Poland - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate

Read about Poland: language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate ...



Poland, officially the Republic of Poland (Polish Rzeczpospolita Polska), country in Central Europe. Communists ruled Poland from 1945 until 1989, when political and economic unrest among Poles resulted in the collapse of the regime and its replacement by a non-Communist coalition. Poland’s capital and largest city is Warsaw.

The name Polska (Poland), applied in the early 11th century, comes from an ancient Slavic tribe known as the Polanie (field or plains dwellers), who settled in the lowlands between the Odra (Oder) and Wisła (Vistula) rivers sometime after the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century. In the 15th and 16th centuries, Poland, then united with Lithuania, was one of the major European powers under the Jagiellonian dynasty. When the dynasty came to an end in 1572, Poland entered a long period of decline, culminating in the partition of the country between Russia, Austria, and Prussia in 1772, 1793, and 1795.

Poland was again established as a sovereign state after World War I (1914-1918). It was partitioned a fourth time in 1939 by Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). After World War II (1939-1945), Polish territory suffered a substantial net loss, as the land ceded to the USSR in the east was nearly double that acquired from Germany in the west.

Since the fall of Communism in Poland in 1989, democratic elections have brought a succession of unstable governments to power. Poland formally joined the European Union (EU) in 2004.


Poland has a total land area of 3,118,188 sq km (1,203,939 sq mi). It is bordered on the north by the Baltic Sea and Russia; on the east by Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine; on the south by the Czech Republic and Slovakia; and on the west by Germany. The maximum distance from east to west is about 680 km (about 420 mi) and the maximum distance from north to south is about 790 km (about 490 mi). Poland’s borders are marked by the Sudety mountains (Sudetes) in the southwest, the Carpathian Mountains (Karpaty) in the southeast, the Odra and Neisse (Nysa) rivers in the west, and the Bug River in the east. On the northeast, the country is bounded by a section of the Baltic Sea.

Natural Regions in Poland

Although Poland appears as an unbroken plain on a relief map, it has considerable diversity and complexity. The average elevation is only about 175 m (about 575 ft) above sea level, as compared with the overall European average of about 290 m (about 950 ft), but elevations reach as high as 2,499 m (8,199 ft) atop Mount Rysy in the High Tatry Mountains in the south, and as low as about 2 m (about 6 ft) below sea level in the Wisła delta in the north. Poland is divided into a number of distinct parallel regions that run from east to west. A marked contrast exists between the northern two-thirds of the country and the southern one-third.

The northern zone is a vast region of plains and low hills, divided into the Central Polish Lowlands, the Baltic Heights, and the Coastal Plain. The Central Lowlands are traversed from east to west by a series of large, shallow valleys. To the north of the Central Lowlands is the Baltic Heights region, dotted with hills and lakes. The Coastal Plain consists of a narrow lowland, about 40 to 100 km (about 25 to 60 mi) wide, that runs nearly the entire length of the Baltic Sea. The coastline, 440 km (273 mi) long, is remarkably smooth and regular, the major exceptions being the Pomeranian Bay in the west and the Gulf of Gdańsk in the east. A few good natural harbors are located along the Baltic.

The southern one-third of Poland consists of upland areas of various kinds and adjacent or intervening lowlands. A narrow belt of mountains occupies the extreme south and southwest. The Carpathian Mountains, located on Poland’s southeastern border, include the Tatry and Beskid ranges. The Sudety, another major mountain range, are located on Poland’s southwestern border. North of the mountains are a zone of foothills, the Silesian Plain, and the Lesser Polish Uplands.

Rivers and Lakes in Poland

Nearly all of Poland is drained into the Baltic Sea by the Wisła and Odra rivers and their tributaries, which include the Bug and the Warta. Other rivers include the Neisse, the Nida, and the Bobr. Poland’s lakes, which number about 9,300, are concentrated in the Baltic Heights and Coastal Plain regions. Śniardwy and Mamry are the two largest. Poland has about 120 artificial reservoirs, situated mainly in the Baltic Heights and the southern mountains.

Plant and Animal Life in Poland

Forests cover more than one-fourth of Poland and are comprised principally of spruce and pine. A few forests in the northeast contain old and scarce species, such as the dwarf birch and Lapp willow, which are unique to Poland in Europe. Because Poland’s forests are dominated by conifers, which are particularly vulnerable to acid rain and other forms of air pollution, many of them are now extensively damaged. The spruce forests of the Sudety have been particularly affected by ecological damage. A large portion of Poland’s forest growth has also been destroyed to create farmland, and reforestation levels are currently very low. This combination of factors has made Poland’s forests among the most vulnerable in Europe.

Poland’s wildlife is of limited variety. Although most species are found in other parts of Europe, Poland is home to a number of species that are absent or rare elsewhere. Those animals include chamois, lynx, wildcat, boar, and red deer. Bison, as well as a rare breed of pony, are preserved in the world-famous Białowieza National Park, which straddles Poland’s border with Belarus. Wolves and brown bears survive in the higher mountains, and moose, deer, and mouflon (wild sheep) are fairly numerous in the lake districts. Grouse, heathcock, and black stork inhabit Poland’s grain-producing areas, lakes, marshes, and forests. The country’s inland lakes and streams support sizable numbers of fish, which include salmon, trout, and carp. More than 100 wildlife species have become extinct or are severely endangered in Poland. Largely in response to this problem, two new national parks were established in 1993. Altogether Poland has 23 national parks. The country also has a number of nature preserves and protected areas.

Natural Resources of Poland

Poland’s varied mineral deposits are concentrated mainly in the southern upland regions and adjacent areas. The most important mineral resource is hard coal, most of which is located in Upper Silesia. Poland also has significant deposits of lignite (another variety of coal), located mainly in the basins surrounding the cities of Turoszów, Konin, and Bełchatów. Sulfur and copper are the most important of the country’s nonfuel mineral resources. Some of the world’s largest sulfur deposits are found near the city of Tarnobrzeg in the southeast, and large reserves of copper are located in Lower Silesia. Important reserves of zinc and lead are found in Upper Silesia. Other minerals of economic importance are rock salt, potash, iron ore, and gypsum. The country has only small reserves of petroleum and natural gas.

Climate in Poland

Poland’s climate has features of both the moderate climate of western Europe and the more severe climate of eastern Europe. The climate of the western part may be classified as marine west coast, and the eastern part as humid continental with cool summers. Weather conditions are highly variable, particularly in the winter.

In January, average temperatures range from about -1°C (about 30°F) in the west to about -5°C (about 23°F) in the southern mountains. In summer, average temperatures decrease in a northwestern direction, from about 20°C (about 68°F) in the southeast to about 17°C (about 63°F) near the Baltic. During the year, the warmest temperatures may enter the upper 30°s C (lower 100°s F), and the lowest may drop into the lower -40°s C (lower -40°s F).

Annual precipitation in Poland as a whole averages about 610 mm (about 24 in), ranging from about 1,200 to 1,500 mm (about 47 to 59 in) in the mountains to between 450 and 600 mm (18 to 24 in) in the lowlands. Summer precipitation is often twice the level of winter precipitation.

Environmental Issues in Poland

Poland, like many other Eastern European countries, suffered significant environmental damage as a result of the economic policies of the Communist period (1945-1989), which emphasized the rapid development of heavy industry. Much of this damage did not become evident until the late 1980s and early 1990s. Although environmental problems affect most of the country, the worst damage has been inflicted on the industrial region of Silesia, in southern Poland.

The country produces most of its energy by burning imported fossil fuels, particularly coal. Severe air pollution resulting from the emissions of coal-fired power plants has measurably affected human health. Up to three-quarters of Poland’s trees show damage from acid rain.

Water pollution is a serious problem throughout Poland and is caused mainly by industrial and municipal waste and acid rain. About one-third of the total length of Poland’s rivers and one-quarter of the country’s lakes are severely polluted. Rivers that are particularly affected include the Wisła, the Bobr, the Nida, the Wisłoka, and the Bug. In the early 1990s the overwhelming majority of the country’s river water was considered undrinkable. The Baltic Sea is also heavily polluted, mainly by industrial discharges, which severely inhibits the development of its beaches for tourism.

Serious efforts are being made to purify sewage and industrial discharges in Poland, but in 1993 more than one-quarter of the country’s wastewater was still being released untreated into rivers. Although more than 300 wastewater treatment plants have been built in Poland, many of the country’s factories and towns still do not have waste purification facilities.

Other environmental problems in Poland include deforestation and defoliation resulting from acid rain and other forms of air pollution, wildlife endangerment and extinction, and soil contamination. In recent years, preventive measures have been introduced in Poland’s mining and energy sectors in an effort to decrease pollution levels. These measures include the adoption of new regulations, heavy fines, and the installation of filtering and purification equipment. In addition, a number of political parties and citizen groups have formed around environmental issues. However, public attitudes toward the environment remain divided in Poland, owing largely to concerns about job losses and other potential economic consequences of environmental protection.


Population and Settlement in Poland

At the time of the 1988 census Poland had a population of 37,878,641. The 2009 estimate was 38,482,919, yielding an average population density of 126 persons per sq km (327 per sq mi). Poland’s highest population densities are in the southern upland areas; the lowest densities are in the northwest and northeast. The average annual rate of population growth was very high in the period following World War II, but after the 1960s it declined to less than 1 percent, and in 1997 the population was estimated to be decreasing. Reasons for the decline include high unemployment and increases in the cost of child rearing. The rate of urbanization in Poland has accelerated since the end of World War II. In 2005, 62 percent of the population lived in urban areas.

