Monday, September 08, 2014

On Reading "Poland: A History"

I just finished reading Poland: A History by Adam Zamoyski. The book, goes back to the 10th century and brings the reader to the last decade (published in 2009). It has great maps, and some useful family trees of the ruling dynasties. The book focuses on governance and military affairs, but also includes material on culture, economy, and other topics. There is even an guide to the pronunciation of Polish names. While there is a good index, the author has chosen not to include references and notes. I would have appreciated a time line, perhaps less detailed than this one.

Zamoyski has written a previous best seller on Poland, and has a number of other histories in print including several dealing with topics related to Poland. While he was born in the west and educated in England, he is of Polish ancestry (the Zamoyski family was of Polish nobility and members held important positions in Poland in the past; the author is listed as a count in the family's Wikipedia entry).

The Early History

At the beginning of the 10th century, there were many western Slav people living in the area south of the Baltic. They were largely rural, living from agriculture. In the middle of the 10th century, a local leader named Miezsko is recorded to have created a network of forts and a standing army of some 3,000 horsemen. He married a Bohemian princess. He and the court of the Duchy of Polonia were baptized into the Catholic church in 966, introducing the Catholic church into the region. By 1025, the ruler of Poland was able to have himself crowned king, and ruled over a large kingdom. The kingdom at that time was bounded on the east by the Principality of Kiev, on the east by the Holy Roman Empire, with independent Slav people to the north east and Prussians to the north west, and Slovaks and Hungarians to the south -- a hard neighborhood. The Piast Dynasty that Miezsko founded continued in power until the mid 12th century. In 1138, with the death of the last king of that dynasty, the kingdom of Poland was split into five duchies, each ruled by a different member of the Piast family.

In 1171 a papal bull was promulgated defining a crusade to deal with the pagan peoples who still ruled much of the Baltic coast. It became possible for crusaders to obtain indulgence without traveling to the Levant. Subsequently an order of Teutonic Knights conquered the Prussians and established their own kingdom on the Polish border. In the middle of the 13th century, the Tatar Hordes sweeping out of Asia reached eastern Europe and disrupted the southern duchies of Poland. However, the Tatar invasion was halted, and the Piast family regained the throne and united Poland again at the end of the 13th century. German invasion again broke up the kingdom of Poland, but it was reunited in 1320, albeit with a reduced territory and no sea coast; still considerable modernization had occurred in the 13th century. The 14th century saw climate change help Poland's economy (as  crops failed further south due to the cold, while Poland experienced a warm spell and high yields, allowing expansion of  its agricultural exports). One sign of the development was the foundation of the Jagiellonian University in 1364. The last three of the Piast kings were succeeded by Louis of Anjou, who in turn was succeeded in 1386 by Wladyslaw Jogaila, the first of the Jagiellon dynasty.

The Time of the Jagiellon Dynasty

I quote from a history of Lithuania:
Initially inhabited by fragmented Baltic tribes, in the 1230s the Lithuanian lands were united by Mindaugas, who was crowned as King of Lithuania on 6 July 1253. After his assassination in 1263, pagan Lithuania was a target of the Christian crusades of the Teutonic Knights and the Livonian Order. Despite the devastating century-long struggle with the Orders, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania expanded rapidly, overtaking former Slavic principalities of Kievan Rus'. 
By the end of the 14th century, Lithuania was one of the largest countries in Europe and included present-day Belarus, Ukraine, and parts of Poland and Russia. The geopolitical situation between the west and the east determined the multicultural and multi-confessional character of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The ruling elite practiced religious tolerance and borrowed Chancery Slavonic language as an auxiliary language to the Latin for official documents.
When the Grand Duke Wladyslaw Jogaila accepted Poland's offer to become its king in 1386, Poland and the larger duchy of Lithuania were united under a single ruler. The Jagiellon dynasty that he began would rule until the end of the 16th century. Moreover, members of the family would also rule in other territories, expanding the joint empire greatly. Thus, in 1500, the Jagiellons ruled a multi-ethnic, multi-country empire that included Poland, Lithuania, Hungary, Bohemia, Moldavia and part of Prussia; it from the Baltic to the Black Sea and to the Adriatic.

Poland in the 16th century occupied more territory than any other country in Europe. Its population of 10 million was twice that of England and two-thirds that of France. Elites from the country were traveling into western Europe, and returning bringing aspects of the culture that they found there to Poland. Schools were established over most of the country and literacy expanded greatly, leading to an increase in the availability of printed material.

The Jagiellon's presided over a Poland even more involved in war than it had been in the previous centuries. Those earlier centuries were anything but peaceful. The University of Vilnius was founded in 1579.

