Table of Contents
Brief historical introduction
Feudalism in Poland
Nobility & Religion
State formation process
The concepts of feudalism, state sovereignty, religious wars, nationalism and democratization generally played an important role in the process of state and nation-building in Europe. However, the case of Poland somewhat differs from this way of state emergence seen mostly in the western part of Europe. Therefore, this essay will examine the process of state and nation building in Poland, considering the aforementioned different developments of becoming a state and a nation. The time discussed will be limited to the Middle Ages from the 10th century onwards until the outbreak of World War I in 1914.
Poland’s history until the 17th century proved to be quite successful. It did not suffer from the breakdown of feudalism experienced by many other European states. Furthermore, it was the first to establish an elective monarchy, whose power was limited by the Polish parliament, the Seijm. Moreover, Poland experienced a quite extraordinary territorial expansion up to the Union of Lublin in 1569, when the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth emerged. According to Frost (2005), this Commonwealth “proved [to be] one of the more successful and long-lasting states of east-central Europe” (p.214). Nevertheless, the 18th century saw Poland being partitioned three times by three of the great powers of the time: Austria, Prussia and Russia. Thus, the question arises how it could happen that the once so successful state became a play ball in the European struggle for hegemony and did not emerge as one of the great powers of the 17th century. Apart from this, it should be investigated, if the Polish nation disappeared due to the partition of Poland or if it nevertheless continued to exist.
However, to explore Poland’s state formation and its nation-building process, one first has to define what a state and a nation actually are. According to Roberts, a state must include
“the presence of a supreme authority, ruling over a defined territory, who is recognized as having power to make decisions in matters of government and is able to enforce such decisions and generally maintain order within the state” (Roberts, 1979, p. 32).
Further, a nation is “a social group whose individual members, being convinced […] of their common descent and destiny, share that common sense of identity” (Davies, 2005, p.8).
The paper will firstly give a brief summary of Polish history to create a common ground and then introduce feudalism in Poland with focus on the second serfdom, which was important for the decline of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Secondly, the role of the nobility and religion will be discussed, since the strong elite and the Catholic Church were relevant factors for state and nation building. Thirdly, the paper will concentrate on the general topic of state formation, especially the elective monarchy and the question if there was any form of absolutism in Poland. This will be followed by the nation building process and hence the emergence of a nation without a state and the origins of nationalism. Consequently, it shall present the important features for state and nation building in Poland and what were the reasons for Poland’s weakness in creating a state on its own.
Brief historical introduction
The birth of the Polish state can be dated back to the baptism of Miezko I in 966 A.D.. The Polonian duke laid the foundation for the following Piast dynasty, which ruled Poland with interruptions until the 14th century. During the Piast rule, the period of fragmentation, in which the kingdom was divided into several duchies, presented a severe threat to the unity of the Polish Kingdom. However, Wladyslaw Lokietek, a successor of the Piast dynasty, accomplished to reunify the provinces and was crowned as Rex Poloniae (King of Poland). After the decline of power of the Piast dynasty, Poland saw the rise of the Jagiellon dynasty, whose downfall in the 16th century led to the procedure of electoral monarchy. Hereby, the king was elected by an assembly, which consisted of the Polish nobility (the szlachta). Additionally, the Union of Lublin reorganized the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1569, which lasted in this form until the first partition in 1772, where Polish territory was claimed by Austria, Prussia and Russia. This partition should be followed by two more in 1793 and 1795, leaving Poland only with a marginal realm. It would take until the end of the First World War before Poland would be given a territory that, to an extent, assembled the frontiers of the Polish Kingdom of the 10th century.
Feudalism in Poland
During the reign of the Piast dynasty up to the High Middle Ages, feudalism did not play an important role in the kingdom. According to Davies (1996), the feudalism practiced in the east of Europe did not include many of the basic features, like a feudal pyramid consisting of lord, vassal and fife. Since feudalism was “rooted in the Carolingian debacle, [it] remained essentially a Western phenomenon” (ibid., p. 315). That is to say, the feudalism practised in Poland was not built on a top-down structure where fifes were granted to the vassalage in return for military services by the lords. Instead, it was a rather loose network of landowners and vassalage (Encyclopædia Britannica).
However, the so-called second serfdom appeared in Poland in the 15th century. This phenomenon cannot be put on the same level with the feudalism of the High Middle Ages, but nevertheless, it highly contributed to the agrarian economy, especially the grain trade.
At first, peasants had to pay rent for the piece of land they were cultivating. Generally, they could not produce enough surplus to sell grain on the free market. Thus, in order to minimize the given risk, they offered their manpower to a landlord. In return for a fixed salary and a small piece of land, where the farmers could produce food for their own living, the peasants granted the landlord to work on his field. Thus the landlord had inexpensive workforce and could increase his marginal profit by selling his increased amount of surplus grain to other European countries. Over time, the situation in the western European countries deteriorated, there was a food shortage due to the increase in population mainly. Therefore, Poland became the main grain supporter for the European continent. This implied that the landlords had to request more working hours from their serfs, which consequently meant that they had less time for their own fields. Eventually, the peasants faced economic breakdown while the landowners could enjoy their riches (Davies, 2005). However, it was namely the grain trade that contributed to the downfall of the Commonwealth on a major scale. This shall be discussed subsequently with the formation of the state. Indeed, this system was only possible because of the strong position of the Polish landowning nobility, which will be presented in the next section.
Nobility & Religion
In contrast to most western European countries, the szlachta in Poland made up eight per cent of the population (Davies, 1996, p. 585). Therefore, while the nobles saw themselves as the only true representatives of the nation, it can be said that the noble estate was at least more representative in Poland than it was in other countries, for example France with less than one per cent of the population being from noble descent.
Roughly speaking, it can be put that the relative religious tolerance in Poland was due to the large number and the adherent power of the nobility. They were able to choose their religion even against the will of the king. Whereas Lutheranism did not succeed as much in permeating the Polish society, not few of the second estate supported the Calvinist Church when it first came to Poland in the 1540s since it promoted the right to oppose royal authority when it did not correspond with the true belief (Palmitessa, 2004, p. 193). Nevertheless, Poland remained an essentially Catholic country, approximately half the population acknowledged the Pope as their leader. This can be traced back to the baptism of Miezko I, who placed his realm under the protection of the Pope (Davies, 2005, p.57) and thus established Catholicism as the state religion. The Catholic influence was again emphasized when the Pope’s approval was sought for the coronation of Lokietek in 1320 as the predominant act to reunite the Polish lands (Bideleux and Jeffries, 1998). Furthermore, after the partitions, the Poles were able to put their trust in the Catholic Church as a “national tradition” (Jasinska-Kania, 2000, p. 285), which connected all the different classes within the Polish society.