Discover more from Wrong Side of History
The heroic story of Poland
The country has saved Europe on more than one occasion...
Every November 11 we commemorate those who lost their lives fighting for their country. Known variously as Remembrance Day, Armistice Day and Veterans Day, 11/11 marks the moment in 1918 when the fighting stopped, ending a conflict which cost millions of lives and caused the downfall of empires and kingdoms across Europe. For that same reason it is also Polish National Independence Day, the date on which that great country reappeared on maps more than a century after being swallowed by its predatory neighbours.
Poland has been in the news a great deal this year, in particular for its generosity in giving shelter to huge numbers of Ukrainians, and its stalwart opposition to Putin’s aggression. After the war began, I read Adam Zamoyski’s Poland: A History, which was recommended to me by several people. Zamoyski is from that most heroic and gallant class of people, Polish aristocracy — his father, Count Stefan Zamoyski, was a war hero who tried to persuade the British to bomb Auschwitz. The younger Zamoyski grew up in Britain but began to visit his homeland from the 1960s, and his book was published in 2009, by which time Poland had fully returned to the western fold.
Wrong Side of History is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
It’s an epic national story: more than any other country, Poland’s history is filled with a sort of unique heroism, a courage and determination to survive against all the odds (and terrible luck, geography-wise — Mexicans complain that they’re so far from God and close to the United States? Try having Russia and Germany as neighbours). Here, in quasi-listicle form, are some of the highlights of the book; part two follows tomorrow morning, on the 11th.
England’s Polish king
Canute, England’s first Viking king, was half-Polish. In fact, he visited his mother’s homeland in 1014 to collect 300 horsemen who helped him conquer the Anglo-Saxons two years later. Although a foreigner known for his ruthlessness — he occasionally cut people’s ears and lips off — Canute was, unlike the conqueror of 50 years later, a fair ruler; in fact he was arguably one of England’s greatest kings, although now best remembered for trying to make a point about sycophancy which was completely lost on most people.
No beer, no crusade
Poland was converted in the mid-10th century and would thereafter become one of the most deeply Catholic of all nations, but Poles played little part in the Crusades, and for a very sensible reason. ‘Apart from Prince Henryk of Sandomierz, few heeded the call’, Zamoyski writes: ‘Duke Leszek the White explained in a long letter to the Pope that neither he nor any self-respecting Polish knight could be induced to go to the Holy Land, where, they had been informed, there was no wine, mead, or even beer to be had.’
Poland was multicultural long before it was fashionable. Settlers from Germany came in the 13th century and were welcomed by Polish rulers, dominating city life for centuries. Krakow became ‘a Babel in which German predominated in the streets over other languages, while patrician circles rang with Polish, Italian and Latin.’
In 1264 Bolesław the Pious granted Jews a royal charter which recognised them as servi camerae (servants of the treasury) so affording them royal protection. Towards the later 14th century Poland also welcomed Jewish victims escaping the post-plague pogroms that spread across Germany and France (England had no pogroms, but only because Edward I had expelled all the Jews 50 years earlier).
The heart of a great empire
For two and a half centuries Poland was in a union with neighbouring Lithuania, which had expanded so much in size that it struggled to rule over a Slavic majority. In 1410 the two states had together won the Battle of Grunwald, or Tannenberg — ‘one of the longest and bloodiest of the Middle Ages’ — against the Teutonic Knights, a German crusading order.
This region was the last place in Europe to abandon polytheism, the notional reason for the Baltic Crusade (colonisation was obviously a motivating factor). But the Knights claimed that the conversion of Lithuania was a sham, and that they remained pagan — which was probably true. Certainly, the emerging union was very multicultural, with Polish Catholic knights fighting alongside eastern Christians, Tartar Muslims and Lithuanians, some of whom were certainly still pagan even into the Reformation period.
By the end of the 15th century the Jagiellon dynasty ruled one-third of the European mainland. ‘Their gigantic domain stretched from the Baltic to the shores of the Black Sea and the Adriatic,’ he writes, but ‘in the next generation they would lose all the thrones outside Poland to the Habsburgs, and Poland would find itself none the richer for the experience of having been at the heart of a great empire.’
