Poland: Her People and Deeds

Marek Jan Chodakiewicz


Poland is the abode of the Poles. It is their homeland (kraj). The term homeland, however, can have a variety of meanings. First, it can be a political concept of the Polish state (państwo). It is a bit of a relative term for Poland construed according to this concept usually denotes the Polish state as it exists in whatever shape and borders it happens to have at a given moment in history. So, Poland can be the equally well the medieval Piast Polish kingdom (ca. 10th to 14th centuries), the Jagiellonian empire (1386-1572), the noble Commonwealth (Rzeczpospolita – 1573-1795) “from sea to shining sea” (od morza do morza), the Duchy of Warsaw (1807-1815), the Congress Kingdom (1815-1831), the Second Republic (1918-1939), or the Third Republic (1993-now).

Second, Poland is a physical geographic concept. It is the physical space where the Poles reside. It is generally agreed to be located in the heart of Europe to the east of Germany, and to the west of Russia. More specifically, most place contemporary Poland between the Oder and Bug rivers. Cris-crossing the Polish plain from south to north, the Vistula in particular stands as one of the most permanent features of the country’s physical geography, along perhaps with the Baltic Sea as its northernmost boundary and the Carpathian Mountains as its southern frontier.

Yet, third, the Polish land needs not be confined to that physical space. Polish emigrants and deportees often brought with them a fistful of home soil to the new place of settlement, which – usually for a couple of generations – they would consider Poland abroad, a home away from home. This can be in places as remote and hospitable as, say, Brazil, Australia, South Africa, or the United States of America. On the other hand, Poland abroad can also be in realms as harsh and forbidding as Siberia or Kazakhstan.

Fourth, Poland is a metaphysical construct. “Poland has not perished yet, so long as we live,” sing the Poles. That is the initial stanza of the national anthem, “Dąbrowski’s Mazurka.” That means that Poland needs not exist on either a political nor a physical plane but it endures nonetheless so long as there is a single person to call herself or himself Polish. And that person can be located anywhere, even in cyberspace. Long live Cyber Poland! Further, he or she who elects to be Polish chooses this specific identity as reflected by the Polish culture.

The conviction that it is the Polish spirit and the mere declaration of the Polish endurance which drive reality served the Poles quite well during the Era of the Partitions (1772-1918) when their state all but disappeared from the map of Europe as an independent entity. This incredible spiritual device proved indestructible because it was coupled with Christianity, and infused with Christian symbolism, in a grand Romantic nationalist style. It was similar during the German “Nazi” Occupation (1939-1945) when Poland existed as the Third Reich’s entity dubbed the Gouvernment General led by German overseers. An identical pattern endured afterwards, during the Soviet Occupation (1944-1993), when the Communists maintained a colonial model in Poland, however, with native proxies at the helm of the state.

On each historic occasion, the Polish men and women stood up to fight for freedom propelled by the Romantic spirit: “The kids took to the field/From Chicago to Tobolsk/so that Poland were Poland” (I ruszała wiara w pole/od Chicago do Tobolska/aby Polska była Polską). Thus, Poland is in the Poles. And the Poles are those who identify themselves as such and endeavor actively to maintain the continuity of the Polish culture. The latter is based upon several immutable values, including faith, family, tradition, freedom, patriotism, and private property. They constitute the Polish consensus reflected in “Poland has not perished yet, so long as we live.”

The Poles live and endure, and, thus, they continue. For Poland and Polishness denote a continuity. One can perhaps create ex nihilio a German Nazi Übermensch or a homo sovieticus but not a Pole (or Japanese or any other nationality). To be Polish one must accept the sum of what came before and retain its essence, while carefully enriching it with valuable accretions. Thus one must be prepared to march boldly into the future, all the while protecting the heritage, while passing the torch to the succeeding generation, or at least those of the young who elect freely to carry the inheritance into the dawning times, perhaps transforming its external form but retaining its internal ingredients.

