor in order to show that he intended to reform the archaic structures of the State. However, his country was the object of negotiations between Prussia, Russia and Austria. During the first Partition in 1772, the three states seized about a third of the territory. In spite of this, Poniatowski invited to his court the greatest painters and sculptors of the time. Thus Canaletto could paint views of Warsaw which were very useful when the town had to be rebuilt after 1945. The king succeeded in persuading the Diet to adopt a liberal constituition. But Russia, considering that the “revolutionary spirit” was gaining ground in the country, chose to send her army supported by the Polish nobility who were in favour of the Ancien Régime. In 1793, the second Partition further reduced the size of the country and in 1795, after the national insurrection, led by Tadeusz Kościuszko, failed, the third Partition wiped Poland from the European map for the next 123 years.

A Brief Napoleonic Hope

After the disappearance of the Polish State, Paris became the main refuge of political exiles. France being at war with Austria, General J. H. Dąbrowski obtained from the Directoire in 1796 the permission to organise the first “ Polish legions” with Polish soldiers captured by the Austrian army, in the hope of liberating the country. “March, march, Dąbrowski, from Italy to Poland […], Poland is not dead as long as we live” are the words of their song, written by J Wybicki, which later became the national anthem. The legions fought several battles but were finally sent to Saint-Domingue in 1802 to crush the black population’s rebellion; the first consul, Bonaparte, was not yet ready to sacrifice the fragile European balance to further the Polish cause. Subsequently, there was a divide among the Poles between those who advocated cooperation with Russia (Adam Czartoryski) and those who favoured support from western powers. This opposition lasted for decades and influenced the country’s destiny on many occasions.

in 1806-07, Napoleon, recently crowned Emperor of the French and at war with Prussia, Triggered a Polish uprising in the territories occupied by the Prussians. The land taken from Poland by Prussia then formed the Grand Duchy of Warsaw , granted a constitution and the Napoleonic code in 1807-08. In 1809, the Polish army led by Prince Poniatowski , took part in the victory against Austria, who had to cede to the Duchy the major part of the territories she occupied (including Kraków). Urged by the Poles to restore a real kingdom, Napoleon led them to expect, in 1811, that their independence would depend on the outcome of his war with Russia. However, in spite of the strong mobilization of Polish soldiers and civilians, the disaster in Russia sealed the political fate of the Duchy, from then on occupied by the Tsar’s troops.

Crushed Rebellions and Intense Emigration

In 1815, the Congress of Vienna which shared out the remains of Napoleon’s Empire, became in fact a fourth Partition of Poland. A Polish kingdom or “Congress Kingdom of Poland” was officially created, but the tsar was declared king. The Congress then shared the remainder of the territory between Poland’s three neighbours. In the annexed provinces, Prussians and Russians rapidly set up a policy of integration and encouraged a sometimes massive influx of settlers. The autonomous republic of Kraków alone could carry on with its political and cultural activities: it became a refuge for the Polish nation. Nationalist insurrections took place in Poland in 1830 (November insurrection), 1846, 1848 (the Peoples’ Spring throughout Europe), 1861, 1863 (January insurrection) and 1905 (following the first Russian revolution), but they did not lead to anything. The result, each time, was an intensified Russification and Germanization. After each of these insurrections, waves of political refugees left their homeland. As early as 1830, over 5 000 Poles went into exile in France; they included the poet Mickiewicz , the composer Chopin and the politician Adam Czartoryski : their fame explains why this exodus was known as the “ Great Emigration ”.

The Industrial Revolution

Despite what is generally believed, the Polish population of the late 19C is not exclusively made up of farmers. Although W Reymont was awarded the Nobel Prize for his novel entitled Peasants , he also wrote a work called The Land of Great Promise , in which the town of Łódź appears like a tower of Babel of the textile industry. Łódź once had a large population of Jews and Germans and due to its association with fabric and factories, it claims to be the Polish Manchester .

