Poland Brief History

By | November 1, 2021

Despite its proximity to Sweden, Poland is a relatively unknown holiday country for many of us. Most people probably think of the trade union movement Solidarity and its leader Lech Walesa, Pope John Paul II, the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw or concentration camps when Poland is mentioned. Incidentally, the country is perhaps more or less unknown to many. There are few guide books written about the country and there are relatively few Swedish tourists who visit Poland. For a period, it was popular among Swedish men, for various reasons, to visit the country.

According to Businesscarriers, Poland is a country with a long and varied, often bloody, history with connections to Swedish history through King Zygmunt III (Sigismund Vasa, son of Johan III). Many of Poland’s old towns and villages have a medieval character. Within the country’s borders there are several interesting national parks, including Bialowiesza, in eastern Poland on the border with Belarus. Here is a unique untouched forest area that is part of the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. The park also includes a reserve in which efforts are being made to restore the bison population, the European bison, as well as the population of tarpan horses, the Polish wild horse. For ornithologists, the areas around the Masurian Lakes are also interesting for their rich bird life.

Poland history in brief

Poland history, older

Traces of primitive human life can be traced back more than 30,000 years. However, scientists know virtually nothing about the people who lived then. The traces of the first settlements and of trade routes can be dated to the Neolithic period, 4,000 – 2,000 BC. In the 1000s BC to the first centuries AD, the area corresponding to today’s Poland was invaded by various tribes, Celts, Scythians, Balts, Huns, Germanic groups, etc. Among them were probably also the Slavs, to which group the Poles belong.

The first Polish ruler mentioned in early sources is Mieszko I, who ruled a kingdom that roughly corresponds to today’s Poland. He was baptized in 966 and from this time the birth of the Polish state is counted. The population at that time was about 1 million people. However, the kingdom was threatened with disintegration early on but was united in the middle of the 11th century.

Internal unrest, from the end of the 11th century, led to many changes of kings and a division of the kingdom. A feudal system succeeded the central monarchy in Poland during the 13th century.

1200s – 16th century

Outside the country’s borders, the threat to Poland, the German order and the increasingly strong position of the Tartars grew. Alliances were formed that increased the threat and the country was attacked by the Tartars. During the 14th century, Poland was reunited and under the leadership of King Kazimierz III Wielki, new cities were founded and several fortifications were built. The surface of the country was expanded by conquests to the east. The population at this time was about 2 million. The culture flourished and the University of Krakow was founded in 1364, making it one of the oldest in Europe.

Only ten years old, Jadwiga ascended the throne in 1384. Her marriage to the Lithuanian prince Jagiello, who became Polish king under the name Wladyslaw Jagiello, laid the foundations for a new royal dynasty, the Jagellons. The marriage also led to a union between Lithuania and Poland. This later resulted in a joint Polish-Lithuanian state.

The victory of the Polish-Lithuanian forces at the greatest battle of the Middle Ages at Gruenwald (Tannenberg) in July 1410 against the German Order ushered in a new period in the country’s history and the Polish state became one of Europe’s most powerful.

The 16th century became Poland’s “Golden Century” when the country developed in a positive way. Cities grew, educational institutions were established, literature, art and science were given prominent roles. Many of Poland’s most important buildings can be dated to this period. Business and agriculture developed and Poland became a supplier of agricultural and handicraft products to other European countries.

The Jagiellonian era ended when King Zygmunt II August died in 1572. After his death, it was decided that future kings would be appointed by election. The first king to be elected was Henryk Walezy, a French crown prince. In 1587, Zygmunt III Vasa (Sigismund), son of the Swedish king Johan III, was elected king of Poland. 1596 Warsaw becomes the capital after Krakow. From here, Zygmunt III tried to rule both Sweden and Poland, which was not accepted by the Swedes, who deposed him from the Swedish throne.

1600s – 1800s

At the beginning of the 17th century, Poland was a powerful state and the country was involved in several wars, against both Russia and Sweden (1626-29). There was also a conflict with Turkey. The peace that was concluded in Altmark benefited the Swedish interests. When Sigismund resigned as king in 1632, after 45 years as regent, Poland was again involved in wars with Sweden, Russia and Turkey in various rounds. The war against the Swedes ended with the peace of Oliwa in 1660. This war left a great devastation. In the war against the Turks in 1672, Poland lost parts of Ukraine.

