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State

Capital

Poland

Warszawa

Polska

Warsaw

Currency unit

Zloty

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History

A western Slav people who arrived in the 6th or 7th centuries. In 966 they were converted to the Roman rather than the Orthodox religion and the language is written in a modified form of the Latin alphabet. The name emerged in the 10th century. The area was also inhabited by others, including Lithuanians and Germans. The Lithuanian-Polish kingdom briefly stretched from the Black Sea to the Baltic. Attacks by Tatars and the Ottoman Turks reduced it.

Summary of early history here.

Historic Poland began in 1569 when the nobility agreed to form a joint kingdom of Lithuania and Poland, which until then had been ruled jointly by the kings of the Jagellonian dynasty. The last king of this dynasty died in 1572. Following his death his successor was elected by the assembly of the nobility - the Seym, and in effect Poland became a republic, though the head of state was still known as King. The nobility or gentry who had the vote were about 10% of the population. The peasants became serfs (the reverse of the trend in western Europe).

This Commonwealth or Republic (Rzeczpospolita) of the two Nations - Poland and Lithuania - lasted until its disappearance in the 18th century. However, the government was very weak in relation to the electors - each of whom had a legislative veto dissolving the assembly. This may have been a factor in the inability of Poland to resist its neighbors' desire to divide and absorb it. Until the 17th century the Polish state was actually a multi-national empire including: Lithuanians, Byelorussians, Ukrainians, Jews, Tatars, Turks as well as Poles.

Partitions
Poland was absorbed by its neighbors Prussia, Russia and Austria in three successive Partitions from 1772 and had no independent existence until 1919 when it was re-formed following the first world war and the Russian revolution. Austrian Galicia based on Krakow is said to have been the most sympathetic to Polish rights. The Russian and Prussian areas were oppressive. Russian policy was to make Poles speak Russian. The Russian area was declared a kingdom with the Tsar as King.

Modern Poland 1919
The new Poland included part of what is now Ukraine, partly because, although the peasants were Ukrainians, the landowners were Poles and partly as a result of Polish conquest when the Polish army invaded the Soviet Union, then in a state of civil war. The area had once been part of Lithuania-Poland.

The government of the independent state from 1919 to 1939 was authoritarian rather than democratic, after Marshal Pilsudski seized power from quarreling politicians. As in most of the eastern European states society consisted mainly of peasants with a small industrial sector. Many of the professional and commercial people were Jews from the very large Jewish population - 3,000,000. There was antisemitism.

A small disputed area was Teschen, disputed with Czechoslovakia (part of Austria-Hungary's main industrial area). The largest disputed area was in the west where Poland was given access to the sea near the Port of Gdansk (German Danzig) formerly part of German East Prussia. Danzig itself became a German-speaking Free City, not part of either country, under League of Nations jurisdiction. Thus East Prussia became an enclave surrounded by Poland and Lithuania and detached from the main body of Germany. This was one of the pretexts for the start of the second world war the European phase of which began when Hitler's army invaded Poland, whose integrity had been guaranteed by Britain and France. (But neither country had any troops in Poland and they were unable to resist German occupation of Poland). Simultaneously the Soviet Union invaded from the east as part of the Stalin-Ribbentrop pact of 1939 in which Poland was once again to be divided between Russia and Germany. The Soviet Union wanted to regain the western Ukraine. Poland was then part of the Nazi empire until the Russians drove the Nazis out. The Nazis annexed part to Germany and the rest (the General Government) was ruled as a colony with brutality. Early in the war Soviet forces captured many of the country's elite and massacred them in the Katyn Forest (now in Belarus). Stalin blamed it on the Nazis.

At the end of the second world war Poland was re-formed further west. The eastern provinces were given to Ukraine, and parts of East Prussia were given to Poland. Ten million of the German inhabitants were driven out, partly as a punishment by the Russians for starting the war and invading the Soviet Union. Poles moved westward to occupy their property. (Could this be classified as yet another example of ethnic cleansing?) The Polish state now contains almost entirely Poles. Almost all the Jews had been killed by the Nazis.

For many years following the end of the war Poles have been afraid the frontier question would become active again. The 1990 agreement to reunite Germany has included a guarantee of the present frontiers of Poland and the united Germany has announced that it does not wish to regain the former eastern provinces of Germany (but there are Neo-Nazis who may wish to).

From 1945 until 1989 its government was Communist and subservient to the Soviet Union.

The formation in 1980 of a free trade union, Solidarity, is said to have been the first organized opposition to Russian rule in eastern Europe. The people's adherence to the Roman Catholic Church was also a source of opposition to Soviet and local Communist domination.

Holocaust
Before the war there were several million Jews in Poland and a great deal of anti-Jewish feeling and acts. Most were killed by the Nazi German occupiers during the war. (The principle extermination camp, Auschwitz - Oswiecim - is on Polish territory, as were Treblinka and Sobibor.) There are now only a few thousand Jews (but some anti-Jewish talk continues). There is also a German minority living in the former German territories, though most of them were deported westward in 1945.

