History at a glance

More than a thousand years of history - from a European power to lost independence. Poland is a country whose history makes it "God's playground".

Middle Ages

966—Christianity

The process of Christianisation of Polish lands started in 966 with Mieszko I’s baptism. The ruler’s baptism and the establishment of an independent diocese brought the Gniezno state into the family of European Christian states and bound Poland with the Western sphere of Christian culture.

1000—Congress of Gniezno

Emperor Otto III and Duke Bolesław, later King of Poland, met in Gniezno. As a result, a metropolitan see of Gniezno was established, Poland’s first to be directly subordinate to the pope. The emperor was presented with some relics of St. Adalbert, the first Polish martyr.

1364—first university

Jagiellonian University is the oldest university in Poland, which over the past centuries has educated many famous Poles, among them Nicolaus Copernicus, King John III Sobieski, Pope John Paul II, and the writer Stanisław Lem. It was founded by King Casimir III the Great on 12 May 1364 as the Krakow Academy. The Academy was the second, after Prague, university in this part of Europe. The jewels of Queen Jadwiga Angevin, Władysław Jagiełło’s wife, provided funds for the restoration of the Academy to its full shape, with four faculties, including the prestigious faculty of theology. In 1407, Europe’s first autonomous departments of mathematics and astronomy were set up there. The university’s name got the “Jagiellonian” adjective only in 1817.

1364—Congress of monarchs in Krakow

On the initiative of the Polish King Casimir III the Great, a meeting of monarchs took place in Krakow between 22 and 27 September 1364. It was attended by Charles IV, German Emperor and King of Bohemia; the kings: Valdemar IV of Denmark, Louis of Hungary and Peter of Cyprus; and many dukes: Otto of Brandenburg, Siemowit III of Masovia, Bolko II the Small of Swidnica and Władysław Opolczyk. The reason behind convening the congress was political balance in Central Europe, and a possible anti-Turkish crusade. The congress had a sumptuous ceremonial setting, with the lavish banquet in Wierzynek’s house in Krakow passing into legend. The congress, which reverberated widely in Europe, was also the manifestation of the Polish king’s power and wealth.

1410—Battle of Grunwald

One of the largest battles in the history of Medieval Europe. On 15 July 1410, Grunwald fields were the site of a battle between the Teutonic Order knights commanded by Grand Master Ulrich von Jungingen and the combined Polish and Lithuanian forces led by the king of Poland, Władysław Jagiełło. It ended in a victory for the Polish-Lithuanian army.

Modernity

1515—Congress of Vienna

July 1515 was marked by a meeting of the Jagiellonians and the Habsburgs, attended by Sigismund I the Old, King of Poland, Vladislas II the Jagiellonian, King of Bohemia and Hungary, and Emperor Maximilian I. The congress concluded on 22 July with the treaty of Vienna, whereby the emperor undertook to stop supporting the Teutonic Order and Muscovy in their operations against Poland. The Jagiellonians in turn consented to the marriages of Vladislas II’s children—Anna and Louis—with Emperor Maximilian I’s grandchildren, Ferdinand and Mary.

1543—“De revolutionibus orbium coelestium”

“De revolutionibus orbium coelestium” by Nicolaus Copernicus was published in Nuremberg; a work which laid foundations for modern astronomy. The Polish scientist presented a theory about a heliocentric and heliostatic universe—he claimed that it is the Earth that orbits the Sun, and not the other way round, as had been previously believed. “The publication of the book marked the end of the Middle Ages in science, and the theory earned itself the name ‘Copernican Revolution,’ and led to a deep change in the way the world was perceived, affecting religion, politics and philosophy.”

1569—Union of Lublin

It was the crowning of Poland and Lithuania’s unification efforts. The act was passed by the Sejms (parliaments) of the two nations in 1569 in Lublin. Under the Union, the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania from then on formed the Commonwealth of the Two Nations, with a jointly elected king, common parliament and foreign policy. The Commonwealth one of the biggest states of Europe, and the 17th century was an era of its biggest economic, scientific, political and military might, dubbed “the golden age of Poland.” The end of the Union of Lublin came in the 18th century with the partitions of Poland.

1573—Warsaw confederation

One of the first acts granting broad religious tolerance in Europe, it was passed by the gentry at a convocation Sejm (called upon the monarch’s death) in Warsaw on 28 January 1573. It guaranteed unconditional and everlasting peace between different denominations, equal rights for religious dissenters and the Catholic gentry, and enshrined the freedom of conscience and tolerance.

1683—Battle of Vienna

A battle fought on 12 September 1683 between the Polish-Austrian-German forces under the command of John III Sobieski, King of Poland, and the Ottoman Empire army led by Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa. It ended in a defeat of the Ottomans, who from then on ceased to present a threat to the Christian part of Europe.

1791—Constitution of May 3

The Constitution of the Commonwealth of the Two Nations was adopted on 3 May 1791. It was the first codified constitution in modern day Europe, and the world’s second after the American one. Unfortunately, the Constitution did not prevent Poland’s downfall. In 1795, the third partition of the Commonwealth by Russia, Prussia and Austria was effected. Poland lost its statehood to recover it only in the autumn of 1918.

1903—First Nobel for Maria Curie-Skłodowska

The Warsaw-born Maria Curie-Skłodowska was the first woman in history to become a Nobel Prize laureate. Together with her husband, Piotr Curie, and Henri Becquerel, a French physicist, she was awarded in physics for their research into radioactivity, discovered by Becquerel in 1896. The discovery gave an impulse for the development of new branches of physics, chemistry and medicine. It has contributed to the progress in fighting cancer.

