The Republic of Poland (Rzeczpospolita Polska in Polish), is a parliamentary republic in Central Europe. Poland is a unitary state divided into 16 administrative subdivisions, covering an area of 120,726 square miles (312,679 square kilometers) with a mostly temperate climate. With a population of over 38.5 million people, Poland is the sixth most populous member state of the European Union. Poland’s capital and largest city is Warsaw. Other cities include Kraków, Wrocław, Poznań, Gdańsk and Szczecin.
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 center and parts of the north of the country lie within the North European Plain. Rising above these lowlands is a geographical region comprising 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 Plain are the regions of Lusatia, Silesia and Masovia, which are marked by broad ice-age river valleys. Farther south is a mountainous region, including the Sudetes, the Kraków-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 establishment of a Polish state can be traced back to 966, when Mieszko I, ruler of a territory roughly coextensive with that of present-day Poland, converted to Christianity. The Kingdom of Poland was founded in 1025, and in 1569 it cemented a longstanding political association with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania by signing the Union of Lublin. This union formed the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, one of the largest and most populous countries of 16th and 17th century Europe with a uniquely liberal political system which declared Europe’s first constitution.
Following the partitions of Poland at the end of the eighteenth century, Poland regained its independence in 1918 with the Treaty of Versailles. In September 1939, World War II started with the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany, followed by the Soviet Union invading Poland in accordance with the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. More than six million of Poland’s citizens died in the war. After World War II, the Polish People’s Republic was established as a satellite state under Soviet influence. In the aftermath of the Revolutions of 1989, most notably through the emergence of the Solidarity movement, Poland established itself as a democratic republic.
Poland is the eighth largest and one of the most dynamic economies in the European Union, simultaneously achieving a “very high” ranking on the Human Development Index. Additionally, the Polish Stock Exchange in Warsaw is the largest and most important in Central and Eastern Europe. Poland is a developed and democratic country, with a high-income economy, and a very high standard of living. It also ranks very highly in education, safety and economic freedom. According to the World Bank, Poland has one of the best educational systems in Europe, placing it among the most educated nations. The country provides free university education, state-funded social security and a universal health care system for all citizens. Situated between Eastern and Western European cultures and coined by a changing history, Poland developed a rich cultural heritage, including numerous historical monuments and 14 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It is visited by approximately 16 million tourists every year (2014), making it the 16th most visited country in the world. Poland is a member state of the European Union, the Schengen Area, the United Nations, NATO and the OECD.
The origin of the name Poland derives from a West Slavic tribe of Polans (Polanie) that inhabited the Warta River basin of the historic Greater Poland region in the eighth century. The origin of the name Polanie itself derives from the western Slavic word pole (field). In some languages, such as Hungarian, Lithuanian, Persian and Turkish, the exonym for Poland is Lechites (Lechici), which derives from the name of a semi-legendary ruler of Polans, Lech I.
Historians have postulated that throughout Late Antiquity, many distinct ethnic groups populated the regions of what is now 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 lacks written records and can only be defined as fragmented.
The most famous archaeological find from the prehistory and protohistory of Poland is the Biskupin fortified settlement (now reconstructed as an open-air museum), dating from the Lusatian culture of the early Iron Age, around 700 BC. The Slavic groups who would form Poland migrated to these areas in the second half of the fifth century AD. Up until the creation of Mieszko’s state and his subsequent conversion to Christianity in 966 AD, the main religion of Slavic tribes that inhabited the geographical area of present-day Poland was Slavic paganism. With the Baptism of Poland the Polish rulers accepted Christianity and the religious authority of the Roman Church. However, the transition from paganism was not a smooth and instantaneous process for the rest of the population as evident from the pagan reaction of the 1030s.
Poland began to form into a recognizable unitary and territorial entity around the middle of the tenth century under the Piast dynasty. Poland’s first historically documented ruler, Mieszko I, accepted Christianity with the Baptism of Poland in 966, as the new official religion of his subjects. 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 Mieszko, held a Congress of Gniezno and created the metropolis of Gniezno and the dioceses of Kraków, Kołobrzeg, and Wrocław. However, the pagan unrest led to the transfer of the capital to Kraków in 1038 by Casimir I the Restorer.
