Poles - History and Cultural Relations

We do not know when and where the ancestors of the Poles originated. Some hypothesize that the original home of the Indo-European speakers was in the territory covered by Modern Poland or its vicinity. It is generally agreed, though, that by 4,000 years ago the Poles' Slavic ancestors inhabited much of what was to become modern Poland. By the ninth century, some of the Slavic tribes were beginning to form states. Mieszko I of the Piast dynasty founded a state in the western part of modern Poland. In A.D. 966, he married a Bohemian princess and accepted Christianity. This date is considered to be the beginning of the Polish state. For the next thousand years, Polish history has been influenced by the fact that the country has no natural boundaries to the east and west. This has meant that there has been constant strife with the Germans, the Poles' western neighbors, with the Russian states to the east, and, for a while, with the Baits to the north. At times, two of these groups would combine to attack a third. Thus, in 1226, Prince Conrad of Mazovia invited the Teutonic Knights, a German crusading order, to help fight the Prussians, a group of Baltic tribes living in what later became known as East Prussia. The consequences of this invitation were removed only after World War II when Poland expelled the Germans remaining in the Polish part of East Prussia and in today's western Poland. In 1382, the Lithuanian Grand Duke Jagiello married Jadwiga, a Polish princess, and formed a Polish-Lithuanian state. Poland-Lithuania was quite successful and became one of the largest states in Europe. Its territory covered much of present-day Poland as well as considerable portions of what is now Belarus and Ukraine. For the commonwealth, the "golden age" was in the sixteenth century, which was marked by peace and prosperity in the Polish lands and by considerable achievements in the arts and sciences. By the middle of the seventeenth century, Political decline had set in. Among the reasons for this decline was that the nobility had enormous power and independence vis à vis the state and often used it to further their private interests at the expense of the commonweal. The gentry elected the country's kings, and the kings acted more like managers than rulers. In 1652, the Sejm, the Polish diet, introduced the liberum veto. This meant that all legislation had to pass unanimously. By the late eighteenth century, Poland-Lithuania had become so weak that the Russians and Germans, specifically the Austrians and the Germanic Prussians, divided Poland between themselves, even making an agreement that the very name "Poland" would not be used officially. It was not until the end of World War I when the Austrian empire collapsed and the Russian and German empires had been weakened that Poland regained its unity and independence only to be divided again between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany in 1939. At the end of World War II, however, Poland regained political unity, albeit under the Soviet Union's suzerainty. In 1989, the Soviets no longer supported the Polish Communist government, and the Poles were able to begin democracy and a market economy.

Poles consider themselves to be affiliated with Western European culture. They see their allegiance to the Roman Catholic church and their use of the Latin alphabet as indicators of this orientation. In recent times, their main economic, technological, and fine-arts affiliations and influences have been with the West.

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