A Difficult Independence

Between 1905 and 1914, the political troubles which shook Europe rekindled the Poles’ hopes for independence. However, when the First World War started, Poles who were recruited by the Russians had to fight their brothers of the Polish legions integrated into the Austro‑Hungarian army and led by Joseph Piłsudski . It was he who proclaimed the independent republic on 11 November 1918 . Postwar treaties granted Poland several territories including the famous “ Danzig Corridor ” as well as the richest part of Silesia. But the Entente did not succeed in agreeing on the eastern borders: the project of the English minister Curzon was not unanimously endorsed. Russia and Poland therefore decided to fight it out. During the battle which took place near Warsaw in August 1920, known as the “ miracle of the Wisła ”, Poland, with the help of French General Weygand, repelled the enemy and regained its historic territories of Belarus and Ukraine. But the country found it very difficult to manage its newly acquired independence: the numerous minorities demanded rights, political parties tore each other apart and a financial crisis shook the economy. Between 1919 and 1930, 495 000 Poles settled in France, essentially in the coal mining region of the Nord-Pas-de-Calais. To boost the economy, in 1924 the Diet launched the construction of the port of Gdynia. In May 1926, following a coup d’état, Piłsudski was first elected Minister of War before gradually gaining total control of the government at the end of the 1920s and beginning of the 1930s when the world economic crisis hit the country. His programme was based on the “ sanacja ”, the “cleaning up” of the State; but this meant the internment of opponents. Poland also signed pacts of non-agression with the USSR and later with Germany. However, as early as March 1939, Hitler demanded that Poland give up Danzig and grant Germany important rights over the corridor.

German-Soviet Invasion (1939-1941)

On 1 September 1939, at 4.45am, the battleship “Schleswig-Holstein” fired its heavy guns at Westerplatte, a Polish enclave in the port of Gdańsk, while German tanks crossed the border. Prior to the invasion, Germany had secretly signed a pact with the USSR anticipating a partition of the country. On 17 September, Soviet troops in turn invaded Poland. The country could not fight back without western help; Germany and the USSR shared the land and thousands of Poles were imprisoned, deported to the Reich (almost one million) and the goulags of the Arctic and of Kazakhstan (over one million) or murdered by the Soviet secret police. Meanwhile, a government in exile, led by General Sikorski , was formed, at first in Angers then in London after the French defeat in June 1940. There was a turning point in June 1941 when Hitler threw his army across Polish territory to attack the USSR. Following a meeting in London between Sikorski and a Soviet representative, 75 000 Polish soldiers were liberated from the goulags and General Anders was asked to organise this newly formed army corps.

Ghettos and Death Camps

It is important to stress the difference between the fate of non-Jewish Poles and that of Jewish Poles. As early as October 1939, the German governor of Poland explained that “Poland would be treated as a colony: the Poles will become the slaves of the Great Reich”. All those who refused to submit, in particular the elite, were sent to concentration camps or Labour Camps: Stutthof (near Gdańsk), Auschwitz, Gross-Rosen (near Wrocław), Majdanek (near Lublin) and Płaszów (near Kraków). As for Jewish Poles, they were treated differently. At first, they were parked in ghettos ; there were 400 in Poland alone, the most important being in Warsaw, Łódź, Kraków, Białystok, Lublin, Częstochowa, Kielce, Tarnów, Radom and Włocławek. Then, from the autumn of 1941, when the Nazis decided to implement the “final solution”, it was in Poland that the death camps were set up. The reason behind this decision was that the country had a greater number of Jews and it was far enough to avoid arousing the curiosity of the German population. Therefore, between November 1941 and June 1942, the Nazis transformed Auschwitz and Majdanek into death camps and created five more death factories: Chełmno (Kulmhof), Bełżec, Birkenau (Auschwitz II), Sobibór and Treblinka. Around 2 700 000 people perished in those six camps. On 19 April 1943, rather than wait passively to be transferred to the camps and murdered, the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto chose to rebel, although they knew it was hopeless. It took the Germans three weeks of fierce fighting to crush the rebellion.

