Tag Archives: Polish history

The Power of Polish Facial Hair!

With Movember having just passed, and the days getting colder and wintrier, it was easy to see the value of having a beard as the temperatures plunged at the beginning of December. It provoked thoughts about Polish beards and moustaches and how many kings, leaders and men in power had facial hair of some kind. Below is a quick summary of the finest and best and the power their face fuzz allowed them to yield.

The original (and best?)

Mieszko I set up the original Polish state and did so sporting a fine beard and long flowing hair. Just imagine this guy running at you with a sabre in hand! He maintained a nice simple trim on his beardline, with it probably being one of the stipulations when was baptised as a Catholic. They didn’t want him to look like just any vandal rampaging across Central Europe.

I am the Greatest

Perhaps the biggest beard in Polish history belonged to the one king allowed to be known as ‘the Great one’ – Kazimierz Wielki. He has enough facial hair there for 2 or 3 full beards! Being ‘the Great one’ as Europe was entering the Dark Ages, rumour was that he had a long flowing beard so that his mistress could find him at night when no candles were available.

Bow before my moustache, Turks!

Jan III Sobieski managed to combine the roles of King of Poland with Grand Duke of Lithuania, and even took a weekend break in 1683 to push the Ottoman Turks back from Vienna. The ‘Lion of Lechistan’ managed to do all of this while worrying about his ever-drooping moustache. In the days before hair gel, he just couldn’t get it to shape as he would like.

The Second Coming

For a few centuries, Poland lacked in leaders with the required facial-hair fortitude, and the country suffered. It lost it’s union with Lithuania, got squeezed by the Germans, and eventually didn’t exist any more. All those clean-shaven Polish men just could not handle the likes of Otto von Bismarck, whose bushy moustache allowed him to rule Prussia and claim Pomerania and other Polish territory. By the early 20th century, Józef Piłsudski had suffered enough. With a ‘tache bigger than a paintbrush, and eyebrows to beat most regular moustaches, he used them as lures to ensnare enemies. Then, he would stare at them until their heads exploded from the pressure of being so close to such fine hair follicles. And with that, he won back Poland’s freedom and formed the Second Polish Republic.

Take that, Communism!

Communism brought dour times to Poland. While the 70’s brought long, luscious sideburns and handlebar moustaches galore to Western countries, such luxuries could just not be afforded in Polish towns and cities. A lucky few tried importing fake Groucho Marx taches, but not everyone had family in America to smuggle them over. But the new wave was lead by Lech Wałęsa. He had inherited a beautiful moustache comb from his grandmother and he was not going to let it go to waste. His fellow Polish men got in on the act, and Solidarność was born. Before long even the Kaczyńskis were involved with their own efforts at growing some face-fuzz. It was no surprise as the Communists gave in, and Prime Minister Wałęsa heralded a new age. Rubbish disposal authorities noted a huge rise in the number of razors dumped in the days following his inauguration.

A modern moustache for modern times?

Bronisław Komorowski has upheld the traditions of facial hair on the men of power in Poland. However, one criticism that has come about is that he does not inspire confidence for the international stage. The answer here is simple: Pan Prezydent – you must grow out a full beard. When the Francuskis, Niemcyks and others see you coming, they will surely recognise the resurgent new power of Poland under the might of a full bushy beard!

So, men of Poland – take pride in your beards and moustaches and take pride in Poland!

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What Happened in Polish History: Part III

I’m starting to get the hang of this Polish history lark.

The Chicken War
Back in the good old days you were allowed to give wars silly names. Poland had the Chicken War, Britain had the War of Jenkin’s Ear and France had the Battle of the Improperly-Buttered Croissant (I may have made that last one up). Nowadays the Americans get all quivery lipped and start blubbing if we don’t take Our Sacrifice seriously so everything has to have a macho no-nonsense name such as Operation Black Eagle Thunder Strike or something similar. You’ve probably never heard of the Chicken War, I certainly hadn’t until I accidentally looked it up the other day while searching for nuclear combat hens (don’t ask). It turns out, none the less, to be quite illuminating.

The Chicken War in a nutshell: the landed gentry—the szlachta—whom we last met duping the king into agreeing to allow them to vote for his successor in return for a loan, were a tricky lot. Whenever the king did something they didn’t like they all got together, had one or two more barrels of vodka than is strictly advisable, and started a rebellion. If this meant they occasionally had to raid one or two nunneries along the way they were willing to selflessly put up with the inconvenience for the sake of the greater good. In 1537 they were up in arms about one thing or another and decided to meet for a massive barbecue. The plan was to hang around in a field looking tough until the king got scared and agreed to something. The other plan was to eat a large number of roasted chickens at the same time as hanging around in a field looking tough etc. It’s important to guffaw loudly, quaff ale, and toss chicken leg bones over your shoulder on these occasions. Quaffing, as Terry Pratchet once famously observed, is a lot like drinking except you spill more, guffawing is a lot like laughing except done by a bad actor and it works best if you have a large unruly beard.

