It’s a common misconception that Poland has always been an exceptionally religious country. While Catholicism is a defining feature of the Polish identity, in the medieval and early modern period this was no more extreme than the emphasis any other European state placed on its faith. But today, Poland is one of the world’s more religious nations, and irreligion fares relatively poorly in Poland relative to the rest of Europe in particular. Poland’s religiosity, at first glance, might not have a massive historical precedent. In fact, Polish history differs greatly from the histories of more religiously intense nations because of its remarkable and unprecedented advances in the realm of religious freedom. Examples include the Kalisz Privilege, which stemmed the flow of antisemitism in Poland, and the Warsaw Confederation, which states “the Archbishoprics, Bishoprics, and other benefices of all sorts, are to be given to no other clerics than those of the Roman Church, indigenis Polonis, juxta statutum. And likewise the benefices of the Greek Churches shall be given to the people of the Greek faith”. In plain English, that says “no government official may appoint a religious official, and no official of one religion may appoint an official of another religion”. So, in this sense, the history of Poland actually sees a decreased emphasis on religion relative to its neighbors and peers, as the state keeps its hands out of the faiths of the people.
So, what gives?
It all stems from the destruction of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which resulted in Poland and its people coming under the occupation of primarily the Russians, but the Germans (technically Prussians) and Austrians as well. First and foremost, religious tolerance among Poles became a non-issue because they didn’t run a multiethnic state, or any state at all for that matter; suddenly becoming an oppressed minority themselves, religious tolerance at any level of government was out of their hands. That’s not particularly what’s relevant though. What matters is, the Polish people found themselves outcasts, and every day brought a new challenge to their sovereignty even at the local level. The Polish state could no longer vouch for the interests of the Polish people, as it did not exist. So, the Poles turned to the Catholic Church throughout the 19th century for strength and support. This was the real genesis of Poles as an exceptionally religious people.
The Church tied issues of anti-Polish sentiment among their partitioners to the Pope, still an extraordinarily influential figure, as well as to French sympathizers with the Polish cause. Although Polish pro-French legions during the Napoleonic Wars exhibited skill and bravery which were unprecedented for a people who were seen as too weak to assert their independence, it was too little too late, and the Poles would remain subjugated for another hundred years with only the Catholic Church as an actor on their behalf. As a result, the bond between Poles and their faith deepened. As Neal Ascherson puts it in The Struggles for Poland, ” after 1795, the Catholic Church became the main institution which preserved and defended Polish culture, language and identity against foreign oppression”.
Germany during this same period, although deeply intertwined with Polish history, does not share these same features. Bismarck, right-hand man to the German Kaiser, is known for shattering the kneecaps of Catholic authority in Germany through his Kulturkampf, but this cultural and legal movement involved certain restrictions on Protestant officials as well. For example, Bismarck made it so that educators throughout Germany would be appointed by the government, not by any Christian denomination. Bismarck wanted a secular Germany. “His central purpose was to destroy or at least disable any institution which challenged the absolute authority of the German state.” – Ascherson again. While the Polish became increasingly Catholic, the German people found that their powerful state, something which the Poles sorely lacked, was the primary guarantor of their security and power, and so were less reliant on any church.
Our knowledge of the GDR is rather fuzzy, so we won’t comment on that for fear of making false assertions, but Ascherson goes in depth about Polish Catholic resistance to the Soviet regime. In fact, he asserts that attempts to institute Soviet state atheism only caused patriotic Poles to cling steadfastly to the Church in defiance. Brutal repression under Stalin kept the average Pole silent, but on the eve of his death there began to be openly anti-Soviet (or at least anti-Stalinist) thought, punctuated by the 1955 Warsaw World Festival for Youth and Students which brought the reality of Western wealth to Poland as well as allowing Poles to interact with and experience the lives of their German and Czechoslovak neighbors. The anti-Stalinist Khrushchev Thaw, which led to mild relaxation of communist policy. was reflected in Poland through a smaller-scale Golmuka Thaw, named after the head of the PZPR, the Polish communist party which exercised control over the country.
The whole Cold War period saw periodic strikes and uprisings but anti-Soviet sentiment reached a peak when Pope John Paul II, a full-blooded Pole, took the mantle of head of the Catholic Church. As he himself said, “The exclusion of Christ from the history of man is an act against man”, and nationalist Poles rallied to this idea. To them, John Paul II was the human culmination of everything they fought for. This was the immediate precipitator for the Solidarity movement, which is often credited to being one of many immediate causes of the collapse of the Soviet Union, although it was a symptom of a widespread disease of repressed peoples and a stagnant economy in the USSR.
2. God’s Playground: A History of Poland by Norman Davies.
3. Written by u/shotpun.