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15 Historical Quirks That Make Poland So Different from the Rest of Europe


Mikołaj Gliński

History is made of controversies. And Polish history in particular. Here are 15 peculiar facts from Poland’s past that really make Poland stand out and may also help explain the country’s unique place in the world.

1. The Eastern country that became Western, or Christianisation

 Jan Matejko, "Chrzest Polski - Zaprowadzenie Chrześcijaństwa" z cyklu "Dzieje cywilizacji w Polsce", fot. Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie
 Jan Matejko, "Chrzest Polski - Zaprowadzenie Chrześcijaństwa" z cyklu "Dzieje cywilizacji w Polsce", fot. Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie

In 966, Mieszko, a local duke from the Western Slavic tribe of Polans, adopted Christianity. While not much is known about the exact circumstances of this occurrence, the adoption of Christianity and precisely the fact that it had been adopted using the Western Latin rite, had far-reaching consequences.

For one, Polans and their state survived. This may seem banal in retrospect but it’s in stark contrast to so many other Slavic tribes that didn’t convert to the powerful new religion, which were either eradicated or absorbed over time. In fact, one of the results of the adoption of Christianity was a thorough annihilation of much of the earlier pagan traditions.

But more importantly, Mieszko’s decision to adopt Christianity using the Western rite (which happened via Czech mediation) propelled Poland into the realm of the Western Latin civilisation, which grew apart after the Great East-West Schism (1054).

This meant not only Roman law, Latin alphabet or stone architecture, but a participation in the Western political community, models of political organisation, and becoming an equal and respectable part of this world.

Last but not least, Poland is likely the only country in the region that claims to have been baptised into existence.

2. A country that accidentally imported its enemy

Jan Matejko, Battle of Grunwald / Bitwa pod Grunwaldem, 1878, oil on canvas, 426 x 987 cm, From the collection of the National Museum in Warsaw (MNW), photo: courtesy of MNW
Jan Matejko, Battle of Grunwald / Bitwa pod Grunwaldem, 1878, oil on canvas, 426 x 987 cm, From the collection of the National Museum in Warsaw (MNW), photo: courtesy of MNW

Becoming a Christian country did not mean peaceful co-existence with other Christian countries. In fact, one of the biggest Mediaeval conflicts in this part of Europe was a clash between Poland and the State of the Teutonic Order.

Known commonly as the Teutonic Knights, the order was originally formed as a Catholic military branch to fight Muslims in the Middle East, but it became a major power in Eastern Europe after the Teutonic Knights joined a crusade against the Prussians in the 1230s. The whole debacle began with an official invitation from local Polish duke Konrad Mazowiecki to help Christianise some troublesome pagan tribes. If he had known the consequences, he probably would have thought twice.

With the support of the Holy Roman Empire, the knights installed themselves across the vast expanses of today’s Northern Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, forming the independent Monastic State of the Teutonic Knights. It was an early example of a country formed through external colonial expansion that had no reason to be there other than to ‘bring civilisation’.

In the 14th century, Poland allied with Lithuania, waged wars against the Teutonic Knights before eventually overpowering the order in the Battle of Tannenberg (Grunwald). This however didn’t mean that the threat dissolved. In 1525, the order was transformed into the secular Duchy of Prussia, and later merged with Poland’s long-time nemesis Prussia (Germany), becoming a key geo-political link in the future disintegration of Poland (see point 9 for more about that…)

3. The first major multicultural melting pot in Europe

Władysław Łuszkiewicz, Casimir the Great Visiting Esther, from the collection of Lviv National Art Gallery; Source: CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons
The legend about a romantic relationship between king Casimir and the Jewish girl Esther was very popular among Polish Jews, Photo: A painting by Władyysław Łuszkiewicz, Casimir the Great Visiting Esther, from the collection of Lviv National Art Gallery; Source: CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Today almost mono-ethnic and predominantly Catholic, Poland was once a multi-cultural polity, inhabited by Poles, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Lithuanians, Jews, Tatars, Armenians and Germans.

