The nation into which Karol Wojtyla was born was once the greatest power in east central Europe. The Polish-Lithuanian dynastic union, formed by the marriage in 1386 of the Polish Queen Jadwiga to the Lithuanian Duke Wladyslaw Jagiello, created a mammoth state that, by defeating the Teutonic Knights, the preeminent military power of the age, at the Battle of Gruenwald in 1410, set the stage for 200 years of Poland's growth. A decade after Columbus discovered the New World, Polish rule extended from the Black Sea in the south to the Baltic in the north, and from the German borderlands on the west almost to the gates of Moscow in the east. In those days, France alone exceeded the Polish kingdom in population among the nations of Europe. Polish power and the world-famous Polish heavy cavalry, the winged Hussars, played a decisive role in world history. In 1683, Polish troops led by King Jan III Sobieski halted the Turkish advance into Europe at the epic Battle of Vienna. Sobieski presented Pope Innocent XI with the green banner of the Prophet, captured from the Turkish grand vizier. Along with it came the message "Veni, vidi, Deus vicit [I came, I saw, God conquered]."
Poland's subsequent history was less glorious as historians typically measure national accomplishment. Memories of lost grandeur remained alive, though, in the form of an intractable conviction that Poland belonged at the European table. That conviction also had much to do with Poles' sense of their location.
Copyright © 1999 by George Weigel. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
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