Principal Cities of Poland

At the beginning of the 21st century there were 42 Polish cities with more than 100,000 inhabitants; of these, 6 had a population of more than 500,000. The major cities are Warsaw, Poland’s capital and largest city; Łódź, the center of Poland’s textile industry; Kraków (Cracow), a cultural and industrial center; Wrocław, a commercial and transportation hub; Poznań, an industrial center and the site of an annual international trade fair; Gdańsk, a seaport and shipbuilding center; Szczecin, a port and industrial city; Bydgoszcz, an inland port and railway junction; Katowice, a center of mining and industry; and Lublin, a manufacturing hub.

Ethnic Groups in Poland

During most of its history, Poland was a multiethnic society that included substantial numbers of Belarusians, Ukrainians, Jews, and Germans. However, the territorial changes that resulted from World War II led to profound changes in the country’s ethnic composition. As a result of the 1945 Yalta Conference, Poland’s eastern borderlands, which contained large Ukrainian and Belarusian populations, were ceded to the USSR. Most of Poland’s German population left East Prussia and the German territories that were awarded to Poland in the peace settlement and fled westward. The areas evacuated by these minority groups were resettled by Poles who had been displaced from the eastern borderlands and others returning from emigration or combat in the West. Population exchanges and the resettlement of ethnic groups continued for some time after the war.

Poland now contains relatively little ethnic diversity. About 98 percent of the country’s inhabitants are ethnic Poles, and the remainder is comprised mainly of Ukrainians, Belarusians, and Germans. Much of the Ukrainian population lives in northern Poland, while the Belarusian minority is concentrated in Białystok Province adjoining the Belarusian border. Germans are concentrated mainly in the southern region of Silesia and, to a lesser extent, the northeastern region that was formerly East Prussia. Smaller communities of Slovaks, Czechs, Lithuanians, and Russians are also present. Poland’s small Roma (Gypsy) population declined considerably in the late 1980s, when large numbers of Roma emigrated to Germany.

There are currently more than 10 million people of Polish origin living in Polish communities abroad. The United States contains the largest number of ethnic Poles living outside of Poland. Other countries with sizable Polish communities include Russia and the countries of the former Soviet Union, Germany, France, Canada, Brazil, Australia, and the United Kingdom.

Languages spoken in Poland

Polish is the official language of Poland and is used by nearly all of the population. The language contains a number of dialects, some of which are intermediate between Polish and German or Ukrainian. The Polish language is written using the Latin alphabet and includes some letters that are additional to those used in the English language (see Polish Language). Some members of ethnic groups speak their own native languages in addition to Polish.

Religion in Poland

Roman Catholicism has played a very important role in Polish history and serves as a cornerstone of Polish identity. During the early part of the Communist period, the Polish government tried to limit the influence of the Roman Catholic Church. Religious practices were restricted, and a number of priests were imprisoned. However, a large number of Polish Catholics resisted such policies and fought for freedom of religion. Stefan Cardinal Wyszyński, who served as the primate of Poland from 1948 to 1981, helped to improve relations between the Catholic Church and the Communist government, and after the 1950s the government discontinued most of its church-related policies. In 1978 Karol Cardinal Wojtyła, the archbishop of Kraków, became Pope John Paul II, the first Polish pope. After the collapse of Communism in 1989, the new government introduced various pro-Catholic policies, including the right to teach religion in schools and the criminalization of abortion. In 1993 the church and the Polish government negotiated, but did not ratify, a new concordat regulating mutual relations.

About 92 percent of Poles are Roman Catholic. The Roman Catholic Church exerts an important influence on many aspects of Polish life, and church attendance levels are high, especially in rural areas. Poland also has nearly 50 non-Catholic churches and other religious groupings. Of these, eight churches are members of the Polish Ecumenical Council, which was founded in 1946 to promote cooperation between churches. The largest churches represented in the council are the Polish Autocephalous Orthodox Church and the Evangelical Augsburg Church. The number of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Poland has grown in recent years.

Before World War II there were more than 3 million Jews living in Poland. However, more than 90 percent of them were killed by the Nazis during the wartime occupation of Poland. Many of those Jews who survived the Holocaust left Poland and emigrated to Israel or the West. In the early 1990s there were less than 10,000 Jews remaining in Poland.

Education in Poland

When Poland was partitioned and controlled by foreign powers, which lasted from the late 18th century through the early part of the 20th century, education was limited to a privileged elite. After Poland’s independence was restored following World War I, a centralized educational system was established. This education system went through major reforms in the 1990s. Today, education occupies an important position in Polish society, and virtually the entire population aged 15 years or older is able to read and write.

Education in Poland is free and compulsory for all children between the ages of 7 and 15, although growing financial and space constraints sometimes require large classes and double shifts for students within the school day. On completion of the six-year elementary school program, children enter middle school, or gymnasium, for three years. After gymnasium students have the choice of entering a general lyceum, specialized lyceum, technical secondary school, or basic vocational school. These secondary schools last from two to four years. All students except those attending basic vocational school can pursue higher education after graduation. Graduates of basic vocational school have a choice of entering the workforce or continuing their education at a complementary lyceum or complementary technical secondary school.

Poland has a long history of higher education. Jagiellonian University, established in Kraków in 1364, is the second oldest university in central Europe after Charles University in the Czech Republic. In the early 2000s there were more than 100 institutions of higher education in Poland. Of these, 8 were schools of agriculture, 17 were universities, 10 were medical schools, 18 were technical universities, 17 were schools of art and music, and most of the remainder were specialized vocational colleges. Besides Jagiellonian University, other universities in Poland include Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań (founded in 1919), Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University (2000) in Warsaw; Catholic University of Lublin (1918); Marie Curie-Skłodowska University (1944) in Lublin; Nicholas Copernicus University of Toruń (1945); Opole University (1994); Szczecin University (1985); University of Białystok (1997); University of Gdańsk (1970); University of Łódź (1945), University of Rzeszów (2001); University of Silesia (1968) in Katowice; University of Warmia and Mazury in Olsztyn (1999); University of Warsaw (1818); University of Wrocław (founded in 1702, rebuilt in 1945); and University of Zielona Góra (2001).

Way of Life in Poland

Before World War II Poland was largely agricultural and much of the population lived in rural areas. However, when the Communists took control of the government in 1945, Poland was transformed into an industrial nation, and many Poles left their farms and took jobs in the cities. In rural areas, Polish families often live in small cottages made of bricks or wood; city dwellers usually live in apartments. Most Poles prefer Western-style clothing to traditional forms of dress. However, traditional Polish clothing is sometimes worn in rural areas where the country’s folk heritage remains strong, and on holidays and other special occasions. Traditional Polish foods include pierogi (stuffed dumplings); bigos (sauerkraut and meat); and jellied herring, trout, and carp. Hearty soups, including beet soup, potato soup, and cabbage soup, are also popular, as are pork, mushrooms, bread, and dairy products. Beer, vodka, and currant juice are typical beverages. Many Poles enjoy attending cultural events and visiting with friends. Soccer is a favorite national sport. Catholicism plays an important role in the lives of many Poles. Religious holidays and traditions, including Christmas and Easter, are often observed through family gatherings and festivals.

Social Problems in Poland

With the fall of Communism and its social-welfare network and system of subsidized food and housing, large sections of Polish society, especially the elderly, fell into poverty. Beggars and homeless people became common sights after being virtually nonexistent during Communist rule. At the same time, the emergence of a market economy produced a new class of wealthy business people along with a growing amount of consumer activity. In recent years, a gap has developed between those who have managed to take advantage of the new economic system and those who have not, creating social tension in Poland. In general, young people have adjusted better than older generations. The use of firearms and explosives has soared since 1989. Violent robberies have registered a fourfold increase since the mid-1980s. Despite this, the national police force has cut more than 20,000 officers from its ranks as part of the economic reform process. Although there have been reported incidents of ethnic violence against Roma and Germans, there are no ethnic conflicts comparable to those in other former Communist republics.


The great periods of Western cultural and intellectual expression are paralleled by the history of Polish creativity. The Italian Renaissance inspired a great burst of culture in Poland. The Reformation sped the development of a Polish vernacular literature, and in the 18th and 19th centuries Poles were greatly influenced by French culture. During the Stalinist period, which lasted in Poland from 1949 to 1955, artistic freedom was severely circumscribed by the government. After 1956 Poland’s cultural policies became generally more liberal.

Literature in Poland

Poland has attained its highest artistic recognition in the field of literature. The greatest literary period is generally regarded as the romantic period of the 19th century, the chief figures being Adam Mickiewicz, Juliusz Słowacki, Zygmunt Krasiński, and Cyprian Kamil Norwid. Romanticism in drama and poetry was followed by realism, most notably in the novels of Bolesław Prus, Henryk Sienkiewicz, and Władysław Stanisław Reymont. Stanisław Wyspiański is regarded as the founder of modern Polish drama. Among the many prominent figures after 1945 were Jerzy Andrzejewski, Tadeusz Różewicz, Stanisław Lem, Leon Kruczkowski, and Zbigniew Załuski. The émigré Polish poet Czesław Miłosz received the Nobel Prize in literature in 1980. The 1996 Nobel Prize in literature was awarded to poet Wisława Szymborska, the fifth Polish-born writer to receive the prize. See Polish Literature.

