Polonization can be seen as an example of cultural assimilation. Such a view is widely considered applicable to the times of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (1569–1795) when the Ruthenian and Lithuanian upper classes were drawn towards the more Westernized Polish culture and the political and financial benefits of such a transition, as well as, sometimes, by the administrative pressure exerted on their own cultural institutions, primarily the Orthodox Church. The conversion to the Roman Catholic (and to a lesser extent, Protestant) faith was often the single most important part of the process. For Ruthenians of that time, being Polish culturally and Roman Catholic by religion was almost the same. This aspect of Polonization that led to the diminishing of the Orthodox Church was the part that was most resented by the Belarusian and Ukrainian masses. In contrast the Lithuanians, who were mostly Catholic, were in danger of losing their cultural identity as a nation, but that did not become evident for the wide masses of Lithuanians until the Lithuanian national renaissance in the middle of the 19th century.
On the other hand, the Polonization policies of the Polish government in the interwar years of the 20th century were again two-folded. Some of them were similar to the mostly forcible assimilationist policies, implemented by other European powers that have aspired to regional dominance (e.g., Germanization, Russification), while others resembled policies carried out by countries aiming at increasing the role of their native language and culture in their own societies (e.g., Magyarization, Rumanization, Ukrainization). For Poles, it was a process of rebuilding Polish national identity and reclaiming Polish heritage, including the fields of education, religion, infrastructure and administration, that suffered under the prolonged periods of foreign occupation by the neighboring empires of Russia, Prussia, and Austria-Hungary. However, as a third of recreated Poland's population was ethnically non-Polish and many felt their own nationhood aspirations thwarted specifically by Poland, large segments of this population resisted to varying extents the policies intended to assimilate them. Part of the country's leadership emphasized the need for the ethnic and cultural homogeneity of the state in the long term. However, the promotion of the Polish language in the administration, public life and, especially education, were perceived by some as an attempt at forcible homogenization. In areas inhabited by ethnic Ukrainians for example, actions of the Polish authorities seen as aiming at restricting the influence of the Orthodox and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church caused additional resentment, and were considered to be closely tied to religious Polonization.
Between the 12th and the 14th centuries many towns in Poland adopted the so-called Magdeburg rights that promoted the towns' development and trade. The rights were usually granted by the king on the occasion of the arrival of migrants. Some, integrated with the larger community, such as merchants who settled there, especially Greeks and Armenians. They adopted most aspects of Polish culture but kept their Orthodox faith. Since the Middle Ages, Polish culture, influenced by the West, in turn radiated East, beginning the long and uneasy process of cultural assimilation.
In the 1569 Union of Lublin, the Ruthenian territories controlled by the Grand Duchy of Lithuania were transferred to the newly-formed Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The non-Polish ethnic groups found themselves under strong influence of the Polish culture and language. Quarter century later, following the Union of Brest the Ruthenian Church sought to break relations with the Eastern Orthodox Church. The sparsely populated lands, owned by the Polish and Polonized nobility, were settled by farmers from central Poland. The attractions, and pressures of Polonization on Ruthenian nobility and cultural elite resulted in almost complete abandonment of Ruthenian culture, traditions and the Orthodox Church by the Ruthenian higher class.
The Lithuanian Grand Duke Jogaila was offered the Polish crown and became Władysław II Jagiełło (reigned 1386–1434). This marked the beginning of the gradual, voluntary Polonization of the Lithuanian nobility. Jagiełło built many churches in pagan Lithuanian land and provided them generously with estates, gave out the lands and positions to the Catholics, settled the cities and villages and granted the biggest cities and towns Magdeburg Rights. The Ruthenian nobility was also freed from many payment obligations and their rights were equalized with those of the Polish nobility.