This is an actual transcript of an actual imaginary phonograph recording of the event:

Szlachta: Haa Haa Haar!!! (sounds of quaffing) Haa Haa Haar!! (sounds of further quaffing)…

King: Hey szlachta! What are you doing in yonder field quaffing and tossing chicken leg bones over your shoulder? Should I be worried?

Szlachta: HAA HAA HAAR!!! (exaggerated quaffing sounds) HAA HAA HAAR!! (whispered:) all right lads, we’ve got him worried, keep it going…

King: Umm look here chaps, is it something I’ve done?

Szlachta: HAA HAA HAAAAR!! (burp)

King: Is there something I can do for you chaps?

Szlachta: HA HA HA HAAAR!! (quaff)… (protracted silence)… damn it, we’ve run out of chickens… we’ll have to go home.

King: Phew… that was a close one! Forsooth, the only casualties in this war were the chickens, I shall name this “The Chicken War.”

Szlachta: We prefer to call it Operation Rolling Rooster Thunder, but have it your own way. Anybody got a napkin? I’ve got a beak stuck in my beard…

The Polish king looking worried.
“They’ve started on the chicken legs my lord”
“Oh blimey, we’re for it now”

There are two things we can learn from the Chicken War. First, Polish people really like roast chicken. Second, getting together for a good rebellion is a long-established Polish tradition. In fact this kind of chicken-massacring was a semi-legitimate method of resistance to kingly rule in the old days. Meetings of this kind were known as rokosz. The idea was that the szlachta were entitled to get together and have a kind of impromptu parliament if they felt the king was getting too big for his boots. Later the term “rokosz” came to refer to an armed rebellion by the szlachta in any situation where they felt they should put their foot down and tell the king to go to hell. In the next phase of Polish history the idea of rebellions was to take on a whole new level of significance.

The first thing that anybody learns about Polish history is that Poland Was Partitioned. This is usually something of a let down because, to be frank, it doesn’t sound that dramatic or desperately serious. In fact it was both. It’s hard to get your head around the idea of having your country partitioned so I’ve come up with the following metaphor:

Imagine a grand Victorian house built with a fortune gained through some coal-fueled industrial enterprise. Imagine the same house a hundred years later, still splendid but far too expensive to keep going as a family home. A cut price ‘developer’ moves in and converts the pile into a series of self-contained ‘flats.’ Within six months the place is falling to pieces, there’s stinking rubbish everywhere, neighbours are screaming at each other through paper thin walls, there’s a vaguely disturbing smell of gas on the staircase, and if you’re really unlucky Australians may have moved in. This is pretty much what happened to Poland except the Australians were Austrians, which is only marginally less alarming.

Exactly how this came about is a very long and very boring story that I’ve researched thoroughly by asking a Polish person. “It was the szlachta, they sold us” she said. Naughty szlachta.

The first partition took place in 1772. The Prussians, Russians, and Austrians each helped themselves to a massive slices of Polish-Lithuanian territory. There weren’t really any exciting wars or invasions, it was all done behind the scenes with political jiggery-pokery. Another partition in 1793 and a third in 1795 brought the curtain down on a very final and depressing way on Polish independence. Poland completely ceased to exist as a national entity within the space of 23 years and continued to not exist for the next 120 years. They were not best pleased.

Austria: Another slice of Poland anyone?

Prussia: (extending belt) oooh I couldn’t, honestly, I’m stuffed.

Austria: Oh go on, just a little slice off the bottom.

Russia: I could manage another bit. Something with Warsaw in it perhaps?

Austria: Greedy guts! I might just have this little slither since it’s stuck to the knife… mmmm…

Tadeusz Rejtan: The First Modern Pole
To my mind Tadeusz Rejtan is the prototype of the modern Pole, or at least the modern Pole up until about 1990. Rejtan was a minor noble who took it upon himself to kick up a fuss about the first partition of Poland. The first partition was all done legally and above board at a puppet meeting of the Polish parliament, the Sejm. The lad Rejtan could see what was going on, however, and didn’t like it one bit. In a sterling performance Rejtan laid down in front of the doors of the parliament chamber, bared his chest and no doubt said something worthy about plucking his heart from his breast. He then stole the ceremonial mace, kicked peoples chairs from under them, and generally made a nuisance of himself. These activities made not the slightest difference to the outcome of the steamroller forces that were already in motion, but he made the effort.

Rejtan deploying his massive moustache and bare chest in defense of Poland.

