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History of Poland

Modern-day Poland has been both blessed and cursed by its location on a fertile plain, making the land a crossroads of trade, but also an easier path for invading and moving armies for centuries. It only began to form in its modern borders with the arrival of the Slavs in about the 400-700s. From this point until about 1000 the people were organized and governed by local rulers.

The country claims its birth with the crowning of Mieszko I in 966, which began the Piast Dynasty. He converted to Christianity and soon took over neighboring lands, reaching out from his home of Gniezno (near Poznan) to the northern coast and south to modern day Krakow and the Tatras Mountains. The kingdom quickly grew to about the size, and in the same region as the country is today; in the 1000s the capital was moved to Krakow.

After some years of turmoil and war in the north, Poland was thrust upon the European stage under the rule of Kazimierz the Great in the 1300s. Kazimierz worked with his neighbors in Bohemia and the Teutonic Knights, but also expanded the empire to the southeast where there was little resistance or organization. He also changed laws allowing the Jews to call Poland home and established one of the world's first universities in 1364, Uniwersytet Jagiellonski. In the late 1300s Polish royalty merged with the Lithuanians through marriage, which expanded their land, gave them an ally in their fight against the Teutonic Knights and, once defeating the knights, created the largest empire in Europe, but the height of this empire only lasted about 100 years.

The early 1500s brought in the Renaissance and, despite the smaller size of the kingdom, became one of Poland's most prosperous times. The country became a destination for scholars and businessmen and had more Jews within its boundaries than the rest of Europe combined by 1600. Also during this time, in 1569 the capital was moved to Warsaw, which marked the beginning of instability and decline, first signified by the Swedish invasion in 1655, then in the late 1700s the country was partitioned by their three neighbors, Russia, Prussia, and Austria. Each part of Poland progressed according to their occupier. The lands under the rule of the Austrians were free to trade and continue a fairly Polish lifestyle, while at the other extreme, the Russians forced the Russian language and repressive economic laws on their Polish territories.

World War I's eastern front was almost entirely fought on Polish soil as the war pitted the Russians against the Germans and Austrians, whose land met in what was formerly Poland. The Poles were recruited into armies and forced to fight, but it seems only the Poles in the Austrian-controlled region liked their occupier enough to actually fight for them. As the war came to a conclusion, Polish lobbyists in the U.S.A. convinced the winning allies to recreate a Polish state in 1918.

The interwar period consisted of trying to become politically and economically stable, but as this was still a distant reality, Poland found itself in between the Soviet Union and Germany, who were ready to invade. In 1939 Germany invaded Poland and World War II began. Poland found itself being "cleansed" of its people; both the Jews and the intellectuals who the Germans viewed as a threat. Nearly every Jew in Poland was killed in death camps and many more ethnic Poles were killed there as well, while the Soviets shipped still additional Poles to their Gulag, many of which is in addition to the losses on the battlefields, which in total cost the lives of six million people, or nearly 20% of Poland's population.

To celebrate the end of the war, Poland's boundaries were redrawn by the allies and they had a puppet communist government installed by the Soviets, so for the next 45 years fell under communist rule. Despite communism, the country in 1979 had a Pole, John Paul II elected Pope of the Roman Catholic church and hence received more communication with the west than any other eastern bloc country, however this didn't stop the protests or massacres.

In 1989 the round table talks began as Poland successfully gained semi-independent elections and the placement of non-communists in positions of power. These actions led to the fall of communism in Poland and contributed to the fall of communism throughout the eastern bloc with a weakening Soviet Union.

Since 1990 Poland has progressed rapidly and in 2004 joined the European Union, although it still has high unemployment and uneasy relations with some of their neighbors despite their movements towards European unity.

This page was last updated: February, 2012