It is impossible to convey in a few lines the reality of these ghettos and death camps in Poland. Various first-hand accounts are available: life in the Warsaw Ghetto (A. Czerniakow, M. Edelman, J. Korczak, H. Seidman, E. Ringelblum, M. Halter, W. Szpilman) or in the Łódź Ghetto (D. Sierakowiak, A. Cytryn) and in Auschwitz (Rudolf Hoess, Elie Wiesel, Martin Gray, Primo Levi, Rudolf Vrba, Jo Wajsblat), not forgetting films like Shoah by C. Lanzmann, Night and Fog by A. Resnais and, more recently The Pianist by R. Polański based on W. Szpilman’s autobiography.

Resistance Movements and Warsaw Uprising: (August-October 1944)

Throughout the war, French and Polish officers worked together at deciphering messages sent by enemy troops (Enigma Code device). Polish troops took an active part in the Italy landings (Anders at Monte Cassino) and in Normandy. The Polish Government in London was involved in the creation of a clandestine State in Poland, -- something unique in Europe, with its own army, schools, press and justice. The Poles’ great uprising against German occupation began in Warsaw on 1 August 1944 . In order to prevent the advancing Red Army from taking control of the country, the Inland Forces (AK) decided to attack. There followed street-by-street fighting throughout the capital actively supported by the majority of the population. But the shortage of weapons and Stalin ’s decision to refuse to help the insurgents forced them to surrender on 2 October . The fighting, which lasted 63 days cost the lives of 18 000 AK soldiers and 150 to 200 000 civilians. The Germans razed 70% of the town after evacuating the population.

The number of Polish victims of the Second World War is considerable: to the 2.9 million Polish Jews (88% of their population) who disappeared are to be added around 2 million people , including 1.5 million due to the Nazi occupation and 500 000 due to the Soviet occupation, not forgetting the 50 000 Polish Tziganes (Gypsies) (67% of their total population). In all, 15% of the country’s population perished. The ruins of Warsaw fell into the hands of the Red Army in January 1945. It is then that the national liberation committee, formed in Lublin by the communists, became the self-proclaimed provisional government of Poland. At the Yalta Conference held in the early part of 1945, the British and American governments obtained from the Soviets the assurance that free elections would be organised. However, this conference took place at a time when the Allies needed the help of the Soviets; Stalin could therefore impose his will.

Population Movement

Although the Curzon line was officially accepted in the east (it partly followed the course of the River Bug), the western border along the Oder-Neisse was not officially recognised for fear of violent German reactions. Thus Ukraine and Belarus gained territories from Poland who, in turn, recovered territories inhabited by 6 million Germans . What occurred therefore was an east-west shift of population. In the west, there was a real colonisation of the “ recovered territories ”; the number of private farms went up to 3 million, without a care for the consequences this splitting up would have on crop yields. In the east, millions of Poles had to leave the “lost territories”, although 2 millions chose to stay in the USSR. These population transfers meant a real tragedy for these millions of people: not counting the few thousand Poles who left France and Belgium to settle in the recovered territories, the vast majority of those who settled in the West came from the lost territories; they travelled 600km and, on arrival, settled in a farm just abandoned by a German family. The new Poland was built on an ethnically homogeneous territory, all the more so as most of the Jews who survived the war left the country between 1947 and 1950.