Music and Dance in Poland

Poland has a long tradition of folk music and dance. Although the country was heavily affected by the large-scale migration to urban areas that took place following World War II, Poland’s folk traditions still exist today, and are displayed for audiences by the well-known Mazowsze and Ślask ensembles.

The best-known Polish composer is Frédéric Chopin (Polish Fryderyk Chopin), a pianist of the romantic school of music who lived during the first half of the 19th century. Chopin, who died at a young age, spent much of his life in France. However, he remained deeply loyal to Poland and many of his compositions were based on traditional Polish folk music and dances, such as the mazurka and the polonaise. The early 20th century composer Karol Szymanowski is regarded as the most important figure in Polish music after Chopin. Szymanowski is known for bringing together elements of Poland’s folk tradition and European musical styles. After World War II ended in 1945, a school of music emphasizing avant-garde elements developed in Poland. Krzysztof Penderecki was a well-known composer of this school. Important Polish musicians include the harpsichordist Wanda Landowska and the pianist Ignace Jan Paderewski.

Art and Cinema in Poland

In painting, Polish artists have been mainly influenced by various Western movements and trends, although in the 20th century traditional peasant art has exerted some influence. Important works include Jan Matejko’s portrayals of scenes of Polish history. Poland’s folk arts and crafts range from pottery, fabrics, and embroidery, to sculpture, graphics, and painting.

Since 1950 a number of Polish filmmakers have achieved international renown. Krzysztof Kieślowski, a leading filmmaker in Eastern Europe in the 1960s and 1970s, achieved fame for his social documentaries and for his fictional films dealing with morality. Andrzej Wajda has chronicled political and social developments in Poland since World War II. In 2000 he received an honorary Academy Award for his many contributions to cinema. The filmmaker Roman Polanski, who headed to Hollywood in the late 1960s, returned to Poland to film The Pianist (2002). The film, which tells the story of a young musician who lived through the Nazi occupation of Warsaw, earned Polanski his first Academy Award for best director.

Libraries and Museums in Poland

Poland has many museums, some of the most notable of which are the National Museum (founded in 1862), the Museum of Technology (1875), and the State Archaeological Museum (1923), all in Warsaw; the National Museum (1879) and the Wawel Royal Castle, both in Kraków; the Archaeological and Ethnographical Museum (1956), in Łódź; the Polish Maritime Museum (1960), in Gdańsk; and the Upper Silesian Museum (1927), in Katowice. Major libraries include the National Library (1928) and the main branch of the Public Library (1907), both located in Warsaw, as well as several university libraries.


Before World War II, Poland’s economy depended largely on agriculture. However, the Communists, who had achieved a monopoly on power by 1947, adopted a Soviet-style planned economy in which heavy industry and engineering were emphasized. Nearly all branches of large industry, trade, transportation, and finance came under the control of the Communist government. Private ownership was limited to agriculture, handicrafts, and certain services. During the first several decades of the Communist period, Poland’s economy grew. However, in the late 1970s the country began to experience severe economic difficulties, caused by a series of poor harvests, unrest among industrial workers, shortages of consumer goods, lagging technology, rising inflation, and a massive foreign debt. These economic problems, which worsened during the 1980s, were responsible in large part for the collapse of the Communist regime and its replacement by a non-Communist coalition in 1989.

In December 1989 the new government, led by members of the labor union Solidarity (Solidarność), launched a reform program designed to transform Poland’s economy into one based on a free-market system. Price controls were lifted, while wage controls were imposed. State enterprises were transformed into joint-stock companies, and many were scheduled for eventual privatization or purchased by foreign investors. The restructuring of the Polish economy led to massive layoffs of workers and a rapid rise in unemployment. Poland’s gross domestic product (GDP) declined sharply in 1990 and 1991.

After its initial decline, Poland’s economy began to improve. Annual GDP increased between 1992 and 2007, when it reached $422 billion. Industrial production increased by about 12 percent in 1994, which, accompanied by a 2 percent drop in unemployment, represented a major increase in labor productivity. Inflation remained above government goals but steadily declined, with an annual rate of 30 percent in 1994 dropping to 18.5 percent in 1996. Although hundreds of enterprises were transferred to private ownership during 1994 and 1995, the pace of privatization was generally slow; the private sector’s share of GDP remained at about 60 percent in 1995 and 1996. However, a new constitution adopted in May 1997 committed the country to pursuing a market economy and further privatization. In the early and mid-1990s Poland’s foreign debt was significantly alleviated by concessions from creditors, which helped to attract increasing levels of foreign investment.

Poland is a member of a number of international economic organizations, including the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (World Bank), the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), the World Trade Organization (WTO), and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The country also belongs to the Central European Initiative, a group promoting regional economic and political cooperation. Poland became an associate member of the European Union (EU) in 1994, and in 1997 it was invited to become a full member. Polish voters approved a referendum to join the EU in June 2003, and Poland formally joined the organization in May 2004.

Labor in Poland

The total active labor force in Poland numbers 17.3 million people. Approximately 29 percent of workers are employed in industry, including manufacturing, mining, and construction; 17 percent are employed in agriculture and forestry; and the rest are employed mainly in services, including transportation and trade. Unemployment increased very rapidly during the early 1990s, peaking at about 18 percent; by 2007 the unemployment rate had dropped to 9.6 percent.

Before 1980 all labor unions in Poland belonged to the state-sponsored Central Council of Trade Unions. In 1980 about 85 percent of Polish workers joined free trade unions affiliated with the Solidarity movement. In May 1981 private farmers were authorized to organize an independent labor organization called Rural Solidarity. Both organizations were dissolved when Poland was placed under martial law in December 1981 and did not become legal again until April 1989. During the 1980s the regime of General Wojciech Jaruzelski organized the All-Poland Trade Unions Alliance (OPZZ). This organization now supports the Social Democratic Party and is stronger in membership than Solidarity, which gained 5 percent of the vote in the 1991 elections but failed to qualify in the 1993 elections. In the early 1990s Solidarity’s leaders were torn between their political responsibilities and the need to support workers in order to compete with the OPZZ.

Agriculture of Poland

Although Poland ranks as one of Europe’s leading agricultural nations, it is continually unable to meet its needs for food and feed grains. The attempt by the Communist government to collectivize Poland’s agricultural sector was abandoned in 1956. Small privately owned family farms now account for more than 70 percent of farmland in Poland.

The largest area of cultivated land is found in the Central Lowlands, but much of the best farmland is located in the low plateaus and foothills of southern Poland. Climate limits the range of crops that can be grown, and periodic drought causes considerable fluctuations in annual output. Polish farmers generally achieve low yields compared with farmers in other Eastern European countries because of their small and often irregularly shaped plots and low earnings, which limit investment in equipment and fertilizer. The principal Polish crops are grains (including rye, wheat, barley, and oats), sugar beets, potatoes and other vegetables, apples, strawberries, currants, rapeseed, and tobacco. Large numbers of cattle, pigs, sheep, and poultry are raised on Poland’s farms, and livestock products include meat, eggs, milk, butter, cheese, and wool.

Forestry in Poland

Forests covered 29 percent of Poland’s land area in 2005, slightly below the European average. State forests account for more than three-fourths of the forest area, and some sections are slated for privatization along with the wood-processing industry. Principal forest products include timber, fiber mass, paper, and cellulose. Poland exports significant quantities of wood products, mainly pulpwood, to the countries of Scandinavia, Austria, Germany, and other countries.

Fishing in Poland

After 1960 the bulk of Poland’s maritime fishing activities moved from the Baltic Sea to the Atlantic Ocean and then to the Sea of Okhotsk, which now supplies almost three-quarters of the country’s fish. Freshwater fishing is concentrated in the numerous lakes of northern Poland. In 2007 Poland’s catch totaled 180,300 metric tons. Annual landings usually consist principally of Alaska pollock, herring, European sprat, squid, cod, and carp. The major fishing ports are Świnoujście, Kołobrzeg, Darłowo, Ustka, Władysławowo, Puck, and Hel. Most of Poland’s fish is processed by private enterprises, though a small number of state and cooperative enterprises are also in operation. About 12 percent of the country’s fish catch is exported.

Between 1980 and 1993 the annual catch declined substantially, due largely to the pollution of Poland’s lakes, which has caused freshwater fish populations to diminish rapidly. Another problem facing Poland’s fishing industry is the need to secure access to new fishing areas as old ones become depleted or protected by quotas.

Mining in Poland

Poland’s mining sector has declined considerably since Communism ended in 1989, due in large part to a decrease in domestic demand and the reduction of government subsidies. This has resulted in large numbers of layoffs among miners. Coal (including hard coal and lignite) is Poland’s principal mineral product. The country ranks among the world’s leading producers of hard coal, although production has decreased significantly in the 1990s. With assistance from the World Bank, Poland has made efforts to restructure and modernize its coal-mining sector in accordance with strict environmental regulations. The country’s underground coal mines, most of which are located in Upper Silesia, have been grouped into a number of companies with the goal of eventual privatization. Poland is also a leading producer of sulfur. Other important mineral products include copper, lead, zinc, magnesite, and rock salt.

