A short History of Poland and Lithuania

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A Short History of Poland and Lithuania

Foreword. 2

Chapter 1. The Origin of the Polish Nation. 3

Chapter 2. The Piast Dynasty. 4

Chapter 3. Lithuania until the Union with Poland. 6

Chapter 4. The Personal Union of Poland and Lithuania under the Jagiellon Dynasty. 7

Chapter 5. The Full Union of Poland and Lithuania. 10

Chapter 6. The Decline of Poland-Lithuania. 11

Chapter 7. The Partitions of Poland-Lithuania : The Napoleonic Interlude. 14

Chapter 8. Divided Poland-Lithuania in the 19th Century. 16

Chapter 9. The Early 20th Century : The First World War and The Revival of Poland and Lithuania. 19

Chapter 10. Independent Poland and Lithuania between the Two World Wars. 23

Chapter 11. The Second World War. 25

Appendix. Some Population Statistics. 30

Map 1; Early Times 32

Map 2: Poland Lithuania in the 15th Century 33

Map 3: The Partitions of Poland-Lithuania 35

Map 4: Modern North-east Europe 37


Poland and Lithuania have been linked together in this history because for 400 years (from the end of the 14th century to the end of the 18th) they were united - at first by a personal union under the king, and then by a full political union.

As far as practicable this history is confined to that of Poland and Lithuania. But Russia and Prussia/Germany have played such a large part in Polish history that a certain amount of Russian and German history is inevitable in order to make that of Poland comprehensible.

The history has been compiled from the study of a number of works, including H.A.L.Fisher's "History of Europe', W.L.Langer's "Encyclopaedia of World History”, the Encyclopedia Britannica, the Encyclopaedia Americana, and "Poland" by V.L.Benes and N.J.G.Pounds.

Chapter 1. The Origin of the Polish Nation.

The Poles were one of the Slavic peoples who moved westwards into Europe in the wake of the German tribes in the early years of the Christian era or before. By about the end of the last century A.D. the western Slays, who became the Poles, Czechs and Slovaks, had become separated from the eastern Slavs, who became the Russians.

The Poles settled in the plains of northern Europe between the rivers Oder and Vistula. To the west were other Slays who had gone as far west as the Elbe. For several centuries these Slavs formed a border between the Poles and the eastward expansion of the Germans thus allowing the Poles to develop their lands in peace.
A Polish nation came into being in the middle of the 10th century. By then the Swedish Vikings had advanced down the Dnieper and Volga rivers and had formed an embryo Russian Slavic state under their rue, based on the principality of Kiev. To the south a Oneoh dynasty ruled the Kingdom of Bohemia and the Hungarians had conquered Slovakia. To the north was Slavic Pamermia, and then along the southeastern shores of the Baltic Sea the Baltic peoples - Prussians, Lithuanians and Letts. These peoples spoke a language related to the Slavonian tongues, but belonged to a different ethnic group from the Slavs - the Baltic branch of the Indo-European races. The Lithuanians are thought to have lived in the region of the River Niemen long before the Slav invasions.
The history of the Polish nation starts with the reign of Mieszko 1 (962-992) of the House of Piast. Members of the semi-legendary family of Piast had united a number of the Polish tribes under the leadership of the Poljaue. The centre of authority were Gniezno and Poznan.
From the outset Poland had to contend with encroachments by Germans, Czechs, Hungarians, Russians and Prussians. To deprive the Germans of an excuse for further aggression, Mieszko accepted the overlordship of the (first) Holy Roman Emperor Otto the Great; and to remove the danger of a hostile crusade he accepted Roman Christianity (helped by his wife, a Bohemian princess) for himself and his people, and placed his state under the authority of the Papacy. In the instrument performing this act the boundaries of Poland were defined - and included Pomerania, though its attachment to Poland was loose. In the east Mieszko lost some territory to Prince Vladimir of Kiev.
By these actions Mieszko linked Poland (like Bohemia and later Hungary) to western European culture. Vladimir, on the other hand (whose reign marked the end of the Viking period of Russian history and the beginning of the era of Russian civilisation) adopted the eastern, Byzantine, Christianity for Russia.

Chapter 2. The Piast Dynasty.

The Piast dynasty continued to rule Poland until 1370. These four centuries can be divided into three periods: until 1138 a period of varying fortune largely depending on the strength or weakness of the Polish kings, but on the whole one of consolidation of the new nation; then, from 1138 to the beginning of the 14th century, a period of internal division and national weakness; and then, in the 14th century, a return to unity and strength.

The strong rulers in the first period were Mieszkols son Boleslaw I (the Brave) 992-1025, Casimir I 1038-58, Boleslaw 11 (the Bold) 1O58-79, and Boleslaw III (the Wry-mouthed) 1102-1138.
Boleslaw I was a warrior and an able organiser. He raised Poland to the status of a great power. He conquered eastern Pomerania, Silesia and Cracow, and Poland's boundaries then approximated to those of the present clay. For a time Boleslaw's conquests went far beyond these boundaries - to the Elbe in Germany and to include Bohemia; but from these he was forced to withdraw by the Emperor Henry II. Boleslaw's friendship with Henry's predecessor, the Emperor Otto III, had enabled him to assume the title of King, and also to establish an archiepiscopal seat at Gniezno, making Poland ecclesiastically independent (of the Empire) under the Papacy.
Casimir I did much to restore the situation after a period of weak rule and dynastic struggles following Boleslaw’s death; and Boleslaw II fought many campaigns to secure the borders Of Poland, and also made some territorial advances in the east after marching to Kiev and reinstating his relative and protegé on the throne there. In his reign the capital was moved from Gniezno to Cracow.
Throughout this period - and beyond it - the three main frontier problems were German pressure in the west, Bohemia's claim to Silesia in the south-west, and the control of the pagan Pomeranians in the north. (At one time Pomerania had been lost to King Canute of Denmark and England.) Silesia, during the whole of the Piast dynasty, was ruled by members of the Piast family; but at times their overlord was the King of Bohemia, and Silesia periodically changed hands between Bohemia and Poland.
Boleslaw III checked the eastward advance of the Germans by a great victory over the forces of the Emperor. He also succeeded in subduing the Poseranians, and undertook their conversion to Christianity. Within Poland he reorganised the state, but then made the mistake of providing for the division of the country after his death into five principalities, to be ruled by his sons and their descendants.