Poland was early in developing parliamentary institutions, but the ‘Sejm’ would prove too powerful. ‘At the death of Kazimierz the Great in 1370, Poland had been in advance of most European countries in this respect, but only 150 years later it had surpassed even England’ and ‘the power of the crown was hamstrung by a series of checks and balances.’ Within this system ‘the degree of representation, with some 7 percent of the population having a vote, would not be bettered until the British Reform Act of 1832.’
‘Let Poland never become like England’: religious tolerance
While England and France tore themselves apart during the Reformation, Poland was remarkably peaceful. It was already more tolerant towards Jews, so that one Michael Ezofowicz ‘remained a practising Jew when he was elevated to the szlachta [nobility] in 1525 — a case without parallel anywhere in Christian Europe.’
But among Christians there was greater freedom, too. Today we think of Poland as being very Catholic, but Protestantism was hugely popular among the urban middle class here, too. By 1550 a ‘dominant proportion’ of the Sejm were Protestant, yet there was no civil war, nor much in the way of persecution.
‘In 1554, Bishop Czarnkowski of Poznan sentenced three burghers to death by fire for heresy, but they were rescued by a posse of mostly Catholic szlachta. The same bishop later sentenced a cobbler to the same fate, and this time over a hundred armed szlachta of all denominations, led by the foremost magnates, laid siege to the episcopal palace and freed the condemned man.’ Two years later a combined group of Catholics and Protestants saved the lives of three Jews who were to be burned at the stake.
In 1564 a young heretic, an Arian called Erazm Otwinowski, stamped on the Blessed Sacrament and shouted obscenities, and so was brought to Sejm. Whereas he would have faced execution almost anywhere in western Europe for such an outrage, the mixed Catholic-Calvinist body agreed with the defence made by poet Mikolaj Rej, that if God was offended, God would punish him. The man should pay the priest ‘a shilling, so he can buy himself a new glass and a handful of flour’.
Zygmunt Augustus, Poland’s king during the mid-16th century, effectively forced the papal nuncio to leave Poland because he wouldn’t persecute Protestants. ‘When asked by his subjects which way they should lean in the religious debates, he replied: “I am not the king of your consciences.”’
The Sejm met in 1573 under the name of the Confederation of Warsaw and declared:
Whereas in our Common Wealth there is no small disagreement in the matter of the Christian faith, and in order to prevent that any harmful contention should arise from this, as we see clearly taking place in other kingdoms, we swear to each other, in our name and in that of our descendants for evermore, on our honour, our faith, our love and our consciences, that albeit we are not dissidentes in religione, we will keep the peace between ourselves, and that we will not, for the sake of our various faith and difference of church, either shed blood or confiscate property, deny favour, imprison or banish, and that furthermore we will not aid or abet any power or office which strives to this in any way whatsoever.
By one calculation just 12 Protestants were executed or murdered for sectarian reasons between 1550 and 1650. In contrast, around 500 were executed in England, and 900 burned in the Netherlands.
In Poland there was ‘no inquisition, no burnings at the stake, no anathemas, no forfeitures of property, no barring from office... The greatest of these, Cardinal Stanislaw Hosius, was fundamentally opposed to violence and, referring to Mary Tudor, warned in 1571: “Let Poland never become like England.”’
When, in 1573, the Frenchman Henri de Valois was made king, and during his ceremony tried to mumble the part about religious freedom, Hetman Jan Zborowski boomed ‘si non iurabis, no regnabis!’ (you will not rule if you do not obey our laws). He agreed, although the following year Henry succeeded to the crown of his own country and left, a rare example of men who have ruled two different kingdoms at different times.
But Catholicism became dominant again largely due to the popularity of mixed marriages, because Polish women tended to be Catholic. Cuius regio, eius religio, you might say.
