Poland /ˈpoʊlənd/ (Polish: Polska), officially the Republic of Poland (Polish: Rzeczpospolita Polska; Kashubian: Pòlskô Repùblika), is a country in Central Europe, bordered by Germany to the west; the Czech Republic and Slovakia to the south; Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania to the east; and the Baltic Sea and Kaliningrad Oblast, a Russian exclave, to the north. The total area of Poland is 312,679 square kilometres (120,726 sq mi), making it the 69th largest country in the world and the 9th largest in Europe. Poland has a population of over 38.5 million people, which makes it the 34th most populous country in the world and the sixth most populous member of the European Union, being its most populous post-communist member. Poland is a unitary state made up of 16 voivodeships. Poland is a member of the European Union, NATO, the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), European Economic Area, International Energy Agency, Council of Europe, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, International Atomic Energy Agency, European Space Agency, G6, Council of the Baltic Sea States, Visegrád Group, Weimar Triangle and Schengen Agreement.
The establishment of a Polish state is often identified with the adoption of Christianity by its ruler Mieszko I in 966, over the territory similar to that of present-day Poland. The Kingdom of Poland was formed in 1025, and in 1569 it cemented a long association with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania by signing the Union of Lublin, forming the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. The Commonwealth ceased to exist in 1795 as the Polish lands were partitioned among the Kingdom of Prussia, the Russian Empire, and Austria. Poland regained its independence as the Second Polish Republic in 1918. Two decades later, in September 1939, World War II started with the Nazi Germany and Soviet Union invasion of Poland (Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact). Over six million Polish citizens died in the war. The People's Republic was declared in 1952 although Poland was a client state of the Soviet Union from the closing days of the war. During the Revolutions of 1989, the communist state was overthrown and democratic rule was re-established in the form of the current Poland, constitutionally known as the "Third Polish Republic".
Despite the vast destruction the country experienced in World War II, Poland managed to preserve much of its cultural wealth. There are currently 14 heritage sites inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list in Poland. Since the end of the communist period, Poland has achieved a "very high" ranking in terms of human development.
The source of the name Poland and the ethnonyms for the Poles include endonyms (the way Polish people refer to themselves and their country) and exonyms (the way other peoples refer to the Poles and their country). Endonyms and most exonyms for Poles and Poland derive from the name of the West Slavic tribe of the Polans (Polanie). The origin of the name Polanie itself is uncertain. It may derive from such Polish words as pole (field). The early tribal inhabitants denominated it from the nature of the country. Lowlands and low hills predominate throughout the vast region from the Baltic shores to the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. Inter Alpes Huniae et Oceanum est Polonia, sic dicta in eorum idiomate quasi Campania is the description by Gervase of Tilbury in his Otia imperialia (Recreation for the emperor, 1211). In some languages the exonyms for Poland derive from another tribal name, Lechites (Lechici).
Historians have postulated that throughout Late Antiquity, many distinct ethnic groups populated the regions of what is now known as Poland. The ethnicity and linguistic affiliation of these groups have been hotly debated; the time and route of the original settlement of Slavic peoples in these regions have been the particular subjects of much controversy.
The most famous archeological find from the prehistory and protohistory of Poland is the Biskupin fortified settlement (now reconstructed as a museum), dating from the Lusatian culture of the early Iron Age, around 700 BC. Before adopting Christianity in 960 AD, the people of Poland believed in Svetovid, the Slavic god of war, fertility, and abundance. Many other Slavic nations had the same belief.
Poland began to form into a recognizable unitary and territorial entity around the middle of the 10th century under the Piast dynasty. Poland's first historically documented ruler, Mieszko I, was baptized in 966, adopting Catholicism as the nation's new official religion, to which the bulk of the population converted in the course of the next few centuries. In 1000 Boleslaw the Brave, continuing the policy of his father held a Congress of Gniezno and created a new dioceses. In the 12th century, Poland fragmented into several smaller duchies when Bolesław divided the nation amongst his sons. In 1226 Konrad I of Masovia, one of the regional Piast dukes, invited the Teutonic Knights to help him fight the Baltic Prussian pagans; a decision which would ultimately lead to centuries of warfare with the Knights. In the middle of 13th century Poland was almost united by Silesian branch of Piast dynasty (Henry I the Bearded and Henry II the Pious), when the country was devastated by the Mongols, in the Battle of Legnica. In 1320, after a number of earlier unsuccessful attempts by regional rulers at uniting the Polish dukedoms, Władysław I consolidated his power, took the throne and became the first King of a reunified Poland. His son, Casimir III, is remembered as one of the greatest Polish kings, who was widely recognized as a protector of trade. He extended his kingdom to 250% of its initial size. Casimir is also known for extending royal protection to Jews and providing the original impetus for the establishment of Poland's first university. The Golden Liberty of the nobles began to develop under Casimir's rule, when in return for their military support, the king made serious concessions to the aristocrats, finally establishing their status as superior to that of the townsmen, and aiding their rise to power. When Casimir died in 1370 he left no legitimate male heir and, considering his other male descendants either too young or unsuitable, was laid to rest as the last of the nation's Piast rulers.
Poland was also a centre of migration of peoples. The Germans settled in the towns, the Jewish community began to settle and flourish in Poland during this era (see History of the Jews in Poland); the same applies in smaller number to Armenians. The Black Death which affected most parts of Europe from 1347 to 1351 affected Poland to lesser extent.
