Where did Poland's borders start - and end?

An interview with Professor Marek Kornat, Polish Academy of Sciences.

Marcin Makowski: When did Poland first appear on the map of Europe? Was it in 966? Perhaps formulating the question in this way does not quite fit with our modern understanding of statehood?

Prof. Marek Kornat, Polish Academy of Sciences: We can say with all certainty that the Polish state already existed under the rule of Mieszko 1, 40 years before his baptism – but it was a pretty vague understanding of statehood. It is difficult to call it a state in the modern definition of the term. In a more strict political and territorial sense, we talk of Poland from around the 14th century and the Łokietek monarchy. Of course, this does not mean that we do not recognise and admire the achievements of Bolesław I the Brave.

How fluid were the borders of the first Piast dynasty? How was rule over individual territories established?

Of course, back then there wasn’t any sort of border system along the lines of the national state borders that we have today.  They didn’t have constructions such as the Ancient Roman limes. What you had at key crossings were chamber customs and strongholds, which demarcated a sphere of influence. Borders were often decided by nature itself – mountains and rivers were often a useful point of orientation. Unfortunately there is no cartographical evidence documenting Poland’s earliest borders, this only emerged during the transition from the Middle Ages to the Modern era, which was accompanied by a greater geographical awareness closer to what we have today.

Which area of modern-day Poland would you consider to be the most native? The regions of Greater Poland or Lesser Poland perhaps?

The cradle of Polishness is without a doubt Gniezno, in Greater Poland, in part due to its role as the capital of Poland and the events that took place there in 1000 AD. It is difficult to answer this question objectively as not long thereafter national centres were created in Krakow and Lesser Poland, where Bolesław I the Brave built a cathedral. Later the martyrdom of St Stanislaus gave even greater meaning to this centre through to the 16th century. Warsaw and Mazovia only emergerd later based on decrees made by the nobility. One can therefore say that both Greater Poland and Lesser Poland (that is both Gniezno as well as Krakow) are two fundamental pillars of Polish statehood.

After the death of Bolesław III Wrymouth, the crown’s lands were divided among his sons, which started an era of territorialisation. In the history of Poland do we have other examples of decentralized rule, such as was the case in the German Reich?

First of all, one has to point out that breaking up the territories was never the intention of Bolesław Wrymouth, who introduced a seigneurial system – the divisions were merely meant to prevent bloody battles between his sons. There is no direct analogy, but if one were to look for situations bearing similarities then it is probably during the rule of the magnate oligarchy during the Saxon era when the Polish state had centralized rule only in theory. Back then, power was held by the magnate’s coterie, in particular on the territory of the Kingdom of Lithuania, where they did what they chose and set their own terms. Local civil wars erupted as a result.

Which moment in history would you consider as the Republic’s territorial pinnacle?

Historically, there is not doubt that this is the 16th century and the first 30 years of the 17th century.  The Treaty of Polyanovka signed in Moscow in 1634 marks the height of Poland’s territorial reach. However, unfortunately even those times contained the beginning of the process that led to the fall of the Polish republic. This is a reference to the lost rivalry with Russia over the power to shape Eastern Europe. The so-called Truce of Andrusovo marks the end of the offensive eastern policy, giving large swathes of land to Russia. This was later confirmed in more definite terms by the Eternal Peace Treaty of 1686. As Michal Bobrzynski has said, Poland’s eastern ambitions brought geopolitical losses in its confrontation with Russia when it lost the “gates of Smolensk”.

There are many references within Polish historiography to the phrase “Poland from sea to sea”. In reality, how much influence did Polish rulers have over territory to the east and south of the Polish empire?

This phrase is meant metaphorically therefore, as is the case with metaphors, it does not strictly speaking reflect historical reality. Poland never developed control over the Black Sea and didn’t manage to cement its rule there. Our political influence was felt there, but that is all. Also problematic was the status of Gdansk, which of course led its own independent naval policy, which the kings of Poland – despite numerous attempts and erstwhile success –never managed to gain control over. This even applies to the strong monarchy of Stefan Batory.

What criteria were used to decide the borders after the partitions of the Second Republic?

Several arguments were used, which can be divided into three categories. First, the will of the people, that is an ethnographic argument. This method was used to decide the future of several cities, for example Vilnius which contained a Polish population of 80 per cent. Secondly, geopolitical factors were taken into consideration. In this sense, Gdansk was of immense importance even though it was de facto a German city based on the make up of its population. It was thought that without it the Republic would be subjected to colonial relations with its western neighbour. Thirdly, historical arguments were put forward regarding Poland’s claims for the eastern lands.  Despite sizable Ukrainian, Belarusian and Lithuanian populations, it was thought that our age-hold presence on these lands cannot be simply written off with one swipe of the pen. Polish territorial demands – made by both Jozef Pilsudski and his supporters as well as those of Roman Dmowski – was based on a narrative consisting of all three arguments. They were put forward by the Polish delegation at the peace conference in Paris as well as by Polish representatives in Riga, negotiating peace with the Soviets.

After the war, Communists said that in the West we were “returning to the motherland”. Are we really living today on the territory resembling the first Piast state?

In a situation where they had lost Lviv and Vilnius, Communist propaganda tried to create the impression of an equal territorial exchange, forming identity. Although these territories belonged to Poland in the middle ages, I see it more as geopolitical atonement, although it is difficult to consider them as a worthy compensation for the huge losses in the east. 


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