When stakes burned in Europe, tolerance blossomed in 16th-century Poland

On January 28, 1573, the Warsaw Confederation was signed, securing religious tolerance in the 1.05 mln square km large Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

The 446th anniversary of the Warsaw Confederation is an occasion to recall the first European act granting religious freedoms.

On the day the confederation was signed, the Polish throne was vacant after the last of the Jagiellonian dynasty Zygmunt August had died. Meanwhile, news of fratricidal religious wars tearing Western Europe apart, such as the 1572 French St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, threatened to spill over into the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and prompted the noblemen to a joint action, overcoming religious divides.

The Warsaw Confederation was not only the first European act granting religious freedoms but also an expression of the will of the whole noble society of Poland and Lithuania, representing various denominations, to support and tolerate each other.

Religious tolerance was an important factor in the multiethnic and multi-religious Polish-Lithuanian state, as the territories of the Commonwealth were inhabited by many generations of people from different ethnic backgrounds (Poles, Lithuanians, Ruthenian, Germans and Jews) and of different denominations (Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Jewish and even Muslim).

However, the wars of the 17th-century with Sweden, Moscow and the Ottoman Empire nipped at the Polish tolerance and projected on the Polish-Lithuanian nobles an image of “defenders of Catholicism”.

In the 18th century, some instances of intolerance occurred which provided Empress Catherine II with an excuse of fighting “backwardness” and allowed her to intervene into the Polish internal affairs, which in turn led to the partitions of Poland and its eventual erasing from the map of Europe.

The Warsaw Confederation act was listed on the Memory of the World Register that contains the most important documents in the history of mankind.