Russian Requisition (1947-1956)

During the legislative elections of January 1947, denounced as non-democratic by Western powers, the socialist-communist coalition won 85% of the votes; they decided to merge to form the PZPR (Polish United Workers’ Party). W. Gomułka , who wished Poland to follow her own road to socialism, was brushed aside in favour of B. Bierut . The satellization of the country was underway: the Kominform , the consultative body of the different communist parties was created in Szklarska Poręba, in Poland, in September 1947. In 1949, Soviet Marshal K. Rokossovski was nominated Polish Minister of War. The Palace of Culture and Science , built in Warsaw between 1952 and 1955, was the symbol of this forced friendship between the Russian and the Polish people. It was in Warsaw that was signed in May 1955 the famous Warsaw Pact between the USSR and the popular democracies, intended to be the counterpart of NATO.

On the economic front, forced industrialization was launched together with the nationalization of several thousand businesses; but the collectivization of agriculture was a failure and later had to be abandoned. The PZPR governed the PRL, Poland’s Popular Republic, in a totalitarian fashion with considerable help from the secret police and Soviet “advisers”. Repression did not only concern political opponents such as soldiers of the AK or Catholic priests ( Cardinal Wyszyński was imprisoned in 1953), but also the Party’s rebellious civil servants.

Uprisings and Dashed Hopes

In February 1956, hope was revived in Poland when Khrushchev denounced Stalin’s crimes. After the Poznań Up­risings , the Party chose to call Gomułka back. However, from 1962, Polish leaders adopted a hard line once more. In order to stifle the student protest of March 1968, the government lauched an anti-semitic campaign : over half the 25 000 Jews still living in Poland went into exile. On 8 September 1968, a Pole, Ryszard Siwiec, immolated himself in Warsaw during a public event in protest against Warsaw Pact aggression in Czechoslovakia and Polish participation in it. Serious economic problems led the govenment to modify its foreign policy particularly in order to obtain economic and technological aid from the prosperous Federal Republic of Germany, ready to recognise the Oder-Neisse line officially in exchange for emigration being granted to Germans residing in Poland. On 7 December, Willy Brandt went to Warsaw to sign this agreement and symbolically stood in silent remembrance on the site of the former Warsaw ghetto. That same month, demonstrations took place in Gdańsk, Gdynia, Szczecin and Elbląg. Gomułka was replaced by E. Gierek , a former miner who lived in France and Belgium and wished to modernize the economy by borrowing from the West. The Poles lived in euphoria for assets were flooding into the country. But the injection of huge sums into an economy already weakened by the oil crisis only increased the country’s indebtedness. In 1976, inflation was at 60%, strikes paralysed the country and new riots shook Radom and Ursus near Warsaw, where the famous tractors used in communist countries were made. In 1978, the election of Karol Wojtyła as pope and his visit to Poland the following year encouraged the Poles to seek intellectual and political freedom.

Great Figures

Nicolaus Copernicus


A true Renaissance mind, Copernicus studied in Poland and in Italy and obtained a doctorate in canon law in 1503. A mathematician, translator, economist, doctor of medicine and cartographer, he is known above all for his work as an astronomer. Thirty six years of research enabled him to show that although it is true that the Moon is a satellite of the Earth, the Earth’s axis is not fixed. Shattering the medieval vision of the world that placed man at the centre of the universe, the ideas of Nicolaus Copernicus had a considerable philosophical impact and sparked off violent reactions lasting for more than two hundred years. His main work, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium , was probably written around 1520 (original manuscript kept in Kraków’s Jagiellonian Library). It was published for the first time in 1543, a few days before the death of its author, in the Protestant town of Nuremberg.

Frédéric Chopin


Born in Żelazowa Wola of a French father settled in Poland, Chopin composed music before he could even read. At the age of 20, he decided to leave Warsaw and never returned to his native country. It is in Nohant, in the estate of his mistress and muse George Sand, that he composed the major part of his most remarkable works. Although Chopin is acknowledged as one of the fathers of Romanticism, his music is very personal, featuring harmonies well ahead of his time and sounds characteristic of Polish folklore. His repertoire is centred round the piano but he was the first composer to make piano music artistically autonomous by using chords, arpeggios, keys and scales not as a setting but as a real musical colour. Suffering from tuberculosis, he died in Paris and is buried in the Père Lachaise cemetery. His heart is set into a wall of the nave of the Holy Cross Church in Warsaw. The major part of his work is kept in Poland at the Frédéric Chopin Society and at the National Library. The international Chopin Competition takes place in Poland every five years.