The history of Poland is a story of continuity, sometimes against all odds, and sometimes as a matter of fact. It is something that, depending on the circumstances, the Poles cherish or take for granted. Usually, the greater the adversity, the stronger the Polish faith burns. Conversely, increased security and prosperity tend to defocus the Poles from their patriotic commitments and even to breed indifference. Thus, the degree and intensity of the awareness of one’s heritage and obligations to Poland change with times, circumstances, and individuals. Yet, the Poles recognize the Polish legacy as something uniquely theirs throughout the centuries and identify with it for better and worse, kaleidoscopic intellectual fashions du jour notwithstanding. Or they cease to be Poles. And good riddance to those.

Historian tends to research, lecture, and write under an enormous amount of stress. Mendacity mars each historical period but none more than modernity and post-modernity. From the so called Enlightenment until 1918, the Polish state first suffered partitions and then non-existence. Others, meanwhile, wrote their own history and mostly ignored Poland. When they did mention the partitioned real at all, her neighbors in particular they waxed negatively about the Poles and their country to justify their own predatory practices and dastardly deeds. The practice returned shortly under the German “Nazis” (1939-1945), when the nation suffered under the yoke of the Third Reich, and the Communists (1945-1993), when Poland endured as a Soviet colony. Only for a short spell between 1918 and 1939 and now from 1989 to the present that the colonized and victimized people regained their voice. And speak we shall.

Enjoy the outline and the continuity!

Polish prehistory

An ancient past stubbornly clings to its secrets. Time erases most traces of the origins of peoples. Illiterate societies fail to speak for themselves in writing. It is up to others, visitors or their interlocutors, to note the presence of the pre-literate cultures and, sometimes, their deeds. Nonetheless, the non-written cultures leave behind various artefacts and structures for the archeologists and historians, songs and tales for the anthropologists and folklorists, and, lately, genetic material (DNA) for the geneticists. That is essentially all the historian can work on as far as the ancients.

What does it tell us about the prehistory of the lands which became Poland and the people who inhabited them? The Poles are Slavic people. The Slavs have inhabited central and eastern Europe for thousands of years. They arrived there as a successive wave of human migrations following the retreat of the glaciers from Europe (Last Glacial Maximum – LGM). The Slavic ancestors of the contemporary Poles originally settled between the Oder and Vistula river. We know little about them. Their origin and dates of arrival are hotly contested.

However, recent genetic, anthropological, folkloristic, and linguistic research has challenged previously held assumptions about the allegedly late Slavic intrusion into the area which was purported to have had taken place around the 5th century AD. Instead, modern science advances a theory of genetic continuity of the human settlement in the region since the Bronze Age. There is an uninterrupted genetic link among the people settled there through the millennia of their development. Preliminary tests of genetic material indicates a rather homogenous nature of the people there’re.

DNA research suggests a link with central Asia. Perhaps four theories explain this phenomenon best. First, the ancestors of the contemporary Poles originated from the Iranian Plateau and they migrated to central Europe. Second, the Polish ancestors stemmed from what is now Poland but migrated to the Iranian Plateau. Third, a circular movement was possible: while most stayed in situ, some migrated either to central Europe or to central Asia. Fourth, they may have also returned en bloc to the ancestral lands, and then retraced their steps again in whichever direction.

At any rate, the research is incomplete and preliminary but we should no longer sneer at the so-called Sarmatian myth which arose in Poland in the 16th century. According to the myth, the nobility of the Polish-Lithuanian-Ruthenian state were all Sarmatians from the steppes, and the common people were not. It is quite ironic that, if the migration and re-migration theories are proven correct, the contemporary Poles may indeed be the descendants of the mythical Aryans who, indeed, harken from the Iranian Plateau.