The rule of the Jagiellon dynasty spanned the late Middle Ages and early Modern Era of Polish history. Beginning with the Lithuanian Grand Duke Jogaila (Władysław II Jagiełło), the Jagiellon dynasty (1386–1572) formed the Polish–Lithuanian union. The partnership brought vast Lithuania-controlled Rus' areas into Poland's sphere of influence and proved beneficial for the Poles and Lithuanians, who coexisted and cooperated in one of the largest political entities in Europe for the next four centuries. In the Baltic Sea region Poland's struggle with the Teutonic Knights continued and included the Battle of Grunwald (1410), where a Polish-Lithuanian army inflicted a decisive defeat on the Teutonic Knights, both countries' main adversary, allowing Poland's and Lithuania's territorial expansion into the far north region of Livonia. In 1466, after the Thirteen Years' War, King Casimir IV Jagiellon gave royal consent to the milestone Peace of Thorn, which created the future Duchy of Prussia, a Polish vassal. The Jagiellons at one point also established dynastic control over the kingdoms of Bohemia (1471 onwards) and Hungary. In the south Poland confronted the Ottoman Empire and the Crimean Tatars (by whom they were attacked on 75 separate occasions between 1474 and 1569), and in the east helped Lithuania fight the Grand Duchy of Moscow. Some historians estimate that Crimean Tatar slave-raiding cost Poland one million of its population from 1494 to 1694.
Poland was developing as a feudal state, with a predominantly agricultural economy and an increasingly powerful landed nobility. The Nihil novi act adopted by the Polish Sejm (parliament) in 1505, transferred most of the legislative power from the monarch to the Sejm, an event which marked the beginning of the period known as "Golden Liberty", when the state was ruled by the "free and equal" Polish nobility. Protestant Reformation movements made deep inroads into Polish Christianity, which resulted in the establishment of policies promoting religious tolerance, unique in Europe at that time. It is believed that this tolerance allowed the country to avoid the religious turmoil that spread over Europe during the late Middle Ages. The European Renaissance evoked in late Jagiellon Poland (kings Sigismund I the Old and Sigismund II Augustus) a sense of urgency in the need to promote a cultural awakening, and resultantly during this period Polish culture and the nation's economy flourished. In 1543 the Pole, Nicolaus Copernicus, an astronomer from Toruń, published his epochal works, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres), and thus became the first proponent of a predictive mathematical model confirming heliocentric theory which ultimately became the accepted basic model for the practice of modern astronomy. Another major figure associated with the era is classicist poet Jan Kochanowski.
The 1569 Union of Lublin established the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, a more closely unified federal state with an elective monarchy, but which was governed largely by the nobility, through a system of local assemblies with a central parliament. The establishment of the Commonwealth coincided with a period of great stability and prosperity in Poland, with the union soon thereafter becoming a great European power and a major cultural entity, occupying approximately one million square kilometres of central Europe, as well as an agent for the of the 'Western culture' through Polonization in modern-day Ukraine, Belarus and Western Russia. Poland-Lithuania suffered from a number of dynastic crises during the reigns of the Vasa kings Sigismund III and Władysław IV and found itself engaged in a major conflicts with Russia, Sweden and the Ottoman Empire, as well as a series of minor Cossack uprisings.
From the middle of the 17th century, the nobles' democracy, suffering from internal disorder, gradually declined, thus leaving the once powerful Commonwealth extremely vulnerable to foreign intervention. From 1648, the Cossack Khmelnytsky Uprising engulfed the south and east eventually leaving Ukraine divided, with the eastern part, lost by the Commonwealth, becoming a dependency of the Tsardom of Russia. This was soon followed by the 'Deluge', a Swedish invasion, which raged through the Polish heartlands and caused unprecedented damage to Poland's population, culture and infrastructure. Famines and epidemics followed hostilities, and the population dropped from roughly 11 to 7 million. However, under John III Sobieski the Commonwealth's military prowess was re-established, and in 1683 Polish forces played a major part in relieving Vienna of a major Turkish siege which was being conducted by Kara Mustafa in hope of eventually marching his troops further into Europe to spread Islam. Unfortunately, Sobieski's reign was to mark the end of the nation's golden-era, and soon, finding itself subjected to almost constant warfare and suffering enormous population losses as well as massive damage to its economy, the Commonwealth fell into decline. The government became ineffective as a result of large scale internal conflicts (e.g. Lubomirski's Rokosz against John II Casimir and rebellious confederations) and corrupted legislative processes. The nobility fell under the control of a handful of magnates, and this, compounded with two relatively weak kings of the Saxon Wettin dynasty, Augustus II and Augustus III, as well as the rise of Russia and Prussia after the Great Northern War only served to worsen the Commonwealth's plight. Despite this The Commonwealth-Saxony personal union gave rise to the emergence of the Commonwealth's first reform movement, and laid the foundations for the Polish Enlightenment.
During the later part of the 18th century, the Commonwealth made attempts to implement fundamental internal reforms; with the second half of the century bringing a much improved economy, significant population growth and far-reaching progress in the areas of education, intellectual life, art, and especially toward the end of the period, evolution of the social and political system. The most populous capital city of Warsaw replaced Gdańsk (Danzig) as the leading centre of commerce, and the role of the more prosperous townsfolk soon increased. The royal election of 1764 resulted in the elevation of Stanisław August Poniatowski, a refined and worldly aristocrat connected to a major magnate faction, to the monarchy. However, a one-time lover of Empress Catherine II of Russia, the new king spent much of his reign torn between his desire to implement reforms necessary to save his nation, and his perceived necessity to remain in a relationship with his Russian sponsor. This ultimately led to the formation of the 1768 Bar Confederation; a szlachta rebellion directed against Russia and the Polish king which fought to preserve Poland's independence and the szlachta's traditional privileges. Unfortunately, attempts at reform provoked the union's neighbours, and in 1772 the First Partition of the Commonwealth by Russia, Austria and Prussia took place; an act which the "Partition Sejm", under considerable duress, eventually "ratified" fait accompli. Disregarding this loss, in 1773 the king established the Commission of National Education, the first government education authority in Europe.
