Poland is located at a geographic crossroads that links the forested lands of north western Europe to the sea lanes of the Atlantic Ocean and the fertile plains of the Eurasian frontier.
Poland lies at the physical centre of the European continent, and so is bordered by 7 countries. To the northeast by Russia and Lithuania, and to the east by Belarus and Ukraine. To the south Slovakia and the Czech Republic, while to the west lies the border with Germany.
In the early Middle Ages, Poland’s small principalities and townships were subjugated by successive waves of invaders, from Germans and Balts to Mongols. In the mid-1500s, it was the largest state in Europe and perhaps the continent’s most powerful nation. Yet two and a half centuries later, during the Partitions of Poland (1772–1918), it disappeared, parcelled out among the contending empires of Russia, Prussia, and Austria.
Restored as a nation in 1918 but ravaged by two world wars, Poland suffered tremendously throughout the course of the 20th century. World War II was particularly damaging, as Poland’s historically strong Jewish population was almost wholly annihilated in the Holocaust.
Millions of non-Jewish Poles also died, victims of more partition and conquest. With the fall of the Third Reich, Poland effectively lost its independence once again, becoming a communist satellite state of the Soviet Union. Nearly a half century of totalitarian rule followed, though not without strong challenges on the part of Poland’s workers, who, supported by a dissident Catholic Church, called the economic failures of the Soviet system into question.
In the late 1970s, beginning in the shipyards of Gdańsk, those workers formed a nationwide movement called Solidarity (Solidarność). Despite the arrest of Solidarity’s leadership, its newspapers kept publishing, spreading its values and agenda throughout the country. In May 1989 the Polish government fell, along with communist regimes throughout eastern Europe, beginning Poland’s rapid transformation into a democracy.
By the turn of the 21st century, Poland was a market-based democracy, abundant in products of all kinds and a member of both NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) and the European Union (EU), allied more strongly with western Europe than with eastern Europe but, as always, squarely between them.
A land of striking beauty, it is punctuated by great forests and rivers, broad plains, and tall mountains. Warsaw, the country’s capital, combines modern buildings with historic architecture, most of which was heavily damaged during World War II but has since been faithfully restored in one of the most thorough reconstruction efforts in European history.
Other cities of historic and cultural interest include Poznań, the seat of Poland’s first bishopric; Gdańsk, one of the most active ports on the busy Baltic Sea; and Kraków, a historic centre of arts and education and the home of Pope John Paul II, who personified for the Polish their country’s struggle for independence and peace in modern times.