In 1109, Prince Bolesław III Wrymouth defeated the King of Germany Henry V at the Battle of Hundsfeld, stopping the German march into Poland. The significance of the event was documented by Gallus Anonymus in his 1118 chronicle. In 1138, Poland fragmented into several smaller duchies when Bolesław divided his lands among 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 that led to centuries of warfare with the Knights. In 1264, the Statute of Kalisz or the General Charter of Jewish Liberties introduced numerous right for the Jews in Poland, leading to a nearly autonomous “nation within a nation”.
In the middle of the thirteenth century, the Silesian branch of the Piast dynasty (Henry I the Bearded and Henry II the Pious, ruled 1238–41) nearly succeeded in uniting the Polish lands, but the Mongols invaded the country from the east and defeated the combined Polish forces at the Battle of Legnica where Duke Henry II the Pious died. 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 (reigned 1333–70), has a reputation as one of the greatest Polish kings, and gained wide recognition for improving the country’s infrastructure. He also extended royal protection to Jews, and encouraged their immigration to Poland. Casimir III realized that the nation needed a class of educated people, especially lawyers, who could codify the country’s laws and administer the courts and offices. His efforts to create an institution of higher learning in Poland were finally rewarded when Pope Urban V granted him permission to open the University of Kraków.
The Golden Liberty of the nobles began to develop under Casimir’s rule, when in return for their military support, the king made a series of concessions to the nobility, and establishing their legal status as superior to that of the townsmen. When Casimir the Great died in 1370, leaving no legitimate male heir, the Piast dynasty came to an end.
During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Poland became a destination for German, Flemish and to a lesser extent Scottish, Danish and Walloon migrants. Also, the Jews and Armenians began to settle and flourish in Poland during this era.
The Black Death, a plague that ravaged Europe from 1347 to 1351 did not significantly affect Poland, and the country was spared from a major outbreak of the disease. The reason for this was the decision of Casimir the Great to quarantine the nation’s borders.
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 culminated in the Battle of Grunwald (1410), where a combined Polish-Lithuanian army inflicted a decisive victory against the Teutonic Knights, allowing for territorial expansion of both nations into the far north region of Livonia.
In 1466, after the Thirteen Years’ War, King Casimir IV Jagiellon gave royal consent to the Peace of Thorn, which created the future Duchy of Prussia, a Polish vassal. The Jagiellon dynasty 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-Lithuania one million of its population between the years of 1494 and 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. This tolerance allowed the country to avoid most the religious turmoil that spread over Europe during the sixteenth century.
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 during this period Polish culture and the nation’s economy flourished.
In 1543, Nicolaus Copernicus a Polish astronomer from Toruń, published his epochal work De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres), and thereby became the first proponent of a predictive mathematical model confirming the heliocentric theory, which became the accepted basic model for the practice of modern astronomy. Another major figure associated with the era is the 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 Warsaw Confederation (1573) confirmed the religious freedom of all residents of Poland, which was extremely important for the stability of the multiethnic Polish society of the time. Serfdom was banned in 1588. The establishment of the Commonwealth coincided with a period of stability and prosperity in Poland, with the union thereafter becoming a European power and a major cultural entity, occupying approximately one million square kilometers of Central and Eastern Europe, as well as an agent for the dissemination of Western culture through Polonization into areas of modern-day Lithuania, Ukraine, Belarus and Western Russia.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Poland suffered from a number of dynastic crises during the reigns of the Vasa kings Sigismund III and Władysław IV and found itself engaged in major conflicts with Russia, Sweden and the Ottoman Empire, as well as a series of minor Cossack uprisings. In 1610, Hetman Stanisław Żółkiewski seized Moscow after winning the Battle of Klushino.
From the middle of the seventeenth century, the nobles’ democracy, suffering from internal disorder, gradually declined, thereby leaving the once powerful Commonwealth vulnerable to foreign intervention. Starting in 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 followed by the ‘Deluge’, a Swedish invasion of Poland, which marched through the Polish heartlands and ruined the country’s population, culture and infrastructure. Around four million of Poland’s eleven million inhabitants died in famines and epidemics. However, under John III Sobieski the Commonwealth’s military prowess was re-established, and in 1683 Polish forces played a major role in the Battle of Vienna against the Ottoman Army, commanded by Kara Mustafa, the grand vizier of the Ottoman Empire.
Sobieski’s reign marked the end of the nation’s golden era. 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 Rebellion against John II Casimir and rebellious confederations) and corrupted legislative processes. The nobility fell under the control of a handful of magnats, 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 eighteenth 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 center of commerce, and the role of the more prosperous townsmen increased.