The Polish-Ukrainian commonwealth that never was
In the 16th century the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was the largest state in Europe, extending over 990,000 square kilometres, and exceptionally multicultural: ‘the szlachta included Lithuanian nobles and Ruthene boyars, Prussian and Baltic gentry of German origin, as well as Tartars and smaller numbers of Moldavians, Armenians, Italians, Magyars and Bohemians….’ But at this point Polish history increasingly begins to be entwined with that of the Muscovites, whose state had developed gigantism as it evolved into Russia.
The eastern areas of the Commonwealth were called the ‘margin’ or ‘edge’, Ukraina, and the Slavic people living there — usually called Ruthenes at this point — had a distinct identity and religion. In 1658 came the plan of the Union of Hadziacz, to turn the Commonwealth of Two Nations into three, the Polish-Lithuanian-Ruthenian Commonwealth.
Under this plan, ‘Ukraine was to have its own chancellor, treasurer, marshal and hetman, chosen by the king from candidates proposed by the Cossacks. It was to have its own courts, its own mint, and its own army…. Polish and Lithuanian troops were barred from entering the three Palatinates, in which only Orthodox Ukrainians were to hold office. Ukraine was to have two universities and a number of schools, paid for by the Commonwealth.’ Unfortunately it never came to pass, as the Commonwealth was losing its war with Russia and by the time of the truce, nine years later, huge swathes of land, including Kiev, fell under Russian control.
The Siege of Vienna: Poland saves Europe
As anyone who spends too much time on shady corners of the internet will know, it was the Poles who saved Europe from Ottoman Muslim domination at the Battle of Vienna in 1683. In this they were led by King Jan Sobieski, a man who had great admiration for the Turks, and Islamic culture more generally; indeed he ‘spoke Tatar and Turkish and loved the amenities of the East’.
Polish cavalry had adopted many Turkish weapons and tactics, and even shaved their heads like the Tartars, ‘so much so that on the eve of the Battle of Vienna the King had to order all Polish troops to wear a straw cockade so that their European allies should not take them for Turks, from whom they were all but indistinguishable.
‘The Poles also had a feeling for the beauty of Islamic art, which was not generally appreciated in western Europe. Eastern hangings replaced Flemish tapestries and arms joined pictures on the walls of manor houses.’ Ten years earlier, at the battle of Chocim, the Poles had defeated the Ottomans, and Jan Sobieksi had captured a silk embroidery which was studded with ‘two thousand emeralds and rubies’ from Turkish ruler Hussein Pasha, which he wore as a horsecloth for his coronation.
Poland’s aristocracy, the szlachta, had long been famous for their sense of style and panache. With their aristocratic equestrian tradition, they increasingly came to believe themselves to be not Slavs but descendants of Sarmatians, horsemen of the Steppes. Whether that was true is debatable, but it influenced their lifestyle.
When a man of substance died, a huge architectural folly, a castrium doloris, would be erected in the church as a canopy for his coffin, and this would be decorated with symbols of his office and wealth, his portrait and coat of arms, and with elaborate inscriptions in his honour. The ritual included the old Polish custom of breaking up the dead man’s symbols of office and, if he were the last of his family, shattering the coats of arms. Neighbours, friends, family, servants and soldiers would pay their last respects in more or less theatrical ways, while congregations of monks and nuns sang dirges and recited litanies.
The funeral of Hetman Jozef Potocki in 1751 took two weeks, for six days of which 120 pieces of cannon saluted continuously (using up a total of 4,700 measures of powder).’ The church in Stanislawow was entirely draped in black damask ‘before a huge catafalque of crimson velvet dripping with gold tassels, decorated with lamps, candelabra, Potocki’s portrait, captured standards, pyramids of weapons and other symbols of his office and achievements.
This Sarmatian lifestyle was a unique growth, produced by cross-pollination between Catholic high Baroque and Ottoman culture. Everything about it was theatrical, declamatory and buxom. It was inimical to the bourgeois ethic of thrift, investment, self-improvement and discipline which was beginning to dominate western Europe, and as a result it was condemned, even by Poles of later centuries. At its worst, Sarmatism was absurd and destructive, encouraging as it did outrageous behaviour and an attitude that bred delusion.
