Happy 1055th birthday Poland!


You might have had some rough times recently, but you don’t look a day older than a millennium.

On the Holy Saturday, 14 April 966, Poland had officially entered the European family of kingdoms through the baptism of its ruler, Prince Mieszko of the Piast dynasty. The history of Poland, certainly the written history, commences on that day.

Mieszko chose, on behalf of his kingdom and its people, to adopt the Catholic creed (even though the official schism with the Eastern church did not occur until almost a century later, strains and competition between the two branches of Christianity had already been apparent for some time). It was a momentous decision that determined the course of Polish history from then on. Catholic Poland would look west rather than east – and consider itself a part of European Christendom rather than Eurasia. She would look to Rome rather than Constantinople, to Latin rather than Greek, and face off against Germany rather than Russia (or Rus, as it then was known). In fact both the decision to finally abandon the traditional Slavic gods (not dissimilar to traditional Germanic or Nordic ones) as well as to choose Catholicism rather than what would later be called the Eastern Orthodoxy was motivated primarily by the ongoing (and it would go on for another thousand years still) struggle between the Slavs and the people of the German-centered Holy Roman Empire. By joining the Roman Catholic family, Poland eliminated one potent excuse for the Germanic drang nach osten (mission to expand into east; though that term would only become current in the 19th century, the philosophy and the drive were already there from Charlemagne onward) – Christianising the pagans, often at the end of a sword. By choosing Rome over Constantinople, Poland would also be able to appeal for protection to the common spiritual head – the Pope. Putting the geo-strategic reasons aside, this course had been also encouraged by Miszko’s wife, Princess Dobrava of Bohemia, a staunch Christian herself. Both the Polish Church and the Polish kingdom would now look south to its Slavic neighbour as an ally and a counterweight to the German efforts to subordinate Poland politically and ecclesiastically.

By contrast with Germany, the east – first the Kievan Rus and then Muscovy – was seen by the young Poland more as a prey than an existential threat. It was weakness rather than any Slavic solidarity that determined this orientation. Poland’s own version of “mission to the east” would continue for nearly seven centuries, from a brief conquest of Kiev in 1025, through a longer-lasting union with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (the now independent country barely hugging the Baltic, but in the 14th century and thereafter it stretched almost to the Black Sea), to an equally brief occupation of Moscow in 1610-12 (Poles remain the only people to occupy Moscow twice, the second time as part of Napoleon’s Grande Armee in 1812; the feat – and defeat – that the Russians have never forgiven nor forgotten). From the mid-17th century onward, as Poland declined from its status as a Medieval and a Renaissance European superpower, in part under what Karl Marx might have termed the internal contradictions of its political system (elective monarchy and aristocratic anarchy), and Russia herself embarked on a project of imperial expansion in all directions (bar north where it was already touching the Arctic), Poland would now face a sworn – and increasingly powerful – enemy in the east in addition to its existing Teutonic one in the west. Both the Russians and the Germans would be the bane of Poland’s existence, as well as the reason for its frequent non-existence, over the subsequent centuries. Today, while peace and cooperation finally reign along Poland’s western border for the first time ever in her history, Putin’s neo-tsarist Russia continues to see the Western-oriented and aligned Poland as an ideological and a strategic threat. Not unlike “the House of Islam”, which sees every inch of soil once under its jurisdiction as forever Muslim, Russia dreams back to the glory days of its most extensive suzerainty, from Helsinki and Warsaw to Afghanistan and Manchuria.

But all that was far in the future as Mieszko was received into the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church that Holy Saturday, 1055 years ago. Who knows what the Piast Prince would have made of the ups and downs of his direct and then spiritual descendants. And who knows what might have happened if he had made a different choice. When a few years later the ruler of the Kievan Rus, Prince Vladimir, was contemplating formally abandoning paganism, the story has it he sent emissaries to check out all the main alternatives on offer. Bulgarian Muslims did not impress, since conversion required circumcision and the observance the abstinence from pork and alcohol (“And we Russians love to drink,” Vladimir is said to have said, previewing the Russian social history for the next thousand years); Khazars who professed Judaism were quickly excluded as the loss of Jerusalem to pagan Romans, followed by Christians, followed by Arab Muslims clearly demonstrated the withdrawal of God’s favour. Vladimir’s envoys also found the interiors of German churches dark and dreary. By contrast, the visitors to Constantinople, who got to experience the Eastern liturgy inside Hagia Sophia, were positively overwhelmed: “We no longer knew whether we were in heaven or on earth,” they reported back to their Prince, “nor such beauty, and we know not how to tell of it.” And that’s how Russia become Orthodox. I’ve never had the pleasure of the Holy Wisdom (after 1453 a mosque, a museum under Ataturk and his successors, and now a mosque again under Erdogan) but I can imagine the enchantment – if the Eastern worship tends to go on for hours. I can also imagine Romanesque churches not doing much for the Russians – even Charlemagne’s magnificent (and Byzantine-influenced) cathedral in Aachen is but a pale miniature and imitation of the Constantinople’s grandest. If only Vladimir’s people waited until the time of Gothic cathedrals! Such is history made.

There is no similar legend about Mieszko. Perhaps he didn’t mind Germanic churches. Perhaps that’s just as well.  It is what it is, and the past is past; all we can hope – and work for – is a better future. Happy 1055th birthday, Poland, and may the next 1055 years be happier and more peaceful. You’ve earned a break.

Image: “Baptism of Poland” by Darek Zabrocki