Contemporary Period

1918—Independence

After 123 years under Russian, Prussian and Austrian rule, Poland regained independence. Although it was a gradual process, 11 November 1918 has come to be regarded as the symbolic date of regaining independence. On that day a truce between the Entente and the German Empire was signed in Compiègne, France, ending the First World War. Also on that day the Regency Council handed over military authority and the supreme command over its subordinate Polish troops to Józef Piłsudski.

1920—the Miracle on the Vistula

Victorious for Poland, fought between 12 and 25 August 1920 during the Polish-Bolshevik war, a battle that is considered decisive in the world’s annals. It not only sealed Poland’s independence, but also saved the whole of Europe from the spread of communism and Soviet totalitarianism.

1939—Second World War

On 1 September 1939, 4:45 a.m., a salvo from the German battleship Schleswig-Holstein fired off on the Polish Military Transit Depot on the Westerplatte peninsula near Gdansk started the hostilities between Poland and Germany. At the same time German aircraft bombed the town of Wielun. The Battle of Westerplatte sparked off an armed conflict which would ultimately involve 110 million soldiers from 61 countries. The Republic of Poland, which was the first to mount armed resistance against the Nazis, paid for it with the lives of around 5,800,000 of her citizens, the destruction of 38% of her national wealth and over a half century of lost independence, having found itself within the Russian sphere of influence. The war lasted until 8 May 1945, when the Germans signed the act of unconditional surrender.

1940—Katyn crime

In the spring, in the vicinity of Katyn near Smolensk, Miednoye near Tver, Bykovnia near Kyiv, Piatykhatky on the outskirts of Kharkiv, and most probably also in Belarus, NKVD—or the Soviet political police— murdered almost 22,000 Polish citizens, including more than 10,000 army and police officers, by a shot in the back of the head. The decision to execute “prisoners of war” was made by the highest authorities of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. It was included in a resolution of the Politburo of the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks) dated 5 March 1940 (the so-called Katyn decision). Only in 1990 did the USSR officially admit that the crime had been perpetrated by the NKVD (before that, the Soviet authorities had been denying their responsibility for the crime).

1944—Warsaw Rising

The Warsaw Rising was launched by the Polish Home Army during the Second World War against the German forces that had been occupying Poland’s capital since 1939. It broke out on 1 August and, despite the insurgents’ poor equipment with weapons, held out for as many as 63 days, until 3 October 1944. A testimony to the courage of the Polish people, it did not let Western countries forget about the tragic fate of German-occupied Poland.

1978—Karol Wojtyła is elected Pope John Paul II

The election of a Pole to papacy in October 1978 stirred up emotions around the world. The conclave broke the rule that the Supreme Pontiff had to be Italian, and elected a man from behind the Iron Curtain. Cardinal Karol Wojtyła became the first non-Italian pope in 455 years. He chose the name John Paul II. Many historians believe that John Paul II was instrumental in toppling communism.

1980—Birth of Solidarity

A wave of strikes, which started on the Polish coast, led to the signing of an agreement between a government commission and an Inter-Enterprise Strike Committee, in Gdansk on 31 August 1980. As a result, the Independent Self-Governing Trade Union “Solidarity” was born—the first legal and independent trade union in the communist bloc. The slogan “No freedom without Solidarity” was a cry known to everyone in Poland in the 1980s. The emergence of Solidarity ushered in the changes of 1989—the overthrow of communism.

1989—Round Table

In February, negotiations began between the democratic opposition linked to the “Solidarity” Independent Self-Governing Trade Union, led by Lech Wałęsa, and the communist authorities. The talks were also attended by observers from the Catholic and Lutheran church. The immediate cause for entering the talks was two waves of strikes of 1988. The negotiations between the government and opposition ended in April 1989 at the Round Table. The two sides agreed to Poland’s first pluralistic elections after the Second World War.

4 June 1989

with the parliamentary elections of 4 June 1989, Poles voted communist authoritarianism out of power, and momentous changes started to sweep through Central and Eastern Europe. The elections ended in a landslide victory for the opposition movement represented by the Citizens’ Committee with Lech Wałęsa. It won 99% of the seats in the Senate and all of the available seats in the Sejm. That day the Polish people chose freedom. On 12 September a government was formed by Tadeusz Mazowiecki—the first non-communist prime minister in Central and Eastern Europe in over 40 years.

1999—Poland becomes NATO member

On 12 March in Independence, Missouri, Professor Bronisław Geremek, Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs, presented Madeleine Albright, US Secretary of State, with the instrument of Poland’s accession to the North Atlantic Treaty. Poland joined NATO alongside the Czech Republic and Hungary. NATO membership was one of the fundamental objectives for the Polish foreign and security policy of the 1990s.

2004—Poland joins European Union

On 1 May Poland accededed to the European Union pursuant to the Accession Treaty signed on 16 July 2003 in Athens. Alongside Poland, the Union embraced nine other states: the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Slovenia, Cyprus and Malta. The idea of including Poland in Western Europe’s integration processes was first put forward by Tadeusz Mazowiecki’s government. Already in the early 1990s, securing a full membership of the European Communities was considered to be a strategic goal for Poland’s foreign policy. In the accession referendum held in June 2003, 77.45% of Poles said “yes” to Poland’s accession to the European Union (with a turnout of 58.85%).

Photo: Wojtek Druszcz/REPORTER/EASTNEWS / 4th of June 1989 in Warsaw; selensergen - Fotolia / NATO flag; Grzegorz Rogiński/REPORTER / Round Table; Eugeniusz Lokajski "Brok"/Warsaw Rising Museum; Museum of John Paul II and Primate Wyszyński / Pope John Paul II during his first visit to Poland in 1979