They appear around the world – a white eagle, parallel bars of red and white, the profile of a shaggy bison in a field of grass. These are emblems of Poland and recognised by millions as symbolic of the nation – yet many may not know their history. Culture.pl offers this introduction to the history of Poland’s national symbols and songs.
The white eagle – from legend to national emblem
The most recognisable symbol of Poland is undoubtedly the eagle. The white bird adorns the nation’s crest, is found on its currency, adorns the uniforms of its football stars, and gives its name to the highest honour bestowed by the state – the Order of the White Eagle. But why the eagle?
The link between Poland and the eagle dates back to before there was a ‘Poland,’ when the legendary founder of the Polish nation, Lech, set off in search of prey while hunting with his brothers, Czech and Rus. While Czech headed west and Rus headed east, Lech moved north. After following a stray arrow, he found himself faced with a white eagle – both fierce and protective of its young. Against the red sky of the setting sun, the filtered light made the bird’s wings glow gold. Taken by the sight, Lech decided it was an auspicious spot at which to begin a settlement. He named the place Gniezno, echoing the Polish word for ‘nest’ – gniazdo. Gniezno would go on to become the first capital of Poland, and the white eagle that so captivated Lech would remain the symbol of Poland to this day.
In 1295, the nation adopted the now familiar emblem of the white crowned eagle on the field of red. The occasion was the coronation of Przemysł II in Gniezno. This design was subject to very few changes for hundreds of years, until after the Second World War when Poland fell under communist control and authorities removed the crown from the eagle’s head in 1944. The crown – and Poland’s full independence – was restored in 1990. Coincidentally, the late 1980s also saw the white-tailed eagle – Poland’s national bird and the species upon which the emblem is based – make a slow recovery from near extinction across Europe. As Poland flourishes, it seems the white-tailed eagle does too.
Itself given a place of honour in Poland, the white eagle is also a symbol used to bestow honours on distinguished Poles and representatives from other nations. Among the many luminaries included in the Order of the White Eagle are Wisława Szymborska, Marek Edelman, Zbigniew Herbert, Henryk Mikołaj Górecki, Woodrow Wilson, and Václav Havel.
Red & white – the colours of the nation
Already present in the colours of the national emblem, red and white also make up the bars on the Polish flag. A bar of white sits above a bar of red on the simple, but iconic flag. In the early days of the flag, crimson dye was scarce and thus denoted nobility. White traditionally symbolised purity and order. Alongside the simplicity of the red and white flag, one might also be familiar with the Polish flag that bears the national emblem within the white bar. Though there are some regulations as to which flag is to be flown where (Houses of Parliament and the President are to fly the flag without the emblem, while Polish embassies abroad use one with the emblem), they are largely interchangeable.
While the design of the flag is simple, its use in history is long and storied. The red and white appeared for the first time in 1792 during the celebration of the first anniversary of the May 3rd Constitution – the first of its kind in Europe. The colours were recognised by the Sejm as national colours in 1831 as the November Uprising raged around them and the future of Poland hung in the balance. From that point on, the red and white bars would accompany Poles in their ongoing fights for freedom and independence.
The flag was raised after the Allied victory over German forces in the Battle of Monte Cassino in May 1944. On the first day of the Warsaw Uprising – 4th August 1944 – the red and white banner was hoisted defiantly on the city’s highest skyscraper. As the uprising continued, soldiers in the Home Army wore red and white brassards in the fight to liberate their city. Protests in the turbulent years of communist control also saw demonstrators carrying the flag – at times with the white bar conspicuously smeared in blood. The flag also features prominently in one of the most iconic graphics of recent Polish history – the emblem of Solidarność (Solidarity).
Polonia – the personification of Poland
The French have Marianne. The Germans, Germania. America has Columbia. And Poland…Polonia.
‘Polonia’ is perhaps most commonly thought of as the term used to identify Polish diasporic communities around the world. However, the Latin spelling of ‘Poland’ has long been the name of the female personification of the Polish nation. She appears in the work of Bernardo Morando on the Old Lublin Gate in Zamość as early as 1588. Her most famous depiction came three centuries later in a painting by Jan Matejko. Matejko’s Rok 1863: Zakuwana Polska ('Year 1863: Polonia Enchained') depicts the aftermath of the failed January Uprising of Poles against Russian occupiers in 1863. In the low lights of the crowded room, Matejko shows the rebellious captives prepared for their exile to Siberia. In the centre, a blonde woman – the personification of Lithuania (Poland’s partner in the historical commonwealth) – struggles against the men who look to bind her. And illuminated in the foreground – Polonia. Dressed in the black of mourning and awaiting her shackles, Polonia is unbowed and defiant. As such, Matejko’s Polonia personified not only the nation, but its spirit of rebellion and perseverance in the years of partition.