The royal election of 1764 resulted in the elevation of Stanisław II August (a Polish aristocrat connected to the Czartoryski family faction of magnates) to the monarchy. However, as a one-time personal admirer 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 political relationship with his Russian sponsor. This led to the formation of the 1768 Bar Confederation, a szlachta rebellion directed against the Polish king and his Russian sponsors, which aimed to preserve Poland’s independence and the szlachta‘s traditional privileges. Attempts at reform provoked the union’s neighbors, and in 1772 the First Partition of the Commonwealth by Prussia, Russia and Austria 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. Corporal punishment of children was officially prohibited in 1783.
The Great Sejm convened by Stanisław II August in 1788 successfully adopted the 3 May Constitution, the first set of modern supreme national laws in Europe. However, this document, accused by detractors of harboring revolutionary sympathies, 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 aided in achieving its goal when the Targowica Confederation, an organisation of Polish nobles, appealed to the Empress for help. In May 1792, Russian forces crossed the Commonwealth’s frontier, thus beginning the Polish-Russian War.
The defensive war fought by the Poles 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 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 neighbors, and with this, effectively ceased to exist.
Poles rebelled several times against the partitioners, particularly near the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth century. An unsuccessful attempt at defending Poland’s sovereignty took place in 1794 during the Kościuszko Uprising, where a popular and distinguished general Tadeusz Kosciuszko, who had several years earlier served under Washington in the American Revolutionary War, led Polish insurrectionists against numerically superior Russian forces. Despite the victory at the Battle of Racławice, his ultimate defeat ended Poland’s independent existence for 123 years.
In 1807, Napoleon I of France temporarily recreated a Polish state as the satellite Duchy of Warsaw, after a successful Greater Poland Uprising of 1806 against Prussian rule. But, after the failed Napoleonic Wars, Poland was again split between the victorious powers at the Congress of Vienna of 1815. The eastern part was ruled by the Russian tsar as Congress Poland, which had a very liberal constitution. However, over time the Russian monarch reduced Polish freedoms, and Russia annexed the country in virtually all but name. Meanwhile, the Prussian controlled territory of Poland came under increased Germanization. Thus, in the nineteenth century, only Austrian-ruled Galicia, and particularly the Free City of Kraków, allowed free Polish culture 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.
In 1830, the November Uprising began in Warsaw when, led by Lieutenant Piotr Wysocki, young non-commissioned officers at the Officer Cadet School in Warsaw revolted. They were 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 Prussia and there laid down their arms. After the defeat, the semi-independent Congress Poland lost its constitution, army and legislative assembly, and was integrated more closely with the Russian Empire.
During the Spring of Nations (a series of revolutions which swept across Europe), Poles took up arms in the Greater Poland Uprising of 1848 to resist Prussian rule. Initially, the uprising manifested itself in the form of civil disobedience, but eventually turned into an armed struggle when the Prussian military was sent in to pacify the region. Eventually, after several battles the uprising was suppressed by the Prussians, and the Grand Duchy of Posen was stripped of its autonomy and completely incorporated into the German Confederation.
In 1863, a new Polish uprising against Russian rule began. The January Uprising started out 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 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 industrialization and modernization programs, instituted by the occupying powers, which helped it develop into a more economically coherent and viable entity. This was particularly true in Greater Poland, Silesia and Eastern Pomerania controlled by Prussia (later becoming a part of the German Empire); areas which eventually, thanks largely to the Greater Poland Uprising of 1918 and Silesian Uprisings, were reconstituted as a part of the Second Polish Republic, becoming the country’s most prosperous regions.
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 (1919–21) when Poland inflicted a crushing defeat on the Red Army at the Battle of Warsaw, an event which is considered to have halted the advance of Communism into Europe and forced Vladimir Lenin to rethink his objective of achieving global socialism. 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 Ignacy Paderewski (who would later become prime minister) returned home to help; a significant 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.
As result of the Munich Agreement in 1938, major European powers (Germany, France, Britain and Italy) awarded Poland the small 350 square mile Zaolzie Region of Czechoslovakia. The area was a point of contention between the Polish and Czechoslovak governments in the past and the two countries fought a brief seven-day war over it in 1919.
