Sep 11, 2014

A History of Poland

Last night 17 of us held a fascinating discussion based on Adam Zamoyski's book, Poland: A History. As usual, we were hosted by Eli and Al, the proprietors of the Kensington Row Bookshop. A member was even tasked by his wife to bring snacks, enjoyed by all. We noted that this year is the 25th since the end of the Cold War, and perhaps a good moment to look at the history of a  country that was so much a pawn in that Cold War.

One of our members brought in materials printed from the Internet, describing author Zamoyski's family background; though born in the United States and educated in England, he is of an aristocratic Polish family whose members held many positions  in government over the centuries. Zamoyski's family escaped Poland in 1939 and was stranded in exile during the Communist era. He speaks Polish and his books include biographies of Chopin and Paterewski, several books on Polish history, and a guidebook to Poland. A map of Poland in the 16th and 17th century showed that the Zamoyski magnates held huge estates in several parts of the country.

This was an unusual meeting in that we had an expert present. She was from a Polish family, with a graduate degree in Polish history, specializing in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. She had spent a year as a Fulbright Fellow in Poland, and had extensive visits subsequent to that year -- all during the Communist period. Moreover she had been a legislative contact for a Polish-American organization at the time of the emergence of the Polish Third Republic in the 1990s. Thus much of the evening was based on questions formulated from our reading of the book and responses from our expert. Of course, several others in our group had ancestors who had come from Poland, and at least one other had visited Poland as a tourist.

It was pointed out in the discussion that Poland during much of its history was a very stratified society. The Zamoyskis, who took their title from a town that they owned, like other magnates were very wealthy, and sufficiently powerful to own hundreds of villages and have private armies. These were of the class that attended the universities and traveled abroad; they were the ones who brought the arts and architecture of the Renaissance back with them to Poland. On the other hand, the mass of peasantry were very poor, poorly educated and lived a very restricted life style. One of our members pointed out that we seldom hear from the peasants in history books. It was also suggested that it is sometimes hard for members of a family that has had leadership in a country for centuries to recognize how different is their families culture from that of the mass of their countrymen.

The Rise and Fall of the Polish Empire

A number of Slavic tribes inhabited the area south of the Baltic in the late middle ages. From these the Polish and Lithuanian people emerged as holding large amounts of land, and in 1386 the Duke of Lithuania married the widowed Queen of Poland, combining the two into a single domain. Poland became the largest country in Europe, and the ruling Jagiellon family came to rule not only Poland but Hungary and Bavaria as well.

Occasionally during the discussion we mentioned aspects of the ethnic diversity of the Polish empire. Thus, for many years, ethnic Ukrainians were mostly peasants serving on lands owned by Polish and Lithuanian aristocrats, paying rents to Jewish administrators. (The attitude of the recipients of the rents toward the Jewish intermediaries were described as probably different than those of the people paying them. Indeed, the attitude of the Polish aristocrats towards Polish Jews may have been much more positive than those of the Polish peasants.) We wondered about the relations between Lithuanians and Poles during the long period of their joint state.

For the time this was an unusually progressive country. There was a parliament, elected by the aristocracy, with thousands participating in the choices of the king. There was a tradition of open debate, which did not end until consensus was reached. As will be discussed below, this was a society less traumatized by religious conflict than many other European countries.

Yet by 1800, Poland had been partitioned among Prussia, Russia and Austria; the country of Poland no longer existed. We discussed how so great an empire could so rapidly fail and disappear. Our expert pointed out that this has been a topic of active debate for many years, especially between the historians of Krakow and those of Poznan. Clearly the answer is that the Germans, led by Prussia, the Russians, and the Austrians developed more powerful states and economies, and were able to impose their will on the Polish, formalizing the partition of Poland in a series of treaties in the late 18th century.

We thought that one of the reasons that this came about was that the magnates and the aristocracy of Poland would not grant power to the monarch, fearing that to do so would threaten their own positions. The result was a weak state, with a small standing army, and a small tax base. Thus the Kings of Poland could not force modernization as Peter the Great and Catherine the Great did in Russia.

It was also suggested that in the 18th century as western countries were beginning to industrialize, Poland's economy remained based on agriculture and mining. Poland did not develop the manufacturing industries nor the cities and large towns comparable to those in other countries.  In part, it was suggested, this was due to the culture of the magnates. They preferred ostentatious displays of wealth in the forms of jewels and palaces to investments in industry. As a result, Poland did not have the economic power to compete militarily with its rival powers.

Polish Nationalism in Search of a Polish State

There was a rise of nationalism in Europe in the 19th century, and the Polish having lost their state continued to militate for a Polish state. Many went into exile, and so many of the Polish military went into exile that they were formed into Polish or Foreign legions in the several European countries. They managed insurrections and ultimately succeeded in achieving a Polish Republic at the end of World War I. Unfortunately, the country was devastated during the war and by reparations and ran into a global depression, and its people had no experience in governance.

The Polish exiles of the 19th century had amazing life stories. One member read what he described as his favorite paragraph from the book:
Typical is Alexander Ilinski, a wealthy nobleman who fought in the 1830 insurrection and then went into exile. He took service in the Polish Legion organized by General Bem in the Portuguese army, then fought in the Spanish Civil War (developing a sideline as a successful bullfighter), and for the French in Algeria, winning the Legion d'Honneur in the process, followed by service in Afghanistan, India and China. In 1848 he was at General Bem's side in Hungary, whence he made his way to Turkey. He converted to Islam and fought in the Crimean War as General Iskinder Pasha. He later became Turkish governor of Baghdad before dying in Istanbul in 1861.
When the Germans and Soviets again partitioned Poland in 1939, Polish nationalism again took the stage. as exiled Polish troops fought with the Allies against the Germans, and as insurgents became active at home.

