I believe You are familiar what “multi-kulti” means? It’s German term for multicultural society, open for other cultures. For some reasons (and let’s leave it for a while) as it looks from today’s perspective – German couldn’t do it from 50s till today. It collapsed with Islamist terrorists, with neo-national and neo-nazi movements. So it is theorethical rather than practical. It neither works in France, nor in Great Britain (although in Britain it was much better than in Germany and France), somehow it almost works in Sweden, Canada, and USA. However in US, after Trump’s election it is also corrupted by  too much attention and political focus on Mexican immigrants. Therefore in 20th-21st century You won’t find any western country with actual open culture countrywide.

Multi-cultural countries from the past

However – there were countries or regions, where actual multi-kulti worked for ages. Starting from ancient Rome, which actually rather spread roman culture, bot integrated with local ones (Greece, Egipt, Persia, Galia, etc) so much, it incorporated gods and customs from whole empire. Roman multi-kulti is actually subject for few centuries – from c.a. 1st Century before Christ till 4th after Christ.

Then You have had Byzantium – strange thing, as Chritianity was official religion, however various religions and nations were living all together. Byzantium last till crucades. Well, officially it last till 15th century. But the openness, power, importance had been broken by Venice and Genova, jealous about Byzantium part in trade in Mediterranean.

Last multicultural country prior to 20th century was Austrian-Hungarian monarchy of Habsburgs – officially combined of two countries, in fact just at the beginning of World War 1st  covering dozens of nations, including Polish, Ukrainian, Czech, Slovaks, Croatian, Serbs, Slovenian, Italian, and more. However – this multi-kulti was under much pressure due to internal conflicts, which, at the end became the reason (in fact quite stupid) for World War 1st.

But between Byzantium and Austrian-Hungarian monarchy – for about 400 years we had in Europe powerful, open, providing religious freedom, and welcoming refugees empire. Empire that had beaten Russians down to Moscow (they did what neither Napoleon, nor Hitler couldn’t – seized Moscow), empire that ruled half of Europe, empire that impacted many of conflicts, treaty acts all over Europe, empire growing philosophers, priests, scientists which still count in the world. This was…

Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth

The caption of this part is translation of Polish state official name – Rzeczpospolita Obojga Narodów. Well, it was monarchy, but with a lot of democracy for citizens (please keep in mind that citizenship in 15th-18th century differed). Officially in all documents – You had got mentioned both parts of Poland – The Crown and Great Lithuania. Although formal union was set in 1569, prior to that customs (since 1386 and 1411) were covering more or less the same approach. It was meant to keep balance between Crown and Great Lithuania. Therefore some official positions as Hetmans (war leaders) were duplicated – You have had 2 in the Crown and 2 in Lithuania. Similarly You have had duplicated land parliaments etc. The common was the King, and Sejm Wielki – Parliament combined of deputies from both parts of monarchy. This is about political order.

Act of Horodlo Union – one of firsts to organize Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth

In 1900-1920s Jozef Pilsudski returned to this concept and expanded it with respect to emancipation of Central and Eastern Europe  countries. He has presented concept of Federation of countries formerly ruled by Jaggielons dynasty: Poland (which meant Poland, and countries of former Great Lithuania: Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Belarus, Ukraine), Czech (which covered Czechoslovakia), Hungary (which historically covered also Romania, and part of Jugoslavia). If this concept was accepted – You would find very strong federation blocking German countries in the west and Russia/Soviet Union in the East. FOr many reasons it did not work – mostly due to national focus in all of these countries, including Poland.

Home for many nations

Apart form politics – how did the Polish multi-kulti worked? Was it multicultural environment? Well, yes. Few facts below.

Let’s start from Polish Jews:

  • From about 1330-1340 Jews were allowed to setup own districts around royal (owned by King) cities – this is how Krakow’s district – Kazimierz was developed;
  • All religious rights of Jews were preserved
  • Tolerance for Jews was kept till 1795 -when Poland disappeared of Europe maps – they were free to run business in all royal, and most private cities and settlements. Even in those owned by Catholic church.
  • There were some privileges for Jews including banking, running guesthouses at royal roads, running specific types of businesses
Jewish merchants of Warsaw – 19th century

At the same time (14th-17th century) Jews from Church state (Italy), Spain, Part of France, and many German states were forced to flee, becoming refugees. Some were even prosecuted by Inquisition and killed. Poland welcomed them warmly. They were invited to live and develop here. Meantime there were even quite unusual, as for Jewish people situations during Kosciuszko’s uprising, 1830 and 1863 uprisings, where Jews setup own troops to support Polish fights for freedom, like Berek Joselewicz. During World War 1st and war with Russia (1914-1920) it is believed that even up to 10% of Polish troops were Jews. Some of Polish great poets, and artists were Jewish. Poets (Julian Tuwim,  Bruno Schulz). musicians (Artur Rubinstein, Wladyslaw Szpilman) and more. This cohabitation last until 1939 and German occupation of Poland (well – in late 30s there were Polish nationalists promoting antisemitism, but they were minority. Most of Polish were quite fine with Jews, and You have had cities where Jews were 50-60% of settlers, what never, ever happened in Western Europe) . Than Holocaust destroyed cohabitation of Polish and Jewish neighbors. After the war due to Holocaust, due to setup of Israel as a Jewish country, and due to communist operations in 1956 and 1968 Jews almost disappeared from Poland.