The formal beginning of World War II was marked by the Nazi German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, followed by the Soviet invasion of Poland on September 17. On September 28, Warsaw capitulated. As agreed earlier in the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, Poland was split into two zones, one occupied by Nazi Germany, the other, including all of Kresy, fell under the control of the Soviet Union. In 1939–41, the Soviets deported hundreds of thousands of Poles to distant parts of the Soviet Union. The Soviet NKVD secretly executed thousands of Polish prisoners of war ahead of the Operation Barbarossa. German planners had in November 1939 called for “the complete destruction” of all Poles and their fate, as well as many other Slavs, was outlined in genocidal Generalplan Ost.
Poland made the fourth-largest troop contribution in the Europe and its troops served both the Polish Government in Exile in the west and Soviet leadership in the east. In the west, the Polish expeditionary corps played an important role in the Italian and North African Campaigns and are particularly remembered for the Battle of Monte Cassino. In the east, the Soviet-backed Polish 1st Army distinguished itself in the battles for Warsaw and Berlin.
Polish servicemen were also active in the theaters of naval and air warfare; during the Battle of Britain Polish squadrons such as the No. 303 “Kościuszko” fighter squadron achieved considerable 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.
The domestic underground resistance movement, the Armia Krajowa (Home Army), fought against German occupation. 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 functioned as an underground state complete with degree-awarding universities and a court system. The resistance was loyal to the exiled government and generally resented the idea of a communist Poland; for this reason, in the summer of 1944 they initiated Operation Tempest, of which the Warsaw Uprising that begun on August 1, 1944, was the best known operation. 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. Secondary motives were 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. A lack of Allied support and Stalin’s reluctance to allow the 1st Army to help their fellow countrymen take the city led to the uprising’s failure and subsequent planned destruction of the city.
German forces under direct order from Adolf Hitler set up six extermination camps, all of which operated in the heart of Poland. They included Treblinka, Majdanek and Auschwitz. The Germans to transported the condemned Jews from the Third Reich and across occupied Europe to murder them in the death camps set up in the Polish areas annexed by Nazi Germany.
Germany killed 2.9 million Polish Jews, and 2.8 million ethnic Poles, including Polish academics, doctors, lawyers, nobility, priests and numerous others. It is estimated that, of pre-war Poland’s Jewry, approximately 90% 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, 6,620 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 three million, and credit Poles with sheltering up to 450,000 Jews.
Around 150,000 Polish civilians were killed by Soviet Communists between 1939 and 1941 during the Soviet Union’s occupation of eastern Poland (Kresy), and another estimated 100,000 Poles were killed by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) in the regions of Wołyń and Eastern Galicia between 1943 and 1944 in what became known as the Wołyń Massacres. The massacres were part of a vicious ethnic clensing campaign waged by Ukrainian nationalists against the local Polish population in the German-occupied territories of eastern Poland.
At the war’s conclusion in 1945, Poland’s borders were shifted westwards, resulting in considerable territorial losses. Most of the Polish inhabitants of Kresy were expelled along the Curzon Line in accordance with Stalin’s agreements. The western border was moved to the Oder-Neisse line. As a result, Poland’s territory was reduced by 20%, or 29,900 square miles (77,500 km²). The shift forced the migration of millions of other 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 six million perished — nearly one-fifth of Poland’s population — half of them Polish Jews. Over 90% of deaths were non-military in nature. Population numbers did not recover until the 1970s.
At the insistence of Joseph Stalin, the Yalta Conference sanctioned the formation of a new provisional 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 elections organized by the occupying Soviet authorities were falsified and were used to provide a veneer of ‘legitimacy’ for 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 characterize the full-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 after the death of Bolesław Bierut, the régime of Władysław Gomułka became temporarily more liberal, freeing many people from prison and expanding some personal freedoms. Collectivization in the Polish People’s Republic failed. 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 oppressive 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 Polish United Workers’ Party and by 1989 had triumphed in Poland’s first partially 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 program, initiated by Leszek Balcerowicz in the early 1990s enabled the country to transform its socialist-style planned economy into a market economy. As with other post-communist countries, Poland suffered 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 freedom of speech, internet freedom (no censorship), civil liberties (1st class) and political rights (1st class), as ranked by Freedom House non-governmental organization. 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, Slovakia and Hungary. Poles then voted to join the European Union in a referendum in June 2003, with Poland becoming a full member on May 1, 2004. 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, a section of Poland’s eastern border now comprises the external EU border with Belarus, Russia and Ukraine. That border 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.
