Logo: Nazi death camp
The following is a simplified note on the very complex history of Poland as affected by its neighbours when it was weak and as it affected its neighbours in turn when it was powerful.
Two facts need to be mentioned early on: for much of its history from the 16th to the 18th centuries Polands kings were elected, many of them were foreigners, and some of them were regarded as great rulers. Secondly, unlike other powers in Europe, Poland from an early age granted significant autonomy and freedom of religion to Jews, which some historians argue is why so many reached prominent positions in the Royal Court and among landed aristocracy as well as in society generally. Nevertheless, for a variety of reasons, Poland did not escape the anti-Semitism that grew in other parts of Europe and it became particularly vicious in the Pale of Settlement (see below) from the late 19th century onwards.
In 1382 the barons of Catholic Poland came to an agreement with Jogailo, the adult Grand Duke of pagan Lithuania, that he would marry the 11-year old Princess Hedwig or Jagwiga of Anjou, crowned Queen of Poland in 1385, in a move designed to strengthen Poland by creating a grand commonwealth with Lithuania and to thwart the ambitions of Polands enemy, Prussia. Thus Lithuania, the last pagan country in Europe, adopted Christianity on Polish rather than Prussian terms. As regards cultural identity, although the Royal Court and landowners often spoke French, Polish became the dominant language of the people, pushing Lithuanian into the background, where it lingered among peasants. Some ethnographers maintain that this was a deliberate policy of polonisation. The First Republic of Poland-Lithuania was created in 1569 and a few years later kings were elected directly by an assembly of the nobility: in fact these kings were more like modern company heads than absolute rulers. At its height in 1635, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth stretched from the Baltic in the north to the Black Sea in the south, encompassing part of modern Latvia (the area called Livonia), Lithuania, and much of present-day Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, and Estonia, as well as territories in other adjacent countries.
Image: St Anne's Church, Vilnius
The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth lasted about 400 years, until the late 18th century, when it was progressively dismembered by Russia under Catherine the Great, Hapsburg Austria under Empress Maria-Theresa, and Prussia under Frederick the Great (in 1772, 1793, 1795). The part of Poland centred on Warsaw came under Russian rule; the ancient capital Krakow now came under Austro-Hungarian rule; the Baltic area was Prussian. Under Catherine the Great the majority of Russias Jews with few exceptions had to move out of major cities like Moscow and St Petersburg and into a special area known as the Pale of Settlement, broadly speaking what is now the Baltic states, Poland and western Ukraine as far south as Odessa on the Black Sea.
In 1795, with Poland partitioned amongst foreign rulers, Polish thinkers advocated abandoning the idea of a multi-ethnic commonwealth or empire. Many of them went abroad to escape imprisonment or to get university education, and were imbued with French and German ideas. Most held that a nation was a kinship group with common descent, language, and culture, and that it had a right by ages-old occupancy to a native land. According to them, an ethnic group had a right to an independent state, that a state's population should be composed of members of a single nation, and that a state should encompass all members of the ethnic group.
The French Revolution of 1789 and Napoleons conquest of Europe spawned many Polish hopes of independence or at least of overthrowing Russian rule. A Polish duchy was created under Napoleon, but with his downfall after a disastrous war against Russia and subsequent European defeats, the partitions of Poland were in effect restored within a few decades of the 1815 Congress of Vienna (the Warsaw area or Congress Poland was incorporated into Russia in 1832, and the Krakow area into Austria in 1846). The revolutions in Europe in 1848 led to a huge surge of nationalism among ethnic groups that felt oppressed (i.e. who were not allowed to rule themselves, not able to develop their own culture or language, to spend their taxes on what they wanted, and so on).
There was a difference between the nationalism of the late 18th century after Napoleons conquests (when it was the educated classes who wrote about national aspirations in eastern Europe) and the post-1848 revolutions (when the industrialised urban and threatened rural masses took to the streets). Many people of different national backgrounds were either recent or current citizens of the French empire, the Austro-Hungarian empire, the Prussian empire and the Russian empire. Some, like Jews, Gypsies and other trans-national groups, were not regarded kindly by any of the ruling classes or majority population unless they adopted the dominant religion or national standards, which many Jews in particular did. Nationalism based on language, cultural traditions (literature, history) and religion (Russian Orthodoxy, Catholicism or Protestantism) grew with the 19th century revolutions. Notions of the nation state gradually replaced existing patterns of city states (as, for example, in what became Germany and Italy after their unification movements) or conglomerations of disparate groups under powerful barons or other feudal lords, the most powerful being the European royal courts.
Poland stayed under foreign rule for over a century, from the time of Catherine the Great until World War One, when the Russian Tsars troops were ordered to retreat by the new masters, the Bolsheviks, who took over in the Russian Revolution of 1917. In their war against Bolshevik Russia in 1918-20 Polish armed forces retook not only the Poland of old but also the Vilna/Wilno/Vilnius area (the ancient capital of Lithuania was nearby in Trakai) as well as vast tracts of Belarusian and Ukrainian populated areas. These areas had all been part of the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the difference now being that the new notions of nationhood gave each individual people aspirations of self-rule and religious-cultural identity. The authorities of interwar Poland (i.e. between the two world wars) sent tens of thousands of Poles to the new territories, known as the Kresy or borderlands. Many historians argue that the national aspirations of non-Polish local inhabitants were crushed in a de facto colonisation by ethnic Poles (e.g. Belarusian and Ukrainian historians say that in Belarusian and Ukrainian-populated areas the local language was not allowed to be taught in schools and Polish Roman Catholic churches were given preference to original local ones; Lithuanian historians say that in Vilnius/Wilno the Lithuanian language was marginalised and Lithuanian churches closed down).