The long-lasting Great Sejm convened by Stanisław August in 1788 successfully adopted the May 3 Constitution, the first set of modern supreme national laws in Europe. However, this document, accused by detractors of harbouring revolutionary sympathies, soon generated strong opposition from the Commonwealth's nobles and conservatives as well as from Catherine II, who, determined to prevent the rebirth of a strong Commonwealth set about planning the final dismemberment of the Polish-Lithuanian state. Russia was greatly aided in achieving its goal when the Targowica Confederation, an organisation of Polish nobles, appealed to the Empress for help, and in May 1792 Russian forces crossed the Commonwealth's frontier, thus beginning the Polish-Russian War. The defensive war fought by the Poles and Lithuanians ended prematurely when the King, convinced of the futility of resistance, capitulated and joined the Targowica Confederation. The Confederation then took over the government; Russia and Prussia, fearing the mere existence of a Polish state, arranged for, and subsequently in 1793, executed the Second Partition of the Commonwealth, which left the country deprived of so much territory that it was practically incapable of independent existence. Eventually, in 1795, following the failed Kościuszko Uprising, the Commonwealth was partitioned one last time by all three of its more powerful neighbours, and with this, effectively ceased to exist.
The Age of Partitions
Poles rebelled several times against the partitioners, particularly near the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century. One of the most famous and successful attempts at securing renewed Polish independence took place in 1794, during the Kościuszko Uprising, at the Racławice where Tadeusz Kosciuszko, a popular and distinguished general who had served under Washington in America, led peasants and some Polish regulars into battle against numerically superior Russian forces. In 1807, Napoleon I of France recreated a Polish state, the Duchy of Warsaw, but after the Napoleonic Wars, Poland was again divided by the victorious Allies at the Congress of Vienna of 1815. The eastern part was ruled by the Russian tsar as a Congress Kingdom which possessed a very liberal constitution. However, the tsars soon reduced Polish freedoms, and Russia annexed the country in virtually all but name. Thus in the latter half of the 19th century, only Austrian-ruled Galicia, and particularly the Free City of Kraków, created good environment for free Polish cultural life to flourish.
Throughout the period of the partitions, political and cultural repression of the Polish nation led to the organisation of a number of uprisings against the authorities of the occupying Russian, Prussian and Austrian governments. Notable amongst these are the November Uprising of 1830 and January Uprising of 1863, both of which were attempts to free Poland from the rule of tsarist Russia. The November uprising began on 29 November 1830 in Warsaw when, led by Lieutenant Piotr Wysocki, young non-commissioned officers at the Imperial Russian Army's military academy in that city revolted. They were soon joined by large segments of Polish society, and together forced Warsaw's Russian garrison to withdraw north of the city.
Over the course of the next seven months, Polish forces successfully defeated the Russian armies of Field Marshal Hans Karl von Diebitsch and a number of other Russian commanders; however, finding themselves in a position unsupported by any other foreign powers, save distant France and the newborn United States, and with Prussia and Austria refusing to allow the import of military supplies through their territories, the Poles accepted that the uprising was doomed to failure. Upon the surrender of Warsaw to General Ivan Paskievich, many Polish troops, feeling they could not go on, withdrew into Germany and there laid down their arms. Poles would have to wait another 32 years for another opportunity to free their homeland.
When in January 1863 a new Polish uprising against Russian rule began, it did so as a spontaneous protest by young Poles against conscription into the Imperial Russian Army. However, the insurrectionists, despite being joined by high-ranking Polish-Lithuanian officers and numerous politicians were still severely outnumbered and lacking in foreign support. They were forced to resort to guerrilla warfare tactics and ultimately failed to win any major military victories. Afterwards no major uprising was witnessed in the Russian controlled Congress Poland and Poles resorted instead to fostering economic and cultural self-improvement.
Despite the political unrest experienced during the partitions, Poland did benefit from large scale industrialisation and modernisation programs, instituted by the occupying powers, which helped it develop into a more economically coherent and viable entity. This was particularly true in the Greater Poland, Pomerania and Warmia annexed by Prussia (later becoming a part of the German Empire); an area which eventually, thanks largely to the Greater Poland Uprising, was reconstituted as a part of the Second Polish Republic and became one of its most productive regions.
Reconstitution of Poland
During World War I, all the Allies agreed on the reconstitution of Poland that United States President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed in Point 13 of his Fourteen Points. A total of 2 million Polish troops fought with the armies of the three occupying powers, and 450,000 died. Shortly after the armistice with Germany in November 1918, Poland regained its independence as the Second Polish Republic (II Rzeczpospolita Polska). It reaffirmed its independence after a series of military conflicts, the most notable being the Polish–Soviet War (1919–1921) when Poland inflicted a crushing defeat on the Red Army at the Battle of Warsaw, an event which is considered to have ultimately halted the advance of Communism into Europe and forced Vladimir Lenin to rethink his objective of achieving global socialism. Nowadays the event is often referred to as the 'Miracle at the Vistula'.
During this period, Poland successfully managed to fuse the territories of the three former partitioning powers into a cohesive nation state. Railways were restructured to direct traffic towards Warsaw instead of the former imperial capitals, a new network of national roads was gradually built up and a major seaport was opened on the Baltic Coast, so as to allow Polish exports and imports to bypass the politically charged Free City of Danzig.