The Polish experience as a people fighting for a state resonates with current experience of people such as the Kurds or the Palestinians. Understanding Polish nationalism might help us better understand these others.

A Hard 20th Century and the Emergence of the 3rd Republic

The Polish  people suffered more than most as Germans and Russians fought over their land in World War I and in World War II. They were dominated by the USSR and badly governed by communists for decades. When the Cold War ended in 1989, the Polish economy like that of other Warsaw Pact nations was in a terrible state. Again the Polish people opted for democracy, and again were faced with managing a democratic government of which its people had not living experience.

Among the first efforts of the country were to join NATO and the European union. Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic were admitted to NATO in 1999 and Poland was admitted to the European Union in 2004. In part, the Polish government must have approached NATO and the EU as part of its effort to obtain financial aid from the west. We danced around the issue, without explicitly saying that membership in NATO provided protection from military threats posed by the Russian Federation, and membership in the EU offered help not only in privatizing and liberalizing the Polish economy, but also in opening markets in the west that had been denied for the previous decades.

We noted that as the Russian incursion in Ukraine and the reported increase in Russian presence in Belarus are taking place, it is useful to think about Poland. Understanding Polish experience in the 20th century and the efforts of the Polish people to achieve a truly independent democratic government and a successful free market economy is similar to those of other countries freed after the break up of the Soviet Union. Understanding these experiences helps to understand the desire of these nations for a strong NATO to guarantee their continued self government.


The King of Poland accepted Christianity in 966. While that may have been a political act, without much immediate impact on the actual beliefs and practices of the royals and aristocrats, it determined the religion of the common people.

Christianity was brought to Poland by the Latin Right church of Rome. It was brought slightly earlier to the Kievan Rus by the Greek Right church in Constantinople. The Russians accepted the Cyrillic alphabet with the religion, as the Poles accepted the Latin alphabet -- a difference that has had serious repercussions to this day (we noted how it played out between modern Serbs and Croats). The schism between the Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholic Churches in the 11th century led divided religious loyalties between the adherents of the two religions in Poland, especially during the time when the country was at its largest size.

During the Reformation, Poland saw significant introduction of Protestant thought and beliefs, especially in its ethnic German population. It also remained largely Catholic and Orthodox. There was not the militarized religious conflict that marked much of Western Europe. In part this was the result of the religious tolerance of the kings. (One king was cited as stating that he ruled the land of his people, but not their consciences.)

During the counter reformation, however, Jesuits were very active in Poland and succeeded in their efforts to restore the importance of Roman Catholicism and reduce that of the various protestant religions.

The Communists sought to repress the Catholic religion. One member pointed out that author Zamoyski failed to represent the intensity of the effort, since in fact priests were executed by the Communist regime. Catholic mothers resisted Communist efforts to reduce the exposure of their children to the Catholic faith, and even to resist military service for their sons if the army did not provide Catholic chaplains.

Poland is a largely Catholic country now. Pope John Paul II, who was Polish, saw millions attend his public masses when he visited Poland.

We also discussed the history of Jews in Poland. When the Jews were expelled from Spain, many immigrated to Poland and Russia. In Poland the immigrant population eventually were granted limited self-rule under their own laws. Jewish culture thrived, especially in Lithuania. Indeed, over time many Jews from the communities in Russia also immigrated to Poland. By the beginning of the 20th century, Poland had the largest Jewish population in Europe, amounting to millions of people.

The Polish Jews were a major target of the Nazi Holocaust, and the vast majority were killed. Synagogues were destroyed in much of the country. After the war there has been some return of Polish Jews to Poland, and the Chief Rabbi of Poland is an American. There apparently is some interest expressed now by the Christians of Poland about the history of Jews in that country.

Polish Immigrants in America

There has been an immigration of ethnic Polish into America for many years. Someone mentioned Kosciuszko, a hero of the American Revolution. However, even in our lifetimes there was significant prejudice against Polish-Americans; "Pollak" was an ethnic slur, and there were Polish jokes (often anthologized in books by Polish Americans). We concluded that the Polish who came as immigrants to the United States in the past were often poor, working in menial jobs; they were the subject of discrimination much as the Germans or Irish were before them. We also noted that that discrimination has largely disappeared. Some 10 million Americans share Polish ancestry, and while there are still "Polish neighborhoods" in some cities, the Polish Americans are generally well integrated and respected in American society.

Polish Americans have been important in raising American support for the Republic of Poland. For example, they helped educate members of Congress about the long history of Polish support for democratic institutions, and encouraged American support for Poland's entry into NATO. Since the United States is not a member of the European Union, this country was not active in the EU decision to admit Poland.

Final Words

The members liked this book, finding it easy to read and able to keep our attention in spite of the amount of material covered. It seems to fill the need for a single volume history for the intelligent lay reader. The club has read Adam Zamoyski before, and continue to find him a satisfying author.

Here is a review one member posted on his blog.

One of our members wore a black sweatshirt in honor of the occasion.
Slightly different than this, it also had the Polish eagle emblem.

No comments:

Post a Comment