The nationalism that grew after the Napoleonic wars of the late 18th century and throughout the 19th century, one based on language, religion and history, was further complicated in the late 19th and early 20th century by an emerging class nationalism in which religious affiliation was compounded or replaced by the views of the philosophers of the age of industrialisation and urbanisation. Marx and his opponents argued over the growing factory system, the enrichment of small numbers of industrialists (who owned the means of production) and the proletarianisation of rural populations into urban centres as a development of the class system leading to revolution. Some historians argue that these new philosophies, once adopted by the Bolsheviks of the Russian Revolution (mirroring similar philosophies during the French Revolution of the 1790s) were belief systems in their own right, like state religions, complete with their own creeds and sacred texts, high priests or learned interpreters, trappings of power, saints days, promotions of the faithful and executions of heretics, as well as their claims to infallibility and future salvation for the converted.
The new state religions in Polands two main neighbours, that is Hitlers Germany and Stalins Soviet Union, polarised interwar Polands politicians and the voting public. In very simple terms, the nationalists, led by Dmowski, regarded the nation as a discrete ethnic group with an inalienable right to all of its ancestral territory (however acquired). On the domestic scene they were brutal, violent, strident, and particularly intolerant towards other ethnic groups, especially Jews (they were happy to adopt German policies towards Jews). The independence camp, led by Pilsudski, viewed the nation more as a kind of spiritual community united by culture and history, the old Commonwealth, with its different languages, religions and ethnic groups. Polish independence of Russia was their main goal. Russia was their principal enemy; they were prepared to work with Austria and Germany to keep Russia at bay. They were tolerant and civil in their rhetoric.
A further complicating factor in this political melange was that in 1926 Pilsudski inspired a military coup in Poland by a coalition of right, left and centre politicians in order to cleanse politics of the violence, corruption and chaos of its increasingly fissiparous political factions. This Sanacja (i.e. sanitisation) regime ruled until World War II, becoming increasingly dictatorial and prescriptive. Although Pilsudski was never its official leader, he retained enormous influence until his death in 1935 and was regarded as a kind of benevolent dictator who had lost faith in democratic politics (and much of humankind to boot).
Under the terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact signed in Moscow in August 1939 the Soviet Union under Stalin and Nazi Germany under Hitler agreed a non-aggression pact in the event of war. In a secret protocol, however, they agreed that the independent countries of Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Romania would come under one or others sphere of influence. What this meant in effect was that when Germany invaded Poland in September that year, the Second Republic of Poland, which had in effect regained its independence after World War One for the first time since Catherine the Great, was dismembered by Germany and the Soviet Union. The other countries mentioned in the protocol suffered a similar fate. Some historians argue that Stalins aim in agreeing such a humiliating pact with Hitler was to gain time to bring his armed forces up to strength (in particular the top echelons) after he had decimated most of his generals in the purges of the late 1930s to rid himself of possible opponents. There were embarrassing shipments of food and other goods from a poverty-stricken Soviet Union (which was recovering from famine, induced by Stalin to subjugate the peasantry and enforce the collectivisation of agriculture) to a militarising Nazi Germany.
Image: Vilnius shop sign in Yiddish
The first organized anti-Semitic pogrom in Poland was under Russian rule in 1881: this followed the assassination of the reformist Tsar Alexander II (who emancipated the serfs in Russia) by a group of young revolutionaries led by Ignacy Hryniewiecki, a Pole from Belarus falsely rumoured to be Jewish, whose group included a Jewish girl, Gesia Gelfman. The last pogrom was on 4 July 1946 in Kielce when 42 Jews were killed. There were more than three million Jews in Poland in 1939; about 90,000 remained at the end of the war. Most who disappeared perished in the industrial-scale death camps set up by the Nazis specifically for the purpose in Poland. Some escaped, on their own or with the help of local people. With the Molotov-Ribbentrop dismemberment of Poland in 1939 (see above), many Jews who happened to be in the newly Soviet-occupied zone were transported together with local populations to Soviet labour camps in 1940. Some attributed their survival, by a perverse irony, to Stalin (who became notoriously anti-Semitic in old age and who died, some say was assassinated by Khrushchev and other conspirators, in 1953 just as he was about to launch a purge of Jewish doctors in Russia). An anti-Semitic campaign (officially called anti-Zionist) was launched by the Polish communist government in 1968-1969 (after Israels successful Six-day War), driving out most of the Jews who remained. After the fall of communism in 1989, Polands official attitude towards Jews changed.
[See also the article elsewhere on this site entitled Russian revolutionary movements and Jewish emigration after 1881.]
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