The inter-war period heralded in a new era of Polish politics. Whilst Polish political activists had faced heavy censorship in the decades up until the First World War, the country now found itself trying to establish a new political tradition. For this reason, many exiled Polish activists, such as Jan Paderewski (who would later become Prime Minister) returned home to help; a great number of them then went on to take key positions in the newly formed political and governmental structures. Tragedy struck in 1922 when Gabriel Narutowicz, inaugural holder of the Presidency, was assassinated at the Zachęta Gallery in Warsaw by painter and right-wing nationalist Eligiusz Niewiadomski.
The 1926 May Coup of Józef Piłsudski turned rule of the Second Polish Republic over to the Sanacja movement. By the 1930s Poland had become increasingly authoritarian; a number of 'undesirable' political parties, such as the Polish Communists, had been banned and following Piłsudski's death, the regime, unable to appoint a new leader, began to show its inherent internal weaknesses and unwillingness to cooperate in any way with other political parties.
World War II
The Sanacja movement controlled Poland until the start of World War II in 1939, when Nazi Germany's Invasion of Poland (1939) on 1 September and the Soviet invasion of Poland on 17 September, which followed the breaking of the Soviet–Polish Non-Aggression Pact, occurred. Warsaw capitulated on 28 September 1939. As agreed in the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, Poland was split into two zones, one occupied by Nazi Germany while the Kresy, or Borderlands, fell under the control of the Soviet Union. By 1941, the Soviets had moved hundreds of thousands of Poles into labor camps scattered across the Soviet Union, and the Soviet secret police, NKVD, had executed thousands of Polish prisoners of war.
Poland made the fourth-largest troop contribution to the Allied war effort, after the Soviets, the British and the Americans. Polish troops fought under the command of both the Polish Government in Exile in the theatre of war west of Germany and under Soviet leadership in the theatre of war east of Germany. The Polish expeditionary corps, which was controlled by the exiled pre-war government based in London, played an important role in the Italian and North African Campaigns. They are particularly well remembered for their conduct at the Battle of Monte Cassino, a conflict which culminated in the raising of a Polish flag over the ruins of the mountain-top abbey by the 12th Podolian Uhlans. The Polish forces in the theatre of war east of Germany were commanded by Lieutenant General Władysław Anders who had received his command from Prime Minister of the exiled government Władysław Sikorski. On the east of Germany, the Soviet-backed Polish 1st Army distinguished itself in the battles for Berlin and Warsaw, although its actions in support of the latter have often been criticised.
Polish servicemen were also active in the theatres of naval and air warfare; during the Battle of Britain Polish squadrons such as the No. 303 "Kościuszko" fighter squadron achieved great success, and by the end of the war the exiled Polish Air Forces could claim 769 confirmed kills. Meanwhile, the Polish Navy was active in the protection of convoys in the North Sea and Atlantic Ocean.
In addition to the organised units of the 1st Army and the Forces in the Nazi-occupied Europe, the domestic underground resistance movement, the Armia Krajowa, or Home Army, fought to free Poland from German occupation and establish an independent Polish state. The wartime resistance movement in Poland was one of the three largest resistance movements of the entire war and encompassed an unusually broad range of clandestine activities, which essentially functioned as an underground state complete with degree-awarding universities and a court system. The resistance was, however, largely loyal to the exiled government and generally resented the idea of a communist Poland; for this reason, on 1 August 1944 they initiated Operation Tempest and thus began the Warsaw Uprising. The objective of the uprising was to drive the German occupiers from the city and help with the larger fight against Germany and the Axis powers, however secondary motives for the uprising sought to see Warsaw liberated before the Soviets could reach the capital, so as to underscore Polish sovereignty by empowering the Polish Underground State before the Soviet-backed Polish Committee of National Liberation could assume control. However, a lack of available allied military aid and Stalin's reluctance to allow the 1st Army to help their fellow countrymen take the city, ultimately led to the uprising's failure and subsequent planned destruction of the city.
During the war, German forces, under direct order from Adolf Hitler, set up six major extermination camps, all of which were established on Polish territory; these included both the notorious Treblinka and Auschwitz camps. This allowed the Germans to transport the Jews living in the Third Reich outside of "German" territory, as well as to import Jews and other targeted groups from across occupied Europe to be "liquidated," or killed, in the concentration camps set up in the General Government. Among such groups were Polish intelligentsia, communists, Roma peoples and Soviet Prisoners of War. However, since millions of Jews lived in pre-war Poland, Jewish victims make up the largest percentage of all victims of the Nazis' extermination program. It is estimated that, of pre-war Poland's Jewry, approximately 90% (or about 3 million members) were killed. Throughout the occupation, many members of the Armia Krajowa, supported by the Polish government in exile, and millions of ordinary Poles — at great risk to themselves and their families — engaged in rescuing Jews from the Nazi Germans. Grouped by nationality, Poles represent the largest number of people who rescued Jews during the Holocaust. To date, 6,135 Poles have been awarded the title of Righteous among the Nations by the State of Israel–more than any other nation. Some estimates put the number of Poles involved in rescue efforts at up to 3 million, and credit Poles with saving up to approximately 450,000 Jews from certain death.
At the war's conclusion, Poland's territory was shifted westwards, pushing the Kresy in accordance with the Curzon Line. Meanwhile, the western border moved to the Oder-Neisse line. As a result, Poland's territory was reduced by 20%, or 77,500 square kilometres (29,900 sq mi). The shift forced the migration of millions of people, most of whom were Poles, Germans, Ukrainians, and Jews.Of all the countries involved in the war, Poland lost the highest percentage of its citizens: over 6 million perished — nearly one-fifth of Poland's population — half of them Polish Jews. Over 90% of deaths were non-military in nature. Only in the 1970s did Poland again approach its prewar population levels.