During this period the society was highly stratified. There were many peasants at the bottom of the social ladder There was a land owning class, the szlachta, who were also a military elite of renowned horsemen; the lower house of the legislature, the Sejm, was selected by the szlachta. There were also magnates, those families with great riches and power, as well as the ruling family. There were palalatines who administered large regions, castellans, and starosta (described as a sort of royal sheriff); there was a Grand Council composed of catellans and palatines,  and a even higher Privy Council of palatines and bishops.

The realm was theoretically Catholic, but not the majority of its people. There were many Orthodox Christians acknowledging the Patriarch of Constantinople rather than the Pope in Rome, and there were also Armenian Christians. There was a significant Jewish community and even Muslims who had come into the realm with the Tatars and stayed. Indeed, there remained an unusual religious calm in Poland even while much of western Europe was convulsed by the Reformation and Counter-Reformation.

There was a major divide between town and country. Towns were still quite small, with the exception of Gdansk and for some of the time peasants were prevented by law from migrating to the towns. Some corporations were formed in this period, and mining and engineering works began to generate capital.

The 17th Century

The last of the Jagiellon kings died without heir in 1572 with the union between Poland and Lithuania having been formalized  by their legislatures in 1569. At that point kings began to be selected by the vote of thousands of gathered szlatcha, with no pretense of divine right; while powerful, they were heads of government constrained by rule of law. However, the initial experience with the election of kings did not seem very successful.

The Polish state of the time was much less developed than those of the leading countries of western Europe. The politically powerful aristocracy did not like paying taxes (and perhaps appreciated the freedom that the smaller state provided them). However, one result was that the standing army was relatively small. Recall that Ivan the Terrible had assumed the title of Tsar in 1543, symbolizing the expansionist movement of Russia.

The Vasa dynasty assumed power in 1587, and its three kings ruled until 1668. This was a period of the Counter Reformation, led by the Jesuits, who succeeded in making Poland a Catholic country (while starting the University of Wilno). The Uniate Church which combined the old Slavonic liturgy with allegiance to the Pope was started in the early 17th century, and Ukrainian peoples continued their affiliation with the Orthodox Church headquartered in Moscow.

By the end of this century, Zamoyski portrays the Polish Commonwealth as in decline. As western European nations were beginning their industrialization, Poland remained a producer of primary products; its exports were carried on foreign ships. The population was reduced during periods of war, and the urban population was greatly reduced. The state and crown were weakened, and the education level declined. The final quarter of the century was "the Polish anarchy".

The 18th century

Peter the Great (1672-1725) was in the process of making Russia a great power with western ambitions. Prussia was rising as a unified military power, and although Sweden was to lose relative military strength later, it successfully invaded Lithuania and Poland in the first decade of the 18th century. The Treaty of Warsaw in 1717 reduced the maximum size of the Polish army, made Russia formerly the Protector of Poland, and had Russian troops stationed permanently in Poland.

Zamoyski describes the following decades as seeing a renewal in Poland with intellectual growth and political reforms. That led to revolts and war with Russia, which Poland lost.

There was a partition of Poland in 1772, transferring portions of the country to Russia, Prussia and Austria.  While the socio-economic renewal continued even after this first partition, there was a second partition of Poland in 1792 in which Russia absorbed a great deal of the country and Prussia some of the rest. A third partition in 1796 divided what remained of Poland among Russia, Prussia and Austria. Poland ceased to exist as an country.

The 19th Century

All Europe had been influenced by the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century, convulsed by war. After a brief hiatus, the Napoleonic wars (1803-1815) again rolled through Europe, influencing the fate of Poland. On the one hand, France served as a refuge for Polish exiles, a source of employment for many of the former Polish military. The Treaty of Vienna, that ended the wars, recreated a "Congress Poland", much reduced in size from its former self, with Alexander I of Russia also as King of Poland (with a population of 3.3 million). The eastern part of what had been Poland remained part of Russia; Austria ruled a portion of what had been southern Poland as Galicia. The east and north came under Prussian authority, depriving Congress Poland of direct access to the Baltic.

Polish exiles continued to hope and plan for a return of an independent Poland; Polish soldiers fought in wars across the world. They even organized uprisings, which proved unsuccessful. While Europeans periodically worried about "the Polish Question" diplomacy left the Polish as a nation without a country of its own -- divided among several empires. Yet there was development of Polish culture in this disbursed people united by a common language and common history.

