State- and Nation-Building in Poland

"A Seasonal State?"

Essay, 2013
15 Pages, Grade: 9



1 Introduction: A „Seasonal state“?

2 Poland’s spring: a kingdom of fragmentation but economic augmentation (966-1385

3 Poland’s summer: The Jagiellons (1385-1569

4 Poland’s fall: The Republic of the Nobility (1569 – 1795)

5 Poland’s winter: a dead state but a living nation (1795-?

6 Conclusion: Poland’s next spring?

7 References

1 Introduction: A “Seasonal state”?

"Saisonstaat” (seasonal state) - this was the pejorative name Prussian historians labelled Poland with in the 18th century (Davies, 2005, pp. 24, 324). They did so in the face of the partitions of Poland, which resulted in Poland completely vanishing off the map (Davies, 2005, p. 386).

But why was Poland seen merely as an instrument for Prussia and Russia in striving for hegemony? (Biskupski, 2000, p. 22) This question is difficult to answer and already gives a hint to the complexity of the process of state- and nation- building in Poland, which deviates in many aspects from the Western European countries.

To provide a foundation for the concepts that this paper is based on, one needs to define the terms of both nation and state. According to Smith, a nation is more than only an ethnic group but a cultural- political community, living in an area of settlement and sharing a common heritage, culture and law (Smith, 1995, p. 57). The concept of a state applied derives from Roberts. To him, a state is characterized by “the presence of supreme authority, ruling over a defined territory, who is recognized as having power to make decisions in matters of government […]” (Roberts, 1979, p. 32).

Taking these definitions into consideration, this paper is divided into four sections, relating each of the different stages in the state- and nation- building process to one season of the year. This paper firstly examines the economic “spring” of Poland, the Piast dynasty, thereafter attention is laid on the Jagiellonian period, Poland’s “summer”, which is linked to the personal union of Poland and Lithuania. In the next section I analyze the “fall” of the Poland, which is characterized by the consolidation of the Nobility’s supremacy and the economic decay of the country. This is leading up to the last section of this paper, as well as the partitions which killed the Polish state, yet the nation was becoming more alive than ever.

My aim is to show that the state- and nation- building process of Poland was not destined to become “a country only for a season” as claimed by Prussian historians, though following a unique way, a nation state might have been successful by the beginning of the 19th century if it had not felt victim to the will of territorial expansion by its neighboring empires (Weinberg, 1996, page. 42).

To that end, several lines of a poem named “Sezony” (seasons) written by an anonymous Polish Poet form the frame of this paper.

2 Poland’s spring: a kingdom of fragmentation but economic augmentation (966-1385)

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

The figure connecting polish legendary with recorded history was Piast, a peasant who arose as the king of the Polans and established this way the so-called ‘Piast Dynasty’ (Davies, 2005, p. 52). The myth of Piast can be seen as a lieu de mémoire of Poland as his figure served later as a foundation on which the origin of the Polish nation was explained. In the first century Poland could not be considered as a state as the Piast princes ruled over tribes, not over a defined territory (Davies, 2005, p. 4).

The collapse of the Roman imperial state in the fifth century laid the foundations for the emergence of the modern state. Due to its location, Poland, however, was never conquered by the Romans, and could therefore not profit of the economic and cultural advantages the Roman civilization brought along (Lukowski & Zawadzki, 2001, p. 3). Indeed it was affected by the “twin oracles” of Christianity which spread its arms also towards the Slavs (Opello & Rosow, 1999, pp. 11, 18; Schulze, 1996, p. 15; Davies, 2005, p. 52).

The first Polish king, Miesko I, solved this question by choosing to convert to Latin Christendom in 966. His decision joint Poland to the West, but it also put it between two worlds as Russia became Orthodox (Davies, 2005, pp. 4, 57; Biskupski, 2000, p. 8, 9). Relations between the Church and the emerging state proved to be difficult as the Church claimed superiority not only in spiritual but additionally in political affairs. By the 13th century, the Church established to be an autonomous and united power whereas the Piast princes were divided among themselves. The Piast dynasty always stood in subordination to the Holy Roman Empire and was never accepted by their neighbors as kings of a sovereign state (Davies, 2005, pp. 59- 61; Hall, 1984, p. 6).

The reason for the fragmentation in the 12th and 13th centuries was the increasing self-sufficiency of the provinces which therefore rejected a central authority (Davies, 2005, p. 56). Yet, fragmentation stimulated the economic and cultural rise as the rulers had to attract settlers to accumulate their resources. The colonization led to economic and political advantages (Davies, 2005, p. 64; Reddaway, 1941, p. 135). To attract Germans, the Polish rulers introduced the Magdeburg law in the 13th century, which endowed the towns with an autonomous status (Lukowski & Zadawadzki, 2001, pp. 9-15). Economically, the effect of the settlement was the growth of wealth, mediated by the emergence of cities as centers of commerce and the increase of trade (Reddaway, 1941, p. 133). Politically, Poland advanced by following the example of the West. Additionally, the General Charter of Jewish liberties was established in 1264, granting freedom and autonomy to the Jews. This law was the base of the welfare of the Polish Jews until the 18th century (Davies, 2005, p. 66).

By the tenth century feudalism had spread almost all over Europe (Opello & Rosow, 1999, p. 24). It had begun to take shape with the coronation of Charlemagne in 800, who intended to create a Christian Commonwealth in Europe (Hall, 1984, p. 5; Biskupski, 2000, p. 8). Feudalism usually emerged in a decentralized empire which was lacking bureaucracy (Azar, 2006, pp. 332-343). These conditions were given in Poland (Skwarczyński, 1956, p. 295).

One characteristic of feudalism was the pyramidal structure of society, the so-called system of the estates, consisting of the clergy in the first, the Nobility in the second, and the peasants in the third estate (Opello & Rosow, 1999, p. 24). Polish society was set up according to this schema. As a feudal bond one considers the exchange of lands, given as ‘fiefs’ by the overall lord to the Nobility, for receiving military service (Davies, 2005, pp. 63-67; Hall, 1984, p. 5). The vassal lords, in turn, exploited the peasants by guaranteeing them protection.

Such feudal bonds existed in Poland but with the difference that the knights held the full ownership of the land whereas in England the king was the only one allowed to own land by allodial title. Furthermore, two bodies of law were installed, the iure terrestre and the iure feudale. While the iure feudale held feudal elements such as military service and restricted hereditary rights, the iure terrestre offered great privileges to the knights, rendering them equal before the king. Considering these disparities, the former can be identified as feudal and the latter as non-feudal (Skwarczyński, 1956, pp. 295-298).

In conclusion, the theory of feudalism was only partly adopted as some feudal elements such as the link of military obligations with the ownership of land were put into practice, however the relation between knight and king was barely based on feudal dependence (Skwarczyński, 1956, pp. 297, 300). Further feudalistic structures can be found in the 15th century, where the “second serfdom’ made its appearance (Davies, 2005, p. 215).

Considering the parallel existence of feudal rule, the empire and the church during the Middle Ages, a plurality of powers was given. Though, already in the early Middle Ages, the Nobility was emerging as dominant force.


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State- and Nation-Building in Poland
"A Seasonal State?"
Maastricht University
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ISBN (Book)
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Poland, Nation, Nation-Building, State-Building
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Inga von der Stein (Author), 2013, State- and Nation-Building in Poland, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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