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By the North Pole, right next to Thailand, somewhere within Russia… These are only some of the most wicked imaginations of many Western European laymen I’ve heard in my short but still colourful life.

 

 

In this short text I was asked to mix the history, culture and tourist information. Being only an imperfect human being I must admit this task places the bar too high for me. Being a history freak, however, I decided to tell you shortly the history of the cave I stem from. To put the art bit in as well, I will picture the story with small reproductions of Jan Matejko’s (1838-1893) paintings which illustrate the historic stuff I shall mention. By the way you lot will believe Poles do paint nice pieces. Here’s the guy:

 

 

Now, why did I write about my life being colourful? It’s worth mentioning that in fact I am (being born 1986) a representative of the very first really free and happy generation of Polish youth who enjoyed a brand new, still not quite perfect, but free Poland. The moderately violent transition from the truly artificial and collapsing regime (found somewhere on the socialist-communistic boundary) of the People’s Republic of Poland has theoretically finished in the early 1990s, although some still argue (and it is in fact hard not to agree with them) that the complex process of restructuring and cleaning the country off the communist scum has not ended yet. Anyway, the product of these complex socio-political processes resulted in returning the righteous crown back on top of White Eagle’s head and bringing to life of a nice, shiny and, most importantly, democratic Republic of Poland.

 

 

It is often said that today Poles live in their Third Republic. This is because of the turbulent history of the brave nation who had the courage to reside on the lands enclosed by the Baltic Sea from the North and the Carpathians from the south; by Germans from the West and by Russians from the East. To make a living in such a location one needs to start early. The Polish Prince, Mieszko I, had the same view on the matter. Not really wanting to wait for a likely (W)Hol(l)y German crusade, he ‘picked and chose’ himself a lovely Czech princess and Christianised Poland (finally uniting it under single rule) in 966 AD.

 

 

As the princess was a really pretty one, Prince Mieszko did not hesitate long and started a strong dynasty which has ruled Poland over the next 404 years. Acquiring the title of a King did not take them long. After a couple of minor wars a period of peace came, during which the Pope and the Holy German Emperor Otton III granted the crown to Mieszko’s son, Bolesław I the Brave. He was crowned in the year 1000.

 

 

After Bolesław’s death in 1025 other kings came and went, leaving better or worse memories of themselves. For some period of time Poland has been divided between rivalling Princes, but quite soon became united under the single Crown again. The horror came in 1370, when the last king of the Piast dynasty, Kazimierz III the Great has joined the angels in heaven. The only living successor of Piast blood, the king of Hungary Ludwik I, has taken over the rule. He has persuaded the nobles to grant the crown to his daughter, teenage Princess Jadwiga. As a return, he has limited the power of the Crown by granting a ‘Privilege’ to the nobles. This has given birth to the first democratic system of state governance in Europe, which was known as “Nobles’ Democracy”. Soon, Poland has united with Lithuania under the rule of Jagiello dynasty in 1385, creating an enormous empire of over 1M square kilometres known as the "Two Nations' Republic" or "Commonwealth".

 

 

It has survived in such a state for nearly 400 years. The rule of the Jagiello dynasty was a good time for Poland. The country was becoming stronger, richer and more democratic. It succeeded in stopping the ambitions of the Teutonic Knights, whose ever-growing power threatened the already shaky stability in the region and the interests of Poland itself. The marvellous and complete military triumph in July 1410 under Grunwald…

 

                         

 

…was not used fully to crash the political power of the Knights. Poland dominated the Teutonic Knights after the 1519-1521 invasion. The last Grand Master of the Knights, Albrecht Hohenzollern, decided to secularise the country and paid a tribute to Polish king, Zygmunt I. Have a look, it’s a damn nice view :)

 

 

Since 1573 (due to the demise of Jagiello dynasty) the kings of Poland were democratically elected. The first choice – a Frenchman – was, not to use any explicit language, a mistake. At least the election was a success, strengthening the democratic foundations of the Polish system of governance.

