Poznan History

Early History

The European area of modern Germany was called the Holy Roman Empire in the 800s. Ruled by Charlemagne and other powerful “Caesars”, it was the northeast border of the Christian world as viewed by the catholic church in Rome. At that same time, the Eastern Orthodox Church in Byzantium (now Constantinople) sent Saints Cyril and Methodius north to evangelize the Slavic people of Moravia and the lands along the western Black Sea.  The people living in what is now modern Poland had to choose between these two flavors of Christianity or decide to remain “Pagan”.  Many of the Slavic peoples along the Baltic Sea remained non-Christian for centuries more until subdued by the Teutonic Knights in the late Middle Ages.  However, the “people of the plains”, a Western Slavic tribe called the Polans perceived there could be safety in allying with one of the churches, and their chieftain chose Rome.  

This choice was as much reasoned as theological because the German speaking principalities of the Holy Roman Empire had claims to, or at least eyes for, the great productive plain that encompasses west-central Poland. It was practical for the Polan’s to work within that system. So, in 966, Duke Mieszko I took a Christian princess as his bride and was baptized into the Latin rite.  Through some very shrewd politicking, his son Boleslaw the Brave was created the first King of Poland in 1025. The Roman church set up its first diocese in the realm at Gniezno and then one in Poznan. The seat of power for this dynasty eventually moved south to the Diocese of Cracow.  However, Gniezno/Poznan is the birthplace of the Polish nation and its founding Piasts Dynasty.  It follows that some of the oldest truly Polish villages and parishes are in Wielkopolska. Many certainly predate the early written references of the 1200’s found in some church papers.

1600- 1700s

You can read about the subsequent Jagiellonian dynasty and the elected monarchs that followed the Piasts in other areas of this website. For now, let us fast forward to the late 1600s. At this point, Europe’s economy was based on agriculture and land was still king.  However, there was not a developed monetary system by which people could get capital used to pay for improvements.  So, many large landowners invited German speakers from the west to their estates in Poland to drain marginal areas and make the land produce bounty.  In exchange for relocating, the German colonists could live together in their own villages and, if needed, maintain their own Protestant parishes. Because of the Polish/German language and cultural barriers, intermingling and intermarriage with the local Catholic Poles were rare. In time the rulers of Prussian (and then Germany) could look over the Polish boarder and see pockets of Germans living in the land. This supported future claims for control and ownership of these places no matter who invited them or on what terms.

Specifically Prussia, one of the largest and strongest of the principalities making up the old Holy Roman Empire, had battled the Poles for lands along the Baltic Sea since the medieval times of the Teutonic Knights. All that fighting left Prussia discontinuous along the Baltic Sea with a finger of Poland separating East Prussia from West near what is now the city of Gdansk.  When Russia began aggressions in the Balkans in the late 1700s and started winning military victories, Prussia suggested to Russia that they instead take lands closer to home from Poland in Lithuania. In return Prussia received the land that joined East to West Prussia. Not to be left out, Austria was given south central Poland in the area to be called Galicia. Just a few years later, Prussia took other lands in what is now northern and western Poland including Wielkopolska. These areas contained villages which were settled by German speaking immigrants in the 1600s as previously discussed. 


Prussia abolished serfdom in its land in 1807 and moved to a “fee for services rendered” agricultural system sooner than the Russian and Austrian Partitions. After its 1871 triumph in the Franco-Prussian War, Prussia united most of the Protestant smaller German language states into a unified Germany in 1873.  Shortly after unification, the Kaiser passed laws that prohibited the Polish language to be used in anything except for Roman Catholic church matters and championed German instead.  Called the “Kulturkampf”, this “Germanification” crept into all aspects of society: things like civil service jobs and even hereditary land conveyance.  Although it was the most prosperous of the three Partitions, this oppression by the Germans troubled most Poles as they felt their culture being squeezed out of their lives. This oppression accelerated in the late 1800s and continued through World War I… and roared back in many forms during World War II. A note on the word “prosperous” as used here. It does not mean that everyone has money enough for their needs or even access to money.  Rather, it simply means that families free of serfdom were able to move around more easily and had more options for work then in the other Partitions.

Factors Influencing Emigration in the late 1800s and Beyond

So, moving back to immigrants and immigration: If most Polish peasants were not changed much by who ruled their piece of the previously Polish pie in the 1800s, why did they bother to immigrate at all?  In the 19th Century, there were macro effects at play in the world well beyond the three powers that occupied the old Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth.  First, agricultural productivity was increasing.  This led to better fed and healthier populations.  These populations did not have more children per family, but now more of their children were living to adulthood. Where previously as many as half of live births ended in childhood deaths, death rates dropped to well below 20% in most areas effectively doubling most family sizes.  People were also living longer with life expectancies moving from the 40s and 50s into the 60s.  This larger and longer-lived population put tremendous pressure on local resources: land and employment.  

With fewer people needed to produce the same, or larger harvests, the agricultural worker was less in demand.  In the rest of Europe that excess agrarian population moved to urban centers to work in the newly created factories of the Industrial Revolution.  But with the Partitions, lands often at the fringe of the three empires, there was little industrialization in the Partitions outside the German areas of Silesia and weaving and other production mills set up by Russia in Congress Poland in the center of the country.  Further, with more people and those people living longer, the traditional transference of the family farm to male heirs was corroded. Son’s had to wait longer to get smaller and smaller pieces of the family farm.  In the late 1800s these smaller inheritances were often not large enough to support an old-style family let alone a larger one of that time. 

These demographic factors, coupled with practical issues like: military conscription into the huge and growing German army; suppression of Polish language and culture; and local & worldwide economic recession in the 1890s, made immigration out of the area extremely attractive. Rather than move to another European city to compete with indigenous farmers moving into towns in counties like Germany, England and France, many Poles chose America, Canada, Brazil and Australia.  These were places with what seemed like unlimited growth potential and an insatiable need for unskilled laborers. With no prospects at home, they wanted to immigrate and take advantage of these tremendous opportunities.

Generally, the German partition areas of Silesia and Poznan were the first major waves of immigration to the US. Followed by the Poles in Galatia (Austrian) and Congress Poland (Russia).  The Silesians and Kashubians came to farm in the Midwest, while those from Poznan came a bit later and took advantage of the need for unskilled laborers in the quickly industrializing urban areas of America’s East and Midwest.  Then those from southern Poland came to escape grinding poverty and starvation from the hinterlands of the Austrian-Hungarian Kingdom.  Finally, the Poles from central Poland fled from Russian oppression which was intensified after several uprisings against Czars’ who wished to offer some autonomy to the region but end up coming down with an iron fist. 

This should give the Poznan researcher some background in the history and politics of the Wielkopolska area and hint at how someone could be fully Polish even if their US Naturalization papers have them swearing off their allegiance to the Kaiser of Germany.

All Photos below by Jay Biedny

Poznań City Hall
Mermaid – the symbol of Poznań
Cathedral in Poznań