Those Infamous Border Changes: A Crash Course in Polish History

Newcomers to Polish genealogy often start with a few misconceptions.  Many Americans have only a dim understanding of the border changes that occurred in Europe over the centuries, and in fairness, keeping up with all of them can be quite a challenge, as evidenced by this timelapse video that illustrates Europe’s geopolitical map changes since 1000 AD.  So it’s no wonder that I often hear statements like, “Grandma’s family was Polish, but they lived someplace near the Russian border.”  Statements like this presuppose that Grandma’s family lived in “Poland” near the border between “Poland” and Russia.  However, what many people don’t realize is that Poland didn’t exist as an independent nation from 1795-1918.

How did this happen and what were the consequences for our Polish ancestors?  At the risk of vastly oversimplifying the story, I’d like to present a few highlights of Polish history that beginning Polish researchers should be aware of as they start to trace their family’s origins in “the Old Country.”

Typically, the oldest genealogical records that we find for our Polish ancestors date back to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which existed from 1569-1795.  At the height of its power, the Commonwealth looked like this (in red), superimposed over the current map (Figure 1):1

Figure 1:  Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth at its maximum extent, in 1619.1polish-lithuanian_commonwealth_at_its_maximum_extent-svg

The beginning of the end for the Commonwealth came in 1772, with the first of three partitions which carved up Polish lands among the Russian, Prussian, and Austrian Empires.  The second partition, in which only the Russian and Prussian Empires participated, occurred in 1793.  After the third partition in 1795, among all three empires, Poland vanished from the map (Figure 2).

Figure 2:  Map of the Partitions of Poland, courtesy of Wikimedia.2partitions-of-poland

This map gets trotted out a lot in Polish history and genealogy discussions because we often explain to people about those partitions, but I don’t especially like it because it sometimes creates the misconception that this was how things still looked by the late 1800s/early 1900s when most of our Polish immigrant ancestors came over.  In reality, time marched on, and the map kept changing. By 1807, just twelve years after that final partition of Poland, the short-lived Duchy of Warsaw (Figure 3) was created by Napoleon as a French client state.  At this time, Napoleon also introduced a paragraph-style format of civil vital registration, so civil records from this part of “Poland” are easily distinguishable from church records.

Figure 3:  Map of the Duchy of Warsaw (Księstwo Warszawskie), 1807-1809. 3duchy_of_warsaw_1807-1809

During its brief history, the Duchy of Warsaw managed to expand its borders to the south and east a bit thanks to territories taken from the Austrian Empire, as shown in Figure 4.

Figure 4:  Map of the Duchy of Warsaw, 1809-1815.4duchy_of_warsaw_1809-1815

However, by 1815, following the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the Duchy of Warsaw was divided up again at the Congress of Vienna, which created the Grand Duchy of Posen (Wielkie Księstwo Poznańskie), Congress Poland (Królestwo Polskie), and the Free City of Kraków.  These changes are summarized in Figure 5.

Figure 5:  Territorial Changes in Poland, 1815 5territorial_changes_of_poland_1815

The Grand Duchy of Posen was a Prussian client state whose capital was the city of Poznań (Posen, in German).  This Grand Duchy was eventually replaced by the Prussian Province of Posen in 1848.  Congress Poland was officially known as the Kingdom of Poland but is often called “Congress Poland” in reference to its creation at the Congress of Vienna, and as a means to distinguish it from other Kingdoms of Poland which existed at various times in history. Although it was a client state of Russia from the start, Congress Poland was granted some limited autonomy (e.g. records were kept in Polish) until the November Uprising of 1831, after which Russia retaliated with curtailment of Polish rights and freedoms. The unsuccessful January Uprising of 1863 resulted in a further tightening of Russia’s grip on Poland, erasing any semblance of autonomy which the Kingdom of Poland had enjoyed. The territory was wholly absorbed into the Russian Empire, and this is why family historians researching their roots in this area will see a change from Polish-language vital records to Russian-language records starting about 1868.  The Free, Independent, and Strictly Neutral City of Kraków with its Territory (Wolne, Niepodległe i Ściśle Neutralne Miasto Kraków z Okręgiem), was jointly controlled by all three of its neighbors (Prussia, Russia, and Austria), until it was annexed by the Austrian Empire following the failed Kraków Uprising in 1846.

By the second half of the 19th century, things had settled down a bit.  The geopolitical map of “Poland” didn’t change during the time from the 1880s through the early 1900s, when most of our ancestors emigrated, until the end of World War I when Poland was reborn as a new, independent Polish state.  The featured map at the top (shown again in Figure 6) is one of my favorites, because it clearly defines the borders of Galicia and the various Prussian and Russian provinces commonly mentioned in documents pertaining to our ancestors.