Under Jogaila successor as a king of Crown Władysław III of Varna, who reigned in 1434–1444, Polonization attained a certain degree of subtlety. Władysław III introduced some liberal reforms. He expanded the privileges to all Ruthenian nobles irrespective of their religion, and in 1443 signed a bull equalizing the Orthodox church in rights with the Roman Catholicism thus alleviating the relationship with the Orthodox clergy. These policies continued under the next king Casimir IV Jagiellon. Still, the mostly cultural expansion of the Polish influence continued since the Ruthenian nobility were attracted by both the glamour of the Western culture and the Polish political order where the magnates became the unrestricted rulers of the lands and serfs in their vast estates.
Some Ruthenian magnates like Sanguszko, Wiśniowiecki and Kisiel, resisted the cultural Polonization for several generations, with the Ostrogski family being one of the most prominent examples. Remaining generally loyal to the Polish state, the magnates, like Ostrogskis, stood by the religion of their forefathers, and supported the Orthodox Church generously by opening schools, printing books in Ruthenian language (the first four printed Cyrillic books in the world were published in Cracow, in 1491) and giving generously to the Orthodox churches' construction. However, their resistance was gradually waning with each subsequent generation as more and more of the Ruthenian elite turned towards Polish language and Catholicism. Still, with most of the educational system getting Polonized and the most generously funded institutions being to the west of Ruthenia, the Ruthenian indigenous culture further deteriorated. In the Polish Ruthenia the language of the administrative paperwork started to gradually shift towards Polish. By the 16th century the language of administrative paperwork in Ruthenia was a peculiar mix of the older Church Slavonic with the Ruthenian language of the commoners and the Polish language. With the Polish influence in the mix gradually increasing it soon became mostly like the Polish language superimposed on the Ruthenian phonetics. The total confluence of Ruthenia and Poland was seen coming.
As the Eastern Rite Greek-Catholic Church originally created to accommodate the Ruthenian, initially Orthodox, nobility, ended up unnecessary to them as they converted directly into the Latin Rite Catholicism en masse, the Church largely became an hierarchy without followers. The Greek Catholic Church was then used as a tool aimed to split even the peasantry from their Ruthenian roots, still mostly unsuccessfully. The commoners, deprived of their native protectors, sought protection through the Cossacks, who, being fiercely Orthodox, tended also to easily turn to violence against those they perceived as their enemies, particularly the Polish state and what they saw as its representatives, the Poles and generally the Catholics, as well as the Jews.
After several Cossack uprisings, especially the fateful Khmelnytsky uprising, and foreign invasions (like the Deluge), the Commonwealth, increasingly powerless and falling under the control of its neighbours, started to decline, the process which eventually culminated with elimination of the Polish statehood in the end of the 18th century for the next 123 years.
While the Commonwealth's Warsaw Compact is widely considered an example of an unprecedented religious tolerance for its time, the oppressive policies of Poland towards its Eastern Orthodox subjects is often cited as one of the main reasons that brought the state's demise.
During all time of existing of Commonwealth Polonization in western part of country referred to rather small groups of colonists, like Bambrzy in Greater Poland.
Polonization also occurred during times when a Polish state didn't exist, despite the empires that partition Poland applied the policies aimed at reversing the past gains of Polonization or aimed at replacing Polish identity and eradication of Polish national group.
The Polonization took place in the early years of the Prussian partition, where, as a reaction to the persecution of Roman Catholicism during the Kulturkampf, German Catholics living in areas with a Polish majority voluntarily integrated themselves within Polish society, affecting approximately 100,000 Germans in the eastern provinces of Prussia.
According to some scholars the biggest successes in Polonisation of the non-Polish lands of former Commonwealth were achieved after the Partitions, in times of persecution of Polishness (noted by Leon Wasilewski (1917), Mitrofan Dovnar-Zapolsky (1926)). Paradoxically, the substantial eastward movement of the Polish ethnic territory (over these lands) and growth of the Polish ethnic regions were taking place exactly in the period of the strongest Russian attack on everything Polish in Lithuania and Belarus.
The general outline of causes for that is considered to include the activities of the Roman-Catholic Church and the cultural influence exacted by the big cities (Vilna, Kovno) on these lands, the activities of the Vilna educational district in 19th century–1820s, the activities of the local administration, still controlled by the local Polish or already Polonised nobility up to the 1863–1864 January uprising, secret (Polish) schools in second half nineteenth to the beginning of the 20th century (tajne komplety) and the influence of the land estates.