To return to hard science, DNA tests focus on two lineages of the Slavic ethnicity. One set of genetic data concerns Slavic and non-Slavic interaction initiated in the Middle Ages. The other presents older Slavic strains that date back perhaps as early as 10,000 years ago. According to the available, very preliminary DNA evidence, we can suggest the following about the ancient Slavs, in general, and about their Polish descendants in particular:

  • They are autochthonous denizens of the Oder-Vistula territories (contemporary Poland)

  • They settled there at least 4,000 years ago, as a result of migrations after the LGM

  • They are directly linked to the Iranian Plateau, either as a place of origin or destination.

  • They interacted with other ethnicities without being overwhelmed by their DNA, for instance reportedly sharing serious elements of their genetic material with the Vandals (who may have been initially Slavic and became Germanized, or were Teutons or Scandinavians with a Slavic admixture – having sojourned for a while in the lands of the Vistula River before their infamous irruption into the Roman Empire).

  • There is a genetic continuity between the ancient Slavs and modern Poles

  • In early medieval times, there was a notable infusion of south Slavic DNA (particularly Bulgaria) into the western Slavic pool.

  • In late medieval period most of the outside input came from the eastern Slavic areas, especially White Ruthenia (contemporary Belarus).

Archeological evidence from the Slavic lands dates from the late Stone Age, perhaps 8,000 years BC. The traces of the permanent settlements of the western Slavs (Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, and Lusitian Sorbs) continue throughout the Bronze and Iron ages (between ca. 2,300 BC and 725 BC) and beyond. Scholars disagree whether the evidence is Slavic from the beginning or it was appropriated by the incoming Slavs later. Nonetheless the research of the material culture of the peoples between the Oder and Vistula suggests that the Slavs formed a permanent settler core, while various folks sojourned in their lands, sometimes for a few hundred years, like the Celts who arrived ca. 500 BC and departed ca. 200 BC. The newcomers tended to settle, of course, in empty spaces between the Slavic tribes. They also tended to migrate when either they exhausted the local resources or they sensed better opportunities elsewhere.

There further exists a continual cultural link among the Slavic people between the Roman period and the Middle Ages. First written sources about the lands that became Poland and her people originate from the 5th century AD. Roman, Arab, Jewish, Byzantine, and Western Christian documents reveal that the Slavs were organized on a patriarchal principle into extended families which converged into clans that were subordinated loosely to tribes and tribal confederations. Eventually, three main groupings emerged: eastern Slavs (the ancestors of contemporary Belarusians, Ukrainians, and Russians); southern Slavs (Slovenes, Croats, Serbs, Macedonians, Montenegrins, and Bulgarians); and western Slavs (Lusitian Sorbs, Slovaks, Czechs, and Poles).

The political system of the Slavic tribes shared oligarchic and democratic features. Each clan periodically held an assembly (veche, wiec) to deliberate and resolve local issues. A larger, tribal assembly would attract the heads of clans with their retinues. Senior men were given precedence over the rest of the population, but women enjoyed a surprising degree of independence, including the right to inherit and own property. A common usage principle applied to various extent to land, which needed collective effort to produce food to sustain life. The Slavs pursued hunting, gathering, agriculture, and trade.

For the outside world, the greatest assets of the Slavs were amber and slaves. Thus, international trade moved up north to the Baltic through the Amber Route and through a westernmost section of the Silk Route that reached the south Slav lands all the way from China. Both carried the human cargo out of the Slavdom with the connivance of the local elites. The demand for this particular commodity rapaciously increased with the rise of Islam and the opening of the vast markets in both Al Andalus (Spain) and Khurosan (Central Asia). Thus, the Muslim west and east coveted the Saqualiba, the Slavic slaves. Unknown multitudes suffered this horrific lot, many of them castrated before the final destination.

Slavery reemerged hundreds of years later in the context of the holy war (jihad). Between the 15th and 19th centuries, the descendants of the conquering Mongol hordes, the Crimean Tatars, raided the southern lands of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth cyclically and kidnapped into slavery millions of people. There was no more collaboration of the local elites in the slave trade. On the contrary, the slaver jihadis met staunch resistance from the Polish state, its citizens, functionaries, and soldiers. By the time this particular calamity afflicted the realm, Poland had climbed to the apex of its power and had already experienced at least 500 years of statehood or, perhaps more precisely, of Christianity.