In an effort to strengthen military cooperation with its neighbors, Poland set up the Visegrád Battlegroup with Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia, with a total of 3,000 troops ready for deployment. Also, in the east Poland created the LITPOLUKRBRIG battle groups with Lithuania and Ukraine. These battle groups will operate outside of NATO and within the European defense initiative framework.
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 was on their way to attend an annual service of commemoration for the victims of the Katyń massacre when the tragedy took place.
In 2011, the Presidency of the Council of the European Union responsible for the functioning of the Council was awarded to Poland. The same year parliamentary elections took place in both the Senate and the Sejm. They were won by the ruling Civic Platform. Poland joined European Space Agency in 2012, as well as organised the UEFA Euro 2012 (along with Ukraine). In 2013, Poland also became a member of the Development Assistance Committee. In 2014, the Prime Minister of Poland, Donald Tusk, was chosen to be President of the European Council, as resigned as prime minister. The 2015 elections were won by the opposion Law and Justice Party (PiS).
The earliest record of a postal system in Poland is, from the year 1387, of merchants who organized a private system and introduced horse riders to replace foot letter carriers. In 1530, a monthly postal service from Kraków to Rome was introduced by the Fugger bankers of Venice.
On October 17, 1558, Sigismund II Augustus appointed Prospero Provano, an Italian merchant living in Kraków, to organize a postal service in Poland. He was paid 1,500 thalers per annum by the royal treasury to run the postal service. He merged all the private postal services into a single postal service. Royal mail and mail from some monastic orders was carried free. All other mail was paid for.
Since 1516, the house of Thurn and Taxis had been running an international postal delivery service. The Polish King decided to transfer the Polish postal system to the Taxis family and did this on July 11, 1562. Christopher Taxis received the same annual salary as Provano. He ran the system as a commercial venture and because of his extravagance the postal system deteriorated. Sigismund II Augustus terminated the contract with the Taxis family.
On January 9, 1564, Peter Moffon was appointed postmaster general by the Polish King. Moffon, another Italian merchant living in Kraków, was given the postal contract for five years. On June 15, 1569, he was replaced by Sebastiano Montelupi. When King Sigismund Augustus died in 1572, Montelupi continued the service at his own expense for two years. The public postal service then ceased for a period of some eleven years, although a system reserved to royal use was rebuilt from 1574 onwards.
On January 29, 1583, Sebastiano Montelupi and his nephew (and adopted heir), Valerio Montelupi, were given a contract to run the postal service for five years. When giving the contract the King, Stefan Batory, introduced a uniform postal rate of 4 groszy per letter not exceeding 1 łut (about 12.66 grams) for any distance in Poland. This was the first uniform postal rate to be introduced in the world. Sebastiano Montelupi died in 1600 aged 84 and Valerio Montelupi continued to run the postal service till his death in 1613.
In 1815 the Free City of Kraków had a population of 95,000, of whom 23,000 were actually in Kraków, the remainder in the surrounding area. Under the constitution that it had been given the city was responsible for the post. A central post office was already in existence, from the period when Kraków was part of the Duchy of Warsaw.
On June 1, 1816, the Post Office of the Free City of Kraków took control of the existing central post office. Its staff consisted of a director, four secretarial staff, two postmen and a conductor. Two post stations were established in Kreszkowice and Cla. Post routes to and from each of the three Polish areas, Galicia, Congress Poland and Prussia were soon established.
Under the constitution the Free City had the exclusive right to private mail. The three powers could only transport official mail. However, on December 1, 1816, the Prussian Government set up a post office and a mail delivery from Kraków to Prussia. Despite protests from the Free City the Prussians continued. On May 16, 1818, the Austrians followed suit, set up a post office and a mail delivery to Galicia.
The delivery of letters from the Kraków post office was undertaken by two postmen, they collected 4 groszy for each letter delivered or 8 groszy if it was a money letter. In 1825, these fees were reduced by half.