Manufacturing in Poland

After the Communists came to power, Poland’s manufacturing base was expanded and placed largely under governmental control. Heavy industries, including machinery and iron and steel, were particularly emphasized. When the Solidarity-led government took over in 1989, it adopted a program to return many of Poland’s industries to private ownership. Under the Communists, economic investment was concentrated largely in Upper Silesia, Warsaw, Łódź, and Kraków; however, recent policies have encouraged a broader regional distribution of industry to include smaller cities and rural areas. In the mid-1990s Poland’s chief manufactures included machines, iron and steel, cement, chemicals, ships, food products, textiles, and automobiles.

Energy in Poland

The bulk of Poland’s electricity is derived from coal, with 1 percent generated by hydroelectric facilities. After 1990 Poland’s energy sector was restructured into more than 100 companies in which the state held a controlling interest and was subjected to strict environmental regulations, especially ones concerning sulfur dioxide emissions. Wholesale privatization of the energy sector is being considered, as are proposals to lessen Poland’s dependence on coal, which is particularly harmful to the environment, by encouraging the use of other energy sources, such as oil and gas. Due to its limited reserves, nearly all of Poland’s oil has to be imported. Most is imported by sea from the Persian Gulf, North Africa, Norway, and the United Kingdom. The rest comes from the former Soviet Union through the Friendship Pipeline, which originates in Russia and runs through Belarus to the Płock petrochemical refinery, in central Poland.

Tourism of Poland

The annual number of visitors to Poland has increased rapidly since 1990. In 2007 there were 15 million visitors in Poland. This doesn’t include the many Germans, Czechs, and Slovaks who make day trips to Poland for shopping, business, or family visits. The countries of the former Soviet Union also accounted for a large percentage of Poland’s foreign tourists.

The major tourist attractions in Poland are the resorts along the Baltic Sea, the lake district south of the coast, the Karpaty and Sudety mountains, and the country’s numerous historic sites and cultural institutions.

Foreign Trade in Poland

During the Communist period Poland’s foreign trade was conducted mainly with other Communist states, notably the Soviet Union, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia. Trade with Western countries such as West Germany, the United States, France, the United Kingdom, and Italy grew to substantial proportions but remained much less than the former. After the fall of Communism, Poland began to expand its contacts with Western nations.

In the mid-1990s Poland’s imports included machinery, fuels and electrical power, chemicals, and food products. Exports included machinery, metals, chemicals, fuels and electrical power, and food products. Poland’s main suppliers of imports were Germany, Italy, Russia, the United Kingdom, The Netherlands, and France. The leading purchasers of exports were Germany, Russia, France, Italy, the United States, and The Netherlands.

Currency and Banking of Poland

The złoty, divided into 100 groszy, is the basic unit of currency in Poland. As a result of Poland’s extremely high inflation rate in the early 1990s, the exchange rate for the złoty peaked at about 24,000 to the U.S.$1 in 1994. In January 1995 a sweeping currency reform replaced 10,000 old złoties with one new złoty. The exchange rate in 2007 averaged 2.80 złoties to the U.S.$1.

The National Bank of Poland (founded in 1945) serves as the country’s central bank. Other important banks include the Bank of Food Economy and the Export Development Bank. A large number of private banks were also established after Communism collapsed, some of which have since failed or been involved in corruption scandals. Many foreign banks have established branches in Poland as well. Of the more than 1,700 banks operating in Poland in the mid-1990s, about 100 had several branches throughout the country while the bulk were small regional or specialized cooperative banks. A stock exchange was established in Warsaw in 1991.

Transportation in Poland

After the collapse of Communism in 1989, Polish authorities began making plans to modernize the country’s transportation network. Though a number of such projects are underway, others have been limited by lack of funding.

Poland has a relatively dense rail network that links most cities and towns; the network consists of 19,419 km (12,066 mi) of track. In the 1980s the government began to modernize portions of railroad track located along key routes. In the mid-1990s a major upgrading of two international and two domestic rail lines began, as did the construction of a new rail line linking Warsaw with Saint Petersburg, Russia.

Many of Poland’s hard-surfaced public roads are in poor condition due to maintenance reductions. The number of motor vehicles in Poland has increased considerably since the late 1980s. A massive increase in the number of gas, garage, and refreshment facilities is likely to occur in the coming years, as fuel and other transportation-related industries are transferred to private ownership.

Poland has nearly 4,000 km (2,485 mi) of navigable inland waterway. The country’s main rivers are connected by 1,215 km (755 mi) of canals to the inland ports of Gliwice, Wrocław, and Warsaw. The principal seaports are located at Gdańsk, Gdynia, and Szczecin. Poland’s main airport is in Warsaw; additional airports are located in a number of other cities.

Communications in Poland

In 1946 Poland’s mass media were nationalized and made subject to supervision by the Communist government. This lasted until 1989, when the country’s new democratic government abolished censorship and eliminated subsidies to the Communist press. In 2004 Poland had 42 daily newspapers with a total circulation of 4.3 million. Gazeta Wyborcza (Electoral News), which was founded in Warsaw in 1989, is Poland’s largest and most respected daily newspaper. There are about 3,100 periodicals published in Poland. Many of the dominant publications of the Communist period have either collapsed or become less important.

In 1992 legislation was passed by parliament ending the Polish government’s monopoly over television and radio broadcasting. Poland now has 16 regional radio stations and 10 regional television stations; however, most radio and television programming still originates in Warsaw. In 1997 there were 522 radios and 401 television sets for every 1,000 Poles. Videocassettes and cable television have both gained in popularity. Although new telephone exchanges have increased the number of telephone lines in Poland, there is still a chronic shortage, especially in rural areas.


Communist Poland was governed under a constitution adopted in 1952 and subsequently amended. In December 1989 major constitutional revisions ended the monopoly of the Communist Party, established an upper chamber in the legislature, and reintroduced democratic rules and principles in Poland. In 1992 a transitional constitution known as the “Little Constitution” was adopted. However, this constitution established imprecise limits on the power of Poland’s president, prime minister, and legislature, which led to some confrontation between those officeholders, particularly regarding foreign policy and defense. A full revision of the constitution was initiated in November 1992. The final draft was completed in April 1997 and approved by voters in a nationwide referendum the following month. Among its numerous provisions, the new constitution clarifies the division of powers within the branches of government, while shifting some power away from the president. The president’s veto, for example, may be overridden by a three-fifths majority in the legislature, rather than the two-thirds previously required.

Executive of Poland

Under the Communist regime, a unicameral legislature elected the head of state. In 1989 general elections were held for a new bicameral legislature, and the two houses elected Wojciech Jaruzelski as president of the republic. In December 1990 Poland held its first direct presidential elections since the interwar period (1918-1939), electing labor-activist Lech Wałęsa.

The Polish president is directly elected for a maximum of two five-year terms. As head of state, he or she is the highest representative of the country in domestic and international affairs and the head of the armed forces. Under certain circumstances the president also has the power to dissolve the legislature and call for new elections.

The prime minister of Poland serves as head of government. The prime minister is appointed by the president with the approval of the lower house of the legislature and is typically a leader of the majority party or coalition. The prime minister heads the Council of Ministers, which is responsible for carrying out the decisions of the legislature. Other ministers within the council head various government departments. Council members other than the prime minister are appointed by the legislature and are responsible to that body.

Legislature of Poland

The national legislature of Poland is comprised of two chambers, the Sejm, or lower house, and the Senat, or upper house. The Sejm consists of 460 members who are elected for four-year terms according to a system of proportional representation. The Senat was reestablished in 1989 after having been abolished by the Communists in 1947. Its 100 members are also elected for four-year terms.

In the general elections of June 1989, 65 percent of the seats in the Sejm were reserved for the Communist Party and its allies, the United Peasant Party and the Democratic Party, and 35 percent were reserved for the opposition, led by Solidarity. In September 1991 free legislative elections were held in Poland, in which all seats in parliament were contested and none were reserved for members of any specific party. Since the general elections held in 1993, minimum requirements are placed on parties seeking representation in parliament. To gain seats, single parties need at least 5 percent of the vote, and coalitions need at least 8 percent. All Polish citizens aged 18 and older are eligible to vote.

Judiciary in Poland

The Supreme Court is Poland’s highest court of appeal and is responsible for supervising all lower courts. The court is organized into four chambers: criminal, civil, labor and social insurance, and administration. Its more than 100 members are appointed for life terms by the president from a list prepared by the independent National Council of the Judiciary. The presiding officer of the Supreme Court, called the first president, is appointed from among the court justices by the Sejm upon the recommendation of the country’s president. Poland’s judicial system also includes the Supreme Administrative Court, and a number of provincial, district, and special courts.

The State Tribunal and the Constitutional Tribunal were both established by the Jaruzelski regime in 1982. The Constitutional Tribunal pronounces judgment on the constitutionality of laws and regulations, while the State Tribunal pronounces judgment on the guilt or innocence of high government officials charged with violating the constitution and laws. Selected by the Sejm for four-year terms, the members of both tribunals are independent and bound only by the law.