This ushered in the second period - nearly two centuries of disruption, during which Poland ceased to be a united nation and principalities proliferated. Weakened by dynastic rivalries the royal power became insignificant, and that of the nobility - the great landlords and the clergy grew. The Church, however, with all the dioceses subject to the Archbishop of Gniezno, remained the one unifying influence.

During this 'period of division' external dangers were left to be coped with, as best they could, by the provinces directly threatened. In the north this resulted in the local ruler calling in the Teutonic Knights* for help against incursions by the pagan Prussians. The Knights thereupon, in the course of the 13th century incorporated Prussia within the German Empire. The Slavonic Prussians were converted to Christianity, and East Prussia was colonised by German settlers. The Knights also occupied the land to the west - known as West Prussia or eastern Pomerania - at the beginning of the 14th century.
Another blow which befell Poland in the 13th century was a Tatar invasion. In 1241 the Tatars devastated Poland (and Russia and Hungary) and reached Silesia, where they crushed a valiant resistance of Germans and Poles before they withdrew. They did not return to Poland; but they left on the south-eastern steppes of Russia the “Golden Horde", which dominated Russia for the next 200 years. In Poland the devastation was in time repaired, but the Poles had to live under the threat of further invasion. And in Silesia a result of the 1241 raid was an increase in German settlement there, to help in re-building and re-population.
The Germans were also steadily extending their political control over the thinly populated Slav territory to the west of Poland; and there was German economic penetration into the Polish states. This was encouraged by many of the Polish princes, attracted by the higher standards of Western Europe. The Germans settled mainly in the towns; and many Jews, too, expelled from other countries, were welcomed in Poland.
The first moves towards re-uniting Poland (now fourteen principalities) were made by the Silesian Piasts, but they failed owing to the hostility of the Piasts of Great Poland (in the central lands). In 1296 the magnates of Great Poland elected Ladislas, ruler of one of the principalities, to reign over them. They then changed their minds and elected King Vaclav of Bohemia to be King of Poland. But after Vaclav's death in 1305 Ladislas, with papal support, succeeded in uniting the principalities in Great and Little (southern) Poland under his, and was eventually crowned King.
Ladislas never reigned over Silesia, and, though holding his own in a long war against the Teutonic Knights, he did not succeed in dislodging them from Pomerania.

But he strengthened Poland's position by friendship with Hungary (cemented by the marriage of his daughter to the Hungarian king); and he checked the ever-recurring raids by the pagan Lithuanians in the north-east by the recurring marriage of his son Casimir to the daughter of the Lithuanias Grand Duke Cudivin (see next chapter).

Casimir TTI (the Great) succeeded his father in 1333. He is best known for his administrative and legal reforms, and for his encouragement of learning. He founded at Cracow the first Polish university, which became the chief intellectual centre of Eastern Europe. He also promoted economic development, in the furtherance of which he befriended the Jews and German immigrants and improved the lot of the peasants. All these measures served to consolidate Polish unity.
An astute statesman, but a realist, Casimir abandoned Silesia** to Bohemia, then the most powerful state in central Europe; and he acquiesced in the loss of Pomerania to the Teutonic Knights; but he took advantage of Russia's weakness to extend Polish territory south-eastwards to Lvov (Lemberg) and beyond. At the end of his long reign (1333-1370) Poland was a strong, united and prosperous nation, and had resumed a position of diplomatic equality with other leading European states.

Casimir, who had no children, bequeathed the throne to his nephew King Louis of Hungary. Louis was a great king of Hungary, but took little interest In Poland. He had no sons, but secured the succession of his youngest daughter, Jadwiga, to the Polish throne - by making far-reaching and unwise concessions (including exemption from all taxes) to the Polish nobles.

Louis's death was followed by a short interregnum, while members of the many Piast families tried to capture the throne; but in 1384 Jadwiga was accepted as Queen. The nobles and the clergy, following the conciliatory policy of Ladislas and Casimir towards the Lithuanians, then arranged the marriage of (a reluctant) Jadwiga to Jagiello, Grand Duke of Lithuania; and in 1386 the marriage took place. Jagiello, who agreed to accept Christianity, became King of Poland (with the title Ladislas II). There then began four centuries of the union of Poland and Lithuania, the first two centuries being a period of personal union only through the Crown under the Jagiellon dynasty.
* On the failure of the Crusades in the Holy Land the Emperor Frederick 11 had transferred the activities of the Teutonic Knights to Germany, where, under their Grand Master Hermann von Salza, they were launched in 1226 as Christian missionaries and pioneers of Germanisation on the eastern frontier lands along the Baltic shore.
** Silesia was then lost to Poland for over 600 years; it was not fully recovered until the end of the Second World War. During those six centuries it belonged successively to Bohemia, to the Habsburg Empire, to Prussia, and then to the German Empire of the 19th-20th centuries.

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