Poland: The First Thousand Years
By Patrice M. Dabrowski
Northern Illinois University Press, 2016, 506 pages
After I walked away from the Lord for a long “prodigal” season, I had to fill the vacuum with something so I turned to studying my Polish heritage. I’m 50% Polish from my father’s side and 38% German/12% Irish from my mother. Growing up during the Polish joke era in the late 60s and early 70s, I was frequently the target of “dumb Polak” humor. I quickly reached a point where I wished I could be anything but Polish. People poke fun at political correctness but I’m glad ethnic and racial intolerance are increasingly less acceptable. Anyway, in a complete turnaround, I embraced my Polish ethnicity back around 2002 and read everything I could get my hands on about Polish history and culture for the next twelve years.
When I returned to the Lord in 2014, just about all of my reading material reverted back to Christian topics. But last year I spotted “Poland: The First Thousand Years” at Barnes and Noble and picked it up for old time’s sake and finally got around to reading it.
Poland has a very strange history that most people are not aware of. Sandwiched between two extremely aggressive neighbors, Prussia/Germany and Russia, the country didn’t have much of a chance and in many ways contributed to its own subjugation.
Writing a general national history is a difficult undertaking and Dabrowski does a very good job. She outlines the major historical currents and provides enough human detail to keep the book from becoming just a dry exercise of dates and wars.
Poland began as a nation with the reign of Mieszko I (960-992). His conversion to Catholicism in 966, as in the case of many pagan monarchs, was due more to political expediency than personal conviction. As Poland grew in strength, the Piasts gave way to the Jagiellonian dynasty and an alliance with Lithuania. Poland-Lithuania was the largest state in Europe and, given its diverse population, was remarkably tolerant of all religious beliefs and ethnicities compared to its neighbors. The Reformation gained many converts to Christ among the nobility in Poland, but the Jesuits countered by establishing many schools throughout the country, resulting in the children of Christian parents choosing Catholicism.
The power of the Polish magnates and nobility grew in comparison to the elected monarchs. Every nobleman was empowered with the ability to invoke the liberum veto, the power to block any new law or reform put forward by the king or parliament. Neighboring countries took advantage of Poland’s deepening political impotence. The country was partitioned three times in the late 18th century by Prussia, Russia, and Austria, essentially removing Poland from the map of Europe.
Poles attempted to resurrect their nation by enlisting in Napoleon’s military campaigns and through various insurrections. During these years of complete political subjugation, the Polish Catholic church took on the role of repository of Polish nationalism.
With Russia, Germany, and Austria in complete disarray following World War I, the Western Allies re-established Poland as a nation. The interwar years were difficult for the fledgling country given the international economic depression. During this time, Poland became increasingly intolerant of non-ethnic Poles and non-Catholics.
Nazi Germany invaded Western Poland in 1939 to start World War II, followed by Soviet Russia’s land grab of Eastern Poland. The country was completely partitioned once again. Most of the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust perished in Poland at the hands of the Nazi occupiers. The Red Army advanced westward as the Germans retreated, eventually occupying all Polish territory. Arbitrary postwar border shifts and wholesale population resettlements left Poland a largely homogeneous country, both ethnically and religiously.
Poles endured Soviet military and political domination from 1945 through 1989, until escalating strikes and protests over economic conditions and political freedoms forced the Polish communist government to negotiate its own demise. Poland has slowly begun to claim its place among European nations, joining NATO in 1999 and the European Union in 2004. Citizens are still extremely wary of their German and Russian neighbors and given their history and the unpredictability of Vladimir Putin, who can blame them? Poland is still one of the most Catholic countries in Europe, meaning most of its citizens have never heard the Gospel of salvation by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone. Many Americans mix religion with patriotism and nationalism but Poles take it to a whole different level. In the understanding of most, you cannot be a true Pole unless you are Roman Catholic.
I enjoyed this general history very much and I recommend it highly to anyone who is interested in an overview of the unconventional history of Poland. No other Western nation experienced the oppression and devastation that Poland endured between the years 1772 and 1989.