The Poles who were West Slavic people established Poland in the late 5th century. History was first written in the 10th century about Poland when the Polish nation changed into Christianity in 966. Prince Mieszko I was the first ruler and his son, Boleslaw I, was the first king of Poland. This established the Piast dynasty that lasted from 966 to 1370. During the Piast dynasty there where Piast kings with a lot of rivalries from nobility and Bohemian and Germanic invasions that made Poland a very troubled country. The last king of the dynasty was Casimir III, crowned in 1333. He extended Polish influence eastward to Lithuania and Russia.
He acquired Pomerania from the Teutonic Knights and shifted borders between Poland and Germany. During his 37-year reign a university was established, laws were made more organized, castles grew strong, and minority groups were given protection (Grolier). The Polish nobility selected Jagello as grand duke of Lithuania in 1836, to rule by arranging his marriage to the Polish Princess Jadwiga. The initial personal union with Lithuania was formalized only 200 years later by the Union of Lublin in 1569 and it produced a state that extended from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Black Sea in the south (Grolier).
Polands Golden Age started when Poland won the Battle of Tannenberg in 1410 against the Teutonic Order. The Polish would deal very well with threats from other countries. It was slowly devolving to rule under nobility that led the state to its disintegration (Grolier). The Polish Renaissance of the 16th century produced a flourishing of arts and intellectual life. Some examples are the scientific work of Copernicus and the lyric poetry of Jan Kochanowski. Protestantism grew in Poland during this time and the Jewish community, which has been around Poland since the 14th century, won the right of self-government.
The economic wealth at this time was based on grain exports (Grolier). The Jagello dynasty ended in 1572, with the death of Sigismund II. The power was then transferred from aristocracy to the broader class of nobility called the szlachta. From 1573 to the last partition of Poland in 1795 the Republican Commonwealth was organized by a system of elective monarchy and of a Sejm (Parliament), meaning each noble had a vote. Even though the kings had to follow the idea of szlachta rule, they still used their own ideas and seeked greater influence.
Stephen Bathory (ruled 1575-86) and Sigismund III (ruled 1587-1632) intervened in Russia, and Sigismund got his son on the Russian throne during Muscovys Time of Troubles. After Polish troops were driven out of Moscow in 1613, Russia became more powerful. After that Poland went into a time of war beginning in 1648, Ukrainian, Cossacks, marauding Tartars, Turks, and Russians attacked Poland. The Swedes did the greatest damage. They conquered and laid to waste almost the entire country in 1655.
King John III Sobieskis victory over the Turks at Vienna in 1683 recovered some of Polands power but he couldnt stop the Russians and the further loss of the eastern territory. During the reign of Augustus II (ruled 1697-1733), who was the elector of Saxony, Poland was involved in the Great Northern War, which mainly took place in Poland. The war of the Polish Succession was triggered when Augustus III became the new king of Poland (Grolier). Stanislaw II (ruled 1764-95), who was a puppet of Catherine II of Russia, was the last king of Poland.
The Confederation of Bar (1768), a French supported alliance of Polish nobles, was formed from the Anti-Russian feeling, but this was unable to prevent the dismemberment of Poland by Russia, Prussia, and Austria. The constitution of May 3,1791 granted political rights to burghers and peasants. Tadeusz Kosciuszkos national insurrection of 1794 was defeated and followed by the partition of 1795. This marked the disappearance of Poland from the map of Europe (Grolier). Poland reemerged when Napoleon I established the Grand Duchy of Warsaw in 1807, but in 1815 the Congress of Vienna divided the country among Russia, Prussia, and Austria.
Tsar Alexander I, who was in the Russian sector, established the Congress Kingdom of Poland and made himself the monarch. A bloody Polish uprising of 1830 lasted for nine months and another occurred in 1863. In the 1870s the German chancellor Otto von Bismark sought to eliminate Polish culture in the Prussian-occupied land. In Austrian-controlled Galicia, the poles enjoyed considerable autonomy (Grolier). At the start of the 20th century, Polish leaders were divided over the means to employ to regain independence. Roman Dmowski was a well-known representative of the political right and headed the National Democracy movement.
Although statehood was not his priority, he believed in a nation free of Ukrainian and Jewish influence and willing to collaborate with the Russian autocracy (Grolier). Independence finally came to Poland in 1918; it was not the result of Polish insurrection, but the falling powers of Russian, German, and Austrian empires at the end of World War I. A lot of help was from Woodrow Wilsons Fourteen Points. Josef Pilsudski said that he got off the streetcar of socialism at the stop called independence. He became a dominant political figure in interwar Poland until his death in 1935.
He led Polish legionnaires against the Russian Bolsheviks, in 1920, in the Polish-Soviet War with considerable success. This gave them boundary concessions favorable to Poland in the Treaty of Riga (1921). Pilsudski didnt care that 60% of the population in the land regained from Russia was non-Polish. In 1926 he established a thinly disguised personal dictatorship. The colonels regime that followed Pilsudski was not able to meet the threat posed by Nazism in Germany. It also failed to conclude defensive security agreements with other European powers (Grolier).
