The Republic of Poland is a country located in Central Europe, between Germany to the west, the Czech Republic and Slovakia to the south, Ukraine and Belarus to the east, and the Baltic Sea, Lithuania, and Russia (in the form of the Kaliningrad Oblast exclave) to the north.
The names of the country, the Poland, and of the nationality, Poles, are of Slavic origin. Their name derives from the tribal name Polanie - people living around Lake Goplo - the cradle of Poland mentioned as Glopeani having 400 strongholds circa 845 (Bavarian Geographer).
The Polish state was formed over 1,000 years ago under the Piast dynasty, and reached its golden age near the end of the 16th century under the Jagiellonian dynasty, when Poland was one of the largest, wealthiest, and most powerful countries in Europe. In 1791 the Sejm of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth adopted the Constitution of May 3, Europe's first modern codified constitution, and the second in the world after the Constitution of the United States.
"For your freedom and ours"
Phrases commonly shown on military banners. It dates back to the times when Polish soldiers, exiled from a partitioned Poland, fought in various independence movements all over the world (ie. American Independence War).
Poland began to form into a recognizable unitary and territorial entity around the middle of the 10th century under the Piast dynasty. Poland's first historically documented ruler, Mieszko I, was baptized in 966, adopting Catholic Christianity as the country's new official religion, to which the bulk of the population converted in the course of the next century. In the 12th century Poland fragmented into several smaller states, which were later ravaged by the Mongol armies of the Golden Horde in 1241. In 1320 Władysław I became the King of the reunified Poland. His son Kazimierz Wielki repaired the Polish economy, built new castles and won the war against the Russian dukedom (Lwów became a Polish City).
Under the Jagiellon dynasty, Poland forged an alliance with its neighbour Lithuania. A golden age occurred in the 16th century during its union with Lithuania in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The citizens of Poland took pride in their ancient freedoms and Sejm parliamentary system, although the szlachta monopolised most of the benefits as most of Poles since the middle of the fourteenth century were serfs. Landowners gained almost unlimited ownership over serfs. Since that time Poles have regarded freedom as their most important value. Poles often call themselves the nation of the free people.
In the mid-17th century a Swedish invasion rolled through the country in the turbulent time known as "The Deluge". Numerous wars against the Ottoman Empire, Russia, Cossacks, Transylvania and Brandenburg-Prussia ultimately came to an end in 1699. During the following 80 years, the waning of the central government and deadlock of the institutions weakened the nation, leading to anarchistic tendencies and a growing dependency on Russia. In Polish Democracy every member of parliament was able to break any work or project by shouting 'Liberum Veto' during the session. Russian tsars took advantage of this unique political vulnerability by offering money to Parliamentary traitors, who in turn would consistently and subversively block necessary reforms and new solutions.
The Enlightenment in Poland fostered a growing national movement to repair the state, resulting in what is claimed to be the first modern written constitution in Europe, the Constitution of May 3 in 1791. The process of reforms ceased with the partitions of Poland between Russia, Prussia, and Austria in 1772, 1793 and 1795 which ultimately dissolved the country. Poles resented their shrinking freedoms and several times rebelled against their oppressors.
Napoleon recreated a Polish state, the Duchy of Warsaw, but after the Napoleonic wars, Poland was split again by the Allies at the Congress of Vienna. The eastern part was ruled by the Russian tsar as a Congress Kingdom, and possessed a liberal constitution. However, the tsars soon reduced Polish freedoms and Russia eventually de facto annexed the country. Later in the 19th century, Austrian-ruled Galicia became the oasis of Polish freedom.
During World War I all the Allies agreed on the restitution of Poland that United States President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed in point 13 of his Fourteen Points. Shortly after the surrender of Germany in November 1918, Poland regained its independence as the Second Polish Republic. It was established after a series of military conflicts, like the 1919-1921 Polish-Soviet War when polish army defended Western Europe against communist threat.
Poland between 1922 and 1938The 1926 May Coup of Jozef Pilsudski turned the Second Polish Republic into Sanacja that lasted until the start of World War II when Germany and the Soviet Union invaded Poland. Warsaw surrendered on September 28, 1939. The eastern part of the German occupied zone was transformed into the General Government area, and the western part was just incorporated to German Reich. The part occupied by Russia was incorporated to Soviet Union
Of all the countries involved in the war, Poland lost the highest percentage of its citizens: over 6 million perished, half of them Polish Jews. At its conclusion, Poland's borders were shifted westwards, pushing the eastern border to the Curzon line, even though the defense of Poland was the reason that France and the United Kingdom had declared war on Germany. The second aggressor, the Soviet Union, was given the right to occupy former Polish territory in negotiations, which means that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was partially confirmed.
On the other hand, the western border of Poland was moved to the Oder-Neisse line. After the shift, Poland emerged 20% smaller by 77,500 km2 (29,900 mi2); although the important cities of Gdansk (Danzig), Szczecin (Stettin) and Wroclaw (Breslau) were all incorporated into its post-war borders. The shift forced the migration of millions of people – Poles, Germans, Ukrainians, Jews.
As a result of these events, Poland became, for the first time in history, an ethnically unified country. A Polish minority is still present in neighbouring countries of Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania, as well as in other countries. The largest number of ethnic Poles outside of the country can be found in the United States.
The Soviet Union instituted a new communist government in Poland, analogous to much of the rest of the Eastern Bloc. Military alignment within the Warsaw Pact throughout the Cold War was also part of this change. In 1948 a turn towards Stalinism brought in the beginning of the next period of totalitarian rule. The People's Republic of Poland was officially proclaimed in 1952. In 1956 the régime became more liberal, freeing many people from prison and expanding some personal freedoms. In 1970 the government was changed. It was a time when the economy was more modern, and the government had large credits. Labour turmoil in 1980 led to the formation of the independent trade union, "Solidarity", which over time became a political force. It eroded the dominance of the Communist Party; by 1989 it had triumphed in parliamentary elections, and Lech Walesa, a Solidarity candidate, eventually won the presidency in 1990. The Solidarity movement greatly contributed to the soon-following collapse of Communism all over Eastern Europe.
A shock therapy program during the early 1990s enabled the country to transform its economy into one of the most robust in Central Europe. Despite a temporary slump in social and economic standards, there were numerous improvements in other human rights (free speech, functioning democracy and the like). Poland was the first post-communist country to regain pre-1989 GDP levels. Poland joined the NATO alliance in 1999 along with the Czech Republic and Hungary. Polish voters then said yes to the EU in a referendum in June 2003. Poland joined the European Union on 1 May 2004.