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, as it was called from the 16th to the late 18th century, was one of the earliest confederate countries in early modern Europe. For a long time, it also boasted a tolerant policy towards different ethnicities and faiths.

This led to a massive influx of Jews fleeing persecution in the countries of Western Europe as early as the late 15th century. Within a short time, Poland became the biggest area of Jewish settlement, a homeland to the blooming Yiddish civilization of the Ashkenazi Jews.

During the Reformation, Polish tolerance also contributed greatly to the country becoming a safe harbour for members of protestant churches. One of the most illustrious examples of their role was the activity of the so-called Polish Brethren, a protestant church, whose members opposed social privileges and refused military service, becoming one of the earliest pacifist movements in history, impacting, in this respect, later philosophers like John Locke.

The multi-ethnic and multi-cultural character of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth meant that throughout centuries Poland not only didn't always speak Polish , but was home to a literature written in various languages, from Yiddish and Hebrew to Belarusian, German and Roma.

4. A European country with a historic Muslim minority

Prayer book of Polish Tatars from the XIX century. Photo: Anatol Chomicz / Forum
Prayer book of Polish Tatars from the 19th century. Photo: Anatol Chomicz / Forum

For many centuries, Poland was the only country in Europe to have its own Muslim population, specifically one that hadn’t resulted from military conquest (as was the case later in the Balkans). Polish, or Lithuanian (as they are also called), Tatars settled in Poland as early as the 14th century.

While the settlers soon forgot their Tatar tongue and started speaking the dominant local language (Polish or Belarusian), they stuck to the Muslim religion, developing their own peculiar variety of Islam (the phenomenon sometimes referred to as the Polish Islam). One of the most patent and fascinating relics of this cultural symbiosis were the religious books of the Tatars - usually translations from Arabic or Turkish they were published in Polish or Belarusian in Arabic script!

Tatars became an important element of the Polish-Lithuanian polity, contributing particularly to great military feats, from Grunwald to WWI and beyond. A less obvious Tatar cultural contribution to Polish culture was one of the country’s most celebrated writers, Henryk Sienkiewicz, whose family background stemmed from them too.

Legend has it that King Jan III Sobieski was so delighted with a Tatar cavalry captain’s service... Read more about: In the Footsteps of Poland's Only Muslim Minority

5. The country that mediated the East, or why Polish nobles dressed like Turks

Sarmatian fashion is one of the many Turkish influences on Polish culture – like the habit of head shaving. History of a Khanjar, a painting by Henryk Weyssenhoff, shown during the Polish Year in Turkey. Source: MNW
Sarmatian fashion is one of the many Turkish influences on Polish culture – a painting by Henryk Weyssenhoff. Source: MNW

For centuries, Poland served as a bridge between East and West, although the term antemurale (implying its role as a Christian bulwark against Islam) has also been used. The direct contact with oriental cultures, most importantly Turks and Crimean Tatars, was not limited to wars. It brought a whole cultural exchange which included areas such as trade, religion, cuisine and fashion.

The influence in the last of these, was evident  in the traditional dress of Polish upper classes, the so-called Sarmatians. It included a kontusz, a żupan, as well as the so-called Slutsk sash, along with Turkish sabres and hairdos typical of Ukrainian Kossacks. To Western eyes, all of these made them hard to discern from their Eastern neighbours.

6. The nation that Re-Invented Democracy

The proceedings of Polish sejm during the reign of August II, chalcography in History of Poland by Bernard O’Connor; Source: National Library
The proceedings of the Polish sejm during the reign of August II, chalcography in History of Poland by Bernard O’Connor; Source: National Library

Beginning in the 15th century, the Polish aristocracy developed a unique political system which came to be known as ‘Nobles' Democracy’. Also referred to as ‘Golden Freedom’, this system gave equal legal status and extensive rights and privileges to all members of the Polish nobility (szlachta), regardless of their rank or economic status. Essentially, it gave 15% of the population political control over legislature in the Sejm (Poland’s parliament) and participation in the royal election procedure – significantly, it meant they could curtail the authority of the monarch.

