On April 14, 966, the Polish ruler converted to Christianity, transforming Poland into a recognized European state.
Poland had existed prior to this in some form, of course. As the Roman Empire collapsed in the early centuries AD, Germanic and Slavic tribes moved in and began to take over lands in central and eastern Europe. Already by the sixth century, western Slavic people began to settle throughout what is today Poland.
These western Slavs broke off into various tribes, such as the Vistulans, who settled in Krakow, and the Polans, who settled around Gniezno and Poznan. Poland grew out of the Polans. The Polan rulers were known as the Piasts.
In the year 960, Mieszko I became the Piast ruler of the Polans. He wasn’t a king, but rather more of a chieftain who found himself in a difficult political position.
To Mieszko’s west, the German ruler Otto I had consolidated his power, having been crowned Holy Roman Emperor by the Pope. His imperial title made him the defender of Christendom, successor of Rome and, arguably, the most powerful man in Europe. Otto had the means and authority to conquer and convert pagans, such as the Polans, to Christianity.
Mieszko knew that the longer the Polans remained pagan, the greater the chance they would be violently subdued by their Christian neighbors and forced to convert anyway. At the same time, Mieszko had married the Czech princess Dobrawa, who was a Christian (the Czechs had converted to Christianity a century earlier).
Early historical sources claimed that Dobrawa played a significant role in converting Mieszko to Christianity. That may only have been part of the story. More likely, Mieszko saw the writing on the wall—the threat of forcible conquest and conversion by the Germans—and made a deal with the Czechs to convert to Christianity in return for Dobrawa’s hand in marriage.
Whatever his motivations, on Holy Saturday April 14th, 966, Mieszko I, chief of the Polans, was baptized into Christianity. At that time, when a ruler converted, it was assumed all of his people would follow suit, which is why that moment is known as the Christianization of Poland.
The Rise of Poland
Once this occurred, the Polans essentially became “Poland” because their state earned recognition and respect from the Germans, Czechs and other European kingdoms. For this reason, 966 is also considered Poland’s birthday.
From that point forward, Mieszko I and his successor Bolesław the Brave (Poland’s first king) turned to conquest themselves, vastly expanding Poland’s borders. This is when the Vistulans of Krakow, parts of Silesia and parts of Pomerania fell under Poland’s control. Eventually, the Poles conquered territory as far as modern day Slovakia and Ukraine.
Poland would grow to become a major European kingdom in the coming centuries. Although it would suffer from internal strife, invasions and plagues throughout its history, Poland never lost its identity for very long. There’s a reason it still exists 1,053 years later and will, we pray, continue to exist for another 1,053 years.