Here in the United States, schools are quick to teach students about famous Americans and western Europeans. Countries like Poland are often forgotten about, even though they had individuals who made significant impacts on the world. Here’s my list of five Poles who changed the world.
Today, every third grader knows that the earth revolves around the sun—you can thank Nicolaus Copernicus for that. Born in Torun, Poland in 1473, Copernicus was the first person to provide a detailed explanation of why the solar system is heliocentric (meaning the planets revolve around the sun). Prior to that, people had believed that everything revolved around the earth, an idea that had long been guarded by the Roman Catholic church.
Copernicus’s discovery was pretty amazing, considering that the telescope hadn’t been invented yet. He couldn’t really see what he was theorizing about and had to rely solely on abstract thought and reasoning. In any event, this monumental realization set the stage for all future space discoveries.
This is probably a Pole you haven’t heard of, especially if you’re American (if you live in Poland and don’t know him, shame on you!) Despite the fact that you probably wouldn’t learn about King John III Sobieski anywhere outside Poland, he played a pivotal role in shaping European history.
In 1683, the Muslim Ottoman Empire was tearing through Europe, conquering territory after territory. In July of that year, Ottoman leader Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa Pasha set his sights on Vienna, Austria. Vienna lay at Europe’s heart, and, in a sense, was its crossroads. Had it fallen, the Ottoman Empire could have swept farther into Europe, forever changing the course of global history.
After a long siege at Vienna, the decisive battle took place on September 11 and 12. The German defenders of Vienna had come under command of Polish King Sobieski, who was on his way with his elite Polish horsemen, or hussars. Although the Ottomans nearly overwhelmed the city, Sobieski arrived in the knick of time, charging from the surrounding forests with the hussars. The Ottomans were cut down and destroyed. Europe was saved, and the Ottoman Empire never fully recovered. After that, the pope declared King Sobieski the “savior of European Christendom.”
This woman broke the glass ceiling in Russian-occupied Poland—which wasn’t an easy thing to do. Born in 1867 in Warsaw (then part of the Russian Empire), she became educated in a “floating school,” which changed locations every day to avoid being detected by the repressive authorities and because regular universities frowned upon women at that time. She completed degrees in physics and mathematics. During her fruitful career, Marie Skłodowska discovered two chemical elements and was the first woman ever to win the Nobel Prize. She also made significant contributions to the development of X-ray technology.
The two elements she discovered were Polonium (which she named after Poland) and radium. She also developed a new theory on radioactivity, as well as a method of isolating radioactive isotopes. For this and her other work, she won the Nobel Prize in 1903. So next time you get an X-ray, remember it wouldn’t have been possible without a Pole.
Joseph Piłsudski was Poland’s first leader after it gained independence in 1918. Eventually, he sort of became Poland’s dictator, but none of that is of global significance. What was significant, however, was his miraculous defeat of the Soviet Union at the Battle of Warsaw in 1920.
After the Communists took over in Russia in 1917, they sought to spread their ideology across all of Europe. Over the next couple years they rampaged through Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic states, eventually invading Poland, which was brought to its knees. Right when the Soviets were about to capture Warsaw, however, Joseph Piłsudski, a skilled general, launched a massive Polish counteroffensive from the south that split the Soviet forces and forced them to retreat. Poland was saved in what became known as the “Miracle on the Vistula” (named for the Vistula River near which much of the fighting took place.
(Even if you don’t understand Polish, there’s some good footage in that video about the Battle of Warsaw)
Had Poland fallen, the Soviets could have continued marching straight into western Europe, which was extremely weak after World War I. The entire map could have changed, impacting not only Europe, but the rest of the world.
When Karol Wojtyła was elected Pope John Paul II in 1978, it was one of Poland’s proudest moments in its history. Here was a native son at the head of the Catholic Church. He became a national icon, around which the Poles (then still controlled by the Soviet Union) rallied and were empowered with the will to fight for their identity and independence.
But Wojtyła wasn’t just a monumental figure in Poland’s history. As the Pope, he touched the lives of millions across the globe. In that sense, he became the Soviets’ worst nightmare—a powerful religious figure who spoke out against tyranny and oppression and around whom entire nations rallied. A peaceful revolutionary, Wojtyła helped significantly widen the cracks that eventually caused Soviet Russia to collapse
Finally, Wojtyła, now a Saint, was a spiritual role model for mankind. Ministering around the world, performing miracles, and even personally forgiving the man who shot him, Wojtyła was a unique and holy individual, the likes of which may never be seen again.