Some of the aspects or corollaries of that system, like religious tolerance or the republican ideals of the commonwealth, were and can still be considered political achievements. But other manifestations, like the infamous device of liberum veto (which allowed any single member of parliament to nullify any piece of legislation that might be passed), have come to be perceived as detrimental to the prosperity of the state. The theory is that the system eventually led to anarchy and the country’s political weakness in the 17th and 18th centuries – a weakness that eventually brought about the partition and ultimate disappearance of the Polish-Lithuanian state.

7. A colonial empire that never travelled overseas

Johannes de Ram (1648-1693), "Regni Poloniae et Ducatus Lithuaniae, Volhyniae, Podoliae, Ucraniae, Prussiae, Livoniae exactissima descriptio"; Source: Polona.pl
Johannes de Ram (1648-1693), "Regni Poloniae et Ducatus Lithuaniae, Volhyniae, Podoliae, Ucraniae, Prussiae, Livoniae exactissima descriptio"; Source: Polona.pl

While Poland obviously had no history of oversea conquest, its continental expansion had many aspects of colonial exploitation. From the 15th to 17th century, Poland was constantly expanding its territory through unions and wars, mostly eastward. By 1634, when it reached a maximal area of almost 1 million square kilometres, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was an empire ranging from the Baltic Sea to the Pontic-Caspian Steppe, incorporating the majority of today’s Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, but also Latvia and even parts of Estonia.

Polish expansion took on a particularly harsh character in Ukraine. Valued especially for its fecund soils, Ukraine was colonised by Polish elites which led to oppression for millions of peasants, who suffered under the system of pańszczyzna (or serfdom), a system in many aspects not dissimilar from slavery. And as with Western European colonialism, the Polish cultural elites had also developed an ideology that would justify their ruthless exploitation, called Sarmatism.

For many Poles today, the eastern regions of historical Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, called Kresy, are still an attractive object of nostalgia and idealised projection. But the social and cultural reality was surely much more complex and troubling.    

8. The country with the first constitution in Europe

Jean-Pierre Norblin, Oath of confirmation of Constitution of the 3rd May 1791
Jean-Pierre Norblin, Oath of confirmation of Constitution of the 3rd May 1791

In 1791, Poland adopted a governmental act known as the Constitution of 3rd May. Called by Irish statesman Edmund Burke ‘the noblest benefit received by any nation at any time’, the act included some radical reforms, and was designed to address the Commonwealth’s political ailings, but came as too little and too late.

Still, the document became the world's second-oldest codified national constitution (after the US Constitution of 1789) and the first constitution in Europe. The Polish document remained in force for less than 19 months though. Only a couple years later the country was dissolved altogether, making it a historical event without precedent.

9. The country that disappeared

Polonia being shackled by Russian soldiers, awaiting deportation to Siberia by Jan Matejko, photo: Wikimedia Commons

In 1795, in an unprecedented political move known as ‘the Partition’, Poland, a once powerful European state, was divided between the neighbouring empires of Russia, Prussia and Austria. It disappeared from the map of Europe for the next 123 years, during which time it was ruled by foreign administrations that often subjected the population to harsh measures.

But unlike many countries, nations, and tribes wiped off from the pages of history, Poland was to return to the world map.

10. The nation that emigrated, or Polish culture as essentially emigré culture

Witold Gombrowicz, Venice, 1965., Photo by Bohdan Paczowski
Witold Gombrowicz, Vence, 1965., Photo by Bohdan Paczowski

Starting in the late 18th century, Poles experienced periods of intense emigration and deportation (most typically to Siberia). The waves of exodus followed national uprisings, but stretched beyond the partitions era into World War II and the communist-regime period.

In the 19th century, many Poles, among them the most important artists of the period, like Mickiewicz or Chopin, spent much of their lives outside Poland. It caused the country to become a realm of fantasy during this period, an imagined and often idealised homeland. Throughout the era Poland was not on the map, some of the most important works of Polish culture were created by immigrants outside of Poland.

