The territorial dimensions of Poland have varied considerably during its history. In the 9th and 10th cent., the Polians [dwellers in the field] gained hegemony over the other Slavic groups that occupied what is roughly present-day Poland. Under Duke Mieszko I (reigned 960–92) of the Piast dynasty began (966) the conversion of Poland to Christianity. Gniezno was the first capital of Poland and Poznań the first episcopal see. The Piasts expanded their domains in wars against the German emperors, Hungary, Bohemia, Pomerania, Denmark, and Kiev, and in 1025 Boleslaus I (reigned 992–1025) took the title of king.
At the death (1138) of Boleslaus III the kingdom was broken up; its reunification was begun by Ladislaus I, who was king from 1320 to 1333. During the period of disunity, the Teutonic Knights gained a foothold in the then pagan N Poland. Their power was only broken by their defeat at the hands of Polish-Lithuanian forces at Tannenberg (1410); by the second treaty of Toruń (1466) they became vassals of the Polish kings. The main line of the Piast dynasty ended with the death (1370) of Casimir III, whose enlightened economic, administrative, and social policies included the protection of the Jews. He also completed the reunification of the kingdom. After Casimir, the crown passed to his nephew, Louis I of Hungary (reigned 1370–82) and then to Louis' daughter, Jadwiga (reigned 1384–99).
Jadwiga married Ladislaus Jagiello, grand duke of Lithuania, who became king of Poland as Ladislaus II (reigned 1386–1434). The Jagiello dynasty ruled Poland until 1572; this period—especially the 16th cent.—is considered the golden age of Poland. Although involved in frequent wars with Hungary, Moscow, Moldavia, the Tatars, and the Ottoman Turks, the closely allied Polish and Lithuanian states maintained an empire that reached from the Baltic to the Black Sea.
Ladislaus III (reigned 1434–44; after 1440 also king of Hungary), although routed and killed by the Ottoman Turks at the battle of Varna (1444), gave Poland the prestige of championing the Christian cause against the Muslim invaders. Casimir V (1447–92) placed Poland and Lithuania on equal terms and decisively defeated (1462) the Teutonic Knights. Under Sigismund I (reigned 1506–48) internal power was consolidated, the economy developed, and the culture of the Renaissance was introduced. During the reign of Sigismund II (reigned 1548–72) a unified Polish-Lithuanian state was created by the Union of Lublin (1569).
The arts and sciences flourished during the Jagiello dynasty; a towering figure of the age was the astronomer Copernicus. At the same time, however, the Jagiellos were forced to contend with the growing power of the gentry, who by the 15th cent. began to acquire considerable political influence. In 1505 the gentry forced King Alexander (reigned 1501–6) to recognize the legislative power of the Sejm, or diet, which comprised a senate (made up of representatives of the landed magnates and of the high clergy) and a chamber (consisting of the deputies of the nobility and of the gentry). The liberum veto, which allowed any representative to dissolve the Sejm and even to annul its previous decisions, was applied with growing recklessness in the 17th and 18th cent.
The Polish kings had always been elective in theory, but in practice the choice had usually fallen on the incumbent representatives of the ruling dynasty. After the death (1572) of Sigismund II, last of the Jagiellos, the theory that the entire nobility could take part in the royal elections was newly guaranteed. In practice, this meant that internal factional rivalry prevented the establishment of any great Polish dynasty; contested elections and insurrections by the gentry were frequent. Although the state was weakened, the constitution of the royal republic created a certain democratic egalitarianism among the gentry and noble classes. The peasantry, however, had been reduced to serfdom, and its condition tended to worsen rather than improve. The middle class was largely Jewish or German.
There was considerable religious toleration in 16th-century Poland and the progress of Protestantism was arrested without coercion by the Jesuits, who introduced the Counter Reformation in 1565. Relations between the Roman Catholic ruling class and the followers of the Greek Orthodox Church in Belarus and Ukraine (then parts of Lithuania) were less harmonious and helped to involve Poland in several wars with Russia.
Much of the reigns of Stephen Báthory (1575–86) and Sigismund III (1587–1632) was occupied by attempts to conquer Russia. The outstanding figure of their reigns was Jan Zamojski (1542–1605). Sigismund III, a prince of the Swedish ruling house of Vasa, also became king of Sweden; after his deposition (1598) by his Swedish subjects he continued to advance his claims and started a long series of Polish-Swedish wars. In addition, Sigismund defeated an armed revolt (1606–7) by the gentry and fought the Ottoman Turks. He was succeeded by his sons Ladislaus IV (1632–48) and John II (1648–68).