Since 1990 the government has been controlled by non-Communist forces.

Russian troops have left the country.

In March 1999 Poland became a full member of NATO and joined the EU in 2004.

Languages

a Slavic language
Polish

German minority

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Politics

From 1945 Poland was a Communist state controlled indirectly from Moskva.

The trade union Solidarity was formed in 1979 and challenged the legitimacy of the communist party which had been imposed by the Russians after they had driven out the Germans in 1945. Solidarity was officially illegal for many years but from the coming to power of Gorbachov was made legal again.

The Communist party acted as a totalitarian dictatorship. However, it has been replaced by a government under pressure from the Catholic church supported by many of the people which shows some signs of an equivalent intolerance. Antisemitism was strong in Poland before 1939, when there were many Jews; there are signs it has revived, even though there are now very few Jews. The leader of the revolt against Communist domination, Lech Walesa (pronounced Vawensa) was elected President in 1991. Solidarity then split into two or more factions. This was the beginning of multi-party democratic politics. By July 1991 elections for the lower house still had not been held and a new constitution had not been agreed with the president and politicians disagreeing. This sounded like a continuation of medieval Poland's political habits.

Large numbers of political parties were formed and elected in the Parliamentary election in November 1991. Observers were not optimistic that these would form a government able to tackle Poland's numerous problems. Is this a continuation of the pre-partition chaos which prevented the Poles uniting against their predatory neighbors? Following the elections there was a procession of Prime Ministers with little support in Parliament and appointed and dismissed by the President. The instability is similar, perhaps, to the French 4th republic.

Sept 1994 The reformed Communists (Democratic Left) formed a government with broader support. There is no sign that they wish to form a dictatorship. In November 1995 Presidential elections Walesa was defeated by a former Communist. This also is unlikely to lead to a dictatorship.

The main political question has recently been about joining the EU and the effects of having done so.

From 2005 the government was headed by twin brothers, Lech Kaczynski as ceremonial President, the other Jaroslaw as Prime Minister, at the head of a very rightwing government, supportive of Catholic policy, and with a policy of rooting out former Communists from official positions.

Perhaps as a result many of the younger people are leaving the country, something made much easier when Poland joined the EU. Many of the skilled people have left, especially to Britain where 500,000 were eligible to vote in Poland's election (and in British local government and European elections).

The General Election for Parliament in October 2007 resulted in a victory for the socially Liberal Civic Platform led by Donald Tusk and the defeat of the previous government. Lech remained as president.

10 April 2010 President Lech Kaczynski was killed (along with many of the Polish elite) in a plane crash of a Tupolev airliner near Smolensk on the way to a reconciliation with Russia and an admission by the Russian president of responsibility for the Katyn massacre.

A moderate right government headed by Donald Tusk was elected, and re-elected in 2011.

Interesting Reading Anita Prazmowska - A History of Poland



Poland: A Modern History

Norman Davies - Vanished Kingdoms


Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe

See also his God's Playground, two volume history of Poland

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Economics

The years of Communist control left an economy which was very weak. Almost all enterprises were revealed as bankrupt. Government policy was to privatize the economy.

Under-investment in agriculture which was always in the private sector has made it too very weak. All enterprises lacked modern technology.

The Communist policy was to provide jobs for all but at very low wages and in industries which had no measure of the value of their products. Transforming these into normal companies regulated by free prices has been very difficult.

Unemployment rose very high. Probably the increasing reliance on an informal sector, as in Latin America and Africa, will be necessary before very great poverty can be overcome.

Free market policies were introduced suddenly in January 1990. This was the Big Bang policy. Commentators observed that queues at shops disappeared at once and small scale enterprise did start up. However, after a year the large scale enterprises were still in trouble due to decades of inappropriate investment in inefficient heavy industries.

Previously Poland like the other COMECON countries relied on oil from the Soviet Union paid for in non-convertible rubles. Energy prices were artificially low with no incentive to save it. Now Soviet oil is priced in dollars at the world price. Western experts have observed production practices which were typical of western industry in the 1950s or earlier. These include riveting by hand tools on aircraft production.

Another problem is Poland's small farmers. They were never collectivised and tend to be very traditional - four acres and a cow - subsistence farmers. They fear that on entry to the EU they will not be able to compete with the subsidised production of the old EU members. The conditions of entry to the EU will exclude them from many of the farming benefits enjoyed by French and German farmers in the "old" EU. (This caused many Polish farmers to vote against membership in the referendum needed in 2003).

Possibly they will be able to sell authentic organic produce to the rest of the EU. Many Polish plumbers and other skilled workers have moved to Britain.

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Green/Ecology

Widespread ecological damage to forests, air and water from the burning of brown coal (lignite), industries with no pollution controls and inefficient badly shielded Soviet-designed nuclear power stations.

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Human Rights

The government defeated in October 2007 was accused of abuses of human rights and arbitrary actions. Religious influence was strong.

Climate effects

Last revised 19/10/11


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