Among Poland’s greatest kings was Augustus II (1694-1733), known as the Strong and described by one subject as ‘half-bull, half-cock’. A great artistic patron who built much of Dresden, Augustus ‘could break horseshoes with one hand, shoot with astonishing accuracy, drink almost anyone under the table, and fornicate on a scale which would be unbelievable if he had not left platoons of bastards to prove it.’ When dying of alcohol poisoning his last words were ‘My whole life has been one uninterrupted sin. God have mercy on me.’ #Lad.
So far from God, so close to Russia
Russian and Prussian propagandists painted Poland as chaotic and backwards, so that ‘Catherine and Frederick enlisted the pens of their clients among the French philosophes to project an image of Poland as an obscurantist backwater which had been crying out to be liberated by enlightened monarchs such as themselves.’ This wasn’t true.
‘Between 1764 and 1768, a royal mint was established at Warsaw, the currency was stabilised, weights and measures were standardised, and a state postal service was founded.’ A number of canals were built to expand trade, while in 1747 two brothers, Bishop Józef Zaluski of Kiev and Bishop Andrzej Załuski of Krakow, pooled their book collection and bought a palace in Warsaw, donating to the nation the first public reference library in continental Europe. The Sejm decreed that all printers must donate a copy of each book, so that the library had 500,000 volumes when the Russians stole it in 1795. Much of the collection went on to form the Russian Imperial Library.
However, Poland’s political system did contain a big flaw: the veto. Any member of the Sejm could veto a decision, and while this sounds insane, it worked for many years because while a veto was technically legal it was against the spirit of the law; the system was functional so long as people put the national interest first. The veto was not used until 1652 and after that not for another 17 years and then not for another 10 years. But from 1696 to 1733 it became endemic; once a norm is broken, it is hard to fix. Game theory ensures that everyone breaks it.
As with states throughout history, Poland’s ethnic diversity was a source of weakness and vulnerability, and those doing the vetoing tended to be ‘obscure deputies from Lithuania or Ukraine, usually acting on behalf of a local magnate or a foreign power.’
There also grew a gap in wealth between the richer and poorer nobility, always a source of social division, and ‘The szlachta was also growing increasingly mongrelised’ as ‘the king ennobled Polish and foreign soldiers, particularly Scots and Frenchmen.’ (17th century Poland was full of Scots, surprisingly). It was so diverse that ‘a nobleman from Podolia felt more out of place in Gdansk than he would in Istanbul.’
The Polish system and its ‘freedoms’ was increasingly used by its enemies, so that in 1667 Brandenburg and Sweden had agreed to go to war ‘in defence of Polish freedoms’, that is to stop Poles abolishing the veto.
The King with the People, the People with the King
By the late 18th century, Poland was in peril. Prussia, Austria and Russia seized 200,000 square kilometres in 1772, and the country’s rulers knew that the old system was desperately in need of reform; the result was the constitution of May 1791, the Sejm producing what is widely regarded as one of the best in history.
With its slogan ‘The King with the People, the People with the King’, it was not radical, but ‘a pragmatic compromise between republicanism… radicalism… and… English-style constitutional monarchism.’
Poland’s moderate new constitution inspired liberals around Europe. ‘The events in Poland were hailed far and wide. Political clubs in Paris voted to make Stanislaw Augustus an honorary member. Condorcet and Thomas Paine acclaimed the constitution as a breakthrough, while Edmund Burke called it “the most pure” public good ever bestowed upon mankind.’
To get Burke and Paine in agreement was some achievement, surely, and even Karl Marx later said that: ‘With all its faults, this constitution seems to be the only act of freedom which Eastern Europe has undertaken in the midst of Prussia, Russia and Austrian barbarism. It was, moreover, initiated exclusively by the privileged classes, the nobility. The history of the world knows no other example of similar noble conduct by the nobility.’
Unfortunately, the constitution ended with Russian invasion in 1792, a second partition the following year and a third and a final carve-up in 1795, between Russia, Prussia and Austria. One of Europe’s great states had been wiped off the map, and was to remain only an idea and a dream for the next 123 years.
Wrong Side of History is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.