B: Poland


General introduction

The history of Polish Catholicism and of the Catholic Church in Poland in the years 1815-1914 is inseparably linked with the history of the Poles and the Polish nation. It is a deeply dramatic history, because Poland, divided among three great powers, Russia, Prussia and Austria, was deprived of its own state and independence. The struggle for this independence in different forms dominated the minds of generations of the Polish elites, and influenced the whole of Polish culture and religious life. The remembrance of a great federal Polish-Lithuanian state, which had existed until 1795 and which was increasingly idealised in the memories of the people, reinforced this struggle, and merged with the more recent memories of sacrifices and battles against oppression.

This history must be considered within the more general framework of the history of the national groupings of central-eastern Europe. The territory is that of the three great states formed in the Middle Ages - Hungary, Bohemia and Poland - the last named being linked from the end of the fourteenth century, and formally joined in 1569, with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, including Belorussia and almost all the Ukraine. This entire area was dominated in the nineteenth century by the three empires mentioned above: Tsarist Russia, Prussia, which would succeed in dominating Germany, and the Austria of the Habsburgs which would become Austria-Hungary.

These three powers had an assured place in the European order of the time, which was one of relative peace and increasing prosperity. But they were profoundly undermined by the aspirations of other nations occupying the space corresponding to the three historic monarchies. The history of the rise ofthese aspirations in the course ofthe nineteenth century is complicated and diverse. It was a question not only of the pressures from the dominant empires, but also of the tensions between the oppressed nationalities, their various demands, and their mistrust or even fear of neighbouring peoples. For historical reasons that were still visible in the nineteenth century, the ethnic, cultural and religious map of central-eastern Europe is a rich and exceptionally diverse mosaic that made it difficult to find solutions for the future, but all too easy for empires to play their traditional game of divide and rule.

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