John's reign came to be known in Polish history as the "Deluge." During his rule discontent in Ukraine flared in the rebellion of the Cossacks under Bohdan Chmielnicki. In 1655, Charles X of Sweden overran Poland, while Czar Alexis of Russia attacked from the east. Inspired by their heroic defense of the monastery at Częstochowa, the Poles managed to regroup and to save the country from complete dismemberment. The Peace of Oliva (1660) cost Poland considerable territory (including N Livonia), and by the Treaty of Andrusov (1667) E Ukraine passed to Russia. The Vasa dynasty ended with the death of John II. John III (John Sobieski; reigned 1674–96), who defended (1683) Vienna from the Ottoman Turk invaders, temporarily restored the prestige of Poland, but with his death Poland virtually ceased to be an independent country.
After John III, the fate of Poland was determined with increasing cynicism by its three powerful neighbors—Russia, Prussia, and Austria. In 1697 the elector of Saxony was chosen king of Poland as Augustus II by a minority faction supported by Czar Peter I. Augustus allied himself with Russia and Denmark against Charles XII of Sweden. In the ensuing Northern War (1700–1721), during which Poland was plundered several times, Charles XII maintained Stanislaus I (Stanislaus Leszczynski) as Polish king from 1704 to 1709. The War of the Polish Succession (1733–35), precipitated by Augustus's death, resulted in the final abdication of Stanislaus and the accession of Augustus III (1734–63). Under Augustus III, the Polish economy (still largely agricultural) declined and orderly politics was undermined by feuding among the great landed families, which was evident in the frequent use of the liberum veto.
As a result of the support of Catherine II of Russia and Frederick II of Prussia, Stanislaus II (Stanislaus Poniatowski; reigned 1764–95), a member of the powerful Czartoryski family, was elected king of Poland. Prince Nikolai Repnin, the Russian minister at Warsaw, gained much influence in Polish internal affairs. Opposition to Russian domination led to the formation (with French help) in 1768 of the Confederation of the Bar, which, however, was suppressed militarily by Russia in 1772. Fearing that all Poland might fall into Russian hands, Frederick II proposed (1772) a partition plan to Catherine II, which later in the same year was modified to include Austria. Three successive partitions (1772, 1793, 1795) resulted in the disappearance (1795) of Poland from the map of Europe. Russia gained the largest share.
Despite the severe losses that the country suffered, there was a renewed spirit of national revival after 1772. It manifested itself in the thorough reform (including the abolition of the liberum veto ) embodied in the May Constitution (1791) for the remaining independent part of Poland and in the heroic revolt (1794) led by Kosciusko. By the Treaty of Tilsit (1807), Napoleon I created a Polish buffer state, the grand duchy of Warsaw, under King Frederick Augustus I of Saxony. After Napoleon's defeat, the Congress of Vienna (1814–15) established a nominally independent Polish kingdom ("Congress Poland"), in personal union with the czar of Russia. The western provinces of Poland were awarded to Prussia; Galicia was given to Austria; and Kraków and its environs were made a separate republic.
A Polish nationalist revival led to a general insurrection in 1830 (known as the November Revolution) in Russian Poland. The Poles were at first successful, but their army was defeated (1831) at Ostrołęka, and the Russians reentered Warsaw. The Polish constitution was suspended, and the kingdom became virtually an integral part of Russia. Thousands of Poles emigrated, notably to Paris, which became the center of Polish nationalist activities. In 1846 an insurrection in Galicia by the peasantry against the gentry led to the annexation of Kraków by Austria. Rebellions broke out in 1848 in Prussian and Austrian Poland, and in 1863 the Poles in Russian Poland rose in the so-called January Revolution.
After crushing the revolt, the Russians began an intensive program of Russification. At the same time industry (especially the manufacture of textiles and iron goods) was developed and large estates were divided and given in freehold to peasants. A similar policy of Germanization in Prussian Poland was linked with Bismarck's Kulturkampf (see Ledóchowski, Count Mieczisław). Only in Austrian Galicia did the Poles enjoy a considerable degree of autonomy, but there the economy was very weak.
