Gdansk, Poland

Poland is a country in central Europe. With an area of about 120,000 square miles and a population of about 39 million, it is not very densely populated; much of its space is devoted to farmlands. Poland has a very homogeneous population—its people are almost 94% ethnically Polish and over 88% Catholic. The official language is Polish, a Slavic language. The Polish capital is Warsaw and its second and third major cities are Kraków and Łódź. The country’s history is very long and filled with high drama.

There have been Slavic people in the region since prehistoric times. Before adopting Christianity in 960 A.D., the people of Poland (and of other Slavic nations) believed in Svetovid, a Slavic god of war, fertility and abundance often depicted with a weapon in one hand and a drinking horn in the other. It was Mieszko I who accepted baptism and adopted Catholicism on behalf of his subjects; Poland’s first historically documented ruler, he started the Piast dynasty which ruled until the beloved ruler Casimir III died in 1370, leaving no legitimate male heir and no suitable other male descendants. During this period Poland welcomed immigrants from Germany and Armenia and extended its protection to a growing Jewish community. The Black Death came to Poland in the middle of the 14th century but it did not affect Poland as severely as it had some other countries. In 1385, the Jagiellon dynasty began with the Lithuanian Grand Duke Jogaila; this created a strong Polish-Lithuanian union that controlled much of Rus’ and was a force to be reckoned with. Over time control was established over Bohemia and Hungary, and Poland was able to hold their own against the Ottoman Empire, the Crimean Tatars and even the Grand Duchy of Moscow. The European Renaissance produced a cultural awakening in Poland; Jagiellonian University was established in Kraków and in 1543 a Pole called Nicolaus Copernicus published his heliocentric theories which formed the basis of modern astronomy.

In 1569 the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was formally established, coinciding with a period of stability and prosperity in the area. This went on for about a century, until the Cossacks engulfed the area, followed by the “Swedish Deluge” which devastated the Polish countryside. War, famines and epidemics diminished the Polish population from about 11 million to about 7 million in fairly short order. The Commonwealth never really recovered from all this. In 1772 the First Partition of Poland took place, effectively ending the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth by 1795. A Great Sejm (parliament) was held in Warsaw from 1788 to 1792, resulting in the adoption of a new constitution in 1791. In 1793 the Second Partition deprived the Commonwealth of so much territory that it almost ceased to exist. The Third Partition in 1795 finished the job of allocating all Polish-Lithuanian territory to Prussia, the Austrian Empire and the Russian Empire.

Poland was reconstituted as a nation at the end of World War I, only to be besieged by the Soviet Union. On the verge of defeat, it miraculously fought off the Red Army at the Battle of Warsaw in 1920, crippling the Red Army, halting Lenin in his tracks and winning Poland 20 years’ worth of peace and security on its eastern borders. Then in 1939 the Nazis invaded Poland as part of their grand plan; they were looking for Lebensraum (“living space”), resources and slave labor. It is estimated that some 3 million Polish Jews, or about 90%, were killed in death camps like Auschwitz and Treblinka, alongside other prisoners brought in from Germany and other countries—and approximately 2.5 million non-Jewish Polish citizens died in the camps as well. After the war, Poland was handed over to Stalin; while its sovereignty as a nation was retained, the country was integrated into the communist bloc. The Polish people set to work reconstructing their cities; Warsaw in particular had been all but leveled. In the 1980s Poland’s Solidarność (“solidarity”) movement became a political force and in 1990 former trade union organizer Lech Wałęsa was elected Poland’s first president. The Solidarność movement heralded the collapse of communist regimes throughout Eastern Europe.

Today, Poland has transformed itself into a market-based economy. It has joined NATO and the European Union. Its economy is extremely healthy and growing rapidly. Many of its formerly state-run industries, like energy, telecom, banking and shipping, have been successfully privatized; agribusiness continues to be important and tourism is increasing. There have been dramatic improvements in human rights and civil liberties, and the country is taking steps to retain biodiversity, replant forests and care for its rivers. Visitors enjoy seeing Warsaw, now fully restored to its former glory, the historic city of Kraków, and medieval towns along the Baltic coast like Gdańsk.