Marie Curie-Skłodowska


Maria Skłodowska was born in Warsaw and began her studies by following clandestine lectures in occupied Poland. In 1891, she left for France to obtain a doctorate. After discovering an article by physicist H. Becquerel about mysterious rays emitted by uranium, M. Skłodowska began a programme of research about this still-unnamed phenomenon. She was the first woman to defend her thesis at the Sorbonne and later to hold her own chair there. Thus she paved the way for other women in the field of Science. Holding a degree in mathematics and in physics, she was also the first person to be awarded two Nobel prizes: the Nobel Prize for physics in 1903, jointly with her husband Pierre (who died the following year) and Becquerel, for the discovery of radioactivity, and the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1911 for the discovery of radium (later used to treat cancer) and polonium (given that name as a tribute to her country). She died of Leukemia caused by that same radium. Her ashes and those of her husband Pierre, were transferred to the Panthéon in Paris in 1995.

John Paul II


Karol Wojtyła was born in Wadowice, near Kraków. His youth was marred by the death of his mother and his brother. While he was studying humanities at the philosophy faculty in Kraków, he discovered he had a passion for the theatre and for writing. It was during the Second World War that his vocation was revealed to him: in 1942, after the death of his father, he entered the clandestine seminary in Kraków and was ordained priest in 1946.

He became a bishop in 1958 and Paul VI nominated him archbishop of Kraków five years later, then cardinal in 1967. The years 1960-70 turned him into one of the main instigators of the collapse of communism; by tricking the communist regime and sometimes standing up to it, he succeeded for instance in having a church built in the vast workers’ complex of Nowa Huta. The choice of Karol Wojtyła, on 16 October 1978, as the first non-Italian pope for over 400 years, was no accident. His first words “Don’t be afraid, open your countries’ frontiers, and economic and political systems” sounded like a signal to the Poles. His visits to Poland in 1979, 1983 and 1987 were increasingly triumphant. He was venerated not to say adored by almost all the Poles and his death on 2 April 2005 gave rise to huge ceremonies throughout the country.

Lech Wałęsa


Lech Wałęsa was born in 1943 in Popowo, in a province annexed by Germany at the time. After driving agricultural machines, he got a job as a shipyard electrician, taking part from 1970 onwards in strikes and rapidly becoming a charismatic leader capable of gathering around him hundreds of workers. In 1980, he led the strike at the Gdańsk shipyard and founded the trade union Solidarność . He wanted to act the “Gandhi way”, on a long term basis, in a non-violent fashion inspired by Christian charity. The Pope, who supported him, received him in January 1981. Invited by the French trade unions and the non-communist left, he made a triumphant visit to Paris in October 1981. Arrested on 13 December 1981, he was released in November 1982 and placed under house arrest. In June 1983, he had another meeting with the Pope and in October he received the Nobel Prize for Peace. In May and August 1988, he resumed his role as leader during a new wave of strikes in Gdańsk but, in view of the government’s violent reaction, he called for the fighting to stop. In December 1988, he was allowed to go to France where, together with A. Sakharov, he was received with great honours by F Mitterrand. Later, he took part in negotiations with the communist authorities which led on 5 April 1989 to the “Round-Table” Agreements. The next day, Jaruzelski met Wałęsa, whom he had not seen since 1981. Yet another visit by Wałęsa to Rome showed the many sceptical Poles that the Pope approved this careful march towards a semi-democracy. In 1990, he was elected President of the Republic. However, having fallen out with his former Solidarność allies, confronted with the difficult economic transition and the rise in unemployment, he became painfully aware of his isolation, in particular during the cohabitation with the left between September 1993 and November 1995. Beaten by a former communist at the presidential election of 1995, he was humiliated at the 2000 election (barely 1% of the votes).