Postwar communist Poland
At the insistence of Joseph Stalin, the Yalta Conference sanctioned the formation of a new Polish provisional and pro-Communist coalition government in Moscow, which ignored the Polish government-in-exile based in London; a move which angered many Poles who considered it a betrayal by the Allies. In 1944, Stalin had made guarantees to Churchill and Roosevelt that he would maintain Poland's sovereignty and allow democratic elections to take place; however, upon achieving victory in 1945, the occupying Soviet authorities organised an election which constituted nothing more than a sham and was ultimately used to claim the 'legitimacy' of Soviet hegemony over Polish affairs. The Soviet Union instituted a new communist government in Poland, analogous to much of the rest of the Eastern Bloc. As elsewhere in Communist Europe the Soviet occupation of Poland met with armed resistance from the outset which continued into the fifties.
Despite widespread objections, the new Polish government accepted the Soviet annexation of the pre-war eastern regions of Poland (in particular the cities of Wilno and Lwów) and agreed to the permanent garrisoning of Red Army units on Poland's territory. Military alignment within the Warsaw Pact throughout the Cold War came about as a direct result of this change in Poland's political culture and in the European scene came to characterise the fully-fledged integration of Poland into the brotherhood of communist nations.
The People's Republic of Poland (Polska Rzeczpospolita Ludowa) was officially proclaimed in 1952. In 1956, the régime of Władysław Gomułka became temporarily more liberal, freeing many people from prison and expanding some personal freedoms. A similar situation repeated itself in the 1970s under Edward Gierek, but most of the time persecution of anti-communist opposition groups persisted. Despite this, Poland was at the time considered to be one of the least repressive states of the Soviet Bloc.
Labour turmoil in 1980 led to the formation of the independent trade union "Solidarity" ("Solidarność"), which over time became a political force. Despite persecution and imposition of martial law in 1981, it eroded the dominance of the Communist Party and by 1989 had triumphed in Poland's first free and democratic parliamentary elections since the end of the Second World War. Lech Wałęsa, a Solidarity candidate, eventually won the presidency in 1990. The Solidarity movement heralded the collapse of communist regimes and parties across Europe.
A shock therapy programme, initiated by Leszek Balcerowicz in the early 1990s enabled the country to transform its socialist-style planned economy into a market economy. As with all other post-communist countries, Poland suffered temporary slumps in social and economic standards, but it became the first post-communist country to reach its pre-1989 GDP levels, which it achieved by 1995 largely thanks to its booming economy.
Most visibly, there were numerous improvements in human rights, such as the freedom of speech, civil liberties (1st class) and political rights (1st class), according to Freedom House. In 1991, Poland became a member of the Visegrád Group and joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) alliance in 1999 along with the Czech Republic and Hungary. Poles then voted to join the European Union in a referendum in June 2003, with Poland becoming a full member on 1 May 2004. Subsequently Poland joined the Schengen Area in 2007, as a result of which, the country's borders with other member states of the European Union have been dismantled, allowing for full freedom of movement within most of the EU. In contrast to this, the section of Poland's eastern border now comprising the external EU border with Belarus, Russia and Ukraine, has become increasingly well protected, and has led in part to the coining of the phrase 'Fortress Europe', in reference to the seeming 'impossibility' of gaining entry to the EU for citizens of the former Soviet Union.
On April 10, 2010, the President of the Republic of Poland, Lech Kaczyński, along with 89 other high-ranking Polish officials died in a plane crash near Smolensk, Russia. The president's party were on their way to attend an annual service of commemoration for the victims of the Katyń massacre when the tragedy took place.
Poland's territory extends across several geographical regions, between latitudes 49° and 55° N, and longitudes 14° and 25° E. In the north-west is the Baltic seacoast, which extends from the Bay of Pomerania to the Gulf of Gdańsk. This coast is marked by several spits, coastal lakes (former bays that have been cut off from the sea), and dunes. The largely straight coastline is indented by the Szczecin Lagoon, the Bay of Puck, and the Vistula Lagoon. The centre and parts of the north lie within the North European Plain.
Rising gently above these lowlands is a geographical region comprising the four hilly districts of moraines and moraine-dammed lakes formed during and after the Pleistocene ice age. These lake districts are the Pomeranian Lake District, the Greater Polish Lake District, the Kashubian Lake District, and the Masurian Lake District. The Masurian Lake District is the largest of the four and covers much of north-eastern Poland. The lake districts form part of the Baltic Ridge, a series of moraine belts along the southern shore of the Baltic Sea.
South of the Northern European Lowlands lie the regions of Silesia and Masovia, which are marked by broad ice-age river valleys. Farther south lies the Polish mountain region, including the Sudetes, the Cracow-Częstochowa Upland, the Świętokrzyskie Mountains, and the Carpathian Mountains, including the Beskids. The highest part of the Carpathians is the Tatra Mountains, along Poland's southern border.
The geological structure of Poland has been shaped by the continental collision of Europe and Africa over the past 60 million years, on the one hand (and the other), by the Quaternary glaciations of northern Europe. Both processes shaped the Sudetes and the Carpathian Mountains. The moraine landscape of northern Poland contains soils made up mostly of sand or loam, while the ice age river valleys of the south often contain loess. The Cracow-Częstochowa Upland, the Pieniny, and the Western Tatras consist of limestone, while the High Tatras, the Beskids, and the Karkonosze are made up mainly of granite and basalts. The Polish Jura Chain is one of the oldest mountain ranges on earth.
