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Données sociologiques et juridiques sur la religion en Europe et au-delà

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Accueil > Pologne > Repères historiques > Parcours historique > Parcours historique

Parcours historique

Christianity on the Polish land
The beginnings of the Polish state are associated with the year 966, when Mieszko I, the first historical ruler of Poland, accepts the Christian baptism in the Latin rite. As a result, Poland not only enters the family of Christian nations, but also is drawn into the sphere of Western culture. At that time, connections are established between ecclesiastical and state structures. It is the king who makes appointments to ecclesiastical offices, and parishes become the basic units of both ecclesiastical and state administration.

The Jagiellonian Dynasty
In 1385 the Polish-Lithuanian Union is formed. Under the terms of an agreement signed at that time, Jagiełło (Jogaila), Grand Duke of Lithuania, receives the baptism in the Polish capital – Cracow –, marries the queen of Poland, Jadwiga, and gains the Polish crown. Owing to that, the Lithuanians, as the last people living on the Baltic coast, are converted to Christianity. The reasons for the existence of the Teutonic Order are also challenged, as it attempts to conquer the Lithuanian lands at that time under the pretext of Christianization. At the Council of Constance (1414-1418), professor Paweł Włodkowic from the Jagiellonian University criticizes the actions of the Teutonic Order, indicating that faith cannot be imposed by force (fides ex necessitate esse non debet).

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth
In 1569, under the provisions of the Union of Lublin, Poland and Lithuania, threatened by Moscow, are merged into one state – the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. In 1596, according to the provisions of the Union of Brest, the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church in the Polish-Lithuanian state are united, which leads to the creation of the so-called Uniate Church, later called the Greek Catholic Church.
In the period of numerous wars fought by Poland in the 17th century, part of the nobility associated with the Reformation movements lend support to foreign armies which seek to conquer the Polish-Lithuanian state. This kind of conduct is met with opposition, as a result of which the situation of religious minorities in Poland deteriorates (though it is still not worse than the situation of minority religious groups in many other European states at the time).

Religious tolerance
From the beginning of the 12th century, a rich Jewish population, protected by the charter granted in 1264 by Bolesław the Modest, Prince of Cracow, starts to settle in Poland. At the beginning of the 16th century Jews driven away from Spain, Portugal, Germany, Austria, and Bohemia settle in Poland. In the mid-16th century the Polish lands host about 80% of the total Jewish world population. In the 18th century the Jewish population in the Polish-Lithuanian state reaches 900 thousand. Poland is still a country where Jews enjoy significant freedom.
At the time of the Reformation, Lutheranism and Calvinism gain great popularity in Poland, especially among burghers (Lutheranism) and the nobility (Calvinism). This time, however, the appearance of the Reformation movements does not give rise to bloody conflicts and wars. In 1573, in the Warsaw Confederation, Catholics and Protestants, and in the second version also members of the Orthodox Church, guarantee each other religious peace, so that no bloodshed is caused by religious differences.
In 1724, the disruption of a Catholic procession in Toruń leads to an unexpected conflict between Catholics and Lutherans (Thorner Blutbad). In consequence of this conflict, more than ten Lutheran burghers are sentenced to death, and many others to exile or fines. These events are used by Prussian and Russian authorities to interfere in the internal affairs of the Polish-Lithuanian state with the purpose of strengthening their position with respect to the Polish king.
On 3 May 1791 Poland adopts the allegedly first modern Constitution in Europe. In light of its provisions, the national religion is Catholicism, and abandonment of the Catholic faith is subject to punishment. At the same time, the Constitution guarantees people of other faiths peace in their faith and the protection of the government.

Partitions of Poland
Poland is wiped off the map of Europe as a result of the three partitions effected in 1772, 1793, and 1795 by Prussia, Russia and Austria. In consequence of Napoleon’s military successes, the Duchy of Warsaw is established from the former lands of Poland in 1807. It exists until 1815, when a rump Kingdom of Poland is created at the Congress of Vienna. From the beginning it is dependent on Russia, and the subsequent unsuccessful national risings (in 1830 and 1863) bring about the complete loss of any autonomy whatsoever. All forms of national life are suppressed and the Catholic Church, seen as the mainstay of Polishness, is subject to multiple repressions.