Mazurek Dąbrowskiego

The Polish National Anthem is set to a lively Mazurka. The patriotic hymn was written shortly after the country lost its independence and was divided up between Austria, Russia, Prussia. The author of the “Song of the Polish Legions in Italy” – as the anthem was originally called – was Józef Wybick. He composed it in July, 1795 in Reggio di Emilia in Italy, as the Polish legions, led by general Jan Henryk Dąbrowski were marching out to support Napoleon’s army.

After the failure of the final effort to save Poand during the Kościuszko Insurrection in 1794, many Poles emigrated to France, in the hopes that one good turn would deserve another and that Napoleon Bonaparte would support the restoration of Poland as an independent state.

The Tsarist and Prussian governments banned the song in 1815 (after the defeat of Napoleon) and again in 1860. Yet it continued to serve rebellious Poles: against the Russians (1830, 1863); during the 1848 Spring of the Nations; as the anthem of the student union (Zwiazek Burszow, 1816-1830). The students sang: “March, march, the youth/ go first as it should be/ following your leadership/ we will become a nation again.”

At the end of the 19C, the song was modified to suit the context of the times (“March, March, the Poles, to fight and to work”). Dąbrowski was replaced by other military leaders, as current events required.

Finally, in 1926, “Dąbrowski’s Mazurka” was officially recognized as the Polish national anthem. The title of the anthem was listed the first time in the Constitution of the Polish People’s Republic in 1976: the Sejm approved the official text and music of the anthem in 1980.

Milestones of Poland’s History

966 – Conversion of Mieszko to Christianism

1309 – Teutonic State around Marlbork

1385 – Marriage of Jagiello of Lituania and Hedwig of Poland

15 July 1410 – Teutonic Knights defeated at Grunwald

28 January 1573 – Eternal peace between religions proclaimed by the “Warsaw Confederation”

1596 – Capital transferred to Warsaw

1685– Ottomans stopped in front of Vienna by Jan III Sobieski

3 May 1791 – First liberal Constitution in Europe

1794 – Kościuszko insurrection against the three occupying countries

24 October 1795 – Third Partition and disappearance of Poland

1807– Grand Duchy of Warsaw formed by Napoleon

1815 – “Congress Kingdom of Poland” in the hands of the tsar

29 November 1830 – November insurrection

22 January 1863 – January insurrection

11 November 1918 – Independence of Poland

15 August 1920 – “Miracle of the Wisła” enabling Poland to push Russia back

12 May 1926 – Piłsudski in power after a coup d’état

1-17 September 1939 – Soviet-German invasion

19 April-20 May 1943 – Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

May 1944 – Monte Cassino victory in Italy

1 August-2 October 1944 – Warsaw Uprising

January 1947 – Large communist victory after rigged elections

June 1956– Poznań riots

March 1968 – Persecution of intellectuals and anti-semitic purge

14-18 December 1970 – Workers riots in Gdańsk, Gdynia, Elbląg and Szczecin

16 October 1978 – Election of Karol Wojtyła as Pope

August 1980 – New workers riots in the Baltic shipyards

31 August 1980 – Gdańsk agreement between Solidarność and the government

12-13 December 1981 – Martial law decreed by General Jaruzelski

5 April 1989 – Round Table agreement between Communists and Solidarność

September 1989 – T. Mazowiecki, first non-communist head of government

12 March 1999 – Poland joins NATO.

1 May 2004 – Poland joins the EU.

25 September 2005– Lech Kaczyński, PiS party, elected President of Poland.

10 July, 2006– Lech’s twin brother, Jaroslaw, PiS, designated Prime Minister.

October, 2007 – Liberal, pro-EU Civic Platform party wins general election.

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