World War II started in September 1939 when the German army attacked from the west and the Soviet army attacked from the east. In the Nazi-Soviet Pact, Hitler and Stalin had agreed to carve up Poland once again, and after a six-week struggle the nation capitulated. The German occupation during this time led to the extermination of Polish Jews at Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Majdanek death camps, and the slaughter of three million ethnic Poles in summary street executions, gas chambers, labor camps, and the Warsaw Uprisings (Grolier).
There was a lot of damage done to the Poles by the Russians. There were almost two million Poles removed from territories east of the Bug River and sent to Kazakhstan, Siberia, and the Soviet Far east, many to die in the harsh gulags. There was a massacre of at least 10,000 Polish officers at Katyn and other places by the Soviet secret police, which further showed the brutality of the Stalinist regime (Grolier). The tragic policies toward the Poles were moderated only by Hitlers attack on Russia in June 1941. This was when Stalin found reason to organize Polish armies for the USSR.
Soviet forces had begun to drive the Germans out of eastern parts of Poland, and a pro-Soviet provisional government was established in Lublin by July 1944. In May 1945, the Soviet and Polish armies entered Berlin and there they placed their national flags on top of the Reichstag (Grolier). The agreements between the victorious Allied powers had placed Poland in the Soviet orbit. By 1948, anti-communist resistance had been overcome and the country was firmly in the hands of the Polish United Workers party, which established a rigid police state.
The state was redrawn and it lost land on the eastern side but gained land on the western side (Grolier). When Wladyslaw Gomulka came to power in the liberal atmosphere of the Polish October in 1956, there were hopes for better freedom. Gomulka quickly shut the door on political pluralism. He also had attacks against the church, the cultural intelligentsia, and protesting students in 1968, but polish people got really mad when he did these things (Grolier). Edward Gierek, who replaced Gomulka in 1970, helped modernize the Polish economy in the ten years of his rule, but he also encountered a lot of corruption, graft, and waste.
Gierek was overthrown by the many strikes on the Gdansk port by Solidarity labor union. The Solidarity labor union made the first independent social and political movement in postwar Eastern Europe. The demand done by the union led to General Wojciech Jaruzelski becoming the new leader, who soon after called for Martial Law in December 1981 (Grolier). After that, the Solidarity union went underground for the rest of the 80s. During these years the people would sit and think of how to defeat communism, but they also tried life to its fullest under communist rule.
In 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev was appointed the new leader and this gave the people the signal to act. During that time Lech Walesa, the leader of the Solidarity union, the whole union, Pope John Paul II and the rest of the church, and people all around Poland combined forces and made the communist sit down and talk in 1989 (Grolier). As a result, Walesa negotiated and Jaruzelski was elected president and Walesas advisor, a noted Catholic politician Tadeusz Mazowiecki, became premier. This was the first government since World War II that wasnt led by communist.
The task that awaited this new government was very hard and drastic. The Balcerowicz plan was adopted so that the financial and structural crisis would rapidly convert the communist economic model into a free-market system and to reintegrate the Polish economy into a global economy. The cost of this change was very high in money and social cost. This new rule achieved the recognition of the Oder-Niesse border between Poland and Germany in 1991 and they also made the soviet troops in Warsaw leave in 1992 (Szczepkowski).
Polands reentry into Western Europe was a slow process since it had been separated from the rest of Europe since the end of WW II. By 1996 the country had become a member of the council of Europe, had established economic ties with the European Union, and was admitted to the organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Successive Polish governments also sought membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), despite Russian opposition, however, in January 2000, Poland became a full member of NATO (Szczepkowski). Russias unsettled political situation in the 90s made it harder for Poland to become a good country.
Limited regional cooperation was established by the formation of the Visegrad Group, which consisted of Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary. By the mid 90s most of the Polish economy was private businesses and this helped make important strides. The annual growth rate of Polands gross national product had been the highest in Europe. The only problem was that progress was not even, like coal mining and building industries had a lot problems on the way. The difference between rich and poor grew wider apart which made political life far less stable than expected (Szczepkowski).
The disintegration of Solidarity accelerated by political and personality clashes, becoming apparent in the 1990 election, in which Walesa defeated Mazowiecki for presidency. Voters dissatisfaction was reflected when a lot of support was for the dark-horse candidate Stanslaw Tyminski, a Polish migr businessman from Canada who finished second. During the early 90s the cabinets would all fight for power to be the best. Two examples are the fall of Jan Olszewski, because he tried making a list of former high ranking communist collaborators, and the first women to be Prime Minister, Hanna Suchocka, who lost by a no-confident vote.
The people split in groups and accused Walesa and the roundtable negotiators to sell out to communist when it was they that could help if the economy falls (Szczepkowski). In 1995, Walesa was beat by Aleksander Kwasniewski, whose campaign asked people to look into the future and forget about the past, for presidency. The church suffered because it made many efforts to influence politics and tried to influence Poland to become a post communist society, but sometimes backfired (Szczepkowski).