Following the demise of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth in the end of the 18th century, the Polonization trends initially continued in Lithuania, Belarus and Polish-dominated parts of Ukraine as the initially liberal policies of the Empire gave the Polish elite significant concessions in the local affairs. Dovnar-Zapolsky notes that the Polonization actually intensified under the liberal rule of Alexander I, particularly due to the efforts of Polish intellectuals who led the Vilnius University which was organized in 1802–1803 from the Academy in Vilna (Schola Princeps Vilnensis), vastly expanded and given the highest Imperial status under the new name Vilna Imperial University (Imperatoria Universitas Vilnensis). By the Emperor's order, the Vilna education district overseen by Adam Czartoryski, a personal friend of Alexander, was greatly expanded to include the vast territories in the West of the Russian Empire stretching to Kiev in south-east and much of the Polish territory and the development of the University, which had no rival in the whole district, received the highest priority of the Imperial authorities which granted it significant freedom and autonomy. With the effort of Polish intellectuals who served the rectors of the University, Hieronim Strojnowski, Jan Śniadecki, Szymon Malewski, as well as Czartoryski who oversaw them, the University became the center of Polish patriotism and culture; and as the only University of the district the center attracted the young nobility of all ethnicities from this extensive region.
With time, the traditional Latin was fully eliminated from the University and by 1816 it was fully replaced by Polish and Russian. This change both affected and reflected a profound change in the Belarusian and Lithuanian secondary schools systems where Latin was also traditionally used as the University was the main source of the teachers for these schools. Additionally, the University was responsible for the textbooks selection and only Polish textbooks were approved for printing and usage.
Dovnar-Zapolsky notes that "the 1800s–1810s had seen the unprecedented prosperity of the Polish culture and language in the former Great Duchy of Lithuania lands" and "this era has seen the effective completion of the Polonization of the smallest nobility, with further reduction of the areal of use of the contemporary Belarusian language. also noting that the Polonization trend had been complemented with the (covert) anti-Russian and anti-Orthodox trends. The results of these trends are best reflected in the ethnic censuses in previously non-Polish territories.
Following the Polish November uprising aimed at breaking away from Russia, the Imperial policies finally changed abruptly. The University was forcibly closed in 1832 and the following years where characterized by the policies aimed at the assimilationist solution of the "Polish question", a trend that was further strengthened following another unsuccessful uprising (1863).
In the 19th century, the mostly unchallenged Polonization trend of the previous centuries had been met staunchly by then "anti-Polish" Russification policy, with temporary successes on both sides, like Polonization rises in mid-1850s and in 1880s and Russification strengthenings in 1830s and in 1860s. Any Polonization of the east and west territories (Russian and German partitions) occurred in the situation were Poles had steadily diminishing influence on the government. Partition of Poland posed a genuine threat to the continuation of Polish language-culture in those regions. As Polonization was centered around Polish culture, policies aimed at weakening and destroying it had a significant impact on weakening Polonization of those regions. This was particularly visible in Russian-occupied Poland, where the Polish culture fared worst, as Russian administration gradually became strongly anti-Polish. After a brief and relatively liberal early period in the early 19th century, where Poland was allowed to retain some autonomy as the Congress Poland puppet state, the situation for Polish culture steadily worsened.
By the times of Second Polish Republic (1918–1939) much of Poland's previous territory, which were historically mixed Ruthenian and Polish, had Ukrainian and Belorussian majorities. Following the post-World War I rebirth of the Polish statehood, these lands again became disputed but the Poles were more successful than the nascent West Ukrainian People's Republic in the Polish-Ukrainian War of 1918. Approximately one third of the new state's population was non-Catholic, including a large number of Russian Jews who immigrated to Poland following a wave of Ukrainian pogroms which continued until 1921. The Jews were entitled by a peace treaty in Riga to choose the country they preferred and several hundred thousand joined the already large Jewish minority of the Polish Second Republic.