Political Parties of Poland

The Polish United Workers’ Party, also known as the Communist Party, was the leading political force in Poland from 1948 until 1989, when it yielded power to a Solidarity-led government. In early 1990 the Communist Party reestablished itself as the new Social-Democracy of the Polish Republic (SdRP). Around that time, conflicts developed among the leaders of Solidarity, and by mid-1990 the movement had splintered into factions. Dozens of small parties and groups also emerged in Poland after 1989 and many achieved representation in the government. In an effort to simplify the party system, in 1993 the Polish government established a minimum electoral threshold for representation in parliament.

Several parties and political coalitions became important after 1993. These included the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), a leftist coalition that included the SdRP; and Solidarity Electoral Action (AWS), an alliance of Roman Catholic, centrist, populist, and right-wing parties. Also important were the centrist agrarian Polish People’s Party (PSL; also known as the Polish Peasants’ Party) and the pro-business Freedom Union (UW).

In the 2001 general election the Solidarity-led AWS collapsed after it failed to win any seats. Several new parties on the right emerged to supplant the AWS. They included Civic Platform (PO; also known as the Citizens’ Platform), a pro-business party formed by Solidarity defectors; the right-wing, anticorruption Law and Justice Party; the Self-Defense Party, a populist agrarian party; and the nationalist League of Polish Families.

Following the 2005 general election, the Law and Justice Party formed a ruling coalition with the League of Polish Families, the Polish People’s Party, and the Self-Defense Party. Civic Platform and the Democratic Left Alliance formed the opposition. Following early legislative elections in 2007, power shifted to a Civic Platform-led coalition with the Polish People’s Party. No government had been reelected in Poland since the fall of Communism in 1989.

Local Government of Poland

Poland’s first democratic local elections since the interwar period were held in 1990; subsequent elections were held in 1994 and 1998. Poland is administered locally through a system of provinces (województwa). The provinces are divided into counties (powiaty), which are subdivided into towns and communes (gminy). Local governors and provincial assemblies administer the local districts. Members of the provincial assemblies are chosen by popularly elected councils that represent the towns and communes. Both the provincial and community levels of government enjoy far greater autonomy than they did under the highly centralized Communist system.

Social Services in Poland

Communist Poland had an extensive system of social welfare funded from the national budget. Both health care and social security benefits were free and comprehensive. After 1989 this sector underwent substantial restructuring and decentralization. Poles now have to pay much more directly for health care and other welfare provisions.

Private general medicine has increased in recent years, as has the practice of charging fees for medical care in hospitals. Most Polish pharmacies are now privately owned. Social security benefits are funded in part by a payroll tax and in part from the state budget. Benefits provided to Polish citizens include pensions, disability payments, child allowances, survivor benefits, maternity benefits, funeral subsidies, sickness compensation, and alimony payments. Unemployment benefits were expanded in the first years after Communism ended in response to the large increase in the unemployment rate, but laws passed in the early 1990s drastically reduced the scope of the unemployment program.

Defense of Poland

The Polish armed forces were cut drastically after the fall of Communism in the late 1980s. In 2006 Polish military forces included an army of about 89,000 troops, a navy of 14,300, and an air force of 30,000. Military service is compulsory for all men for a period of 18 months, but deferments are granted on various grounds. The last contingent of Russian combat troops—remnants of a Soviet force that had been stationed on Polish soil for decades—withdrew from the country in 1993. In 2003 Poland participated in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, sending about 200 Polish soldiers as part of the invasion force. See also U.S.-Iraq War.

International Organizations in Poland

Poland is a member of the United Nations (UN), the Council of Europe (CE), the Central European Initiative, and the European Union. In March 1999 Poland joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as one of three formerly Communist nations chosen to become part of the Western military alliance.


Little is known regarding the early activities of the Slavic tribes that laid the foundations of the Polish nation. According to some experts, a number of these tribes united, about AD 840, under a legendary king known as Piast, but Poland does not begin to figure in European history until the reign of Mieszko, reputedly a descendant of Piast, which lasted from 962 to 992.

The Piast Dynasty

Mieszko converted the Poles to Christianity in order to compete better with the crusading and marauding Germans. During the reign (992-1025) of his son, Bolesław I, the Christian church was firmly established in Poland. Bolesław also conducted successful wars against Holy Roman Emperor Henry II and considerably expanded the Polish domain. He was crowned king by the pope in 1025. At his death, Poland extended beyond the Karpaty Mountains (Carpathian Mountains) and the Odra and Dniester rivers.

During the next three centuries Poland met with repeated misfortunes from internal disorder and foreign invasions. In 1079 Bolesław II had the bishop of Kraków murdered and Poland was placed under a papal interdict. Bolesław III, who reigned from 1102 to 1138, conquered the region of Pomerania, defeated the pagan Prussians, and defended Silesia against Holy Roman Emperor Henry V. On the death of Bolesław III Poland was divided among his sons, and the kingdom subsequently disintegrated into a number of independent warring principalities.

In 1240 and 1241 the Mongols invaded and ravaged Poland. Meanwhile, the neighboring Baltic dominions of the Prussians had been subjugated by the Teutonic Knights, and German colonists, encouraged by the Polish princes, began to settle in the country. During the period of German colonization, large numbers of Jews, in flight from persecution in western Europe, took refuge in Polish territory.

Władysław I of the Piast dynasty was crowned king of Poland in 1320. From 1305 to 1333, defeats were inflicted on the Teutonic Knights, and the kingdom was reunited. The power and prosperity of Poland increased tremendously during the reign of Władysław’s son Kazimierz III, also called The Great, which lasted from 1333 to 1370. Kazimierz was one of the most enlightened rulers in Polish history and the last of the Piast dynasty. He initiated important administrative, judicial, and legislative reforms, founded the Jagiellonian University in 1364, extended aid to the Jewish refugees from western Europe, and added Galicia to the Polish domains.

The Jagiellonian Dynasty

The second dynasty of Polish kings, the Jagiellonians, was founded by Jagiełło, grand duke of Lithuania. In 1386 Jagiełło married Jadwiga, queen of Poland, a grand niece of Kazimierz III, and ascended the throne as Władysław II Jagiełło. Roman Catholicism was introduced into Lithuania, a predominantly pagan country, by Władysław, who was converted on his accession. In 1410 Polish and Lithuanian armies under Władysław won a decisive victory at Grünwald over the Teutonic Knights, thereby raising Poland to a leading position among European nations. Thereafter, until 1569, a single sovereign usually ruled both states.

Under the Jagiellonian dynasty, which lasted until 1572, Poland attained great heights of power, prosperity, and cultural magnificence. Kazimierz IV, who ruled from 1447 to 1492, conducted a protracted and successful war (1454-1466) against the Teutonic Knights. In 1466, by terms of the Peace of Toruń, which terminated the conflict, he secured West Prussia, Pomerania, and other territories. The landed gentry and lesser nobility acquired extensive privileges during Kazimierz’s reign, mainly at the expense of the peasantry. The Sejm, a parliamentary body that evolved out of earlier assemblies of nobles and other social groups, began to assume greater importance. The succeeding Jagiellonian kings, notably Zygmunt I, were generally victorious in the military and diplomatic struggles of the period, despite some setbacks in the east. In 1569 Zygmunt II Augustus united the two realms of Poland and Lithuania. The country was officially termed the Commonwealth (Rzeczpospolita). Protestantism, which made many converts among the nobility in the middle years of the 16th century, ceased to be significant after 1600.

With the death of Zygmunt II Augustus, last of the Jagiellonians, in 1572, the Polish nobility and gentry (Szlachta) successfully concluded a prolonged campaign for complete control of the country. A regime of elected kings was instituted with the power of election vested in the Sejm, then a bicameral body consisting of the lesser and greater nobility. One important aspect of this system was to be the liberum veto, which made it possible for any member of the Sejm to prevent the passage of legislation. The constitution also sanctioned the formation of military confederations of nobles.

Wars and Polish Decline

For two centuries after these developments, the political, economic, and military position of Poland deteriorated. Successive and generally disastrous wars with Sweden, Russia, the Ukrainian Cossacks, Brandenburg, and the Ottomans led to the loss of important Polish territories and the devastation of much of Poland. In 1683 Polish and German armies under the command of Jan III Sobieski defeated a vast Ottoman army at the gates of Vienna, halting a serious threat to Christendom in central Europe, but his victory was unable to halt Poland’s decline.

Early in the 18th century the Russian Empire opened a systematic offensive against declining Poland. Supplementing military force with bribery and intrigue, the Russian rulers gradually reduced neighboring Poland to impotence. Widespread political corruption among the Polish nobility accelerated the drift toward national catastrophe. Through shameless bribery of a faction of the Sejm and armed Russian intervention, Frederick Augustus II, elector of Saxony, was placed on the throne of Poland in 1733 as Augustus III. These events brought on the conflict known in history as the War of the Polish Succession (1733-1735). Although sections of the Polish nobility subsequently united around a program of national salvation, Poland was unable to withstand the next Russian onslaught. In 1764 Russian troops entered Poland and forced the enthronement of Stanisław II Augustus, a paramour of Catherine the Great, empress of Russia.

Partitions of Poland

Russian expansionism, as exemplified by these events, caused profound alarm among the European powers. The Ottomans immediately declared war on Russia. Prussia and Austria, fearful of a general European conflict and coveting Polish territory, submitted a proposal to the Russian government for the partition of Poland.