Between the two world wars : the second Polish Republic
The collapse of the established order, which takes place in consequence of World War I, enables the rebirth of the Polish State. The independent state is brought into existence in 1918. Its population in 1931 primarily consists of Poles (68,9%), Ukrainians (13,9%), Jews (8,1%), Byelorussians (3,1%) and Germans (2,3%). The Constitution of 17 March 1921 grants the Catholic Church “the leading place among other religious denominations enjoying equal rights”.

The occupation of Poland by the USSR and Germany - World War II

On 1 September 1939 Poland is attacked by Germany, and on 17 September 1939 the eastern frontier of the Republic of Poland is crossed by Russians, who realize the secret protocol to the non-aggression pact between Germany and the USSR (the so-called Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact), which was signed on 23 August 1939. The lands occupied by the armies of both these states become the scene of mass murders, executions, fierce repressions and deportations. The Nazi terror even intensifies after the Nazi army attacks the USSR in 1941. The mass execution of thousands of Polish officers and members of the Polish intelligentsia at Stalin’s command in Katyń and in other places of execution, as well as the Nazi concentration camps organized on the Polish lands (Oświęcim-Brzezinka, Majdanek, Treblinka and many other places), can be considered as symbols of the operations of the occupation armies in Poland. In consequence of World War II, the population of the former Republic of Poland decreases by 6 million, of whom almost 3 million were Polish Jews. On the Polish lands occupied by Germany, where millions of Polish Jews, Poles and people of other nationalities were exterminated, the assistance given to Jews was punishable with the death penalty.

People’s Republic of Poland - Communism in Poland
The frontiers of Poland after World War II are drawn in accordance with agreements made between the victorious powers (the Great Britain, the USA and the USSR), and Poland itself is included among the countries of the Soviet bloc. As a result of deportations conducted in consequence of these agreements, Poland becomes then an ethnically and religiously homogenous country (481 thousand Ukrainians and 36 thousand Byelorussians were resettled from Poland to the USSR, and about 3 million Germans were displaced to the Federal Republic of Germany). However, state power is taken over by the Communists, who are supported by the Soviet authorities. By means of violence and terror, they monopolize the political life in Poland, drawing on the patterns established in the USSR. Formal guarantees of freedom of conscience and religion are accompanied by the confinement of religion to the private sphere, and the separation of the Church from the State is understood as its subordination to the State. The Catholic Church is considered as one of the main “class enemies” (ecclesiastical property is seized, the authorities claim the right to appoint to ecclesiastical offices, Cardinal Wyszyński is interned), and for decades Catholicism remains perceived as a sign of opposition to the established order. The election of Cardinal Karol Wojtyła as Pope John Paul II in 1978, and his first pilgrimage to Poland, as well as the rise of “Solidarność”, run by the later Nobel Prize winner Lech Wałęsa, are among the factors which lead to the social and political changes of 1989.

The round-table and the third republic of Poland
One of the first signs of this change is the introduction of democratic laws on religion of 17 May 1989. The changes are crowned with the adoption of the Constitution of 2 April 1997. The Polish Constitution does not explicitly refer to the principle of Church-State separation. The relationship between the State, Churches and other religious denominations is defined by five principles : impartiality, equality of rights, autonomy and independence, cooperation, and bilateralism. The principle of impartiality is the essence of Polish secularism. It presupposes an objective attitude, free from bias and characterized by an equal approach towards all beliefs which respect the Polish legal system’s fundamental values. It ensures the freedom of public expression of personal convictions, whereas people who perform public functions also have the right to participate in religious celebrations. The principle of equality of rights of Churches and other religious denominations allows all denominations to freely exercise their religious functions.

The accession to EU
In 2004 the Republic of Poland becomes a member of the European Union. Previously, Poland had become a member country of NATO in 1999.

See bibliographic references.

Translated by Daria Bębeniec
December 2015
18 décembre 2015