The issue of non-Polish minorities was a subject of intense debate within the Polish leadership. Two ideas of Polish policy clashed at the time: a more tolerant and less assimilationist approach advocated by Józef Piłsudski, and an assimilationist approach advocated by Roman Dmowski and Stanisław Grabski.
Linguistic assimilation was considered by National Democrats to be a major factor for "unifying the state." For example, Grabski as Polish Minister for Religion and Public Education in 1923 and 1925–1926, wrote that "Poland may be preserved only as a state of Polish people. If it were a state of Poles, Jews, Germans, Rusyns, Belarusians, Lithuanians, Russians, it would lose its independence again"; and that "it is impossible to make a nation out of those who have no 'national self-identification,' who call themselves 'local' (tutejszy)." Grabski also said that "the transformation of the state territory of the Republic into a Polish national territory is a necessary condition of maintaining our frontiers."
In internal politics, Piłsudski's reign marked a much-needed stabilization and improvement in the situation of ethnic minorities, which formed almost a third of the population of the Second Republic. Piłsudski replaced the National-Democratic "ethnic-assimilation" with a "state-assimilation" policy: citizens were judged by their loyalty to the state, not by their ethnicity. The years 1926–1935 were favourably viewed by many Polish Jews, whose situation improved especially under the cabinet of Piłsudski's appointee Kazimierz Bartel. However a combination of various reasons, from the Great Depression, through the Piłsudski's need for support from parties for the parliament's election to the vicious spiral of terrorist attacks by Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists and government pacifications meant that the situation continued to degenerate, despite Piłsudski's efforts.
However, Polonization also created a new educated class among the non-Polish minorities, a class of intellectuals aware of the importance of schooling, press, literature and theatre, who became instrumental in the development of their own ethnic identities.
The territories of Western Belarus, western Ukraine and the Vilnius region, were incorporated into interwar Poland in 1921 at the Treaty of Riga in which the Polish eastern frontiers had been first defined following the Polish–Soviet War of 1919–1921. At the same time, the government of the new Polish state, with pressure from the Allies agreed to grant political autonomy to Galicia, but not Volhynia.
The Treaty of Riga signed between sovereign Poland and the Soviet Russia representing the Soviet Ukraine without any participation from Belarusian side assigned almost half of the modern-day Belarus (westernmost part of the Russian Empire until then) to the Polish Second Republic. The government of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic according to the text of the Riga treaty was also acting "on behalf of Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic" formed in the course of war. Additionally, in accordance with the Treaty, the Soviet Russia received three regions from the newly formed Soviet Belarus, which were reassigned back by the Bolsheviks in 1924 and 1926. Protests by the exiled government of the Belarusian Democratic Republic proclaimed in 1918 were ignored by Poland and the Soviets.
According to Per Anders Rudling, the Belarusian language was essentially pushed out of the schools in Polish West Belarus in violation of the Minorities' Treaty between Poland and the Western powers of 1919. The Polish author Marek Wierzbicki brings this in connection with the fact that the first textbook of Belarusian grammar was written no earlier than 1918.
Following the intentions of the majority of the Polish society, the Polish government introduced harsh policies of polonization and assimilation of Belarusians in West Belarus. The Polish official Leopold Skulski, an advocate of polonization policies, is being quoted as saying in the Sejm in late 1930s: "I assure you that in some ten years you won't be able to find a single [ethnic] Belarusian [in West Belarus]".
The radical and often polonization policies were inspired and influenced by the Polish nationalistic political movement National Democracy led by Roman Dmowski, who promoted the assimilation of Belarusians and Ukrainians, refusing them the right for a free national development and referring to them as the "inferior type of Poles" (Polish: gorszy gatunek Polaków).
Władysław Studnicki, an influential Polish official at the administration of the Kresy region, openly stated that Poland needed the Eastern regions as an object for colonization.
There widespread cases of discrimination of the Belarusian language, it was forbidden for usage in state institutions.
