White eagle regains its crown

To celebrate the return of an independent Poland following decades under the communist yoke, the nascent government in February 1990 decided to restore the symbolic crown to its white eagle emblem.

Open your wallet and take a close look at your złoty coins. Irrespective of the denomination, they all have one common element – the crown atop the eagle. This diminutive crown, although small in size, makes up for it in significance. It was a symbol of independent statehood for nearly nine centuries until it was removed by communist authorities after World War II.

Centuries of history

The “crowned eagle” had been the official symbol of Poland since the 13th Century – but it goes back even further. Legend has it that the founder of the Polish nation, Lech, found himself face-to-face with a treacherous white eagle while hunting. The aquiline image with a backdrop of the blood-red setting sun became the proud image of the country.  

The country’s first dynasty, the Piasts, used the symbol as far back as 1222, although coins bearing the image of the eagle had been used much earlier. Piast ruler Przemysł II made the white eagle a symbol of state unity at his coronation in 1295, and it was adopted by all subsequent rulers, with very few changes to the design for hundreds of years.

The present version of the eagle was designed during a prosperous period in Polish history in 1927 as a symbol of the nation’s independence. However, communist authorities abolished the crown, as the country was left defeated following the war, calling it an opposition to the ruling Communist Party.

The crown on the eagle was the almost imperceivable difference in the iconography of the Polish government in exile in London – during WWII and later, as Poland lingered behind the Iron Curtain – and that of the Polish People’s Republic, whose eagle was uncrowned.

So it was only natural that the new government adopted the golden headgear once the country regained independence.

Yay, or Nay?

In late December 1989, parliament decided to reinstate the pre-World War II symbols of Poland, including the symbolic eagle which appeared on national flags, official documents, stamps, money orders and uniforms.

In February the following year, deputies debated the details of the national emblem.

On Friday, 9 February 1990, the Polish parliament voted to restore the majestic headpiece upon the white eagle as we know it today – with its head facing right, with outstretched wings, beak and talons of gold, and placed on a field of red.

But the seemingly simple decision to add a crown to every single eagle around the country was not met with universal approval.

Reporting the commission’s decision in 1990, United Press International journalist Jan Cienski, reported on the scale of the operation to change the national symbol, including concerns that it would be too costly for the new cash-strapped country.

But Solidarity official, Piotr Nowina-Konopka, was confident the change was important enough that Poland would come up with the necessary funds.

“A state should be able to find the money for its symbols,” he said. “Besides, many people have been willing to pay for the new symbols themselves. I really don’t think there will be a problem with the costs.”

It turned out he was right, and the symbol was adopted. The emblem unites a sometimes divided nation, reminding modern Poles of the country’s proud history. The white eagle is synonymous with Poland and may be the most noticeable part of the emblem, but the crown represents a strong, independent nation.

And the eagle would be somewhat less regal without it.

Coat of arms: the White Eagle symbol appeared for the first time on the coins made during the reign of Boleslaw I (992-1025), initially as the coat of arms of the Piast dynasty. The eagle’s graphic form has changed throughout centuries. Its recent shape, accepted in 1927, was designed by professor Zygmunt Kaminski and was based on the eagle’s form from the times of Stefan Batory’s reign (1576-1586).

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Written by: William Tomaney

William Tomaney works as a creative writer in marketing for an international company in Warsaw, where he lives. He is a British journalist and has worked at daily and weekly newspapers in England. He has interviewed politicians about British/Polish relations and has helped develop the English language section of the Polish Press Agency website. He has a degree in journalism and politics from De Montfort University in Leicester.