King August II ascended the Polish throne in 1697. In the same year, Charles XII became king of Sweden. After various conflicts, a new war broke out between Poland and Sweden in 1700, which resulted in a new Swedish invasion. King August II was deposed and replaced by the Swedish sympathizer Stansislaw Leszynski. He was forced out of power after the defeat of Charles XII at Poltava. Thus, the Swedish great power empire was broken and two new great powers were added, which had a great impact on Polish politics, Russia and Prussia. In 1772, Poland was invaded by a Russian-Prussian-Austrian army and 1/3 of the country was occupied. National self-esteem grew among Poles during this period. The liberal constitution adopted by the Sejm perceived Russia as a threat in 1791 and resulted in a new Russian invasion. The Poles were defeated by the Russians and the country was divided again in 1795. Russia, Prussia and Austria took parts of the country and thus Poland no longer existed as a country. This freedom lasted until 1918.

During the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th century, Poland became a pawn in the great power game. The opposition in the country resulted in several uprisings with fatal consequences for the Poles

History of Poland 1905 – 1999

1905- 1906

The Russian Revolution led to an armed uprising in Poland as well. By mid-1906, however, it had been defeated by the tsar’s troops, both in Poland and in Russia. This became the igniting spark of the October Revolution of 1917

1914 – 1918

During the First World War, the Polish territories were a battlefield for the three occupying powers, Germany, Austria and Russia, who all lost the war. This led to Poland regaining its independence on 11 November 1918. The head of state of the new republic became the former socialist and leader of the liberation struggle, Jozef Pilsudski


The Peace of Versailles established Poland’s western border. After a referendum, Poland received parts of Gorny Slask (Upper Silesia), as well as access to the Baltic Sea through a strip of land that cut off East Prussia from the rest of Germany. Gdansk (Danzig) became a free port city under shared Polish-German administration


The eastern border was established only after a war with the new Soviet state, which in a campaign through Poland was about to bring its revolution to Germany. However, the Red Army was stopped by Marshal Pilsudski in a battle at Wisla in August and driven back east.


The new constitution established a parliament with two chambers and universal and equal suffrage. The political parties were small and divided and several weak minority and coalition governments took turns in the coming years.


Pilsudski regained power in a coup and ruled Poland in an authoritarian manner until his death in 1935. Despite the undemocratic form of government, there was a fairly free press and independent trade unions. Political parties could also continue to operate


Died head of state Jozef Pilsudski


In August, Germany and the Soviet Union concluded a non-aggression pact, the so-called Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact. In secret additions, Poland, and the Baltic countries, were divided into German and Soviet spheres of interest.

On September 1, Germany launched a military attack on Poland. Two days later, in accordance with their defense treaties with Poland, Britain and France declared war on Germany. World War II had thus begun

Three weeks after Germany’s attack, the Polish state had collapsed. The Polish government went into exile, first to France and then to Britain. 17 days after Germany’s attack, the Soviet Union’s Red Army invaded from the east. A German-Soviet treaty on September 28 completed the fourth partition of Poland. The Soviet Union retained eastern Poland. More than 20,000 officers in the Polish army who ended up in the areas occupied by the Red Army were arquebused by order of Stalin. Western Poland was incorporated into Germany. A small, German-occupied area in the middle was called the General Government and was managed by a German governor based in Wawel, the royal castle in Krakow.

World War II led to the loss of six million Polish citizens, including three million Polish Jews, in a systematic extermination


After Soviet troops began to drive the Germans out of Poland, a group of leading Polish communists from their exile in Moscow was able to move to the Polish city of Lublin and establish themselves there as the first Polish government in liberated territory.

In Warsaw, the resistance movement AK, which was under the government in exile in London, tried to speed up the liberation by going into open action against the Germans in August. The Warsaw Uprising was crushed, as the expected support from the Soviet troops east of the city did not materialize

After the Warsaw Uprising in August, the Germans began a systematic destruction of the Polish capital. World War II ended in a terrible outcome for Poland. Large parts of the country’s cities were totally destroyed and more than six million people had lost their lives, of which three million were Polish Jews


The Russians march into Warsaw

At the Yalta Conference, the country’s new borders were established, which resulted in major migrations

At the Great Power Conference in Potsdam during the summer, the Allies decided that the former German territories east of the Oder and Neisse rivers would be placed under Polish administration. At the same time, the new Polish-Soviet border was established on the river Bug. Poland ceded about half of the pre-war territory to the Soviet Union

The new government formed after the war was strongly communist-dominated and recognized by both the Soviet Union and the Western powers.