Orthodox Christians also faced discrimination in interwar Poland. This discrimination was also targeting assimilation of Eastern Orthodox Belarusians. The Polish authorities were imposing Polish language in Orthodox church services and ceremonies, initiated the creation of Polish Orthodox Societies in various parts of West Belarus (Slonim, Bielastok, Vaŭkavysk, Navahrudak).
Belarusian Roman Catholic priests like Fr. Vincent Hadleŭski who promoted Belarusian language in the church and Belarusian national awareness were also under serious pressure by the Polish regime and the leadership of the Catholic Church in Poland. The Polish Catholic Church issued documents to priests prohibiting the usage of the Belarusian language rather than Polish language in Churches and Catholic Sunday Schools in West Belarus. A 1921 Warsaw-published instruction of the Polish Catholic Church criticized the priests introducing the Belarusian language in religious life: “They want to switch from the rich Polish language to a language that the people themselves call simple and shabby”.
Before 1921, there were 514 Belarusian language schools in West Belarus. In 1928, there were only 69 schools which was just 3% of all existing schools in West Belarus at that moment. All of them were phased out by the Polish educational authorities by 1939. The Polish officials openly prevented the creation of Belarusian schools and were imposing Polish language in school education in West Belarus. The Polish officials often treated any Belarusian demanding schooling in Belarusian language as a Soviet spy and any Belarusian social activity as a product of a communist plot.
The Belarusian civil society resisted polonization and mass closure of Belarusian schools. The Belarusian Schools Society (Belarusian: Таварыства беларускай школы), led by Branisłaŭ Taraškievič and other activists, was the main organization promoting education in Belarusian language in West Belarus in 1921–1937.
Resistance to polonization in West Belarus
Compared to the (larger) Ukrainian minority living in Poland, Belarusians were much less politically aware and active. Nevertheless, according to Belarusian historians, the policies by the Polish government against the population of West Belarus increasingly provoked protests and armed resistance. In the 1920s, Belarusian partisan units arose in many areas of West Belarus, mostly unorganized but sometimes led by activists of Belarusian left wing parties. In the spring of 1922, several thousands Belarusian partisans issued a demand to the Polish government to stop the violence, to liberate political prisoners and to grant autonomy to West Belarus. Protests were held in various regions of West Belarus until mid 1930s.
The largest Belarusian political organization, the Belarusian Peasants' and Workers' Union (or, the Hramada), which demanded a stop to the polonization and autonomy for West Belarus, grew more radicalized by the time. It received logistical help from the Soviet Union, and financial aid from the Comintern. By 1927 Hramada was controlled entirely by agents from Moscow. It was banned by the Polish authorities, and further opposition to the Polish government was met with state-imposed sanctions once the connection between Hramada and the more radical pro-Soviet Communist Party of Western Belarus was discovered. The Polish policy was met with armed resistance.
Territories of Galicia and Volhynia had different backgrounds, different recent histories and different dominant religions. Until the First World War, Galicia with its large Ukrainian Greek Catholic population in the east (around Lwów), and Polish Roman Catholics in the west (around Kraków), was controlled by the Austrian Empire. On the other hand, the Ukrainians of Volhynia, formerly of the Russian Empire (around Równe), were largely Orthodox by religion, and were influenced by strong Russophile trends. Both "Polish officials and Ukrainian activists alike, distinguished between Galician and Volhynian Ukrainians" in their political aims. There was a much stronger national self-perception among the Galician Ukrainians increasingly influenced by OUN ( ukrainian nationalists ). While the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC), which functioned in communion with the Latin Rite Catholicism, could have hoped to receive a better treatment in Poland where the leadership saw Catholicism as one of the main tools to unify the nation – the Poles under Stanisław Grabski saw the restless Galician Ukrainians as less reliable than the Orthodox Volhynian Ukrainians, seen as better candidates for gradual assimilation. That's why the Polish policy in Ukraine initially aimed at keeping Greek Catholic Galicians from further influencing Orthodox Volhynians by drawing the so-called "Sokalski line".