In World War I the early efforts of the Polish nationalists were directed against Russia. Polish legions, led by Joseph Piłsudski, fought for two years alongside Germany and Austria. In Nov., 1916, Germany and Austria proclaimed Poland an independent kingdom, but Germany, which occupied the country, retained control over the Polish government. Piłsudski resigned and was imprisoned (July, 1917), and the independence movement from then on was centered at Paris. The defeat of the partitioning powers allowed Poland to regain its independence, which was proclaimed on Nov. 9, 1918. Piłsudski returned on Nov. 10 and was declared chief of state.
The Treaty of Versailles (1919) gave Poland access to the Baltic Sea via the Polish Corridor and forced Germany to return Prussian Poland to Poland. Gdańsk became a free city and parts of Silesia were awarded to Poland as a result of plebiscites. The Polish-Russian border proposed at the Paris Peace Conference (and later named after Lord Curzon of Great Britain) would have awarded to Russia large parts of the former eastern provinces of Poland, inhabited mainly by Belarusians and Ukrainians. However, Poland insisted on its 1772 borders. War broke out between Poland and Russia, and in 1920 the Poles drove the Russians back from Warsaw. In the Treaty of Riga (1921), Poland secured parts of its claims.
Poland also became involved in protracted disputes over Vilnius with Lithuania and over Teschen with Czechoslovakia. About one third of newly created Poland was made up of ethnic Germans, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Jews, and Lithuanians, and these minorities were generally treated inequitably. A republican constitution was adopted in 1921. Financial and agrarian reforms were undertaken and industrialization progressed, but the condition of the peasantry remained generally poor, and the landowning aristocracy retained most of its wealth.
In 1926 a parliamentary government was suspended by a military coup that made Piłsudski virtual dictator. After his death (1935), Marshall Edward Rydz-Śmigły assumed control, and under a new constitution (1935) parliament became a tool of the governing clique ("the colonels"). Foreign policy in the 1920s was based on alliances with France and Romania; in the 1930s, under the guidance of Col. Josef Beck, Poland attempted to steer a course among the powers of Europe (especially Germany and the USSR) by following a pragmatic policy of balance. In the economic depression of the 1930s unemployment was widespread; also, anti-Semitism became increasingly virulent.
In early 1939, after having secured guarantees against aggression from Great Britain and France, Poland rejected Germany's demand for Gdańsk. In Aug., 1939, the negotiations of Great Britain and France with the USSR for a military agreement fell through, partly because Poland would not agree to allow Soviet troops to march across Poland in case of a conflict with Germany. On Aug. 23, 1939, Germany and the USSR signed a nonaggression treaty, which included secret clauses providing for the partition of Poland between them. On Aug. 25, 1939, a treaty of alliance between Poland and England was concluded.
On Sept. 1, 1939, Germany, having refused further negotiations, invaded Poland and thus precipitated World War II. German columns advanced with spectacular speed. On Sept. 17, Soviet troops invaded Poland from the east. Polish resistance was crushed, and the country was partitioned between Germany and the USSR, except for a central portion that was annexed by neither power but was placed under German rule. After the German attack (1941) on the USSR, all Poland passed under German rule.
Poland suffered tremendous losses in life and property in the war. The Nazi authorities eliminated a large part of the population by massacres and starvation and in extermination camps such as the one at Oświęcim (Auschwitz). About six million Poles were killed, and 2.5 million were deported to Germany for forced labor. Polish Jews suffered the worst fate; all but about 100,000 of the prewar Jewish population of some 3,113,900 were exterminated.
Despite German oppression, the Poles did not cease to fight for their independence. An underground resistance movement was organized, and a government in exile (led initially by General Władysław Sikorski and later by Stanislaus Mikołajczyk) was established first in France and then in London. Polish prisoners of war in the USSR were allowed to form a corps under Wladislaw Anders and fought with distinction with the Allies; other Polish units were organized in Great Britain and Canada.
The German announcement (1943) that a mass grave of some 10,000 Polish officers, allegedly executed by the Soviets, had been discovered in the Katyn forest led to a break between the Polish government in exile and the Soviet Union. (The Soviet Union admitted to the massacre in 1990.) The rift was widened by Soviet demands for the Curzon line as the new Polish-Soviet border. When Soviet troops entered Poland, a provisional Polish government was established (July, 1944) under Soviet auspices at Lublin. A Polish uprising (Aug.–Oct., 1944) at Warsaw, organized by the resistance movement and controlled by the Polish government in exile in London, was crushed by the Germans while Soviet forces remained inactive outside Warsaw. The last German troops were expelled from Poland in early 1945.