Polonia continues to live on in art and literature. She has been reimagined by artists as diverse as Stanisław Wyspiański (Polonia, 1892), Leszek Sobocki (Polonia, 1982), and Edward Dwurnik (Polonia, 1984). In 2008, Polonia took to the stage in Krzysztof Warlikowski’s (A)Pollonia, a bold work of theatre that interrogates the myths and narratives of history that Polonia has long populated.
‘Poland is not yet lost’ – a song for the nation
The famous song of the Polish Legions begins with a verse that is the emblem of a new history: Poland has not yet perished, while we live on. These words mean that people carry the essence of the nation within themselves and are able to prolong the existence of their country regardless of political conditions, and may even strive to realise it again…
Adam Mickiewicz spoke these words in 1842, while in exile in Paris. Quoting the song that would become the national anthem of Poland, he stressed the truth of its message – though at the time ‘Poland’ might not have existed on the map of Europe, it lived on in the hearts and minds of those who called themselves ‘Poles’. In the turbulent years that followed – years that saw Poland face occupation on multiple fronts, but ultimately perservere and prosper – it seems these words have rung true.
Poland is not yet lost
So long as we still live
We will fight (with swords) for all
That our enemies have taken from use.
March, march Dąbrowski
From Italy to Poland
Under your command we will reunite with the nation…
The song – initially called Song of the Polish Legions in Italy – was written by Józef Wybicki in 1795, the year of the final partition of Poland by its neighbours. Wybicki was a close associate of Henryk Dąbrowski, a general who led the Polish legions to fight in the Napoleonic wars (with the hope that Bonaparte might in turn aid Poland in regaining its independence). The song was banned in Poland in 1815 (and again in 1860) by the Tsarist and Prussian governments who recognised its patriotic and revolutionary potential. The song, however, lived on and over the years ‘Dąbrowski’ was replaced with the names of important leaders of the time.
Renamed Dąbrowski’s Mazurka, the song was officially recognised as the national anthem in 1926. The tune to which the words are set is unattributed and is comprised of a lively mazurka – one of Poland's national dances. The words have undergone some revision over the years, but the message of the anthem remains the same – Poland is strong so long as it lives in the hearts of Poles worldwide.
The ‘Poland’ that exists in the minds of people around the world is represented by a wide and diverse collection of symbols. These likely include the eagle and the red and white of the flag, but what else is ‘quintessentially Polish?’
Anyone lucky enough to travel through the Polish countryside in summer has probably experienced the beauty of the nation’s (somewhat disputed) national flower – the corn poppy. The poppy – a species that flourishes in Poland and provides the country with the delicious seeds used in so many sweet treats – is also a symbol of sacrifice in war and remembrance. As poppies grew in war torn fields after the fighting of the First World War, they became associated both with the loss of life and the hope of renewal. For a nation that has seen its own share of both, the poppy is a fitting symbol. It’s not a wholly undisputed symbol though, as some suggest the pansy – emblematic of brotherhood and memory – is the national flower. A similar variance surrounds the national tree – which according to some is the oak, to others, the alder. If the oak camp is to be believed, Poland shares its national tree with Germany, the United States, England (whose tree is the Royal Oak), Italy, Latvia, and many others. If it’s the alder – a type of birch – the tree is shared with Sweden and Finland, each represented by a variety of the species. Either way, perhaps these friendly disagreements are what most symbolise Poland – a nation of varied opinions and enthusiastic debates.
Finally, though not deemed an official national symbol, the Polish bison that roam the forests of Białowieża might certainly be considered a national animal. Europe’s heaviest land mammal, the European bison is a protected species and the focus of international conservation efforts. They can still be found in the forests of Poland – now a national park and UNESCO World Heritage Site. More commonly though, they’re visible on the label of the famous Polish vodka Żubrowka – a spirit infused with a leaf of the grasses these majestic beasts feed upon.