Polish History

Poland had been absent from the map of Europe for almost one hundred years at the time of Pilsudski's birth, yet he was very much a product of her history. As Count Carlo Sforza, whose own family played a prominent role in the history of Poland, said in 1930:


One may study Cromwell or Bonaparte without thinking all the time of the origins of England or the passions of France. But to understand what Pilsudski is and means, nothing is more necessary than an understanding of old Poland.[1]


To the Poles of the Pilsudski era, history was not just a collection of dreary facts, but a living bridge to a time of independence and glory. The memory of past greatness was perhaps Poland's most valuable, if intangible, asset during its time in the wilderness. Coupled with the bond of the Catholic faith, it kept dormant Polish nationalism alive until World War I, and Pilsudski, resurrected the Polish state.

In many ways, Pilsudski was an embodiment of Polish history, the triumphs and travails of a millennium recapitulated in the span of his life. Pilsudski's life is eminently more interesting when it is viewed as he lived it, in that virtually every aspect of his existence was examined and made sense in light of parallel experiences in the Polish past. It is said that history does not repeat, but that it rhymes, and the themes of Polish history are heard as a distinct leitmotif in Pilsudski's compelling story.

Unfortunately, outside of Eastern Europe most people know little of Polish history, and much of what they "know" is wrong. The rise and fall of the Polish-Lithuanian state is one of the greatest dramas in human history, yet few are aware of the details of the story. Part of the reason for this ignorance is that Poland, while part of Europe, did not experience many of the familiar phenomena that are associated with European history. Poland was largely unaffected by the Black Death, the Hundred Years Wars, or the Reformation. Poland was not significantly involved in the exploration and exploitation of the New World, and despite access to the Baltic Sea, never developed a significant maritime tradition. The struggle for domination between France, Spain, and England and the machinations of the Holy Roman Empire (which as Voltaire noted was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire) had remarkably little impact in Poland. Many consider Polish history as a mere subset of Russian history, not realizing that, until the eve of the eighteenth century, Poland was the more dominant power.

Historical truth, if such exists, is often obscured by the perspectives and prejudices of those who write history, and history is dominantly written from the perspective of the victors, who usually have a less-than-objective point of view. In Poland's case, the distortions were largely deliberate. Poland was the victim of two hundred years of negative publicity, in part orchestrated by her assassins to justify their deeds, which manifested itself in everything from revisionist history to bad jokes. In fact, Poland was at one time one of the most powerful, prosperous, and progressive states in the world, and was considered, with justification, the cradle of classical liberalism. Many would be shocked to learn that Poland is credited with selflessly saving Western civilization on more than one occasion. For centuries, Poland defended Christian Europe from Mongol, Muscovite, Tatar, Turkish, and Communist hordes, a service that many Poles believe has never received appropriate recognition from the West.[2]

The significance of a resurrected Poland cannot be understood unless viewed in the proper context; therefore, an overview of Polish history is necessary. Fortunately it is a tale worth telling. Poland's great triumph after World War I is hard to fully appreciate without knowing the misery that preceded it. As Adam Mickiewicz, the great nineteenth-century Polish poet exclaimed, "My fatherland! You are like health. Only he who has lost you may know your true worth."[3]

The twentieth-century resurrection of Poland is not unique, as many of the smaller, multiethnic "nations" in Central Europe had similar historical experiences. These people, the Hungarians, Czechs, Serbs, Croats, etc., often consider the Middle Ages as the high point of their national historic traditions, a glorious past that was buried by the imperial subjugation of their larger neighbors. In most cases, the lost empires, no matter how ephemeral, are viewed as natural historical boundaries, which are typically substantially larger than reasonably defined contemporary states. The loss of historic magnitude, the concept of having once been great, is an important component of the psychology of Central European states, which helps explain the virulence of their modern nationalism.[4] During the nineteenth century, these submerged nations, like Poland, somehow combined the concepts of liberalism and nationalism to concoct a romantic reinterpretation of their past, which was idealized, sometimes inaccurately, as a golden age of national freedom and power. To know Poland's story is to know much of the story of Central and Eastern Europe, where even today people think in historical terms unfathomable by American standards.

An exploration of Polish history provides a glimpse of the rich tapestry of one of the most extraordinary cultures in Western civilization that served as the backdrop of Pilsudski's life. An examination of the past is not, however, a sterile exercise of merely referencing names and dates. It is dynamic, alive, and full of relevance. In thinking or arguing about the past, we are really attempting to define the truth about the present.[5] For the Poles of Pilsudski's era, this was particularly true, as an enslaved nation constantly examined its own, in this case forbidden, history in search of parallel attitudes and events that would justify and inspire the struggle for independence.

[1]      Sforza, Makers of Modern Europe, 374.

[2]      Johnson, Central Europe, 53.

[3]      Snyder, Reconstruction of Nations, 112.

[4]      Johnson, Central Europe, 46.

[5]      Michnik, Letters from Prison, 333.

To read more about Polish history, click on the links below.

NOTE- sections are being updated 

 The First Republic.

Sobieski and the 1683 Siege of Vienna.

The Partitions of Poland.

The Napoleonic Age.

The Insurrection of 1830-31

The Insurrection of 1863