The First Partition and the Polish Commonwealth

The Russian government agreed, and in 1772 the treaty of partition was concluded in Saint Petersburg, Russia. By the terms of this document, Russia, Austria, and Prussia acquired large portions of Polish territory, amounting to about one-quarter of the total area of the country. A constitution, which established safeguards against Polish resurgence, was also imposed on the nation by the partitioning powers. Consent of the Sejm to the treaty was obtained largely by bribery.

Despite the political restrictions surrounding the Commonwealth, Poland progressed in several domestic fields in the decade following the first partition. The national education system was secularized and completely modernized. A movement for constitutional reform also developed during this period, but the Polish nobility frustrated effective action. Relations between Russia and Prussia deteriorated rapidly after 1786. With encouragement from Prussia, Polish patriots in the Sejm instituted sweeping governmental reforms in 1788 and began the draft of a new constitution. A document proclaiming Poland a hereditary monarchy and strengthening and liberalizing the government was adopted, in the face of violent opposition from a section of the gentry, on May 3, 1791.

The Second and Third Partitions

Shortly afterward the leaders of the disgruntled nobility and Catherine the Great reached a secret agreement providing for the restoration of the old order. The Polish conspirators organized the Confederacy of Targowica in May 1792. Supported by Russian troops, this organization immediately began military operations against Poland. The Polish army, led by Prince Józef Poniatowski, resisted for more than three months, but the government, abandoned by Prussia and confronted by overwhelming odds, soon capitulated. Russian armies occupied all of eastern Poland, and early the following year the Prussians occupied the western portion of the country. These territorial seizures, which further reduced the area of Poland by two-thirds, were formally sanctioned in a second territorial partition, ratified in September 1793.

In 1794 the Poles embarked on a revolutionary war for the recovery of their lost territories. Under the leadership of Tadeusz Kościuszko, who had fought in the American Revolution (1775-1783) and who assumed dictatorial powers, the hastily formed Polish armies won a series of victories over the Russians, notably at Racławice. By the summer of 1794 large sections of Russian-occupied Poland had been liberated and the Russians had suffered a humiliating defeat at Warsaw. A variety of factors, however, including dissension among the Polish high command, the overwhelming numerical superiority of the Russians, and Prussian and Austrian intervention, rendered the Polish cause hopeless.

In October 1794 the Russians won a decisive victory at Maciejowice. Russian forces under Field Marshal Aleksandr Suvorov entered Praga, a suburb of Warsaw, in November and massacred much of the population. Warsaw then surrendered, and the remnants of the revolutionary armies surrendered within a few weeks. After settling sharp differences on division of the spoils, the victorious powers concluded treaties between 1795 and 1797 on the third partition of Poland. By the terms of the treaties, the Russian Empire received about half of the remaining Polish territory, and Prussia and Austria each received about a quarter. With these events, the Polish state disappeared from the map of Europe.

Poland Under Foreign Rule

The Polish people remained under the yoke of foreign masters for nearly 125 years after the third partition. During the Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815), the French Emperor Napoleon I, who had promised to reestablish Poland, obtained substantial help from the Poles, thousands of whom served in his armies. In 1807, by the provisions of the Treaty of Tilsit, he created the duchy of Warsaw, consisting originally of the territory taken by Prussia in 1793 and 1795. Two years later Napoleon forced Austria to cede Western Galicia to the duchy. Aside from granting the state a liberal constitution, Napoleon did little else for the Poles who enthusiastically supported his campaign against Russia in 1812.

In 1815 the Congress of Vienna, which drafted the general European peace settlement after Napoleon’s downfall, created the Kingdom of Poland (also called the Congress Kingdom of Poland), consisting of about three-quarters of the territory of the former duchy of Warsaw, with the Russian emperor as king; established Kraków as a city republic; and distributed the remainder of Poland between Russia, Austria, and Prussia. Alexander I, emperor of Russia, granted the new kingdom a liberal constitution in 1815, but Polish nationalists soon initiated a powerful movement for independence. On November 29, 1830, this movement culminated in the outbreak of armed insurrection. The Poles expelled the imperial authorities and in January 1831 proclaimed their independence. In the ensuing war, the Poles kept the Russians at bay for several months. However, the Russians won an important victory at Ostrołka in May 1831 and took Warsaw in September.

The constitution, the Sejm, and the Polish army were abolished in the aftermath of the rebellion. The Poles were deprived of civil liberties, their country was robbed of literary and art treasures, and severe measures were taken to Russianize public institutions and administration. Other abortive insurrections and nationalist demonstrations occurred in various parts of Poland in 1846, 1848, 1861, and most notably in 1863. After the insurrection of 1863 the Russian Empire, intensifying its program for the Russification of the Polish lands under its rule, introduced the Russian language in the schools, restricted the use of the Polish language, and interfered with the activities of the Roman Catholic Church. Culturally, politically, and economically, the parts of Poland under Russian rule were transformed into mere provinces of the Russian Empire, losing almost all vestiges of their former autonomy. The Poles in Prussian Poland were subjected to a policy of Germanization (although not as severe as in the Russian zone); Poles in Austrian Poland were treated more liberally, and they developed their own leaders and political life.


Conscripted into the armies of Russia and the Central Powers, Poles fought against Poles in World War I (1914-1918). After the downfall of the Russian Empire in March 1917, the provisional government of Russia recognized Poland’s right to self-determination. A provisional Polish government was subsequently formed in Paris, France. In September 1917 the Germans, then in complete control of the country, created a regency council as the supreme governmental authority of the so-called Polish kingdom. With the collapse of the Central Powers in the fall of 1918, the Poles moved swiftly toward statehood. In November Poland was proclaimed an independent republic, and Józef Piłsudski became the temporary head of state.

The Post-World War I Period

The Treaty of Versailles, signed in June 1919, granted Poland a narrow belt of territory (the so-called Polish corridor) extending along the Wisła River to the Baltic Sea, and large sections of Poznań and West Prussia. The treaty also awarded Poland important economic rights in the free city of Danzig (now Gdańsk). After a war with Soviet Russia in 1920, Poland regained historically Polish territory from Belarus and Ukraine. In the west, the Poles acquired sections of Upper Silesia in 1921 and 1922, following a direct vote by the electorate.

In the two decades following the war, the foreign policy of Poland was largely determined by fear of Germany and the USSR. A defensive alliance with France was arranged in February 1921, and alliances were subsequently signed with Romania, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Latvia, Estonia, and Finland. In 1932 Poland concluded a nonaggression pact with the USSR. A similar agreement, effective for ten years, was concluded with Germany in 1934. Both these treaties guaranteed Poland’s borders. Under the guidance of Foreign Minister Joźef Beck, Poland pursued a policy of balance in its relations with Germany and the USSR.

Following the adoption of a permanent constitution in March 1921, domestic developments were marked by incessant strife between Poland’s conservative and leftist political factions. Failure of the new state to protect the economic and political rights of the Jews, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Germans, and other minorities included in its population also caused constant friction and turmoil. Some concessions to the demands of certain of the minorities were legislated in 1924. In December 1925 a measure was enacted providing for distribution to the peasantry of 20,234 hectares (50,000 acres) of land each year.

The German Threat

Meanwhile, Poland had been in the throes of an almost continuous financial crisis. General instability and confusion led to frequent changes of cabinet. Following a coup led by Józef Piłsudski in 1926, Ignacy Mościcki was installed as president; Piłsudski, as minister of war, gradually acquired complete control over the government in the late 1920s and early 1930s. In 1935 a new constitution was adopted formalizing his authoritarian regime. Piłsudski survived the inauguration of the new system by less than a month, and was succeeded by General Edward Smigły-Rydz.

The triumph of National Socialism (Nazism) in Germany and the expansionist policy of German dictator Adolf Hitler in the late 1930s posed grave dangers to Polish security. After the Munich Pact and the ensuing destruction of the Czechoslovak state in March 1939, Poland, which had received about 1,036 sq km (about 400 sq mi) of Czech territory in the Munich settlement, became the next major target of German diplomacy. This development took the form of German demands, delivered late in March, that Poland consent to the cession of Danzig to Germany and yield important rights in the Polish corridor. Polish rejection of these demands was followed, on March 31, by an Anglo-French pledge of aid to Poland in the event of German aggression. On April 28, Hitler renounced the German-Polish nonaggression treaty. On September 1, 1939, Germany attacked Poland after signing a pact with the USSR, an act that marked the outbreak of World War II.

World War II

The Polish army received no effective assistance from the West, and by mid-September German armies had overrun most of western and central Poland. On September 17, Soviet troops invaded Poland from the east, and the two invading powers divided the country between them. Enormous reprisals were exacted against the Poles throughout the German-occupied region. In the Soviet-occupied area, many thousands of Poles were forcibly deported to Siberia. In 1940 thousands of captured Polish army officers were murdered by Soviet security services. A mass grave containing many of the bodies was discovered later in the Katyn Forest near Smolensk, Russia.

Numerous members of the Polish government and the military forces succeeded in escaping from Poland during the final phases of German and Soviet military operation against the country. Most of the refugee Polish troops, numbering about 100,000, succeeded in reaching France, where they were regrouped into combat units. These units and others that were later organized in the USSR rendered valiant service to the Allied war effort in North Africa and Europe. In the meantime a government-in-exile, led by General Władystaw Sikorski, had been organized in France. Following the collapse of France in 1940, the Polish government established headquarters in London.