Rejtan is a kind of low-key national hero. He’s not celebrated much but, mention his name, and a peculiar smile comes to the faces of Polish people. At the time he was probably seen as a bit of a boneheaded bumpkin who didn’t understand the greater socio-political forces in operation. Over the next 200 years Poles discovered that sticking two fingers up to the “greater socio-political forces in operation” was the only sensible way forward and the only way to retain some level of self-respect. That and rebellions of course. For me there’s something in Rejtan that set the mold for generations of Poles to come; he didn’t stand a bat’s chance in hell but he stood up, ranted and raved, kicked up an unseemly fuss, and got completely flattened. Also he had a ridiculously huge moustache.

There’s nothing the Poles like better than a good rebellion, if there’s roast chicken involved all the better. Under Prussian, Austrian, or Russian rule the vast majority of Poles got on with the age-old business of breaking their backs in the fields, dying of cholera, and thanking god for their good fortunes. Some, however, felt that ‘something must be done’ and that this ‘something’ should probably involve galloping about the countryside with swords. The Age of Rebellions was born. There were so many of them in fact that they started running out of names:

Rebel 1: Seems like ages since we last had a rebellion.

Rebel 2: We had one last Tuesday.

Rebel 1: Oh yes? I must have missed it, doctor’s appointment. How did it go?

Rebel 2: We got flattened.

Rebel 1: The bastards! Let’s have a rebellion!

Rebel 2: Well…

Rebel 1: We’ll call it the Great Spring Rebellion! Avante!

Rebel 2: Sorry, we had a Great Spring Rebellion last year, just after the Great Winter Rebellion.

Rebel 1: The Great LATE Spring Rebellion?

Rebel 2: 1798.

Rebel 1: The Thursday Uprising!

Rebel 2:
1804… and again in 1806…

Rebel 1: The Late Friday Afternoon Just Before Tea Time Rebellion?

Rebel 2: Hmmm… you might have something there. To horse!!

Rebel 1: I like your moustache by the way.

Rebel 2: Really? Thanks…

Rebellion number 37. This time they tried having a woman as leader. Do you know I only just realized that Emilia Plater was a woman!

Things carried on like this for a very long time indeed. Finally, in 1918, with half of Europe bled dry by World War I or otherwise engaged in burying people Poland got its independence back. It was number 13 of Woodrow Wilson’s 14 points.

Rebel 1: Well that’s it then. We won!

Rebel 2:
Things are going to be pretty quiet around here now I suppose.

Rebel 1: Twentieth century here we come! What could possibly go wrong?

…and there, I think, we will leave it.

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What Happened in Polish History: Part I


I love it when people start telling me about Polish history. Closing my eyes, resting my chin on my hand and snoring lightly are all signs of deep concentration and interest, honestly. Over the years I’ve dozed through numerous fascinating lectures on Polish history. I’ve followed this up with literally minutes of internet research and I can now bring you my definitive version of What Happened in Polish History:

When early Polish humans first migrated onto the great central European plain they weren’t so very different from the Polish humans of today. The very first early Polish human to arrive immediately set up a border control and customs point and asked to the see the triple-visa-stamped passports of the all the other early Polish humans behind him. This caused some confusion and delay for a while since nobody had yet invented the passport, or writing, or paper. After a couple of thousand years, however, this was all sorted out and the early Polish humans got down to business with all their paperwork in order.

Many people ask how Poles came to be called Poles. I made this mistake once and this is what I heard, possibly: One of the early Polish humans looked around one day and said “Hey guys, you do realize we’re living in a field don’t you?” The other early Polish humans thought about this for a while and decided that this was indeed a very wise observation. From that day onwards they called this guy “Pole,” which was the early human Polish word for “guy who lives in a field.” Incidentally, Pole had a brother called Lech, who invented beer, another brother called Czech, who invented putting jam on everything, and a third brother called Russ, who invented alcoholism. They were a pretty influential family.

The Middle Ages
Later, when most of the early Polish humans were middle aged, they decided to start having kings and stuff like that. It was fashionable at the time. The first king of Poland was a chap called Mieszko the First, which was lucky, if it had been his brother Pawel the Fourteenth things would have become very confusing very quickly. Mieszko had a huge beard and was a bit of a lad. Apparently he married his second wife after abducting her from a monastery. I was under the impression that only men lived in monasteries but hey, perhaps he got confused by the frocks.

Mieszko’s first wife is credited with bringing Christianity to Poland. The story goes like this:

965 Mieszko marries some cute Czech lass who’s a Christian
966 Mieszko is baptized as a Christian, trims his beard, stops spending so much time out drinking with the lads, buys some new shirts, etc.
967 Mieszko’s wife tragically dies in a beheading/horse trampling accident. Mieszko goes looking for another wife… in a monastery.

