Last modified 6 June 2011
First published 12 February 2002. Updated 4 August 2006
Sandwiched between Germany and Russia, Poland emerges as a unified state in the middle of the 10th Century. Though the country's borders expand and contract dramatically over the centuries as regions are either annexed by or won back from its neighbours, the Polish people maintain an unbroken and proud cultural tradition centred on their Slavic heritage, Roman Catholicism and a close identification with Western European cultural values.
At the end of the 14th Century, Poland forms a union with neighbouring Lithuania, which is at the time a major force in Eastern Europe. The union will last for 400 years and sees the 'Commonwealth of Two Nations' become a leading power across all of Europe.
By the end of the 15th Century, 'Poland-Lithuania' directly controls virtually all of Eastern and Central Europe. Although Bohemia and Hungary are lost to the expanding Ottoman Empire in 1526, the 16th Century is considered a "golden age" of Polish cultural advancement.
The country flourishes on lucrative grain exports to Western European countries, a stable system of government built around the Sejm, or parliament of the nobles, and a tolerance for minority groups. By the end of the 16th Century, Poland hosts the world's largest population of Jews.
Poland-Lithuania's influence begins to decline in the 17th Century as the state's political process becomes decentralised and enfeebled. By the middle of the 18th Century the country has become a buffer state controlled by Russia and with only nominal self-rule. In 1772 Poland-Lithuania is partitioned, with territory going to Russia, Prussia and Austria.
The partition spurs a short revival that sees the remnant Polish-Lithuanian state produce Europe's first written constitution in 1791. However, the following year Russia reacts by invading the country, with Prussian support. In 1793 Poland-Lithuania is again partitioned. A third and final partition in 1795 wipes Poland-Lithuania from the map of Europe.
During the subsequent 123 years of foreign rule a robust movement for self-rule spreads from the Polish intelligentsia to all levels of society. Following abortive revolts against the occupiers in 1830, 1846 and 1863, the movement focuses on the promotion of Polish culture and the pursuit of independence by political means.
The First World War (1914-1918) and the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia (1917) provides Poland with the opportunity to regain its autonomy. Russia withdraws from the war and from Polish territory. German and Austrian influence ends when their governments collapse during the final months of the war. Poland regains its independence in November 1918.
However, the independence is uneasy and short-lived. On 23 August 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union sign a nonaggression pact containing a secret agreement to carve up Poland into German and Soviet spheres.
Germany invades from the west on 1 September 1939, starting the Second World War. Russia invades from the east on 17 September. By the end of the month Poland is completely occupied by the foreign powers, both of which ruthlessly enforce their control.
Russian domination is briefly ended on 22 June 1941 when Germany invades the Soviet Union, bringing all of Poland under Hitler's Third Reich. Poles are considered to be racially inferior by the Germans and are forced to endure severe conditions and brutal treatment. Almost seven million Poles die during the war, including most of the country's three million Jews, who are exterminated in Nazi concentration camps.
Polish underground resistance to the occupation continues throughout the war and is emboldened when the Soviets halt the German advance and then begin to drive the Germans back. By the middle of 1944 the Soviets are approaching Warsaw, but stop short of the capital when noncommunist resistance forces launch a rebellion against the German garrisons in the city. The ensuing rout of the resistance forces by the Germans clears the path for the ascendancy of the Soviet-sponsored Polish Committee of National Liberation (Lublin Committee).
The committee is recognised by the Soviets as the government of Poland in January 1945, beginning a 44-year period of communist rule. The following month, Stalin meets with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and United States President Franklin Delano Roosevelt near Yalta in the Crimea. The meeting concludes with the issuing of the 'Yalta Declaration' committing the Allies to the destruction of German militarism and Nazism. A conquered Germany will be divided into three zones of occupation and eastern Poland will be ceded to the Soviets. Stalin pledges to allow free elections in Poland.
Meanwhile, the Soviets troops continue to move west towards Berlin. The last German troops are expelled from Poland in March 1945, several weeks before Germany surrenders unconditionally on 7 May. In August the Allies grant Poland 100,00 square kilometres of German territory west of the Polish border. About two million Germans are removed from the land. They are replaced by about three million Poles relocated from the eastern Polish territory ceded to the Soviet Union.
The Soviet-sponsored Polish Government acts quickly to introduce a Stalinist social and economic system. Poland is officially declared the Polish People's Republic (PPR), the economy is nationalised and opposition parties are suppressed. By the time of the new state's first parliamentary election in 1947 only one opposition party is left standing, the largely ineffective Polish Peasant Party. The Polish United Workers' Party (Polska Zjednoczona Partia Robotnicza - PZPR) becomes the party of government, holding about 96% of the seats in parliament. Poland then falls behind the Soviet Union's 'Iron Curtain', becoming a satellite state of the superpower.
The PZPR's rigid conformity to the Stalinist system is loosened in October 1956 when Wladyslaw Gomulka, a moderate in the PZPR, is made the party's first secretary despite protests and threats from the Soviet Union. Gomulka promises to follow a "Polish road to socialism", abandoning many aspects of the Stalinist approach. However, hopes among the people that a true democracy may come to prevail are premature. The fundamentals of the Stalinist system remain.
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