 

 

The second choice… well, yes, the choice of 1575 was a good one. Stefan Batory, since 1571 was the Prince of Transylvania. Sounds good, doesn’t it? Well, nobles already knew we needed some good fighter with a good title to protect ourselves from the Tsar Ivan the Terrible. To give you the impression, here’s the coronation title of Stefan Batory: “Stefan I, by the grace of God King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania, Duke of Ruthenia, Prussia, Masovia, Samogitia, Kiev Land, Volhynia, Podlachia and Livonia, as well as Prince of Transylvania”. Although he had no opportunity to crash the Tsarist armies on the open field, he managed to win the Russo-Polish Livonian War by the skilful and determined Siege of Pskov.

 

 

He not only recovered all the lands acquired by the Tsar but also imposed a good political treaty. Ivan was no longer so Terrible. Batory was the last king of Poland before the Swedish Royal House of Vasa (not to confuse with the healthy, dietary bread) took over. No matter what you read further, believe me, they were brilliant and devoted rulers and the period they were bound to play the very first fiddle in Poland was, in my opinion, one of the toughest moments in Polish history.

 

Due to dozens of offensive and defensive wars thought especially in 17th Century, Poland has suffered a severe crisis, strengthened by internal political tensions. The first wars with Sweden over South-East Baltic areas (1600-1629) were followed by the Cossack uprisings (1648), two Polish successful offensives on Russia (1609-1619), Russian unsuccessful invasion ten years later, further wars with Swedish branch of Vasa dynasty, culminated in the Gustav Adolf’s invasion of Poland on unprecedented scale, where Poland was hit so badly it controlled only a few cities, a  Jasna Góra monastery in Częstochowa being the most important resistance point. During “The Deluge”, Commonwealth lost an estimated 1/3 of its population (relatively higher losses than during World War II), and its status as a great power. After driving the Swedish out, Poland was able to end the wars with Cossacks, Tatars and Russia to finally resist a further war with Turkey in the second half of the century. Although being a wreck, Poland decided to support Austria in its war against Turkey. The new king, Jan III Sobieski, led the army which saved the besieged Vienna. This was the last great triumph of Polish army till stopping USSR in August 1920.

 

 

However, internal problems caused by the wars, combined with inefficient and not loyal monarchs such as Wettin dynasty or SA Poniatowski, resulted in Poland being divided between three other European powers: Prussia, Russia and Austria-Hungary between 1772 and 1795. This was done with a surprising ease as country was literarily torn apart politically and ruined economically. The very last success of the domestic affairs of the First Republic was passing of the 1791 Constitution. It was a second such statute in the world, following the US Constitution of 1787. But it was not enough to save the country. The only state which has not recognized the ‘stab-in-the-back’ defeat of Poland was the Turkish Empire.

 

Fortunately semi-independent Poland already from 1807 was always either too strong or too politically important to be fully incorporated by any other country. This allowed the spirit and culture to survive the hard times.

 

The fully independent Poland emerged to the maps of Europe in 1918, after 123 years of disappearance. It has started a period of brilliant economical development, though not without internal political tensions. It was reborn just to defeat the Communist USSR in defensive war of early 1920s and demise under the Nazi Germany and Stalinist USSR’s aggression of 1939. While the First Republic existed for roughly 800 years, the Second Republic lasted only 20 years and 11 months.

 

Year 1945 has seen the emergence of Communist controlled People’s Republic of Poland, a country desired by Stalin and hated by Poles themselves. This period had the most impact on how Poland looks like today and unfortunately on its position in today’s world. The incapacitation of the economy, permanent exploitation by USSR, balancing international politics on the verge of war either with the western Europe or Russia itself and attempts to crash Polish culture and nationality have turned many parts of the country to misery.

 

 

Today’s Poland? In the light of all that was said already it seems a hard question. Recently joined in the EU, great ties to tradition, the biggest Central European economy developing now on a magnificent scale. Modern and old, tradition and liberalism. Conflict? No, thanks, rather a time of difficult but successful changes. An important time and a good time to come and visit this magical country. To witness the new coming in, before the old disappears. Yup, proud to be Polish :)

Marcin Zawadzki