The “Christ of the Nations” and its Resurrection
“If you cannot prevent your enemies from swallowing you, at least you can
prevent them from digesting you”.
Poland is one of the ten new member states of the European Union. It joined in 2004, which is remarkable considering its past. Poland has experienced quite a different past compared to the average European state. For example, Poland never experienced absolutism and is the only European state that was used in such a drastic way to secure the Balance of Power system. In order to keep peace in Europe it was necessary to sacrifice Poland. This paper is going to discuss how one of the biggest European states could vanish from the map for over 100 years. Furthermore, it will shed some light on the survival of the Polish Nation without its own state. The essay will conclude with the factors that enabled the ‘resurrection’ of the Polish state.
The Birth and Life of “Christ”
The official advent of the Polish state is dated back to the year 966. It was the year when the Piast dynasty started to rule the country, it was the Piasts who led to a first unification. Furthermore, this year is an important date as Catholicism was adopted as the state religion. This turned out to be a major factor in the survival of the whole nation. From the beginning, Poland’s position within Europe was difficult due to several factors. Firstly its geographic location, being situated between the Western and the Slavic world. Secondly, it functioned as an ideological buffer. After the Great Schism in 1054 that divided the Christian world in Latin/Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox, Poland was caught in the middle. Due to the fact that Poland had been catholised roughly hundred years before, it tended to consider itself as western. Therefore, it acted as a "Bulwark of Christianity" against "the East" (Castle, 2002, p. 8). Although being a western country, Poland kept its independence from the Holy Roman Empire, which became apparent under the rule of Kazimir the Great. He more than doubled the territory of the state (Bideleux, 1998, p. 121), unified and secured the country, introduced the code of law and established the first national university in Krakow. An important policy of Kazimir the Great was immigration. He allowed different religions and nations to practice their rituals and speak their own language, which led to a cosmopolitan empire.
In 1385, the Polish state grew even more when the heiress of the Piast dynasty married the Grand Duke of Lithuania, creating the largest European state at this time; Poland-Lithuania. The already multinational kingdom became even more diverse. Although this year could have marked the advent of an enormous rise in the power of the Polish state, it actually marks the decline of Poland. The fact that Kazimir the Great did not leave any male heirs behind, had the effect that the Polish nobility disputed his daughter’s rights. It came to a power struggle between the szlachta and the royal family, resulting in a new system; an elective monarchy. The szlachta had the right to elect the king, which led to a redistribution of power. The szlachta gained influence while the monarch lost strength (Castle, 2002, p. 3).
The decline of Poland did not happen over night. For several years Poland-Lithuania continued to rise in stature, experiencing the “Golden Age of Polish culture” (Castle, Taras, 2002, p.7) and gaining supremacy in East-Central Europe. Polish culture flourished in art, architecture, and literature. Literature was important, as it established the Polish language, which turned out to be another major factor in the nation’s survival (Jasinska-Kania, 2000, p.282).
In order to understand the decline of such a power, one needs to look at the structure of the society. In comparison to the other European states Poland had an influential nobility, that constituted between seven to eight percent of the population (Castle, 2002, p. 4). The szlachta was more powerful than the king, due to several factors; one being the power relationship between the crown and the nobility that had its origin in the Pact of Kosice in 1374. It was the first time that a constitutional document limited the king’s power in Poland, and is therefore often called the “Polish Magna Carta” (Creveld, 1999, p. 276). Besides, the king had to sign the Pacta Conventa, a contract that secured the rights and privileges of the slachta (Jasinska-Kania, 2000, p.283). The Sejm consisted of two chambers, but since both consisted of members of the aristocracy, the other estates were excluded. The Polish diet was incapable of passing laws due to a special feature, the liberum veto. Every member of the Polish diet had the right to object to a new law, which resulted in 48 out of 55 diets being “exploded” (Palmer, 2002, p. 193). Although it seemed like a very democratic system, especially in comparison to the spreading absolutism in Europe, it was not adequate to its time. While the other European states continued to centralise and modernise, Poland stayed fragmented. The szlachta was too powerful, and the king was unable to unite the country under his rule. The development of the Polish kingdom stagnated and then started to decline, due to lack of centralisation, unification and modernisation.
 Jasinska-Kania, A. titled her book “Poland: The 'Christ' of Nations”
 Jean-Jacques Rousseau quoted in Davies, 2001, p. 311
 He lived from 1310-1370 and was the last ruler of the Piast dynasty
 Poland- Lithuania became Poland. This is remarkable considering that Lithuania had been a larger country than Poland. This can be explained as at time of the union Lithuania had still been pagan and cut off from the happenings in the western world. Poland had been further developed that Lithuania and therefore ‘swallowed’ Lithuania.
 the Polish nobility
 Usual were one to two percent of the population being nobility
 Taxation and foreign policy needed the consent of the szlachta in order to be valid.
 Polish national parliament
 “to break up a diet was called “exploding” (Palmer, 2002, p. 193)