The Realm of the Piasts

When can we talk about Poland? The unification of the Western Slavic lands into a single unit took centuries. Organized states existed there well before the 10th century. It took much longer to generate a uniform Polish consciousness even among the elites. One tended to adhere primarily to one’s immediate locality and province; loyalty to the ruler and supra-local rights and privileges encouraged also an all-Polish identification. This chiefly concerned the warriors and priests. Christianity strengthened the process greatly because it endowed it with a universal dimension. A few speculate that Arian Christianity made its appearance in the Polish lands because of the Vandals, perhaps in the 6th century. On much more solid ground, we can ascertain that Orthodox Christianity penetrated from beyond the Carpathians sometimes in the late 9th century. But it was Catholic Latin Christianity that ultimately took root there.

When a major ruler of the Western Slavs, the Polanian Duke Mieszko I, accepted Christianity in 966, his was a mature state. Archeological evidence suggests that in the 9th century there had been serious strife, most likely domestic in nature: burned fortresses and ravaged settlements. Some speculate that this indicates a failed opposition to a drive to centralize power, or perhaps the end result of a clash between multiple contenders for power.

In any event, the Piast family ultimately emerged victorious. It unified various Western Slavic tribes between the Oder and the Vistula, eventually expanding toward the Bug River and pushing north to the Baltic coast. The process naturally took a number of generation and in some places, like Mazovia, autonomous entities survived within the Piast state, a situation exacerbated in the late medieval period by feudal partitioning.

But before then, in the 10th century, the Piast realm faced a crusade from the West. The neophytic Saxons had been hammering the pagan Lusitian Slavs, which would lead to the absorption and extinction of the latter within the next couple of hundreds of years. In the 10th century the Teutonic tide reached the Polanian territory. Fighting as vassals of the Holy Roman Emperors, the Saxons brought with them Christianity which they imposed with fire and sword.

The Piasts would have none of that. They preferred love. Mieszko I accepted baptism and duly married a Christian Bohemian princess. Their court and ordinary subjects followed suit. The newly Christian nation became a direct supplicant of the Pope. Its Piast ruler simply pledged his realm to Rome. Thus, the famous alliance was born between the successor of St. Peter and Poland. Occasional overtures to the Holy Roman Emperor notwithstanding, the Poles tended to side with the Papacy against the Empire.

Mieszko’s son would be crowned King in 1025. A bona fide Christian kingdom dates from that event. Undoubtedly the “Polish” state had existed before then. Yet, it is Christianity that gave Poland its royal system, state administration, social estates, and laws. Warriors became nobility. Clergy supplied bureaucrats, educators, and charity workers in charge of the social net: an ever increasing confederation of churches and monasteries whose functions went well beyond religious affairs. Natural law and legal codes of the Christian Middle Ages accommodated local Slavic arrangements, in particular those most compatible with the new ways. And they flavored, impacted, and transformed each other. Poland became a part of Western Christendom. It drew from its blessings liberally but it also contributed mightily. A happy synthesis of the Western and Slavic ways paved the way for the country’s blooming.

A strong start turned sour when the successors to the first Christian rulers either faced bad luck or displayed mediocrity which afflicted their realm with calamities, including foreign invasions and bouts of dependency on the Holy Roman Empire. Like the rest of Europe the Polish Kingdom experienced a period of feudal partitioning, but, felicitously, within one family: the Piasts. Duke Bolesław the Wry-mouthed’s decision to divide his realm between his sons to avoid civil strife and to bestow seniority on the eldest resulted in neither. Instead, the princes promptly quarreled and fought for supremacy. The symbolic price was the capital in Cracow, where the Piasts moved their center from Gniezno and Poznań.

