Sunday, May 23, 2004


As some of you may know by now, I’m married to a Polish girl from Wroclaw, which is Poland’s fourth largest city (pop. appr. 600,000), located in the southwest. Every year in April we go there to visit my mother-in-law and brother-in-law and to celebrate Easter. I thought I’d share some hard info plus some personal experiences with you, as, after all, in the present struggle in Iraq Poland is still one of your key allies. Also, Poland recently joined the EU (May 1st), together with nine other countries, and since somehow the emerging EU will be a reality the US will increasingly have to take into account, rather than the separate constituent nations, this is another reason Poland deserves some attention.

Polish Republic Post WWII

Poland is a republic with capital Warsaw, a surface of 312,685 square kloms and a population of 38,6 million, thus making it about three quarters the size of California, but with California, on the other hand, having only roughly three quarters of Polands population.

Polands history begins in 966 with Prince Mieszko I converting to Christianity (the word “Poland” stems from the Polish word “Pole”, which means field or plain). King Kazimierz The Great (Kazimierz Wielki, 1333-1370) established a.o. the famous University of Krakow (1364). The year 1386 saw the birth of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth under King Wladyslaw Jagiello. This Commonwealth officially became the Polish-Lithuanian United Republic in 1596 and was the greatest European Kingdom at the time, stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea. The pre-1500 period saw struggles with the Teutonic Knights, the Germans being then already a rather trigger-happy folk. Economically, politically and culturally Poland knew its golden age in the 16th Century.

An important document from this era is the so-called Privilege of Radom (1505), a document issued by King Aleksander granting rights and privileges, somewhat comparable to the English Magna Carta (1215). Another very important document is the Parliamentary Constitution of 1543, written in that year in a Sejm session in Krakow (the old seat of the Polish Kings - today the Polish Parliament is still called “Sejm”). And yet another very liberal evolution came about with the Warsaw Confederation (Jan. 28, 1573), a charter granting absolute religious freedom. An important King in this time frame is King Sigismund I (1506-1548).

The 17th and 18th Century saw the Kingdom gradually weakened as a result of internal turmoils (an important King being Jan III Sobieski, latter half of the 17th Century - the chap got immortalized with his name being taken for a famous brand of cigarettes). By the end of the 18th Century Poland had become so unstable that it was an easy prey for the three upcoming superpowers of the time, Prussia under Frederick The Great, Russia under Catharina The Great and Austria's Maria Theresia. The process of the cutting up of Poland is known as the Polish Divisions, the first one in 1772 and the second one in 1793. Polish patriotism spawning a figure like Tadeusz Kosciuszko, a revolt took place the year after, which even knew a resounding military victory over the Russians during the Battle of Raclawica (1794), impressively depicted in the famous 360° mural painting exhibited in the Panorama Raclawica in Wroclaw, which I was able to see during my first visit to Poland. Worldwide there's only a handful of such paintings (another one being in Waterloo in my country), so if you happen to visit Wroclaw, don't miss it.

This Polish victory over the Russians was short-lived however, because 1795 saw the Third Division take place and thus the final demise of the great Polish-Lithuanian nation, an event that was formally "ratified" at the 1815 Vienna Congress.

Poland had to wait till 1918 before emerging as a nation again. The Poland of the interbellum (the years between the First and Second World Wars) had a shape which was distinctively different from the shape on the map above, namely 200km further to the east and the eastern portion jutting out northwards. A famous strongman was Marshal Pilsudski, who led Polands armies succesfully in a war with Ukraine in the early 1920s, Poland even briefly occupying Kiev. It was also Pilsudski who at a very early stage saw the intrinsic danger of Nazi Germany, urging France and the UK to wage a preemptive war in 1935 already. Too bad political correctness is not only a phenomenon of our times, so Poland got carved up a fourth time in 1939 between Hitler and Stalin, despite heroic resistance with outdated equipment. Poland suffered greatly in the Second World War, with nearly 6 million Poles killed. However, many of its soldiers fought on major European fronts and in key battles (Monte Cassino, Arnhem).

After WWII Poland shifted two hundred kilometres to the West and got its shape as shown in the above map. A.o. large portions of German Silesia became Polish, as well as the key city of Breslau, which became... Wroclaw. The photo below shows Wroclaws Main Square, Rynek in Polish.

Rynek, Wroclaw

Th most important head of State of the post-Stalin era was Party Leader Gomulka, who was initially relatively liberal-minded. Student revolts in 1968 and a workers revolt in 1970 in Gdansk forced him to step down and in his place came the pragmatic Edward Gierek, who sought an opening to the West and was a man of compromise but who nevertheless remained loyal to Moscow. 1980 saw the emergence of the Free Union "Solidarnosc" under Gdansk shipyard electrician Lech Walesa. His demands met initially with few resistance from the government, until General Jaruzelski brutally assumed power in 1981, declared martial law and imprisoned the key members of the new movement. It is said that by doing so he prevented a Russian invasion.

...(to be continued)...

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