Animated History Of Poland: If you live in Central or Eastern Europe, you probably grew up hearing the folk tale of the three brothers.
Lech, Czech, and Rus: the three legendary patriarchs of the Slavic peoples.
Allowed on a hunting trip the brothers had a disagreement, as brothers do, on which prey to follow, leading them to split up.
Czech, the eldest of the brothers, follows prey to the Czech lands.
Rus, the youngest, went east and became the founder of Russia, and Lech, in the middle founded Poland, because who cares about consistency?
The tale differs slightly from place to place, but many include that Lech traveled north as he followed a beautiful white eagle. The eagle landed in its nest at sunset and looked very breathtaking against the red sky.
Lech took this for an omen and decided that the land would be his new home.
The white eagle is still the symbol of Poland,blazoned against the red sky their flag.
Indeed, Poland did begin with Slavic settlements.
The Slavs are likely a civilization that emerged as remnants of the early Indo-European peoples who had migrated out of the Caucasus.
From their homeland in Central Europe they began to expand and migrate in response to the weakening of the Roman Empire.
(You’ll remember this from previous episodes as the Great Migration Period.)
The Poles loved their new home, which they shared with Germanic tribes from Scandinavia and the occasional Asian nomadic raiders.
The Slavs of Poland were organized into smaller tribes living in and around the Baltic Sea and the Vistula river delta.
They united under Poland’s first official leader, Mieszko. Mieszko was the duke of the Polans.
This was a good gig to have since the tribe eventually became the name of the whole country: Poland.
Mieszko was a member of the noble house of Piast; his dynasty would rule Poland for centuries.
Animated History Of Poland
With his baptism in 966 A.D., the country slowly abandoned traditional Slavic paganism and adopted western Christianity.
Mieszko’s son Bolesław the Brave expanded the territory south into what he hoped would be a strong regional power, but, alas, it was a bit too early for that still.
He established the metropolitan see at Gniezno, forming the headquarters of what would become the Catholic Church in Poland.
His consolidation of power led him to be crowned Poland’s first official king, and then he died, all in the same year.(Which is great.)
The Piast dynasty was somewhat up and down and internal conflicts often plagued the royal court.
Till this guy, Casimir the Restorer, restored the monarchy’s control, which, come to think of it, is probably why they called him “the Restorer”?
He modernized Poland into a feudalistic society, which came with all these cool things like knights and lords and castles.
This helped to secure the borders, which up until now had changed depending on who was king.
The early kingdom, somewhat weaker than his neighbours and strapped for cash, did however hold the Mongol invasion into Europe, having been sacked twice before.
Notable of this time was the Polish relationship with the Germans, whose dukes and lords had come to possess large amounts of the west, and the Teutonic Knights, who had carved out a significant state for themselves in Livonia and Prussia, a land inhabited by Pagans, frequently raided by crusaders.
By the time Piast rule ended with Casimir the Great, Poland had lost much of its territory to its neighbours.
But, with a period of peace, the state soon began to prosper and attract Jewish settlement.
The counties in this area became a source of contention between the kings of Poland and the Holy Roman Empire.
Who fought over the local lords for fealty and allegiance.
This resulted in these counties being very mixed, with populations of people from both kingdoms; the whole thing was very unbohemian, really.
The Jews first settled in Poland as merchants on popular trade routes.
By this century the Jewish people had settled in great numbers over many kingdoms in Europe and began their long and very sad history.
They were expelled by the masses in all the countries they settled in and were often victims of massacres, and worse, crusades.
Successive expulsions led the population in Poland to swell, which was a comparatively more tolerant society, which became a center of Judaic learning and culture as the centuries continued.
However, things weren’t always super peachy and anti-Jewish riots often erupted in Polish towns, and synagogues were frequently burned.
King Casimir the Great, dying without an heir, left his kingdom to his nephew Lewis, the king of Hungary.
Lewis left him now three kingdoms to his daughters, one of whom died unexpectedly, the other, who was supposed to inherit Poland but inherited Hungary instead, and the last one, Jadwiga, who got Poland.
The nobles of Poland welcomed Louis’s daughter and crowned her king, Yes, king, not queen.
Jadwiga’s life would not be unlike a medieval television drama as she was simultaneously engaged to both a grand duke of Lithuania Jogaila, whose Kingdom was huge and powerful, and the Habsburg duke of Austria, who was inbred and fat.
I think she made the right choice.
The union of Jadwiga and Władysław formed the Polish-Lithuanian union, which is now the largest country in Europe under a single monarchy.
The Lithuanians had become a strong military power in the previous century, capturing large amounts of Russian and Mongol land.
The now combined countries spread from the Baltic to the Black Sea.
The Lithuanians, with their far smaller population, never ventured too far from their castles–why would you?–and preferred to rule Ruthenia from Livonia instead.
So by the time of the Union, the much larger Polish population came to dominate the Ruthenian lands, spreading their language and their culture,and eventually dwarfing their Livonian allies.
The Teutonic Order, that German state on the Baltic, had become somewhat of a bad neighbor, leading raids, crusades, and plundering castles, or otherwise stumbling drunk into Polish-Lithuanian territory, starting fires and whatnot.