Considered Poland’s national poet today, Adam Mickiewicz never visited Warsaw or Kraków, and only spent a couple of months within the area of Poland that we see on today’s map. He left the country in his early 20s and lived in Russia, France and Italy, before eventually contracting cholera in Istanbul in the middle of the Ottoman Empire. Another influential Romantic poet, C.K. Norwid, spent over 40 years abroad, namely the majority of his life.

To imagine Polish culture without this great emigre contribution, would be to imagine Poland without Adam Mickiewicz’s Sir Thaddeus and Forefathers, Chopin's mazurkas and sonatas, most of Słowacki, almost all of Norwid. And in the 20th century, that would be a Poland without Tuwim’s Polish Flowers as well as Gombrowicz’s Cosmos or Operetta.

11. The country that became the heart of Bloodlands

​Reprodukcje fotografii dokumentujacych przeprowadzona wiosna 1943 roku ekshumacje zwlok polskich oficerow zamordowanych przez NKWD w Lasach Katynskich, rep.: Jerzy Dudek / Forum
The photograph shows the exhumation of the bodies of Polish officers murdered in the Katyn forest; the number of victims killed by the Soviet NKVD in April and May 1940 is estimated at around 22 thousand; Reproduction: Jerzy Dudek / Forum

In the 20th century, the territories of Poland, Belarus, Ukraine and the Baltic states, became the scene of one of the greatest human tragedies in world history, a series of atrocious events which combined genocides, ethnic purges and wars, eventually climaxing in the Holocaust.

During little more than a decade, between 1932 when the Great Hunger broke out in Ukraine and 1945 when WWII ended, some 14 million people living in this area, which American historian Timothy Snyder called ‘the Bloodlands’, lost their lives.  

Stuck between Hitler and Stalin, two rivalling types of totalitarian regimes, people (mostly civilians) were murdered in Stalinist purges - from Holodomor (1932-1935), through Stalin’s Polish operation (1937), and the massive extermination of Belarusian (Kuropaty, 1937) and Polish intelligentsia (Katyń, 1940). They became victims of war operations, Nazi executions, and the machinery of the Holocaust. All of which made it  an unprecedented time and area in world history.

As a result of WWII, Poland suffered some 6 million casualties (3 million of them Jews) - a number which amounted to 17% of Poland’s pre-war population.

12. The country that went underground

The diagram shows the structure of Polish Underground State
Structure of the Polish Underground State and its relationship to the Government-in-Exile, 1942, from the collection of Polish History Museum

Hitler's invasion of Poland in September 1939, and the concurring Soviet invasion of the eastern part of the country some three weeks later, meant that for the next six years Poland was under an occupation more severe and brutal than those known in other regions of occupied Europe.

But already during those grim days in September 1939, Poles had laid the foundations for what would subsequently become an all-encompassing, massive resistance movement known as the Polish Underground State. Like a regular state, the Polish Underground State had its own government (in exile), administration, an army (the Home Army), press, education, courts, as well cultural life. All of this was carried out in secret, involving participation from millions of Poles. They perceived this underground system as a continuation of the Polish interwar state and observed the commands of the leadership on a daily basis. In August 1944, the underground activity of the Polish state culminated in the Warsaw Uprising which unfortunately failed to accomplish its goals.

But, as Dr. hab. Rafał Wnuk from Institute of History of the Polish Academy of Sciences explains, the Polish Underground State was not only the biggest and most developed resistance movement in Europe. In contrast to many other, otherwise advanced, underground organisations in Europe during that time (like ones in Yugoslavia, France or Greece), which were totalitarian or at best authoritarian structures, the Polish underground was formed through a wide consensus of different political movements and options, without one leader or party.

It was the only political structure that was simultaneously civic, pluralistic and pro-democratic, explains Wnuk.

13. The country that moved

Poland's changing borders over the centuries.
Poland's changing borders over the centuries.