By an agreement at the Yalta Conference (Feb., 1945), Mikołajczyk joined the Lublin government, and this new government was subsequently recognized by Great Britain and the United States. The Polish-Soviet border was fixed by treaty slightly east of the Curzon line, and 15% of German reparation payments to the USSR was allotted to Poland. At the Potsdam Conference (July–Aug., 1945), the sections of Prussia east of the Oder and Neisse rivers, including Gdańsk and the southern part of East Prussia (altogether c.39,000 sq mi/101,010 sq km) were placed under Polish administration pending a general peace treaty. The expulsion of the German population from these territories was sanctioned.
A unicameral parliament was established (1946) after a referendum. Legal opposition was limited almost entirely to Mikołajczyk's Peasant party, but nationalists, rightists, and some other opponents operated as underground forces. The government-controlled elections of 1947 gave the government bloc an overwhelming majority; Mikołajczyk resigned and fled abroad. Bolesław Bierut, a Pole who was a Communist and a citizen of the USSR, was elected president of Poland by the parliament. The Sovietization of Poland was accelerated; in 1949, Soviet Marshall Konstantin Rokossovsky was made minister of defense and commander in chief of the Polish army. The constitution of 1952 made Poland a people's republic on the Soviet model.
In 1949, Poland joined the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON), and in 1955 it became a charter member of the Warsaw Treaty Organization. Polish foreign policy became identical with that of the USSR. Relations with the Vatican were severed; the church became a chief target of government persecution, which included the arrest (1953) of the primate of Poland, Cardinal Wyszynski. Partly as a result of the more relaxed atmosphere following Stalin's death (1953), workers and students in Poznań rioted (late June, 1956) in a mass demonstration against Communist and Soviet control of Poland. Discontent soon became widespread, and the government was forced to reconsider its policies.
In Oct., 1956, Władysław Gomułka, purged in 1949 from the Polish Communist party as a "rightist deviationist" and imprisoned from 1951 to early 1956, was elected leader of the Polish United Workers (Communist) party (PZPR) and became the symbol of revolt against Moscow. Gomułka denounced the terror of the Stalinist period, ousted many Stalinists from the government and the party, relieved Rokossovsky of his posts, and freed Cardinal Wyszynski from detention. Collectivization of agriculture was halted, and the Poles were given far more freedom than under the previous regime. Relations with the church improved, and economic and cultural ties with the West were broadened. However, Poland retained close ties with the USSR. By the early 1960s Gomułka was tightening the party's hold on Poland; intellectual freedom was curbed, the church again was a target of government polemics, political rhetoric was infused with an anti-Semitic nationalistic fervor, and renewed attempts were made to have peasants join state groups.
In Aug., 1968, Poland joined other East European countries and the USSR in invading Czechoslovakia. In early Dec., 1970, Poland and West Germany signed a treaty (ratified in 1972) that recognized the Oder-Neisse line as Poland's western boundary (recognized in 1950 by East Germany) and provided for normal diplomatic relations. Later in the same month, rapidly increasing food prices led to riots by workers in the Baltic ports of Gdańsk, Gdynia, and Szczecin. Gomułka was ousted and replaced by Edward Gierek, who sought, with some success, to ease the living conditions of the average citizen. By the mid-1970s, however, recession necessitated price hikes that led to strikes and the arrests of hundreds of protesters. The bishop of Kraków, Karol Wojtyła, became Pope John Paul II in 1978, and his subsequent visit to Poland in June, 1979, drew several crowds of over a million people.
The continued shortage and expensiveness of food and housing led to strikes in 1980, first at the Lenin Shipyards in Gdańsk and then in other cities. The striking workers formed an illegal labor union, Solidarity, led by Gdańsk shipyard worker Lech Wałęsa. Granted legal status and enormously popular, Solidarity continued to strike for higher wages, lower prices, and also for the right to strike and an end to censorship. General secretary Gierek was replaced by Stanisław Kania, who in turn was replaced by Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski. Martial law was declared in Dec., 1981; Solidarity was banned in 1982, and its representatives were arrested. Martial law was lifted in 1984, Jaruzelski became president in 1985, and all imprisoned Solidarity members were released by 1986. Solidarity, still outlawed, remained a popular force as the economy failed to improve.
In 1989, Solidarity was again legalized, and it participated in the negotiation of substantial political reforms that led to free elections in the same year. Solidarity won a majority in both houses of the parliament. Tadeusz Mazowiecki was named prime minister in 1989, and in 1990 Lech Wałęsa was elected president. In 1990 the Solidarity-led government adopted a radical program for transforming Poland to a market economy, but the ensuing economic hardship led to widespread discontent and political instability.