Poland has 70 mountains over 2,000 metres (6,600 ft) in elevation, all in the Tatras. The Polish Tatras, which consist of the High Tatras and the Western Tatras, is the highest mountain group of Poland and of the entire Carpathian range. In the High Tatras lies Poland’s highest point, the north-western peak of Rysy, 2,499 metres (8,199 ft) in elevation. At its foot lies the mountain lakes of Czarny Staw pod Rysami (Black Lake below Mount Rysy), and Morskie Oko (the Marine Eye).
The second highest mountain group in Poland is the Beskids, whose highest peak is Babia Góra, at 1,725 metres (5,659 ft). The next highest mountain groups is the Karkonosze in the Sudetes, whose highest point is Śnieżka, at 1,602 metres (5,256 ft); Śnieżnik Mountains whose highest point is Śnieżnik, at 1,425 metres (4,675 ft).
Tourists also frequent the Bieszczady Mountains in the far southeast of Poland, whose highest point in Poland is Tarnica, with an elevation of 1,346 metres (4,416 ft), Gorce Mountains in Gorce National Park, whose highest point is Turbacz, with elevations 1,310 metres (4,298 ft), and the Pieniny in Pieniny National Park, whose highest point is Wysokie Skałki (Wysoka), with elevations 1,050 metres (3,445 ft). The lowest point in Poland — at 2 metres (6.6 ft) below sea level — is at Raczki Elbląskie, near Elbląg in the Vistula Delta.
The only desert located in Poland stretches over the Zagłębie Dąbrowskie (the Coal Fields of Dąbrowa) region. It is called the Błędów Desert, located in the Silesian Voivodeship in southern Poland. It has a total area of 32 square kilometres (12 sq mi). It is one of only five natural deserts in Europe. But also, it is the warmest desert that appears at this latitude. Błędów Desert was created thousands of years ago by a melting glacier. The specific geological structure has been of big importance. The average thickness of the sand layer is about 40 metres (131 ft), with a maximum of 70 metres (230 ft), which made the fast and deep drainage very easy.
The Baltic Sea activity in Słowiński National Park created sand dunes which in the course of time separated the bay from the sea. As waves and wind carry sand inland the dunes slowly move, at a speed of 3 to 10 metres (9.8 to 32.8 ft) meters per year. Some dunes are quite high – up to 30 metres (98 ft). The highest peak of the park — Rowokol (115 metres / 377 feet above sea level) — is also an excellent observation point.
The longest rivers are the Vistula (Polish: Wisła), 1,047 kilometres (651 mi) long; the Oder (Polish: Odra) which forms part of Poland’s western border, 854 kilometres (531 mi) long; its tributary, the Warta, 808 kilometres (502 mi) long; and the Bug, a tributary of the Vistula, 772 kilometres (480 mi) long. The Vistula and the Oder flow into the Baltic Sea, as do numerous smaller rivers in Pomerania.
The Łyna and the Angrapa flow by way of the Pregolya to the Baltic, and the Czarna Hańcza flows into the Baltic through the Neman. While the great majority of Poland’s rivers drain into the Baltic Sea, Poland’s Beskids are the source of some of the upper tributaries of the Orava, which flows via the Váh and the Danube to the Black Sea. The eastern Beskids are also the source of some streams that drain through the Dniester to the Black Sea.
Poland’s rivers have been used since early times for navigation. The Vikings, for example, traveled up the Vistula and the Oder in their longships. In the Middle Ages and in early modern times, when the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth was the breadbasket of Europe; the shipment of grain and other agricultural products down the Vistula toward Gdańsk and onward to other parts of Europe took on great importance.
With almost ten thousand closed bodies of water covering more than 1 hectare (2.47 acres) each, Poland has one of the highest numbers of lakes in the world. In Europe, only Finland has a greater density of lakes. The largest lakes, covering more than 100 square kilometres (39 sq mi), are Lake Śniardwy and Lake Mamry in Masuria, and Lake Łebsko and Lake Drawsko in Pomerania.
In addition to the lake districts in the north (in Masuria, Pomerania, Kashubia, Lubuskie, and Greater Poland), there is also a large number of mountain lakes in the Tatras, of which the Morskie Oko is the largest in area. The lake with the greatest depth—of more than 100 metres (328 ft)—is Lake Hańcza in the Wigry Lake District, east of Masuria in Podlaskie Voivodeship.
Among the first lakes whose shores were settled are those in the Greater Polish Lake District. The stilt house settlement of Biskupin, occupied by more than one thousand residents, was founded before the 7th century BC by people of the Lusatian culture.
Lakes have always played an important role in Polish history and continue to be of great importance to today's modern Polish society. The ancestors of today’s Poles, the Polanie, built their first fortresses on islands in these lakes. The legendary Prince Popiel is supposed to have ruled from Kruszwica on Lake Gopło. The first historically documented ruler of Poland, Duke Mieszko I, had his palace on an island in the Warta River in Poznań. Nowadays the Polish lakes provide an invaluable location for the pursuit of water sports such as yachting and wind-surfing.
The Polish Baltic coast is approximately 528 kilometres (328 mi) long and extends from Świnoujście on the islands of Usedom and Wolin in the west to Krynica Morska on the Vistula Spit in the east. For the most part, Poland has a smooth coastline, which has been shaped by the continual movement of sand by currents and winds. This continual erosion and deposition has formed cliffs, dunes, and spits, many of which have migrated landwards to close off former lagoons, such as Łebsko Lake in Słowiński National Park.