After World War II, despite its military efforts, Poland became the only Allied country to have been shut off behind the Iron Curtain. The Potsdam conference shifted the country’s borders by some 200 kilometres west, so that it would now incorporate the areas of Western Pomerania and Lower Silesia, some of which hadn’t been part of Poland since the Middle Ages (some parts head never been in Poland altogether). In Potsdam, Poland also lost its Eastern territories with the cities of Lviv and Vilnius. All in all, the country lost some 20% of its territory compared to before the war.

The border changes and wholesale genocide of much of its population, meant that in 1945 Poland had for the first time become a largely mono-ethnic country, ruled now by the Soviet-imposed communist regime.

14. The country that experienced a revolution but didn’t quite notice it

The communist agrarian reform from 1944 brought about the destruction of the centuries-old culture of the Polish landed gentry. The image shows a manor in Niedźwiedź, in the Cuyavia region. Photo:Wydawnictwo RM
The communist agrarian reform of 1944 brought about the destruction of the centuries-old culture of the Polish landed gentry. The image shows a manor in Niedźwiedź, in the Cuyavia region. Photo:Wydawnictwo RM

What if Poland had experienced a revolution but didn’t quite notice it? Is it at all possible? According to one Polish scholar, Andrzej Leder, this is exactly what happened to Poland between 1939-1956, a period when the country’s centuries-old social structures and relations changed radically and irreversibly.

First, the extermination of the Jews in the Holocaust created an economic and social void, that eventually made way for the new emergent Polish bourgeoisie (which before had comprised largely of Jews). This was often accompanied by taking over Jewish property, particularly buildings, but also businesses.

Then the newly-installed communist government implemented an agrarian reform (1944) which effectively erased traditional land ownership in a country where for centuries most of the land had been owned by members of the aristocracy. This ultimately meant the annihilation of the whole land-owning class of Polish society, ziemiaństwo, whose members were now deprived of their estates and privileges.

These processes were combined with the communist-endorsed promotion of rural people into university (re-affirmative action), forced urbanisation and industrialisation of the country. They all contributed to engineering a society that was theoretically more democratic and equal, and in many ways certainly unrecognisable from before.

Yet, as Leder explains in his book Prześniona rewolucja, this whole revolution passed as largely unnoticed in Polish social imagery and thus remains largely unrepresented and unincorporated. This is partially because this ‘Polish’ revolution was realised through external forces, namely that of Nazi Germany and a communist regime which was viewed as foreign-imposed. According to Leder, the ‘invisibility’ of the revolution and its social consequences, lies at the heart of Poland’s contemporary identity schisms.

15. The nation that conquered communism

Gdańsk, 1988. Strajk okupacyjny robotnikow w Stoczni Gdanskiej im. Lenina, fot. Jerzy Kosnik/Forum
Gdańsk, 1988. Strike at the Gdańsk Lenin Shipyard, photo: Jerzy Kosnik/Forum

While today the most recognisable symbol of the end of communism in Eastern Europe is surely the tearing down of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, it is very likely that the communism in this region had ended a couple of months earlier. In Poland.

It was there, on 4th June 1989, that the country ran its first partially-free elections. The elections came as a result of prolonged negotiations between Solidarity and the communist regime, and resulted in propelling Solidarity activists into parliament. But the elections must also be seen as a final result of a longer process rooted in opposition to the regime, a process marked by a streak of civil unrest – from workers protests in Poznań in 1956, through student rebellion in 1968 and suppression of the Radom strikes in 1976, through establishing the Solidarity movement in 1980 and crushing it a year later with the introduction of martial law.

It is particularly the story of Solidarity that remains the most impressive element of the Polish road to freedom. What started as a workers union led by Lech Wałęsa at the Gdańsk Shipyard, turned into one of the biggest grassroots civic movements in world history. In 1982, in the midst of martial law in Poland, when the trade union was delegalised, the movement had close to ten million members.

It remains the most powerful symbol of a nation too proud to submit to oppression, and a lesson from which we all can learn today.

Author: Mikołaj Gliński, 11 July 2016

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