In the first full financial year, 1816/17, the Kraków post office had a profit of 18,887 złoty. By 1822/23, because of the competition, this had reduced to 2,802 złoty, despite the increase in population and increase in traffic. In the year 1833/4, the Kraków post office dealt with a total of 66,910 letters, an average of 185 per day. In December 1834, the senate of the Free City of Kraków received a notice from Congress Poland that they would be setting up a post office in Kraków. Protests brought no result. In August 1836, the Free City of Kraków came to an agreement with Congress Poland to cease operating their own post office and to rent their post office building to them from 1837. In return Kraków was to receive an annual fee of 12,000 złoty.
The Prussian post office used three different date stamps — a two line handstamp, a two ring cancel and a single ring cancel — all with KRAKAU and the date. The Austrian post office used a single line handstamp with the text CRACAU. The Congress Poland post office used two datestamps one with a single outer ring and one with a double outer ring with text KRAKÓW. From 1815, the postmarks of the Congress Poland were in Polish. From 1860, the postmarks were in Russian and Polish. From 1871, the postmarks were with Russian inscriptions only.
The first Polish stamp was issued for the Congress Kingdom on January 1, 1860 (Gregorian calendar). Because January 1 was a Sunday, the stamp was not actually available until the following day. The design was similar to the contemporary Russian stamps with the arms of the Congress Kingdom in the center. The engraving was done by the Polish Bank engraver Henryk Mejer. The drawings he used were found in the archives at St. Petersburg but the name of the artist remains unknown. The stamps were printed by the government printers in Warsaw on the orders of the Congress Kingdom postal service. The letterpress machine used was invented by Izrael Abraham Staffel (1814–1884) for printing in two colors. The machine was capable of printing 1,000 sheets per hour and it had a counting device which ensured an accurate count. Apart from these facts very little more is known about the machine.
The printing was done without consultation of the Russian postal service. The regional office in St. Petersburg only approved the stamp afterwards, on March 4, 1860 (Gregorian calendar). These stamps could only be used within the Congress Kingdom and to Russia. Letters to other countries had to be paid for in cash and unstamped. It is believed that some three million of these stamps were printed. When the stamps were withdrawn from use on April 1. 1865 (Gregorian calendar), a total of 208,515 stamps were destroyed; Russian stamps had to be used from that day onwards.
In 1915, the Congress Kingdom was occupied by the Central Powers. Austria occupied the southern part of Congress Poland; no special stamps were issued; Austrian stamps were made available as follows:
- Most of the Austro-Hungarian Military Post general issues from 1915 to 1918 — 75 different stamps
- Some of the Bosnia and Herzegovina issues from the period 1904 to 1916 — 41 different stamps
- Some of the Austria issues from the period 1908 to 1916 — 42 different stamps
- In addition one postcard from Bosnia and Herzegovina and four postcards of the Austro-Hungarian Military Post general issues were made available
Russian datestamps were replaced with Austrian datestamps. The postmarks were inscribed K. u. K. ETAPPENPOSTAMT at the top and the Polish town name at the bottom.
The area occupied by Germany was named “General Government Warsaw” (General-Gouvernement Warschau) and on November 5, 1916, was proclaimed a “Polish Kingdom” by both Germany and Austria. On May 12, 1915, five contemporary German stamps, overprinted Russisch-Polen, by the Imperial Printing Works in Berlin, were first issued for use in the German occupied area. On August 1, 1916, after the fall of Warsaw and the complete occupation of central Poland, a set of 11 stamps overprinted Gen.-Gouv. Warschau was issued. They remained in use until November 1918. These stamps only ensured delivery to the post office and not to the addressee.
In addition to stamps, postal stationery items were also overprinted and made available. One postcard and one reply postcard were issued overprinted Russisch-Polen. Three different postcards and two different reply postcards were issued with the Gen.-Gouv. Warschau overprint. Stamped to order postal stationery was also produced with the Russisch-Polen overprint. Items produced were three different values of postcards (3pf, 5pf, 10pf); five different values of pre-paid envelopes (3pf, 5pf, 10pf, 20pf, 40pf); and one 3pf newspaper wrapper. The postcards and envelopes were produced with and without an illustration.
In 1916, Germany and Austria declared a new Kingdom of Poland. Early in 1917 the Germans requested the Chief of the Civil Administration in Warsaw to arrange for the Warszawskie Towarzystwo Artystyczne (Warsaw Society of Artists) to organize a competition of designs, by Polish designers, for a series of definitive stamps for this planned Kingdom of Poland. One of the conditions of this competition was that the stamps be inscribed KROLESTWO POLSKIE (Kingdom of Poland). Monetary prizes were offered from 150 marks to 1000 marks. The closing date was December 1, 1917. A total of 32 artists submitted some 148 designs by the closing date. Essays of all of these 148 designs were printed on sheets in black, brown, green and blue. A booklet was also published on January 11, 1918, containing all these designs.