Prior to the end of the Second World War and subsequent change in national borders, Poland had only a very small coastline; this was situated at the end of the 'Polish Corridor', the only internationally recognised Polish territory which afforded the country access to the sea. However after World War II, the redrawing of Poland's borders and resulting 'shift' of the country's borders left it with a greatly expanded coastline, thus allowing for far greater access to the sea than was ever previously possible. The significance of this event, and importance of it to Poland's future as a major industrialised nation, was allured to by the 1945 Wedding to the Sea.
The largest spits are Hel Peninsula and the Vistula Spit. The largest Polish Baltic island is Wolin. The largest port cities are Gdynia, Gdańsk, Szczecin, and Świnoujście. The main coastal resorts are Sopot, Międzyzdroje, Kołobrzeg, Łeba, Władysławowo, and the Hel Peninsula.
Forests cover 28.8% of Poland’s land area. More than half of the land is devoted to agriculture. While the total area under cultivation is declining, the remaining farmland is more intensively cultivated.
More than 1% of Poland’s territory, 3,145 square kilometres (1,214 sq mi), is protected within 23 Polish national parks. Three more national parks are projected for Masuria, the Cracow-Częstochowa Upland, and the eastern Beskids. In addition, wetlands along lakes and rivers in central Poland are legally protected, as are coastal areas in the north. There are over 120 areas designated as landscape parks, along with numerous nature reserves and other protected areas.
Present day Poland is a country with great agricultural prospects; there are over two million private farms in the country, and Poland is the leading producer in Europe of potatoes and rye and is one of the world's largest producers of sugar beets and triticale. This has led Poland to be described on occasion as the future 'bread basket of the European Union'. However, despite employing around 16% of the workforce, agricultural output in Poland remains low and the industry is characterised as largely inefficient due to the large number of small, independent farms. This situation is likely to soon change for the better with the government debating agricultural reform and currently pursuing the option of auctioning off large tracts of state-owned agricultural land.
Phytogeographically, Poland belongs to the Central European province of the Circumboreal Region within the Boreal Kingdom. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature, the territory of Poland can be subdivided into three ecoregions: the Baltic mixed forests, Central European mixed forests and Carpathian montane conifer forests.
Many animals that have since died out in other parts of Europe still survive in Poland, such as the wisent in the ancient woodland of the Białowieża Forest and in Podlaskie. Other such species include the brown bear in Białowieża, in the Tatras, and in the Beskids, the gray wolf and the Eurasian Lynx in various forests, the moose in northern Poland, and the beaver in Masuria, Pomerania, and Podlaskie.
In the forests, one also encounters game animals, such as red deer, roe deer and wild boars. In eastern Poland there are a number of ancient woodlands, like Białowieża forest, that have never been cleared by people. There are also large forested areas in the mountains, Masuria, Pomerania, Lubusz Land and Lower Silesia.
Poland is the most important breeding ground for European migratory birds. Out of all of the migratory birds who come to Europe for the summer, one quarter breed in Poland, particularly in the lake districts and the wetlands along the Biebrza, the Narew, and the Warta, which are part of nature reserves or national parks.
The climate is mostly temperate throughout the country. The climate is oceanic in the north and west and becomes gradually warmer and continental towards the south and east. Summers are generally warm, with average temperatures between 18 °C (64 °F) and 30 °C (86.0 °F) depending on a region. Winters are rather cold, with average temperatures around 3 °C (37.4 °F) in the northwest and −6 °C (21 °F) in the northeast. Precipitation falls throughout the year, although, especially in the east; winter is drier than summer.
The warmest region in Poland is Lower Silesian located in south-western Poland where temperatures in the summer average between 24 °C (75.2 °F) and 32 °C (90 °F) but can go as high as 34 °C (93.2 °F) to 39 °C (102.2 °F) on some days in the warmest month of July and August. The warmest cities in Poland are Tarnów, which is situated in Lesser Poland and Wrocław, which is located in Lower Silesian. The average temperatures in Wrocław are 20 °C (68 °F) in the summer and 0 °C (32.0 °F) in the winter, but Tarnów has the longest summer in all of Poland, which lasts for 115 days, from mid-May to mid-September. The coldest region of Poland is in the northeast in the Podlaskie Voivodeship near the border of Belarus. Usually the coldest city is Suwałki. The climate is affected by cold fronts which come from Scandinavia and Siberia. The average temperature in the winter in Podlaskie ranges from −6 °C (21 °F) to −4 °C (25 °F).
Poland is a democracy, with a president as a head of state, whose current constitution dates from 1997. The government structure centers on the Council of Ministers, led by a prime minister. The president appoints the cabinet according to the proposals of the prime minister, typically from the majority coalition in the Sejm. The president is elected by popular vote every five years. The president is Bronisław Komorowski. Komorowski replaced President Lech Kaczyński following the latter's death in an April 10, 2010 air crash. The prime minister, Donald Tusk, was appointed in 2007 after his Civic Platform party made significant gains in that year's parliamentary elections. In 2011, Tusk became the first Polish prime minister in history to be democratically re-elected for a consecutive term.
Polish voters elect a bicameral parliament consisting of a 460-member lower house (Sejm) and a 100-member Senate (Senat). The Sejm is elected under proportional representation according to the d'Hondt method, a method similar to that used in many parliamentary political systems. The Senat, on the other hand, is elected under the First-past-the-post voting method, with one senator being returned from each of the 100 constituencies.
