Tracking back for clues
A trip through Poland’s history can be arduous but also enlightening, especially during these dark times. In a two-part special, we scan the history books to see if we can uncover any lessons from the country’s past that may provide some perspective. First, we look at the late 18th century …
Throughout their turbulent history, Poles have developed a survival instinct that almost seems innate, and one which allowed them to come together as a nation and live through the hardest of times. The past can’t tell us everything about the world that we face today, especially one so dynamic. But sometimes the example set by those before us can help us frame the world with perspective. Sometimes lessons can be drawn; other times, it’s just comforting to know that others have gone through greater hardship than us – and survived.
Now, with the coronavirus outbreak, the world can seem like a terrifying place, but by looking at Poland’s history, we can be reminded of what it means to be resilient. Here is the first instalment of a two-part series, providing a quick look at the Partitions, WWII and communist Poland.
Wiped off the map
The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was once a powerful nation in the 16th and 17th century, but wars and conflicts left it in poor shape, politically and economically, and set the stage for its neighbours to take control. Three partitions followed, and the third, in 1795, left Poland fully partitioned by Austria, Prussia and Russia. A series of border shifts and uprisings ensued and the allotted territory of each power shifted throughout the 19th century – most notably after the Napoleonic era when Russia increased its claim at the expense of Prussia’s. But one fact remained constant for 123 years: Poland was no longer on the map of Europe.
Despite being governed by foreign powers, Poles held on to their roots and kept their language and culture alive, both of which they passed down to the younger generation. ‘A concerted effort was made to export Polish culture to the masses,’ wrote Norman Davies in his book God’s Playground: A History of Poland (Vol. II). ‘Campaigns to educate the peasants were disguised as “Bee-keeping Societies” or “Sports Associations”. In the towns, devoted teachers held lessons in private homes, addressing their labours to a mixture of truants, adult illiterates, and youthful volunteers.’
After the partitioning powers fell through revolution and war, Poland finally regained her independence on 11 November, 1918. Thanks to 123 years of resilience, Polish culture and the language was able to survive.
Rebuilding the capital
Much of Poland was destroyed during WWII, but the most visible destruction was found in the capital of Warsaw. After the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, 85% of Warsaw was in ruins. According to the World War II Database, an estimated 15,200 Polish rebels were killed or missing, 5,000 were wounded and 15,000 sent to POW camps, while 200,000 Polish civilians were killed, 55,000 were sent to concentration camps and 700,000 were expelled from the city. Many corpses were left under ruins. The Nazi forces, of which 16,000 were killed and missing and 9,000 wounded, were ruthless in their retaliation and razed the city to the ground. Poles were left devastated.
After the war was over, Varsovians and other Poles who had no roof over their heads came to Warsaw and began sorting through the ruins and rebuilding by themselves until on 14 February 1945 the Office for the Reconstruction of the Capital (Biuro Odbudowy Stolicy) was formed.
The dedication and hard work of Poles made rebuilding their capital possible. Not only that, but it was the Poles themselves who helped fund the project with voluntary donations.
“One of the philosophers calculated that Varsovians inhaled four bricks each year at that time,” commented the Polish writer Leopold Tyrmand. “One must love one’s city in order to rebuild it at the cost of one’s own breathing. It is perhaps for this reason that, from the battlefield of rubble and ruins, Warsaw became once more the old Warsaw, eternal Warsaw.”
Warsaw would later become a symbol of the strength displayed by Poles at the time and in 1980, Warsaw’s Old Town was selected as part of UNESCO’s World Cultural Heritage list.
Defeating communism through ‘Solidarity’
In 1947, Poland became a Communist People’s Republic under the leadership of Boleslaw Bierut and in 1955, it joined the Warsaw Pact – a collective defence treaty between the Soviet Union and Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland and Romania.
Life under communist rule was tough on Poles, especially considering all that they had been through in the prior years. Food was scarce, and basic freedoms were denied to them. Once again, they had to fight for their independence. In 1956, over 50 people were killed during a workers protest in Poznań and in 1970, hundreds were killed in food price riots in Gdańsk. Their fears heightened in 1981 when martial law was imposed, and the legendary Solidarity (Solidarność) trade union leader, Lech Wałęsa, was imprisoned along with many others.
Despite the difficulties of the times and the constant fear that followed them, Poles found ways to survive and maintain their culture and dignity. One force that helped uphold that inner strength was the Literary Institute (Instytut Literacki: IL), a Polish émigré publishing house founded in Rome in 1946 before moving to Paris. The institute published journals such as Kultura and printed books such as Adam Mickiewicz’s Books of the Polish Nation and Polish Pilgrimage and Czesław Miłosz’s The Captive Mind. Due to an official ban placed on the institute’s publications in Poland, the books were adapted and smuggled back into Poland through inventive methods, such as in miniature form. Once in Poland, often these books would be recreated into makeshift publications and distributed via an underground network.
Poles also found respite in the music played by bands such as Republika, Perfect and Lombard, which gave people an outlet for their frustrations. In 1980, the Jarocin Festival was founded. Known as the ‘Polish Woodstock’, it would become the largest alternative music festival amongst the Warsaw Pact countries, allowing Poles to escape the drab reality under communism.
In 1989, Poles chased communism away from their country, and as the first country in the Warsaw Pact to do so, it paved the way for other nations to do the same.
In the next instalment, we will be jumping to the 21st century and focusing on the economic bumps that Poland had to negotiate as a new market economy.