Historical Tatars mosque in Kruszyniany

We have got our Muslim minority as well – Polish Tatars , known also as Lipkowie – in 14th-18th centuries some of Tatars were asking (for various reasons) for protection from Polish kings or nobles. Known to be good light cavalry, they were welcomed, even nobilitized for war successes, and settled at the borders – either with Saint Mary Order (Prussia) or with Moscovian state, later Russia. Tatars were always a little social minority, but they kept their unique culture, religion, and customs. There were many muslim, Tatar heroes of Polish wars and uprising, just to mention: Tatar Ulans in 1920’s war Tatars still live today in Poland.

We welcomed and settled refugees from many European countries:

  • German – settlers started to live in Poland form 13-14th centuries, invited by King, nobles, Church, setting up cities based on Magdeburg’s and Chelm’s laws. Then in 16th century both catholic and protestant refugees during Thirty Years’ War also joined Poland due to religious freedom (see below). German settlers moved to POland up till 18th century (last wave of migration was related to Northern War, and cholera epidemic. Some of Polish Germans were originally citizens of Saint’s Mary Order, after wars between Order and Poland they became incorporated together with lands of Prussia, Inflants (today’s Latvia and Estonia). One of descendants of these Germans was general Wladyslaw Anders.
  • Scots – they arrived to Poland both as a mercenaries and the refugees in 16th and 17th century. Part of migration was related to religious war and mercenaries taking part in, however part of it was related due to wars between Scotland and England and religious fights (including Convenaters rebel, Bishops’ Wars and England’s civil war). In mid of 17th century about 30 thousand of Scots lived in Poland (0,02% of about 11 millions of people living here). The most known family are Gordons, but Scots in Polish history were also immortalized by Henryk Sienkiewicz – placing in his novel “Pan Wolodyjowski” (Sir Wolodyjowski) friend of main plot hero – Scotish officer – Hassling-Kettling.
  • Dutch – actually mixed Dutch, German, and some other minorities – called Olendrzy in Poland – they were actual religious refugees, have had special rights, self-government and had huge impact on Polish economy in 16th and 17th centuries
  • Hungarian – I wrote a bit on my ancestors – Czakis’ – refugees from Hungary after Rakoczi’s uprising. However Hungarians have had their home in Poland since 14th century – when Louis Andegaven, called in Poland Louis of Hungary became Polish king. Then in 15-16th century Jagiellons took over thrones of Poland, Czech and Hungary migrations were also regular thing.

And most probably some single persons of any other nation.

The picture wouldn’t be full if I have forgotten about few other nations/cultures: Armenian, Cossacks, Czech, and more.

Freedom and tensions

Apart from welcoming many nations, Poland was the most tolerant country for all religions. Of course – Judaism, and Islam were minorities, Roman-Catholic church was dominant, but… Poland was open for protestants and orthodox churches (Russian and Armenian). What;s more important – in 16th century we have had official religious freedom constitution – Warsaw Confederation, follower of Jewish religious freedom act – statute of Kalisz. These were unique in Europe acts, making Poland safer place for many people. The total for Roman-Catholic Inquisition victims for Poland over all centuries is…. around 60 people (Article in Polish only), where victims of religious wars and Inquisition in other countries were counted in thousands, and millions.

Cossack writing letter to Ottoman Sultan – picture by Ilia Repin

Well, not everything was so brilliant and great at it seems. There were tensions between social casts and national groups, especially with Cossacks. After wars with Sweden in 17th century Poland became quite orthodox Roman-Catholic, and Protestants were under pressure, however the biggest prosecutions were leading to exile and infamy. Plus of course – from today’s perspective – social system was anachronistic, keeping feudal order up till late 18th century and keeping nobles the only group given citizen’s rights. That’s all true. However – if You compare it to 14th-18th century France, England, Germany, Spain, Italy, Russia – Poland was quite civilized country, with a  lot more freedom for many, and with the fewest victims of prejudices.

Fall of the empire

The whole concept of multicultural Poland collapsed fully in 1795 – after Russia, Prussia and Austria won over Kosciuszko’s uprising and set the 3rd partition of Poland. Of course – it was falling down before, from mid of 17th century – wars with Russia, where Poland lost engagement and ability to incorporate Cossacks, wars with Sweden, after which religious freedom was in hazard due to Catholics accusing Protestants of supporting Swedish troops, internal issues, both economical and political were reasons that in late 18th century Poland was not as attractive and open, as just 150 years ago.

Story of all nations of Poland under Russian, Prussian/German, and Austrian/Austro-Hungarian governance is a different one. However – we are proud of whole multi-cultural, multi-religious, multi-national history we have.