Monday, June 22, 2015


There are countries in the world that once existed, but which are no more – several have been included in this catalogue, and several seem to be heading inexorably in that direction even now. Then there are countries which still exist, but do not belong to themselves – again, innumerable in this catalogue. And finally there are countries like Poland, which have existed, then ceased to, then existed again, then belonged to somebody, then belonged to somebody else, and had their boundaries changed, and sometimes belonged in their different parts to several different others, and then ceased to exist again, but now do.

Poland began in the 10th century, around Gniezno, when a Slavic people founded the Piast dynasty and ruled for three hundred years. Later there was Jagiello, who came from Lithuania and set up the Republic of Two Nations, the Rzeczpospolita Obojga Narodow – though it was a strange "Republic", given that he ruled it from a monarchical throne - and made Poland the greatest power in Europe at that time, ruling the Czechs and the Hungarians as well, destroying the Teutonic Knights, educating scientists like Nicholas Copernicus. The Republic lasted until 1572, when the era of the elected kings began. Elected by the aristocracy, of course, not by the people.

The collapse of the Republic was the consequence of an invasion by the Swedes, but the collapse of the Republic was also the collapse of Poland as a nation of significance, with the exception of Jan Sobieski, who defeated the Turks at the Battle of Vienna and thereby prevented Islam from conquering Christendom. But after that...for more than a hundred years Poland did not even exist on maps, having been subsumed into the greater kingdom of Lithuania and then partitioned into provinces. Attempts to revive it led nowhere. The Constitution of 1791 was annulled as soon as it was written. The revolutions of 1831 and 1863 were put down ruthlessly by the Czar; after which came decades of serfdom, the confiscation of landed property, the closing of educational and cultural institutions.

At different times Poland has been part of Lithuania, and as such an empire extending over much of central and eastern Europe; then shared out piecemeal between Russia, Prussia and Austria; then a subject nation of the Nazis; then a subject nation of the Soviets; then, at last, a liberated nation once again, saved by that most unlikely of all partnerships among the political liberators, its Trades Unions and the Polish Pope John Paul II, the ten million members of the former being also members of the congregation of the latter. Together they finally drove out the demoniacal General Jaruzelski, after he had spent years attempting to destroy them, and the rather more liberal and tolerant form of Communism that they had by comparison with other Soviet puppets, with martial law. Free elections in 1989 and 1990 gave Solidarity control of Parliament and the former Gdansk dock-worker Lech Walesa the Presidency, ending the Communist era for good, or mostly bad. Poland joined NATO in 1999 and the European Union in 2004 and is now a democratic, market-oriented country, though any Pole you ever speak to still tries to tell you it was the Germans and not their own parents and grandparents who perpetrated the Holocaust, as if Poles hadn’t spent every Easter Sunday for the previous thousand years undertaking pogroms.

Marks for: Nicholas Copernicus, Marie Curie, Frederic Chopin, Adam Mickiewicz (Isaac Bashevis Singer)

Marks against: 6 million

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