The results of the free elections were manipulated and a new constitution was adopted. After the purges that followed, the country was driven towards communism and then developed according to the traditional socialist pattern


Soviet control of Poland was further tightened when Communist leader Wladyslaw Gomulka, who advocated a so-called Polish path to socialism, was imprisoned. At the same time, the Communist and Socialist parties merged into the Polish United Workers’ Party (PZPR). The party’s leader was Boleslaw Bierut, a former agent for the Soviet security services


After workers’ unrest in Poznan, Gomulka returned as the first party secretary. A period of liberalization followed


The students demanded a general democratization in demonstrations around the country. The protests were crushed, hundreds of people were imprisoned and thousands of intellectuals were forced to leave their jobs

The regime’s propaganda, which contained strong anti-Semitic elements, and the purges also affected many Poles of Jewish birth who had nothing to do with the protests. About 50,000 Polish Jews left the country


In December, shipyard workers in Gdansk and Szczecin went on strike in protest of sharp rises in food prices. Gomulka was forced to resign. He was succeeded by Edward Gierek. The new regime invested heavily in achieving increased stability by raising the population’s standard of living


Following strikes and demonstrations against new food price increases in June, the Workers’ Defense Committee (KOR) was formed, where workers and intellectuals came together to help the persecuted workers.


When the regime tried to raise prices again in July, a wave of strikes broke out across the country. This time, with the support of KOR advisers, the workers demanded a new economic and social policy, increased democracy, the right to free trade unions and free opinion formation, but not free elections to parliament

On August 31, the so-called Gdansk Agreement, in which the workers were allowed to form a trade union movement independent of the party and the state, Solidarity (Solidarnosc), was signed, with Lech Walesa, an electrician at the Lenin shipyard in Gdansk, as its leader

Edward Gierek was replaced as party leader by Stanislaw Kania


General Wojciech Jaruzelski became the new party leader. From the very beginning, he had taken a hostile stance on the changes in Poland. The Soviet Union subjected the country’s leadership to strong pressure, including threats of military invasion, to end Solidarity. Jaruzelski, who was party leader, head of government and defense minister, secretly prepared a military intervention

Solidarity, which at its first congress in September numbered ten million members, became increasingly clear as a fundamentally political organization

On the night of December 13, a state of emergency was imposed in Poland. Jaruzelski, who led the “Military Council for the Salvation of the Nation”, let the military take over all power in the country. Thousands of people were imprisoned and all political and trade union activities were banned. The non-imprisoned Solidarity activists, however, managed to maintain certain activities, in underground forms.


The state of emergency was formally revoked in July, but the last political prisoners were not released until September 1986.


Negotiations with the then still banned Solidarity began in February and lasted until April. Solidarity was represented by Lech Walesa and a number of recently released human rights activists. An agreement was reached that partly free elections would be held. They took place on June 4, the same day that the Chinese Communist Party ordered a bloody massacre in Tiananmen Square in Beijing.
The intention of the agreement was that the Communist Party would retain the ultimate control, including over the police and the military, and that Jaruzelski would have a newly established post as president. The opposition forces would be given a place in the official political assemblies and have influence over economic and social policy. The leaders of solidarity saw the agreement as a first significant step towards complete democratization

The outcome of the first partially free elections in Eastern Europe surprised everyone. Solidarity won a crushing victory. In August, Jaruzelski commissioned Tadeusz Mazowiecki, Solidarity’s adviser and Lech Wales’ closest associates, to form a government
. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev publicly urged Polish communists to accept the loss of power


The Communist Party disbanded in January and the Communist ministers disappeared from government a few months later. General Jaruzelski, who was elected for five years, resigned already in the autumn. He left the field free for Lech Walesa, who in a direct election became the country’s first democratically elected president


The first completely free election was held in the autumn and led to a right-dominated but divided parliament. The next two governing coalitions, led by Jan Olszewski and then Hanna Suchocka, who survived for 6 and 14 months respectively, had fragile support in parliament.


A new election during the year led to a major victory for the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) with the transformed Communist Party at the helm. Solidarity and several small right-wing parties failed to reach the newly introduced block of five percent of the votes required to enter the Sejm


Solidarity lost the presidency when Lech Walesa lost the presidential election to Aleksander Kwasniewski, the young and dynamic leader of the SLD


Solidarity returned to the right-wing alliance AWS and won the parliamentary elections. The Prime Minister was Jerzy Buzek, an influential activist in Solidarity. The new government wanted to accelerate and complete the transformation of the country through comprehensive social and economic reforms. Buzek led his government to the term of office, 1997–2001, but failed to carry out all his ambitions. Growth weakened, unemployment and societal gaps grew

Poland Brief History