The German armed forces occupied all of Soviet-held Poland during the initial phase of their attack on the USSR in 1941. During their occupation of the country, the German armies pursued a policy of systematic extermination of Polish citizens, particularly Jews, most of whom perished at Auschwitz (Oświęcim), Treblinka, Majdanek, Sobibór, and other concentration camps scattered throughout the country. In April 1943 the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto, rather than wait for destruction in the camps, rose in rebellion against hopeless odds. The Germans quelled the rising after three weeks of fighting. At the end of the war estimated civilian casualties numbered more than 5 million, most of which were inflicted by the Germans. Polish military casualties in the war totaled about 600,000. The material losses suffered were similarly enormous.

The Liberation

The liberation of Poland from German domination began shortly after the Anglo-American invasion of France in June 1944. During June, July, and August the Soviet armies, taking advantage of the situation, inflicted a series of devastating defeats on the Germans in the east. Before the beginning of September the Soviet army, aided by contingents of Polish troops, had begun operations on Polish territory. In August 1944 Polish resistance forces, known as the Home Army (Armia Krajowa), took control of Warsaw, but the Soviets did not support them. The Germans recaptured the city by October and burned it to the ground after evacuating the population. The remains of Warsaw were occupied by the Soviet army in January 1945, and the last of the German invaders were driven from the country in March.

In July 1944 the Soviet government had sponsored the formation of a Polish Committee of National Liberation, an organization largely dominated by Communists. The committee, which established headquarters at Lublin after the liberation of that city, proclaimed itself the provisional government of Poland in December 1944. After several attempts, a reconciliation between the Polish governments in London and Lublin was accomplished. In June 1945, after the Germans had been expelled, a coalition established a Polish Government of National Unity. This government was officially recognized by the British and U.S. governments in the following month, having gained Soviet promises of free elections at the Yalta Conference in early 1945.

Postwar Boundary Changes

At the Potsdam Conference, held after Germany’s surrender in 1945, the Allied powers placed Upper and Lower Silesia, Danzig, and parts of Brandenburg, Pomerania, and East Prussia under Polish administration pending the conclusion of a final peace settlement. Of a population totaling about 8.9 million in the German areas assigned to Poland, more than 7 million were Germans. Most of the Germans fled the Soviet Army or were subsequently expelled to Germany. The eastern frontier of Poland was determined by the terms of a treaty concluded by the Polish and Soviet governments on August 16, 1945. On the basis of this document, which established the Polish-Soviet frontier considerably to the west of the prewar boundary, the USSR acquired a large amount of former Polish territory. The inhabitants of this territory totaled approximately 12.5 million. Of this number, nearly 4 million were Poles, most of whom were repatriated to Poland and resettled in the areas obtained from Germany.

The Emergence of the Communist State

Communist-Socialist strength in the government grew steadily during 1946 and 1947. In the 1947 parliamentary elections—denounced by the United States as undemocratic—the two-party coalition won more than 85 percent of the vote.

Stalinist Takeover

Beginning in September 1948 the Polish Communist Party purged itself of many thousands of so-called national Communists who were accused of approving Yugoslavia’s defiance of the USSR. Among those jailed in the purge was Władysław Gomułka, secretary general of the party and first deputy premier. In December the Socialists and Communists merged to form the Polish United Workers’ Party, in which pro-Stalin Communists were dominant. Soviet Marshal Konstantin Rokossovsky was installed as head of the Polish armed forces in 1949. Thereafter Poland appeared to be one of the most faithful satellites of the USSR.

Pro-Soviet Communist leaders then sought to implement industrial and economic goals for Poland in conformity with the economic and social system of the USSR. The major problem was the effort to collectivize agriculture, which was unsuccessful and later abandoned.

Church-State Conflict

After the Vatican excommunicated all Communists in 1949, the Polish government confiscated many church properties, ordered the closing of church schools, and established a youth organization to counteract the influence of the church.

In the 1950s the government assumed supervision over the appointment of clergymen, requiring a loyalty oath of each candidate. Stefan Cardinal Wyszyński, archbishop of Warsaw and Gniezno and primate of Poland, resisted the measure and was suspended from office.

Gomułka’s Return

During the postwar period, Poland became an active member of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance and the Warsaw Pact, both Soviet-dominated organs. In 1952 Poland adopted a constitution modeled after that of the USSR but explicitly recognizing certain property rights.

During the liberalization that followed the death of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in 1953, Polish artists, intellectuals, students, and workers raised demands for government reforms and a greater measure of freedom from Soviet control. In June 1956 workers staged demonstrations in Poznań; the quelling of the uprising left 53 people dead and several hundred wounded. Leaders of the demonstrations received relatively light sentences. In October Gomułka, who had been readmitted to the party, was named first secretary with great popular support. Rokossovsky and other Stalinist officials in high Polish posts were dismissed, and Cardinal Wyszyński was freed from detention.

Gomułka became the dominant figure in Poland, steering a careful course between pro-Soviet and nationalist sentiments and introducing limited political reforms. In the 1957 elections, slates included some non-Communists and independents; moreover, there were nearly twice as many candidates as posts to be filled. By the early 1960s, however, Gomułka had tightened the party’s hold on Poland and halted most of the reforms.

Popular discontent erupted once again in Poland in the spring of 1968, as demands by students and artists for greater freedom of expression were met by severe government repression. Student demonstrations began in Warsaw in March, at the university and at the polytechnic, and soon spread to the universities in Poznań, Lublin, and Kraków. The students demanded liberal reforms similar to those instituted in Czechoslovakia at the time. Seeking to stifle dissent, the government launched a campaign against Jews. Hundreds of Jews and reformers were dismissed from government, party, university, and newspaper positions, and many left Poland for the West or Israel. During the conferences in Warsaw in June and Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, in August 1968, the Warsaw Pact powers condemned the political and cultural reforms taking place in Czechoslovakia. On August 20 Poland participated in the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia, sending a contingent estimated at 45,000 troops.

Reconciliation with West Germany

Early in 1970 economic problems prompted the government to make a major adjustment in its foreign policy. Hopeful of obtaining economic and technological aid from prosperous West Germany (now part of the Federal Republic of Germany), the Poles opened political talks with West Germany in January, and the Polish and German foreign ministers reached agreement in November. In December Chancellor Willy Brandt of West Germany went to Warsaw to sign the resulting treaty, in which West Germany formally accepted the postwar loss of 103,600 sq km (40,000 sq mi) to Poland and the establishment of the Oder-Neisse line as Poland’s western frontier. In return, West Germany received informal Polish assurances that Polish residents who claimed German nationality (believed to number several tens of thousands) would be permitted to emigrate from Poland. Both sides agreed to settle disputes exclusively by peaceful means and to move toward full normalization of relations. Full relations were restored after the West German parliament ratified the treaty in May 1972.

The Gierek Regime

An economic crisis assumed major proportions late in 1970. Polish industry had fallen short of planning goals. Bad weather again contributed to a poor harvest and resulted in the costly import of grain. In addition, the prices of coal, food, and clothing were drastically increased. Outraged at the increases, Polish workers, mainly from the Baltic seaports of Gdańsk, Gdynia, and Szczecin, staged demonstrations that led to riots, arson, and looting. A week-long state of emergency was declared, and the protests were forcibly suppressed with considerable loss of life.

In the aftermath of the rioting, party secretary Gomułka and other party leaders were removed from the Politburo (the executive committee of the Communist Party). Edward Gierek, a prominent Politburo member from Silesia, became party secretary. Prices were frozen at their previous levels, and in the early 1970s Poland enjoyed a period of political liberalization and economic prosperity based on foreign loans.

Improving relations with the West were symbolized by visits to Poland by U.S. presidents Richard M. Nixon in 1972, Gerald R. Ford in 1975, and Jimmy Carter in 1977. Also in the 1970s Poland began the repatriation of some 125,000 ethnic Germans to West Germany.

After a proposed price increase was prevented by strikes and demonstrations in 1976, political life stagnated and worker opposition developed. Karol Cardinal Wojtyła of Kraków was elected pope as John Paul II in 1978. Living standards deteriorated, and hundreds of thousands of Polish workers responded to a large food price hike by going on strike in the summer of 1980. In August the country was paralyzed when workers in Gdańsk and other Baltic ports conducted sit-in strikes in their shipyards for three weeks and started making political demands. At the end of the month the Communist authorities were forced into making unprecedented concessions to the workers. These included the right to strike, wage increases, the release of political prisoners, and the elimination of censorship. The recognition of the right to organize independent trade unions led to the formation of the Solidarity federation in mid-September. The ill and discredited Communist Party leader Gierek stepped down in favor of Stanisław Kania shortly afterward.

O. Solidarity Triumphant

The standoff between Solidarity and the Communist Party took place during a period of increased economic decline, and social discontent caused a growing number of dangerous confrontations. Partly because of Soviet pressure, the government was unable or unwilling to carry out the necessary reforms. In February 1981, General Wojciech Jaruzelski was made premier, and in October he became the head of the Communist Party. To control the situation Jaruzelski used the demands of the Solidarity movement for economic improvements and greater political freedom as a pretext for imposing martial law. In mid-December the Solidarity organization was suspended, and its leader, Lech Wałęsa, was interned. Thousands of other Solidarity activists were either arrested or interned, and nine activists were killed.