The 20th Century

Before World War I, Polish insurgents and troops were organized and prepared to fight against Russia. The Austrians and Germans, having declared war on Russia mobilized these troops, and all three powers mobilized their Polish citizens to serve in their military. Author Zamoyski states that 450.000 of them died and 900,000 were wounded in the three services during the war. By August 1915, the entire Kingdom of Poland was in German hands due to the success of its offensive against Russia.

When the Russian Revolution occurred, the active war between Russia and Germany ended. With the success of the Bolsheviks, a treaty between Russia and Germany gave the latter control of all of Poland. Allied policy changed with the entry of the United States into the war, and Woodrow Wilson's insistence on the right to self determination of peoples. The Treaty of Versailles, ending the war, established the Polish state anew, and it remained alive during the 1920s and 1930s. Unfortunately the Polish Republic suffered all of the problems that might have been expected of a state without a culture of good government in a very unsettled economic period.

In 1939, Hitler's Germany invaded Poland, triggering declarations of war on Germany by France and England, but no substantive effort on the part of the Allies to help the Poles. Shortly thereafter, the USSR also declared war on Poland. Poland was again partitioned between Germany and the USSR, with a portion (termed the General Government) ruled from Germany as a colony. Poland's large Jewish population was targeted by the Germans for extermination. Significant portions of the Polish army, air force and navy moved west to join the Allies.

Later in 1939, the Soviets attack Finland, and in 1940 they attack Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. In 1941 Germany opened its eastern front against the Soviet Union, and Stalin was forced into an alliance with Britain and the Polish forces in exile, and soon with the United States. Poles who had been sent to Siberia were rehabilitated into the war against Germany. In January 1944, Soviet troops crossed the 1939 Polish-Soviet frontier in pursuit of the retreating German army.

At the end of the war. Poland was reconstituted as the People's Republic of Poland, with a Communist government and party leadership. Much of the former country was was taken by the USSR, but a significant portion of Germany was given to the People's Republic. Poland was behind the Iron Curtain, under the control of the Soviet Union. Poland had lost much of its territory, millions killed, and much of its infrastructure in the war. It not faced further losses as Stalin's government sought to eliminate any opposition to the Communist control and overlordship of the USSR.

The post war period was marked by the changing winds from Moscow and the difficulties of the Communist leadership in managing the government, economy and society of Poland. The 1980s saw the rise of Solidarity, which began as a workers movement and came to include a very large portion of the nation. It created a significant problem for the Communists, whose ideology was based on working class support for Communism.

Zamoysk also devotes a chapter to the influence of the Catholic Church during this period. Pope John Paul II was Polish, and as a Cardinal had been the leader of the Polish Catholic Church. The Church, which included the vast majority of the people of Poland as its members, had been a rallying point for cultural opposition to Communism. When Pope John Paul II visited Poland several times, his public masses would draw millions of people.

As the government of the Soviet Union moved towards openness and reform, the satellite states became more able to distance themselves from the USSR. In 1989 the Communist constitution of Poland was revised and the country was renamed the Republic of Poland; Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary joined NATO.

The economy was in deep trouble at the time due to the economic policies of the former Communist government. Major loans were negotiated with the World Bank and IMF, and a program of privatization and economic liberalization was undertaken. Governance was marked by lack of experience by those assuming the reigns of power, and by corruption seen in other former Communist countries, leading to the emergence of a class of people enriched by acquiring government property at bargain basement prices.

The book was published in 2009. Information on the more recent history of Poland is available here.

Final Comments

The book is eminently readable. A friend, who has also been reading it, told me that she could hardly wait on finishing one chapter to find out what would happen next by reading the following chapter. The book covers more than 1000 years of history, and necessarily does so shallowly and at a brisk pace. I found that approach useful in that I knew far too little about the history of the area, especially in light of the conflict now going on next door in Ukraine.

If I have a complaint, it is that author Zamoyski fails to emphasize that the poor in non-Polish ethnic groups came to hate their Polish overlords in the days of the large Polish-Lithuanian state. That ill will has left residues to this day, as far as I understand what I have read of the region. I also found it difficult to recall all the names, but I put that down to my own failing memory and lack of familiarity with Polish surnames.

Poland was half a millennium ago a large, multi-ethnic empire. That empire was destroyed at the beginning of the modern age. That in itself makes this history worth reading. Moreover, the Polish people were in the forefront of the European nationalism movement, and reconstituted their country; that too is worth studying. Finally, understanding the history of Poland seems invaluable in understanding how and why the new members of NATO are reacting to Russian expansionism in this decade. I recommend the book!

These maps I recently posted describing the breakup of the USSR and Warsaw Pact might help visualize the content of the book and this post.

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