From 1990 through 1996 Poland had eight prime ministers. Hanna Suchocka became Poland's first woman to hold the post in 1992, but she lost a no-confidence vote the next year. In new elections the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) and the Polish Peasants' party (PSL) together won a majority. Waldemar Pawlak of the PSL became premier, but he resigned and was succeeded in Mar., 1995, by SLD leader Józef Oleksy. In Nov., 1995, Wałęsa was defeated in his presidential reelection bid by Aleksander Kwaśniewski, the SLD candidate. Oleksy resigned in Jan., 1996, after being accused of having spied for Moscow when he was a senior Communist party official. (Although the charges were later dropped, he was convicted in 2002 of having lied about collaborating with Polish military intelligence in the late 1960s.) He was succeeded by Włodzimierz Cimoszewicz of the SLD.
Solidarity Electoral Action (AWS), the political bloc that grew out of the labor union, won a plurality in 1997 parliamentary elections, forming a coalition government with the market-oriented Freedom Union. AWS leader Jerzy Buzek was named prime minister and pledged to speed up reform of Poland's outmoded heavy industrial base. A new constitution approved in 1997 diluted the power of the presidency and strengthened the power of the parliament. Poland joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1999. The AWS-led coalition collapsed in June, 2000, but Buzek formed an AWS minority government and remained in power. President Kwaśniewski was reelected in Oct., 2000.
In parliamentary elections in Sept., 2001, the SLD, led by Leszek Miller, won a sizable plurality of the seats but not a majority. The SLD formed a coalition with the PSL and the Union of Labor, and Miller became prime minister. The AWS, with only 5.6% of the vote, failed to win any seats; it was badly hurt by growing unemployment and other economic problems, as well as charges of corruption. Economic conditions continued to worsen after 2001, with unemployment reaching 19% in 2003. In Mar., 2003, disagreements over policy led the SLD to expel the PSL from the coalition; the SLD continued in power with a minority government.
Government budget cuts prompted by Poland's approaching entry into the European Union eroded popular support for the SLD, leading Miller to resign as party leader early in 2004, but he remained prime minister until May, when Poland joined the European Union. Marek Belka, a former finance minister and technocrat, was confirmed as Miller's successor in June. Continuing high unemployment and a series of political scandals hurt the SLD in the Aug., 2005, parliamentary elections. The socially conservative Law and Justice party (PiS) and the economically conservative Civic Platform (PO) each won roughly a third of the seats in the lower house and entered into unsuccessful negotiations on forming a new government.
The strongly conservative turn in Polish politics continued in October when, after a runoff election, Lech Kaczyński, of the PiS, was elected president; his main opponent had been Donald Tusk, the PO candidate. PiS subsequently formed a minority government led by Prime Minister Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz; the government became more stable when support from two fringe parties, one far-right, the other far-left, was secured in Feb., 2006. The three parties entered into a formal coalition in Apr.–May, 2006. There were tensions, however, between the president and prime minister, and in July, 2006, Marcinkiewicz resigned, and Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of PiS and the twin brother of the president, was appointed prime minister.
The coalition collapsed in September when the leader of the leftist Self Defense party (SRP) was expelled from the government for repeatedly criticizing its policies, but SRP rejoined the government in Oct., 2006, as it and the PiS sought to avoid new elections. Poland's Communist past returned to haunt the Roman Catholic church in early 2007 when Stanisław Wielgus, who had been appointed archbishop of Warsaw, resigned before he was consecrated after it was revealed the he had collaborated with the secret police under Communist rule.
Poland's support for basing U.S. antimissile facilities in its territory strained relations with Russia in early 2007 and into 2008 when a preliminary agreement was signed (August) concerning the placement of missile interceptors in N Poland. In Nov., 2008, Russia said it would station short-range missiles in its Kaliningrad exclave, neighboring N Poland, if U.S. missiles were based in Poland. A new U.S. administration, however, suspended plans for a ballistic missile defense system in E Europe in Sept., 2009, to focus on defending against shorter range missiles, and Poland agreed in principle (Oct., 2009) to host a short-range antimissile base. Meanwhile, the governing coalition collapsed agKomorowski, the marshal (speaker) of the Sejm, became acting president. In July, Komorowski was elected president, defeating Jarosław Kaczyński in a runoff. The Oct., 2011, parliamentary elections again produced a plurality for the PO and a majority for the PO-PSL coalition.