The union of the two states proved beneficial, handing the Knights a crushing defeat of the Battle of Grunwald in 1410; they also fought numerous wars with the Muscovites, Tatars, and Ottomans.
Noteworthy of the galleon period was the efficiency of the feudal system and the pseudo-democratic nature of the parliament, who set up a sophisticated bureaucracy for king approval (or disapproval, if you are unlucky).
Within just a few decades, the Teutonic Order had completely lost its state, with the western half being annexed directly into Poland and the rest becoming a fief to the Polish Crown.
This gave access of Poland to the prosperous Baltic seaports and an explosion in trade (keep your eye on this it becomes important later).
The Prussian fief would later be inherited by Duke from Brandenburg estate within the Holy Roman Empire.
A trend that would become even more troublesome as lords within the HRE would increasingly inherit lands outside the imperial borders.
The HRE was weird. Don’t worry about it. 😀 Acquiring Danzig, or Gdańsk, had huge economic benefits and cities swelled in size in response to the trade boom, like Poznań, Lwów, and the capital Kraków, and most notably Warsaw. Warsaw, or Warszawa in Polish, was up to this point just a small fishing village.
Legend has it that a fisherman named Wars happened upon a mermaid in the Vistula river named Sawa.
The two married and founded the town of Warszawa.
The Poles, like most Europeans, were often embroiled in wars and this made famous their heavy cavalry, the Winged Hussars (which I’m sure I’ll be mobbed and lynched if I don’t talk about…).
Initially, a contingent of Hungarian mercenaries the Hussars soon became an elite shock cavalry so powerful they allowed the Poles to win many otherwise hopeless battles.
The Hussars became the envy of Europe, the most powerful and disciplined heavy cavalry the Middle Ages had ever known and are still a matter of intense national symbolism of Poland.
The sixteenth century was a really big one and included the protestant reformation affecting mostly German parts of the Kingdom, wars against the encroaching Ottomans invading Europe, advances in science and literature, with Copernicus devising the heliocentric model of the Solar System, the nationwide codification of the Polish language, and the biggest one, the changing of the Polish-Lithuanian union into the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth: a single political entity ratified by the Polish parliament, or Sejm, with elected rather than hereditary kings.
The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, or just Poland for short, became a center of power and commerce and a bulwark against invading Turks, who had become a larger and larger problem for the European powers since their humble beginnings in Central Asia.
During the Polish-Muscovite war, the Poles became involved in the Russian succession crisis, or the Time of Troubles, and began flexing their muscles with their famous hussars.
They even occupied Moscow for a short period but were soon driven out, because invading Russia is simply impossible, unless you are the Mongols.
The series of Northern Wars and the Russo-Polish war left the Commonwealth in a very precarious and weakened state.
This was aggravated by the election of Polish kings, which opened the door for other nations to meddle in Polish affairs.
Which they did, a lot. During the wars the Commonwealth lost the territory of Livonia and was devastated by the so-called Swedish Deluge, leaving much of the nation in ruins.
Poland became weakened during the Great Northern War against Sweden and during the War of the Polish Succession, it became increasingly clear that Poland’s fate was going to be decided by its neighbors.
The Polish parliament became ineffective due to complicated veto laws which made passing reforms or mounting resistance to invasion nothing if not impossible.
The political limbo and the sheer size of the Commonwealth started to make cutting pieces out of it looked pretty attractive.
The last king of Poland, Stanislav II, was elected in 1764 as a puppet of the Russian Empire, aided greatly by the fact that he was in bed with Catherine the Great.
Stanislav did attempt reform to try and save face but was aware the kingdom was on its last breath.
Before long the First Partition of Poland was enacted,dividing the outlying provinces between Austria, Prussia, and Russia.
In dire straits, the parliament was powerless to stop the invading troops and forced to ratify the new borders.
The Great Sejm tried once more to reform by drafting a formal constitution inspired by the liberties of the French revolution,but it was enough to provoke Russia again, who saw France as an enemy and Poland as a sympathizer to anti-monarchic sentiments.
Pro- and anti-constitutional forces became embroiled in a war and Russian forces invaded to broker a defeat to the republican movement.
With an agreement signed with Prussia, the two nations annexed more territory in the Second Partition, reducing Poland to one-third its size and population.
The king was horrifically unpopular, the army was in shambles, the parliament was divided and powerless.
The common people were furious and insurrections led to the national rebellion led by the military veteran Tadeusz Kościuszko.
After an initial success, the rebels failed to garner support from many other nations and were defeated by the surrounding powers.
In 1795, the Austrians, Prussians and Russians decided to put an end to the rebellious Poles and invaded them from three sides.
The Third Partition of Poland, as it became known, wiped Poland off the face of the map for the next century.
Millions of Poles now found themselves subject to whichever nation they were divided into, isolated from one another; and Poland ceased to exist.
Now as you all know if you’ve ever picked up a map Poland did indeed return as a sovereign nation.
But we will have to get to all of that in part two.
In the meantime, if you’re interested in learning more, why not head over to the Great Courses Plus?
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I personally recommend having a watch “The Great Crime of Empires: Poland Divided”, which is part of the course on the history of Eastern Europe.
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