All industrial and political opposition was banned and suppressed, and Communist Party reformers were also disciplined. Polish authorities retained many of the expanded emergency powers even after the lifting of martial law in 1983. Solidarity lost its mass base but survived as an underground opposition force with sufficient popular support to force gradual concessions from the regime. It was backed by the increasingly powerful Roman Catholic Church, which had been strengthened by papal visits in 1983 and 1987. The Jaruzelski government gradually loosened its grip on power and attempted to introduce economic reforms. These failed to gain sufficient social support, however, and were never completed.

The political and economic stalemate in Poland during the 1980s was broken by the appointment of Mikhail Gorbachev as Soviet leader in 1985 and the resulting liberalization of Soviet policy. Reform became possible in Poland. Spurred on by industrial unrest in 1988, Jaruzelski’s reformist Communists and Wałęsa’s Civic Committee negotiated an agreement in early 1989. Political and civic freedoms were conceded, Solidarity was relegalized, and a freely elected Senat (upper legislative house) was established. Jaruzelski was elected to the presidency with Solidarity’s approval.

In the 1989 legislative elections, Solidarity won 99 of the 100 Senat seats as well as the 35 percent of the Sejm (lower house) seats that it was allowed to contest. Although the political balance in the Sejm was now held by the Communists’ minor party allies (the peasant and democratic parties), these parties refused to endorse the Communist police chief, General Czesław Kiszczak, as prime minister. In August, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, a close aide to Wałęsa, formed a coalition government in which Communists controlled the defense and interior ministries. Mazowiecki, Poland’s first non-Communist premier in more than 40 years, dismantled the Communist system and consolidated the transition to democracy. His influential finance minister, Leszek Balcerowicz, curbed the swelling hyperinflation and initiated Poland’s rapid transition to a free-market economy.

Democratic Poland

In 1990 Solidarity split into two opposing groups, with one group supporting Wałęsa and the other supporting Mazowiecki. In November Wałęsa, Mazowiecki, and a maverick émigré millionaire, Stanisław Tymiński, ran in a presidential election. Mazowiecki was eliminated on the first ballot while Wałęsa won the runoff against Tymiński. Wałęsa was unclear about how to define his office, however. This led to an ambiguous distribution of presidential, prime ministerial, and parliamentary powers in Poland’s transitional “Little Constitution,” adopted in 1992. Post-Communist Poland thus suffered from a confused, unstable, and conflict-ridden political process. Proportional representation adopted for the 1991 legislative elections produced a Sejm composed of a dozen significant political parties. Between 1991 and 1993 Poland was governed by a succession of short-lived parliamentary coalitions.

Poland established or renewed diplomatic relations with the European Community (now the European Union), the republics of the former USSR, the Vatican, and Israel, and signed cooperation treaties with the newly unified Germany and a number of other European states. The country joined the Council of Europe and negotiated associate membership of the European Union. Full national sovereignty was regained in 1992 with the evacuation of most of the Soviet troops stationed in Poland. The withdrawal was completed in August 1993.

The September 1993 legislative elections simplified the party system by excluding all but the six parties who succeeded in gaining the minimum electoral threshold of 5 percent of the vote (8 percent for coalitions). The Communists’ successor parties, including the Social Democracy of the Polish Republic (SdRP) and the Polish People’s Party (PSL), benefited from popular dissatisfaction with the socioeconomic costs of the transformation and gained a large majority. Waldemar Pawlak, the PSL leader, became prime minister, but his government was harassed by Wałęsa and accused of trying to slow economic reform. In early 1995 Wałęsa threatened to dissolve parliament if the Pawlak government was not replaced. Betraying his intention to position himself for the 1995 presidential election, Wałęsa nominated a likely election opponent, Aleksander Kwaśniewski, for the position of prime minister. He was overruled by parliament, and Józef Oleksy, a member of the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) and former Communist, was eventually nominated. Amid this atmosphere Pawlak’s government lost a vote of confidence. Pawlak resigned as prime minister in March and was replaced by Oleksy.

In the presidential election held in November 1995, Wałęsa, who had discredited himself among the Poles through his personal failings and political mistakes, was unseated by Kwaśniewski, a former Communist and the founder and leader of the SLD. Kwaśniewski pledged to continue the process of economic reform and to seek full membership for Poland in the EU and NATO. In a move intended to help heal the political rifts resulting from the election, Kwaśniewski resigned from the leadership of the SLD later that month. Kwaśniewski was reelected president in 2000.

In January 1996 Prime Minister Oleksy resigned in the face of a formal investigation into allegations that he had been spying for Russia for more than a decade. Oleksy, Poland’s seventh prime minister since the collapse of Communism, had once served in the Communist Party’s Central Committee. Although he admitted to having a friendship with a Russian intelligence agent who had been stationed in Warsaw since the 1980s, Oleksy denied the espionage charges and declared his innocence. Włodzimierz Cimoszewicz, also of the SLD, replaced Oleksy as prime minister in February. In April the military prosecutor investigating the charges against Oleksy decided to drop the case due to insufficient evidence of criminal activity.

In October 1996 the Sejm voted not to charge Jaruzelski and other former Communist officials with constitutional violations in connection with the imposition of martial law in 1981.

A New Constitution for Poland

In 1997 a special parliamentary commission, dominated by former Communists, completed the task of drafting a new constitution. Following parliamentary approval of the document in April, a nationwide referendum was held in May in which 52.7 percent of voters approved the new constitution. A coalition of right-wing groups associated with Solidarity and some Catholics strongly opposed its passage, claiming some of its provisions were overly secular. A synthesis of seven competing versions, the 243-article charter delineates the powers of the presidency, guarantees basic civil rights, ensures civilian control over the armed forces, and commits the country to a market economy and private ownership of enterprise.

In October 1997 the conservative Solidarity Electoral Action (AWS) and the pro-business Freedom Union (UW) formed a coalition government after winning a combined majority of seats in both the Sejm and the Senat in legislative elections the previous month. Kwaśniewski appointed Jerzy Buzek, a former Solidarity activist in the 1980s and an AWS legislator, as prime minister. A liberal reformer, Buzek pledged to accelerate the privatization of state-owned industries and to decentralize government power. In December 1997 the EU invited Poland to begin the process of becoming a full member.

In July 1998 the Polish government approved a plan to slash the number of provinces from 49 to 16, and to invest each province’s elected officials with more authority. The administrative reform, which took effect on January 1, 1999, was part of Poland’s efforts to bring its laws and procedures in line with EU standards for admission. Government leaders celebrated Poland’s accession to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in March, about two years after it was invited into the historically western alliance.

The Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) emerged as the largest party in the September 2001 legislative elections and it formed a coalition government with the Polish People’s Party (PSL). Leszek Miller, SLD leader and a former member of the Polish Communist Party’s Central Committee, became prime minister in October. Miller vowed to reduce Poland’s growing budget deficit and to win membership for Poland in the EU. The elections were a stunning defeat for the Solidarity-led AWS, which was ousted from the legislature after failing to win the minimum 8 percent of the vote required for coalitions.

Poland Since Its Entry into the EU

In a nationwide referendum in June 2003, Polish voters overwhelmingly supported Poland’s entry into the European Union (EU). The vote gave President Kwaśniewski popular approval to ratify Poland’s accession to the EU, which formally occurred in May 2004. Rising unemployment and mounting economic problems ahead of Poland’s entry into the EU led to widespread dissatisfaction with Prime Minister Miller’s government. In March 2004 Miller announced his intention to resign. A few days later the president named Marek Belka, an economist, as his successor.

However, persistently high unemployment and corruption scandals undermined the governing SLD, and support for the party plunged heading into the September 2005 parliamentary elections. The elections brought the lowest voter turnout—about 40 percent—since the fall of Communism in 1989.

The socially conservative Law and Justice Party (PiS) won the most seats in the election, followed by the pro-business Civic Platform (PO). Talks between the two parties to create a coalition government failed, and Law and Justice instead formed a minority government with the support of a number of smaller parties. Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz, a noted economics expert, was named prime minister. Shortly after the parliamentary elections, Lech Kaczyński of Law and Justice won Poland’s presidency in a separate vote. Marcinkiewicz stood down as prime minister in July 2006 and was replaced by the president’s twin, Jarosław Kaczyński.

Prime Minister Kaczyński made rooting out corruption his highest priority and to this end formed the Central Anti-Corruption Bureau. His government also sought to remove former Communist officials from public positions. Relations with other EU countries, especially Germany, became strained as the prime minister pursued a more isolationist path for Poland.

The Law and Justice Party’s unstable coalition collapsed in August 2007, forcing early parliamentary elections in October. The elections had the highest turnout since 1989, with 53.8 percent of voters going to the polls. Civic Platform (PO) emerged as the clear winner, taking 209 seats in the 460-member Sejm, while Law and Justice trailed with 166 seats. The election outcome continued a trend: No government had been reelected in Poland since the fall of Communism. The Civic Platform victory was largely attributed to higher turnout among younger Poles, who favored the party’s pro-EU policies. Civic Platform leader Donald Tusk became prime minister and formed a coalition government with the Polish People’s Party, thereby securing a comfortable majority in the Sejm. Tusk’s highest priorities included improving relations with other EU countries and meeting stringent economic requirements for Poland’s eventual adoption of the euro, the currency of the EU.

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