Historical Background
(This page was updated on January 27, 1999)

Although Polish statehood is over ten centuries long, the history of Polish award system is distinctly shorter - less than three hundred years now. The reason for the relatively late start of Poland in the area of orders was unwillingness, if not hatred of Polish gentry for the very institution of orders, perceiving them as a threat to the "golden" principle of equality of all noblemen. An attempt of king Ladislas IV to create the Order of Immaculate Conception of the Holy Virgin in 1633 was rejected by the Parliament. Thus, the first modern Polish order - the Order of the White Eagle was instituted by king Augustus II as late as in 1705 (although some historians trace it back to the year 1325). Then came the Order of St. Stanislas, instituted 1765, and in 1792 the Order Virtuti Militari, the first one of purely military character, came into existence. That order continued to be awarded throughout the Napoleonic era and in the uprising of 1830-1831 against tsarist Russia. It was renewed many times and it is still the highest decoration for bravery on battlefield.

The partition of Poland at the end of the 18th century and subsequent loss of statehood throughout the 19th century, put an end to the development of the decoration system of Poland in the time when modern award systems of nearly all other existing countries appeared. When Poland regained her independence in 1918 she not only restored her old orders: the White Eagle and Virtuti Militari but also created new ones: Cross of Valor (1920), Order Polonia Restituta (1921), Cross of Merit (1923), Independence Cross and Medal (1930), and many others.

During the Second World War the two highest military awards, the Virtuti Militari and Cross of Valor continued to be awarded to Polish soldiers at all fronts, and new decorations of military and commmmemorative nature were instituted too.

After the War, Poland, just like other countries of the region found herself in the orbit of Soviet influence. At the end of the war a new government, known as Krajowa Rada Narodowa (National Council), fully controlled by Moscow, was established. Soon, Poland's allies begin to recognize KRN as the only government of Poland and withdrew their support to the legal Government in Exile in London. By decree of December 22, 1944 KRN recognized the five decorations of pre-war Poland: Order of the White Eagle(however never awarded), Order Virtuti Militari, Order Polonia Restituta, Cross of Valor and Cross of Merit. Also two other decorations were recognized: Order of the Grunwald Cross (1944) and Medal for Merit on the Field of Glory (1943) - an extension to the Virtuti Militari. None of the new decorations of the Government in Exile were recognized. Instead KRN established their own set of decorations, including the Partisan Cross and three commemorative medals.

Throughout the 45 years of communist rule, Poland established three other orders: Order of Builders of People's Poland, Order of the Banner of Labor (both 1949), Order of Merit (1974), and a variety of state, commemorative, ministry and organizational decorations. It should be noted, however, that even during the communist era Polish decorations retained a lot from the pre-war system. The motive of hammer and sickle or a five pointed red star, dominant in other Soviet dominated countries were practically not encountered among Polish symbols.

The abrupt downfall of the communist system, which began in Poland in 1989 and would embrace the whole of Central and Eastern Europe, brought about some changes in the award system of Poland as well. Most of the people's decorations were abolished and the award system of the Second Republic, including some minor modifications, was restored. The most essential here is the act of Parliament of October 16, 1992 on Orders and Decorations (Dz.U. 99/450), which regulates the principles of awarding and wearing of decorations. In general, most decorations of the previous era, which are no more awarded, are still authorized to wear, provided their are worn after these currently awarded.

Polish awards system has not been particularly different from those of other European countries, yet it has had some individual features as well. One of these is a large number of crosses at a relatively small number of medals. In the Second Republic, all major military awards - the Virtuti Militari, Independence Cross and Cross of Valor were supposed to be worn always in full on the military uniform, even if other decorations were marked by ribbon bars. In the times of People's Poland, recipients wore all posessed classes of orders and decorations. Besides, if a recipient was awarded more than once with the same decorations, all awards were worn as separate badges. Now, in the Third Republic it is customary to wear only the highest class of an order or highest grade of a decoration, and subsequent awards are denoted by metal bars attached to the ribbons. The same applies to the ribbon bars.

Just like in almost all other countries, Polish orders and decorations can be marked (especially on a military uniform) by ribbon bars. Upper classes of orders are denoted in the French manner by adding a small rosette and silver or gold lace on the ribbon bar in the following way:

- 1st class - rosette and a gold lace;
- 2nd class - rosette and a half gold half silver lace;
- 3rd class - rosette and a silver lace;
- 4th class - rosette, no lace;
- 5th class (also any lowest class if an order has fewer than five classes) - plain ribbon bar.

In the times of the Second Republic the laces were loosely put under the ribbon bar. In the People's Poland the laces started being embroidered onto the ribbon, which method is generally used also today.

Most Polish decorations of merit follow a three-level pattern (gold, silver and bronze), the particular levels referred to as grades rather than classes. Since the mid-1950s the gold grade has been denoted by adding a vertical golden, and the silver grade - silver lace in the middle of the ribbon bar. The ribbon bar for the bronze grade is plain.

© Lukasz Gaszewski 1997, 2001
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