A Bit Later
In another stroke of uncanny luck the greatest king of this period was called Kazimierz the Great. It was particularly lucky bearing in mind that his father was called Władysław Łokietek, which roughly translated into English means Vladislaus the Short Arse. All Polish people know this sentence about Kazimierz the Great: “Zastał polskę drewnianą a zostawił murowaną.” As far as I can make out this means something like “He saw Poland was made of wood and got stoned” but apparently it means that he rebuilt everything that was made of wood in bricks and mortar. This must have kept him pretty busy because, despite being king for almost 60 years, he failed to have any legitimate children. The other thing everyone knows about Kazimierz is that he invited lots of Jews to come and live in Poland. The former Jewish district of Krakow, Kazimierz, is named after him. The whole Jewish thing didn’t work out too well in the long run, but he wasn’t to know.

The Jagiellonian Dynasty
When old Kazimierz died without any legitimate heirs there was a fair amount of head scratching and late night vodka drinking until somebody came up with the genius idea of getting a 13-year-old Hungarian girl, marrying her to a bone-headed Lithuanian chap and calling the pair of them king and queen – an event in Polish history known as the Night of the Seventeen Bottles and One or Two Beer Chasers. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

The new queen was a lass called Jadwiga and the new king was a lad called Władysław Jagiełło (who still holds the world record for the most ł’s in a name). Jadwiga enjoyed flower arranging, inventing universities, and being a virgin. Władysław enjoyed killing Teutonic Knights, drinking games, and deflowering virgins. They had a rare old time and started the Jagiellonian Dynasty, or at least one of them did. Jadwiga later became a saint, but I’m not sure if this was a reward for marrying a lunatic Lithuanian or something else, like seeing Jesus or something.

The Jagiellonians trundled along for a good time having heirs and ruling and generally being historic until it all came unstuck with a chap called Zygmunt the Old. The lad Zygmunt made the mistake of marrying a bolshy Italian chick called Bona Sforza, who apparently turned up at the wedding with several shopping bags full of vegetables (that’s what they tell me). Sixteenth century Italian nobles are famous for two things: introducing people to the Renaissance and poisoning people – guess what happened next.

Having introduced drawings of impractical helicopters, hairy rhinoceroses, and the heliocentric theory to the Poles Bona Sforza set about poisoning family members just to complete the program. This was a shame because her son, Zygmunt Augustus, had just married a cracking six-foot Lithuanian blonde called Barbara Radziwiłłówna. Apparently she invented lipstick, pouting, and hot pants and was a major hottie. Bona Sforza, who was a short hairy Italian chick, didn’t take kindly to this and slipped Barbara one of her courgette-and-strychnine pizzas as a wedding present. Her evil work done she scuttled off back to Italy, where she was promptly poisoned by some other guy as part of a New Year’s Eve prank.

The Golden Szlachta (or something)
All this time a bunch of rich folk known as the szlachta had been gradually establishing the treasured Polish traditions of bribery, nepotism, and incomprehensible bureaucracy. They had all the money and various kings came to them over the centuries asking for wads of cash for projects such as killing Teutonic Knights, marrying long-legged Lithuanian blondes, or inventing universities. Typical conversations went something like this:

King: Hey szlachta, how about some cash so I can invade Bohemia and marry a smooth-faced young monk wearing a frock?
Szlachta: Well…
King: Oh go on! It’ll be a massive laugh. There’ll be pillaging and raping and all sorts of fun!
Szlachta: I suppose we could let you have a small loan in return for one or two minor favors…
King: Such as?
Szlachta: Nothing serious. You know, maybe, the right to tax the hell out of our tenant farmers and *ahem* vote for the succession to the throne.
King: What was that last part?
Szlachta: Nothing. Nothing serious. Just sign this and you can have the cash.
King: Well that’s alright then… where’s my pen.

When Zygmunt Augustus eventually retired to the pavilion without proper heirs the szlachta took it upon themselves to start ‘electing’ kings. This was a project with varying degrees of success.

The Elected Kings

The first elected king was a French chap called Henryk Walezy. Young Henry arrived in Poland, had a look around, popped into the local post office, and then buggered off back to France a few days later. “Nobody knows why he left” say the Poles, “I can have a damn good guess” says me. After that they started putting ads in Gazeta Wyborcza and on craigslist “Wanted: King of Poland, short hours, loads of Lithuanian blondes.” Another elected king was the Hungarian lad Stefan Batory. Unfortunately he completely missed out on the Lithuanian blondes and married Anna Jagiellonka who is unkindly remembered as the ugliest ever queen of Poland. She was very good at bigos though.

Another applicant was Zygmunt III Waza who made the decision to move the capital from Krakow to Warsaw. Us Krakow residents have this to say about the decision: Zygmunt Waza was Swedish, Warsaw is much closer to Sweden than Krakow is, a short while later Sweden invaded Poland and captured the capital city. Nice.


Next week on What Happened in Polish History:

A load of Swedes turn up and cause a flood (somehow)

Poland invents partitioning

Jan Sobieski gets it on with a French chick

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