With the exception of ethnic minority parties, only candidates of political parties receiving at least 5% of the total national vote can enter the Sejm. When sitting in joint session, members of the Sejm and Senat form the National Assembly (the Zgromadzenie Narodowe). The National Assembly is formed on three occasions: when a new President takes the oath of office; when an indictment against the President of the Republic is brought to the State Tribunal (Trybunał Stanu); and when a president's permanent incapacity to exercise his duties because of the state of his health is declared. To date only the first instance has occurred.
The judicial branch plays an important role in decision-making. Its major institutions include the Supreme Court of the Republic of Poland (Sąd Najwyższy); the Supreme Administrative Court of the Republic of Poland (Naczelny Sąd Administracyjny); the Constitutional Tribunal of the Republic of Poland (Trybunał Konstytucyjny); and the State Tribunal of the Republic of Poland (Trybunał Stanu). On the approval of the Senat, the Sejm also appoints the ombudsman or the Commissioner for Civil Rights Protection (Rzecznik Praw Obywatelskich) for a five-year term. The ombudsman has the duty of guarding the observance and implementation of the rights and liberties of Polish citizens and residents, of the law and of principles of community life and social justice.
In 2011, Poles elected Anna Grodzka as the first ever transsexual MP in European history, and the second transgender MP in European history, after the Italian Vladimir Luxuria.
The Constitution of Poland is the supreme law in contemporary Poland, and the Polish legal system is based on the principle of civil rights, governed by the code of Civil Law. Historically, the most famous Polish legal act is the Constitution of May 3, 1791. Historian Norman Davies describes it as the first of its kind in Europe. The Constitution was instituted as a Government Act (Polish: Ustawa rządowa) and then adopted on May 3, 1791 by the Sejm of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. Primarily, it was designed to redress long-standing political defects of the federative Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth and its Golden Liberty. Previously only the Henrican articles signed by each of Poland's elected kings could perform the function of a set of basic laws. The new Constitution introduced political equality between townspeople and the nobility (szlachta), and placed the peasants under the protection of the government, thus mitigating the worst abuses of serfdom. The Constitution abolished pernicious parliamentary institutions such as the liberum veto, which at one time had placed the sejm at the mercy of any deputy who might choose, or be bribed by an interest or foreign power, to have rescinded all the legislation that had been passed by that sejm. The May 3rd Constitution sought to supplant the existing anarchy fostered by some of the country's reactionary magnates, with a more egalitarian and democratic constitutional monarchy.
Unfortunately, the adoption of such a liberal constitution was treated as a grave threat by Poland's more autocratic neighbours. In response Prussia, Austria and Russia formed an anti-Polish alliance and over the next decade collaborated with one another to partition their weaker neighbour and ultimately destroy the Polish state. In the words of two of its co-authors, Ignacy Potocki and Hugo Kołłątaj, the constitution represented "the last will and testament of the expiring Fatherland." Despite this, its text influenced many later democratic movements across the globe.
Poland's current constitution was adopted by the National Assembly of Poland on 2 April 1997, approved by a national referendum on 25 May 1997, and came into effect on 17 October 1997. It guarantees a multi-party state, the freedoms of religion, speech and assembly, and specifically casts off many Communist ideals to create a 'free market economic system'. It requires public officials to pursue ecologically sound public policy and acknowledges the inviolability of the home, the right to form trade unions, and to strike, whilst at the same time prohibiting the practices of forced medical experimentation, torture and corporal punishment.
In recent years, Poland has extended its responsibilities and position in European and international affairs, supporting and establishing friendly relations with other European nations and a large number of 'developing' countries.
In 1994, Poland became an associate member of the European Union (EU) and its defensive arm, the Western European Union (WEU), having subimtted preliminary documentation for full membership in 1996, it formally joined the European Union in May 2004, along with the other members of the Visegrád group. In 1996, Poland achieved full OECD membership, and at the 1997 Madrid Summit was invited to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) in the first wave of policy enlargement finally becoming a full member of NATO in March 1999.
As changes since the fall of Communism in 1989 have redrawn the map of central Europe, Poland has tried to forge strong and mutually beneficial relationships with its seven new neighbours, this has notably included signing 'friendship treaties' to replace links severed by the collapse of the Warsaw Pact. The Poles have forged special relationships with Lithuania and particularly Ukraine, with whom they will co-host the UEFA Euro 2012 football tournament, in an effort to firmly anchor these countries within the Western world and provide them with an alternative to aligning themselves with the Russian Federation respectively. Despite many positive developments in the region, Poland has found itself in a position where it must seek to defend the rights of ethnic Poles living in the former Soviet Union; this is particularly true of Belarus, where in 2005 the Lukashenko regime launched a campaign against the Polish ethnic minority.
Poland is the sixth most populous member state of the European Union and, ever since joining in 2004, has pursued policies to increase its role in European affairs. Poland has a grand total of 51 representatives in the European Parliament and in addition to this, since 14 July 2009, former Prime Minister of Poland Jerzy Buzek, has been President of the European Parliament.
Poland's current voivodeships (provinces) are largely based on the country's historic regions, whereas those of the past two decades (to 1998) had been centred on and named for individual cities. The new units range in area from less than 10,000 square kilometres (3,900 sq mi) for Opole Voivodeship to more than 35,000 square kilometres (14,000 sq mi) for Masovian Voivodeship. Administrative authority at voivodeship level is shared between a government-appointed voivode (governor), an elected regional assembly (sejmik) and an executive elected by that assembly.
The voivodeships are subdivided into powiats (often referred to in English as counties), and these are further divided into gminas (also known as communes or municipalities). Major cities normally have the status of both gmina and powiat. Poland currently has 16 voivodeships, 379 powiats (including 65 cities with powiat status), and 2,478 gminas.
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