The Polish tradition of freedom and tolerance

Contrary to what many believe in Western Europe, Poland is far from being a “young democracy.” In fact, Poland has been in the European avant-garde regarding values such as democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and women’s rights. Poles have proven that on many occasions throughout the centuries.


Already in the Middle Ages, every nobleman, regardless of his ethnic origin and religion, could live as befits a free man, be the full master of his goods, and enjoy public rights equal to all members of his state. In the First Polish Republic, Catholics, Orthodox, Jews, Armenians, Muslims (Tatars) and Protestants lived side by side on Polish soil.

In 1341, Casimir the Great granted the followers of the Orthodox Church full respect for their rites and customs. In 1356, he approved the customs of monophic Armenians. He also issued privileges to Jews. The Republic of Poland was the first multi-religious state in Europe with a Catholic royal court at the same time.

One should also bear in mind the significant contribution of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (after the conclusion of the Union of Lublin in 1569) to the political development of Europe as a whole.

First, Western European authors learned about the theory of resistance from Polish practice, especially through reading Kromer’s writings. Secondly, the supporters of religious peace in France have greatly strengthened thanks to the Polish-Lithuanian experiences of Henry III of France. Third, Poland and Lithuania provided a model for a different form of the Republic – combining elements of all three republican forms of legitimate government, i.e. democracy, aristocracy, and monarchy.

It is also worth remembering that, just as Copernicus taught his contemporaries from the West that the Earth revolves around the Sun, his countrymen also taught the West lessons of citizenship in practice (habeas corpus, property rights, Nihil novi, religious tolerance, the right to resist tyranny). The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth already had it all, while then neither England nor France had anything but property rights. Anyway, such rights would not mean much anyway, given the fact that in these countries the king had the power to levy taxes without anyone’s consent.

Let’s conclude with what may be one of the best examples of Poland being in the avant-garde the implementation of progressive values such as women’s rights to vote and to be elected. Immediately after the end of World War I, in late 1918, Poland was one of the first countries in the world to grant full electoral rights to women, both passive and active. Women could vote and also be elected to the Sejm, half à century before Switzerland did so.

Image: Pixabay

Author: Sébastien Meuwissen

This article has been sponsored by the Wacław Felczak Institute of Polish-Hungarian Cooperation.

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