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What You Need to Know About Poland’s Tortured Past

Poland: A History by Adam Zamoyski highlights the unique aspects of the Polish/Lithuanian Commonwealth, including a limited monarchy and veto system that worked well until consensus broke down. The book also discusses how Poland's historical grievances with Germany are being exploited for nationalistic sentiment, which is divisive for Europe.

Flag of Poland on facade of a building waving in the wind on sunny day. Celebrating Polish National Flag Day © Damian Lugowski /

February 26, 2023 10:00 EDT

Over the Christmas holiday, I read Poland: A History by Adam Zamoyski. The book was published in 2009 and predated the Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

It provides current insights into the vulnerabilities of various groups in Poland’s history. It is an area witnessing Europe’s most severe and prolonged war conditions since 1945.

Former Polish territory now part of Ukraine

Some centuries ago, Kyiv, Lviv, and Kherson (now Ukraine) were all part of the then Polish/ Lithuanian Commonwealth. Many western European countries, such as France, were absolute monarchies at the time. But the Polish/Lithuanian Commonwealth was different. A limited monarchy existed, in which notable Poles or Lithuanians, or members of the royal family of another European country, elected the king. 

For example, James, the Duke of York, who became King James the Second of Britain and Ireland, was considered a candidate to be king of Poland earlier in his career. The Commonwealth had no permanent state apparatus, and big decisions required unanimous agreement in the elected Sejm. 

Breakdown in Consensus, Enlightenment Ideas and Suing Germany

This veto system worked well as long as there was a broad consensus among the Polish and Lithuanian peoples. Consensus breakdown often resulted in the exploitation of veto power by outside powers and ambitious Poles seeking to paralyze the state. This occurrence led to the carving up of Poland by Russia, Austria and Prussia.

The Commonwealth was designed to limit state power, in line with ideas that were popular during the Enlightenment of the 18th century. These ideas of a limited state still find favor among some conservative Republicans in the US. The current Polish government, which has tried to limit the independence of the Polish judiciary recently, is pursuing policies contrary to Polish democratic and constitutional traditions.

It is shocking that Poland, who joined Germany as a fellow member of the EU in 2004, wants to sue Germany for damages caused by the invasion and occupation of Poland in World War II. This war was over well before the EU was formed. If Poland was serious about this claim, it should have made it a requirement of Polish membership in the EU.

 Now, too late, it is exploiting historical grievances to whip up nationalistic sentiment in Poland, which is destructive. If we go down this road, the EU will only survive briefly.

[Conner Tighe edited this article.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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