The history of Poland is one full of changing borders. Over the centuries, Poland lost and regained territories, was a major component of several empires, and controlled varying territories, ranging from the Baltic sea coast to what is now considered Ukraine.

This has also had an impact on Poles, as the history of emigration is connected to these historical events. If you’re curious about the history of Poles, not only in eastern Europe but their wider emigration, it helps to understand the key turning points in Polish history.

In this guide, we want to provide a quick overview of such moments.

The First Polish Republic

The Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth ruled from 1569 to 1795. Retroactively referred to as the first Republic of Poland, this was a multi-ethnic federation of some 12 million people although, as the original name suggests, Lithuanian, Ruthenian and Polish people were central to the Empire’s running.

Geographically, the Commonwealth ruled over a portion of Eastern and Central Europe. Its territory covered most of what is now Poland, as well as what we now know as Lithuania, Latvia and Belarus. The majority of modern day Ukraine, as well as elements of Estonia and Russia, were also included. At its peak, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth covered some one million square kilometers.

The First Polish Republic came to a close in the mid 1700s, when it was eventually partitioned by the rivaling Russian Empire, German Kingdom of Prussia and the Austrian Habsburg Monarchy.

Failed uprisings and the Great Emigration

In the subsequent period, Poland’s population would be separated and ruled by Russia, Germany and Austria. However, this was not without its share of conflict and attempted revolution.

The period between the First and Second Republic of Poland is most notable for two key uprisings against the Russian Empire:

  • The November Uprising occurred between 1830 and 1831. Sometimes also called the Polish-Russian War, this was a failed attempt at Polish independence.
  • The January Uprising was a similar failed attempt that took place in 1863.

Due to the aftermath of these events, and a fear of oppression from the dominant Russian forces, many of Poland’s political elite, as well as army officers and other Polish political activists, left Poland. It’s estimated that at least 30,000 moved to new countries during this time, which came to be known in the history of Poland as “the Great Emigration”.

The Second Polish Republic

Up until World War I, Poland continued to be occupied by the empires of Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary. However, the war itself was brutal for Polish society, as Polish soldiers were found in German and Austrian-Hungarian forces on the side of the Central Powers, as well as in the Russian forces amongst the Allies.

The aftermath of World War I saw both the Austrian and Germany empires defeated, and their territories were divided by the Allies. Likewise, the Russian Empire collapsed in its own civil war, freeing Polish territories.

This foreign intervention saw Poland’s independence restored as the Second Polish Republic, but the borders are not the same as Poland today. Some parts in the north remained under East Prussia, while some of the modern western borders, such as Wroclaw, remained under German rule. However, this Polish state also included territories as north as Vilnius (now part of present day Lithuania) while its southern and eastern borders included parts of what is now Ukraine.

In terms of landmass, the Second Polish Republic covered some 389,000 square kilometers and was home to 35 million inhabitants by 1939.

World War II and the Soviet Union

The Second World War represented an important period in Polish history. For most of World War II, Poland was invaded and occupied by both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, both of whom cooperated under the Molotov – Ribbentrop Pact’s agreed divisioning. Whilst this changed in 1941, following Germany’s attack on its ally, Poland saw the rest of the war – and subsequent years – in a dire situation. 

This part of history is well known, from the initial invasion, the determination of Polish troops to keep fighting and even the failed Warsaw Uprising of 1944, when Polish citizens tried to take back control of Warsaw before the advancing Russian army.

In the aftermath of World War II, occupied Poland was divided amongst Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill. Poland’s borders were also redrawn along the Cuzon line, named after Lord Curzon back in 1919. A meeting between the US, UK and USSR in 1945 in Potsdam would then se the German lands east of the Oder and Lusatian Neisse, as well as Gdansk, Warmia and Masuria, incorporated into Poland, with the Curzon line remaining the final border between Poland and Russia.

These changes resulted in Poland losing more than 45% of its pre-war territory to the Soviet Union. Even with the lands gained from Germany, Poland consisted of 312,000 square kilometers, compared to its pre-war size of 388,000.

During this period, many Polish citizens were relocated to new areas, whilst Germans were expelled from lost territories. This period saw many millions of people displaced in this way.

The period between 1945 and 1948 was a period of Soviet conquest of Poland, with the establishment of a communist administration in the territories occupied by the Red Army. Internationally, Stalin managed to effectively legitimize his control over Central and Eastern Europe territories, including Poland, following conferences between the Big Three in Yalta and Potsdam. 

During this period, the communist authorities, supported by the Soviets, eliminated the remnants of the legitimate, legal government. Many other organizations and activists fighting for independence were attacked and repressed. The Soviet Union further tried to legitimize their occupation through a sham people’s referendum in 1946 and a rigged election in 1947, to give the illusion of overwhelming support for the ruling communists.

The Second Great Emigration

During this period following World War II, the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, many Poles emigrated where possible.

At the start of the war, some 250,000 Polish soldiers and pilots fought with the British army, living in the United Kingdom during the War. Throughout the duration of the People’s Republic of Poland (PRL), many Poles emigrated during various periods of socio-political and economical crises.

Consequently, this period is regarded as the “Second Great Emigration” in Poland, mirroring the first period following the November Uprising.

The Third Polish Republic

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the Polish People’s Republic in 1989, which also saw the fall of the Berlin Wall, came the Third Polish Republic.

This is Poland as the country exists today, including its current borders. Since 1989, there has been an independent Polish government, complete with a Prime Minister, President and a Senate, alongside a lower house referred to as the Sejm.

It represents a country of some 322,575 square kilometers, and is home to around 37.6 million people.

Entering the European Union

The history of Poland does not end after World War II. Indeed, the third Republic of Poland, and Polish people in general, went on to become an integral part of European society. This reached its apex in 2004, when Poland ascended to join the European Union.

As a result, Poles were able to freely work and travel without the EU, and Polish workers became an appreciated element of many countries, including Germany and the United Kingdom. This freedom meant that Poles were free to either stay in new countries, or live there temporarily. It has also seen Polish culture expand as a result of this free trade and access throughout the EU.

Polish History and Citizenship Law

You will see many of these connections when looking at the history of Polish citizenship law. After all, once Poland regained its independence, it needed a way to determine who is and is not historically a citizen of the country. Given the changing borders, as you’ve seen here, this is no easy task.

For instance, Soviet authorities considered all Polish citizens residing in the occupied territories east of the Republic of Poland, after annexation by the USSR, as Soviet citizens. The first decree in 1939 covered Soviet citizenship for residents of territories that became incorporated into the Ukraine and Belarusian Soviet republics, with a similar degree in 1940 covering the territories incorporated into the Soviet Republic of Lithuania.

During this period, the Polish Committee of National Liberation (PKWN) negotiated with the Soviet authorities to repatriate Polish nationals who held citizenship before September 17, 1939. However, due to the Soviet Union having full control, these negotiations were limited in effectiveness and significantly hindered repatriation amongst the Polish population.

Even today, Poland recognizes the descendents of Polish citizens that lived in Poland after 1918, which is another way of saying Poland recognizes Poles from the Second Polish Republic onwards.

If you’re interested in your own Polish ancestry, and whether or not you’re eligible for Polish citizenship by descent, you can take our free quiz to find out!

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