Due to the region's history the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church attained a strong Ukrainian national character, and the Polish authorities sought to weaken it in various ways. In 1924, following a visit with the Ukrainian Catholic believers in North America and western Europe, the head of the UGCC was initially denied reentry to Lviv for a considerable amount of time. Polish priests led by their bishops began to undertake missionary work among Eastern Rite faithful, and the administrative restrictions were placed on the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.
With respect to the Orthodox Ukrainian population in eastern Poland, the Polish government initially issued a decree defending the rights of the Orthodox minorities. In practice, this often failed, as the Catholics, also eager to strengthen their position, had official representation in the Sejm and the courts. Any accusation was strong enough for a particular church to be confiscated and handed over to the Roman Catholic Church. The goal of the two so called "revindication campaigns" was to deprive the Orthodox of those churches that had been Greek Catholic before Orthodoxy was imposed by the tsarist Russian government. 190 Orthodox churches were destroyed, some of the destroyed churches were abandoned, and 150 more were forcibly transformed into Roman Catholic (not Greek Catholic) churches. Such actions were condemned by the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky, who claimed that these acts would "destroy in the souls of our non-united Orthodox brothers the very thought of any possible reunion."
The land reform designed to favour the Poles in Volhynia, where the land question was especially severe, and brought the alienation from the Polish state of even the Orthodox Volhynian population who tended to be much less radical than the Greek Catholic Galicians.
During the interwar period of the 20th century (1920–1939), Lithuanian–Polish relations were characterized by mutual enmity. As a consequence of the conflict over the city of Vilnius, and the Polish–Lithuanian War, both governments – in the era of nationalism which was sweeping through Europe – treated their respective minorities harshly. In 1920, after the staged mutiny of Lucjan Żeligowski, Lithuanian cultural activities in Polish controlled territories were limited and the closure of Lithuanian newspapers and the arrest of their editors occurred. One of them – Mykolas Biržiška was accused of state treason and sentenced to the death penalty and only the direct intervention by the League of Nations saved him from being executed. He was one of 32 Lithuanian and Belarusian cultural activists formally expelled from Vilnius on 20 September 1922 and deported to Lithuania. In 1927, as tensions between Lithuania and Poland increased, 48 additional Lithuanian schools were closed and another 11 Lithuanian activists were deported. Following Piłsudski's death in 1935, the Lithuanian minority in Poland again became an object of Polonisation policies with greater intensity. 266 Lithuanian schools were closed after 1936 and almost all Lithuanian organizations were banned. Further Polonisation ensued as the government encouraged settlement of Polish army veterans in the disputed regions. About 400 Lithuanian reading rooms and libraries were closed in Poland between 1936 and 1938. Following the 1938 Polish ultimatum to Lithuania, Lithuania re-established diplomatic relations with Poland and efforts to Polonize Lithuanians living in Poland decreased somewhat.
During Operation Vistula of 1947, the Soviet-controlled Polish communist authorities removed the support base for the Ukrainian Insurgent Army by forcibly resettling about 141,000 civilians residing around Bieszczady and Low Beskids to northern areas of the so-called Recovered Territories awarded by the Allies to Poland in the post-war settlement. The farmers received financial help from the Polish government and took over homes and farms left behind by the escaping Germans, in most cases improving their living conditions due to increased size of the newly reassigned properties, brick buildings, and running water. Dr Zbigniew Palski from IPN explains that identical operation was performed in Ukraine by the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic at exactly the same time. It was dubbed Operation West. Both operations were coordinated from Moscow; however, there was a shocking difference between their outcomes.
While Operation Vistula was underway in south-western Poland, the Soviet NKVD deported over 114,000 mostly women and children from West Ukraine to Kazakh SSR and Siberia during parallel Operation West. Only 19,000 men were among the Soviet deportees, most of them sent to coal mines and stone quarries in the north. None of the families deported by the NKVD received any farms or empty homes to live in. They were instantaneously forced into extreme poverty and hunger. Dr Zbigniew Palski informs also that during Operation Vistula none of the three conditions of the United Nations Charter of 26 June 1945 about the possible struggle toward their own self-determination among the Polish deportees was broken at the time. Other international laws were already in effect.