Figure 6:  Central and Eastern Europe in 1900, courtesy of, used with permission.6europe_map_large

Although the individual provinces within the former Congress Poland are not named due to lack of space, a nice map of those is shown in Figure 7.

Figure 7:  Administrative map of Congress Poland, 1907.7  (Note that some sources still refer to the these territories as “Congress Poland” even after 1867, but this name does not reflect the existence of any independent government apart from Russia.)polska_1907_adm

The Republic of Poland that was created at the end of World War I, commonly known as the Second Polish Republic, is shown in Figure 8.  The borders are shifted to the east relative to present-day Poland, including parts of what is now Lithuania, Ukraine, and Belarus.  This territory that was part of Poland between the World Wars, but is excluded from today’s Poland, is known as the Kresy.

Figure 8:  Map of the Second Polish Republic showing borders from 1921-1939.8rzeczpospolitaii

During the dark days of World War II, Poland was occupied by both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.  About 6 million Polish citizens died during this occupation, mostly civilians, including about 3 million Polish Jews.9  After the war, the three major allied powers (the U.S., Great Britain, and the Soviet Union) redrew the borders of Europe yet again and created a Poland that excluded the Kresy, but included the territories of East Prussia, West Prussia, Silesia, and most of Pomerania.10, 11 At the same time, the Western leaders betrayed Poland and Eastern Europe by effectively handing these countries over to Stalin and permitting the creation of the Communist Eastern Bloc.12

To conclude, let’s take a look at how these border changes affected the village of Kowalewo-Opactwo in present-day Słupca County, Wielkopolskie province, where my great-grandmother was born.  This village was originally in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, but then became part of Prussia after the second partition in 1793.  In 1807 it fell solidly within the borders of the Duchy of Warsaw, but by 1815 it lay right on the westernmost edge of the Kalisz province of Russian-controlled Congress Poland.  After 1867, the vital records are in Russian, reflecting the tighter grip that Russia exerted on Poland at that time, until 1918 when Kowalewo-Opactwo became part of the Second Polish Republic.  Do these border changes imply that our ancestors weren’t Poles, but were really German or Russian? Hardly. Ethnicity and nationality aren’t necessarily the same thing. Time and time again, ethnic Poles attempted to overthrow their Prussian, Russian or Austrian occupiers, and those uprisings speak volumes about our ancestors’ resentment of those national governments and their longing for a free Poland. As my Polish grandma once told me, “If a cat has kittens in a china cabinet, you don’t call them teacups.”


1Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth at its maximum extent” by Samotny Wędrowiec, is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, accessed 9 January 2017.

Rzeczpospolita Rozbiory 3,” by Halibutt, is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, accessed 9 January 2017.

3 Map of the Duchy of Warsaw, 1807-1809,” by Mathiasrex, based on layers of kgberger, is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0., accessed 9 January 2017.

4“Map of the Duchy of Warsaw, 1809-1815” by Mathiasrex, based on layers of kgberger, is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, accessed 9 January 2017.

5 “Territorial Changes of Poland, 1815,” by Esemono, is in the public domain, accessed 9 January 2017.

6 “Central and Eastern Europe in 1900,” Topgraphic Maps of Eastern Europe:  An Atlas of the Shtetl, used with permission, accessed 9 January 2017.

7 “Administrative Map of Kingdom of Poland from 1907,” by Qquerim, is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, accessed 9 January 2017.

8 RzeczpospolitaII,” is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, accessed 9 January 2017.

9 Occupation of Poland (1939-1945),” Wikipedia, accessed 9 Janary 2017.

10  “Potsdam Conference,” Wikipedia, accessed 9 January 2017.

11 Territorial changes of Poland immediately after World War II,” Wikipedia, accessed 9 January 2017.

12 “Western betrayal,” Wikipedia, accessed 9 January 2017.

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2017


8 thoughts on “Those Infamous Border Changes: A Crash Course in Polish History

    1. Thank you for the kind words and the thoughtful suggestion, Maciej! You’re right, that’s an important map, as I think many Americans fail to understand the extent of Nazi control of Poland. I chose to omit a detailed discussion of the border changes during and after World War II since the largest wave of Polish immigration to the United States occurred between 1870 and 1914. I found it necessary to discuss the Second Polish Republic primarily because there is often confusion among descendants of Poles born in the Kresy as to why those lands were once Polish but are no longer part of Poland. I think I might save your suggestion for a future blog post.


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