Thirteen of these designs were chosen and the Imperial Printing Works in Berlin engraved all of the designs. The 13 chosen designs were printed in the proposed colors on five sheets. These stamps were mounted in folders and circulated amongst the various German embassies and legations in existence at the time.
When in 1918 Poland became independent, two of the artists, who took part in the 1917 competition, Edward Trojanowski and Edmund Bartłomiejczyk, were asked to modify their designs for use by the new Republic of Poland.
The occupying forces did not provide any local delivery service; they left it to town council set up local delivery services. Some of these councils produced stamps for providing this service others used cachets, which were stamped on the letters. Most of the stamps which were issued, were produced without permission of the occupying authorities. None of these were valid for use once Polish stamps had been issued in November 1918.
The first stamps to be issued by newly established Polish Ministry of Post and Telecommunications in Warsaw were on November 17, 1918. Unissued stamps, which had been produced for the Warsaw Local Post in 1916, were overprinted with the value in “fen” at the top and POCZTA POLSKA at the bottom. This is the first known occasion, in the world, on which local stamps were utilized to produce state stamps. They were in use for only a few weeks. The most common postmarks to be found on these stamps are Warschau, Warszawa and Łódź, and stamps postmarked Bendzin and Sosnowice are also known.
The original stamps had been designed by Professor Edward Trojanowski and printed lithograph at the printing works of Jan Cotty in Warsaw. The overprinting was done at the Kopytowski i Ska printing works in Warsaw. Each of the four stamps is known with inverted overprint.
The 400th anniversary of the Polish postal service and was commemorated in 1958 with an issue of seven stamps, a miniature sheet, a book titled 400 Lat Poczty Polskiej, a stamp exhibition in Warsaw and a number of commemorative postmarks.
On July 21, 1965, the 700th anniversary of the founding of Warsaw was marked with a set of nine stamps (Scott #1334-1342). The 60 groschen value. orange engraved on unwatermarked paper, depicts the Warsaw Barbican (barbakan warszawski), a semicircular fortified outpost and one of few remaining relics of the complex network of historic fortifications that once encircled Warsaw. Located between the Old and New Towns, it is a major tourist attraction.
The barbican was erected in 1540 in place of an older gate to protect Nowomiejska Street. It was designed by Jan Baptist the Venetian, an Italian Renaissance architect who lived and worked in the Mazowsze region of sixteenth century Poland and was instrumental in the redesign of the fourteenth-century city walls, which by that time had fallen into disrepair. The barbican had the form of a three-level semicircular bastion manned by fusiliers. It was 14 meters wide and 15 meters high from the bottom of the moat, which surrounded the city walls, and extended 30 meters from the external walls.
Almost immediately after its inception, the four-tower barbican became an anachronism serving virtually no practical purpose. This was largely a result of the rapid advancement in artillery power. It was used in the defense of the city only once, during the Swedish invasion of Poland, on June 30, 1656, when it had to be recaptured by the Polish army of Polish king John II Casimir from the Swedes.
In the eighteenth century, the barbican was partially dismantled as its defensive value was negligible, and the city benefited more from a larger gate which facilitated movement of people and goods in and out of the city. In the nineteenth century, its remains were incorporated into newly built apartment buildings (kamienica). During the interwar period, in 1937–1938, Jan Zachwatowicz reconstructed part of the walls and the western part of the bridge, demolishing one of the newer buildings in the reconstruction process. However, a lack of funds delayed the barbican’s planned complete reconstruction, and the 1939 invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany put the plans on hold.
During World War II, particularly the Siege of Warsaw in 1939 and the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, the barbican was largely destroyed, as were most of the Old Town’s buildings. It was rebuilt after the war, during 1952–1954, on the basis of seventeenth-century etchings, as the new government decided it would be cheaper to rebuild the barbican and the nearby city walls as a tourist attraction than to rebuild the tenements. In its reconstruction, bricks were used from historic buildings demolished in the cities of Nysa and Wrocław; most of the barbican was rebuilt, save for two exterior gates and the oldest tower on the side of the Old Town.