In the early 14th century one of them, Władysław the Cubit (Łokietek), finally managed to reassemble his patrimony. It was greatly enriched and augmented by his son and successor, Casimir the Great. Economic prosperity went hand in glove with infrastructural improvements, including town and castle construction. Military expansion targeted the south-east in particular, where the borders of the kingdom eventually reached Podolia toward the Black Sea. Alas, the last of the Piast monarchs lacked a legitimate male heir. After his death, the throne in Cracow accrued to his granddaughter, Hedwig d’Anjou (Jadwiga Andegaweńska), who was duly crowned King of Poland. This was a warning to the rapacious and adventurous foreign royals that the Polish throne was by no means vacant. Further, in the Polish tradition women could inherit, and the Poles firmly rejected Salic law which barred the female offspring from the thrones of Western Europe.

It was the Piasts who laid the groundwork for their realm’s greatness, even after their demise. Their laws, rights, and privileges would culminate in an unprecedented degree of freedom for the succeeding generations. Let us list some of the major ones. Poland’s Act of Cienia of 1228, which without its authors’ realization reflected the spirit and sentiment of England’s Magna Carta of 1215, limited the royal prerogative and converted the sovereign’s own advisory circle into a permanent council of the lords to advise the ruler. This eventually would mutate into a Senate and royal chancellery, hence a government administration. Unlike the Magna Carta, which for centuries remained an unfulfilled promise, the Act of Cienia paved the way for further royal and ducal concessions to devolve power.

Thus, the Act of Chęciny of 1331 strengthened local assemblies (wiece) which already existed at the county and provincial levels and soon would operate as dietines (sejmiki). Further, in time, the delegates elected at the local level found their way to the national parliament, the Sejm. The ranks of the enfranchised grew exponentially over time. This was because competing Piast dukes bestowed warrior status on their followers rather promiscuously, in particular in the Duchy of Mazovia. The result was that Poland boasted arguably the most numerous noble estate in Europe, thus boosting the ranks of the people who were free to vote and never tired of demanding more rights for themselves. And the nobles voiced their desires freely at every level of assembly: from the county through the province all the way up to the national parliament.

The key to nobility was military service, and not wealth. Those who served to defend the realm were ennobled. The chivalrous estate had rights. The knights also believed that they served the king and the kingdom in just wars, which they usually defined as defensive engagements. This spirit was reflected in the royal Act of Koszyce (Košice) of 1374, where the sovereign agreed to standardize existing taxes and to eschew imposing new taxes without the consent of the chivalry. Most importantly, the Act made the monarch’s ability to wage foreign wars of aggression contingent on the consent of the warrior estate: the nobility.

Meanwhile, the Piasts also addressed the needs of the non-noble part of their population to ascertain the prosperity of their kingdom. To encourage settlement outside of the traditional areas, peasants who agreed to clear new lands in the east were exempted from taxation virtually for life. To encourage talent to move Poland, to give shelter to the desperate, and to maintain domestic peace, Bolesław the Pious granted Jess the Statue of Kalisz in 1264. This was a charter of Jewish liberties and it eventually led to Jewish autonomy in Poland. Meanwhile, Christian burghers, artisans, and farmers from the Wests were enticed to relocate to the Piast Kingdom by permitting various legal German arrangements, including the practice to allow to found villages and towns based on the Magdeburg law as well as other Hanzeatic systemic solutions to coexist with ancient Slavic and customary Polish legal dispositions. Robust urban self-government strengthened the cities and promoted manufacturing, commerce, and trade. Royal bailiffs and judges adjudicated quarrels between the estates. Last but not least, it was the last Piast king’s granddaughter, Hedwig, who generously endowed as a separate corporate body, the University of Cracow (1364), thus providing for the professoriate and the student estate and ushering in the realm’s adventure with higher education.

Thus equipped by the Piasts, Poland was to embark on its fabulous journey to greatness under their successors, the Jagiellons.

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