The country is largely low-lying, except in the south, which includes the Carpathians, the Sudeten Mts., and the Małopolska Hills. The highest point is Rysy Mt. (c.8,200 ft/2,500 m), located in the High Tatra Mts. near the Slovakian border. Poland's main rivers (including the Vistula, the Oder, the Warta, and the Western Bug) are connected to the Baltic Sea and are important traffic lanes. The country has three important Baltic ports (Gdańsk, Gdynia, and Szczecin) and a dense rail network. There are many lakes, especially in the north. About 50% of Poland's land area is arable (with the best soil in the south), and about 30% is forested.
Poland is divided into 16 provinces. In addition to the capital and major ports, the country's major cities include Białystok, Bydgoszcz, Bytom, Częstochowa, Gdańsk, Gliwice, Katowice, Kraków, ŁódĽ, Lublin, Poznań, Radom, Tarnowskie Góry, and Wrocław.
As a result of World War II, of the 1945 boundary treaty with the USSR, and of the emigration of most of the German-speaking population, the country has considerable ethnic homogeneity. Nearly the entire population is Polish-speaking and the vast majority of those affiliated with any creed are Roman Catholic. There are universities at Gdańsk, Katowice, Kraków, Łódź, Lublin, Poznań, Toruń, Warsaw, and Wrocław.
Industry, which had been state controlled, began to be privatized in the early 1990s, although restructuring and privatization of the country's large coal, steel, and chemical industries has moved forward slowly, when it has progressed at all. Prices were freed, subsidies were reduced, and Poland's currency (the zloty) was made convertible as the country began the difficult transition to a free-market economy. Reforms initially resulted in high unemployment, hyperinflation, shortages of consumer goods, a large external debt, and a general drop in the standard of living. The situation later stabilized, however, and during the 1990s Poland's economy was the fastest growing in E Europe. Growth slowed significantly in 2001. Germany, Russia, Italy, France, and the Netherlands are important trading partners.
The territorial dimensions of Poland have varied considerably during its history. In the 9th and 10th cent., the Polians [dwellers in the field] gained hegemony over the other Slavic groups that occupied what is roughly present-day Poland. Under Duke Mieszko I (reigned 960–92) of the Piast dynasty began (966) the conversion of Poland to Christianity. Gniezno was the first capital of Poland and Poznań the first episcopal see. The Piasts expanded their domains in wars against the German emperors, Hungary, Bohemia, Pomerania, Denmark, and Kiev, and in 1025 Boleslaus I (reigned 992–1025) took the title of king.
At the death (1138) of Boleslaus III the kingdom was broken up; its reunification was begun by Ladislaus I, who was king from 1320 to 1333. During the period of disunity, the Teutonic Knights gained a foothold in the then pagan N Poland. Their power was only broken by their defeat at the hands of Polish-Lithuanian forces at Tannenberg (1410); by the second treaty of Toruń (1466) they became vassals of the Polish kings. The main line of the Piast dynasty ended with the death (1370) of Casimir III, whose enlightened economic, administrative, and social policies included the protection of the Jews. He also completed the reunification of the kingdom. After Casimir, the crown passed to his nephew, Louis I of Hungary (reigned 1370–82) and then to Louis' daughter, Jadwiga (reigned 1384–99).
The Age of Greatness
Jadwiga married Ladislaus Jagiello, grand duke of Lithuania, who became king of Poland as Ladislaus II (reigned 1386–1434). The Jagiello dynasty ruled Poland until 1572; this period—especially the 16th cent.—is considered the golden age of Poland. Although involved in frequent wars with Hungary, Moscow, Moldavia, the Tatars, and the Ottoman Turks, the closely allied Polish and Lithuanian states maintained an empire that reached from the Baltic to the Black Sea.
Ladislaus III (reigned 1434–44; after 1440 also king of Hungary), although routed and killed by the Ottoman Turks at the battle of Varna (1444), gave Poland the prestige of championing the Christian cause against the Muslim invaders. Casimir V (1447–92) placed Poland and Lithuania on equal terms and decisively defeated (1462) the Teutonic Knights. Under Sigismund I (reigned 1506–48) internal power was consolidated, the economy developed, and the culture of the Renaissance was introduced. During the reign of Sigismund II (reigned 1548–72) a unified Polish-Lithuanian state was created by the Union of Lublin (1569).
The arts and sciences flourished during the Jagiello dynasty; a towering figure of the age was the astronomer Copernicus. At the same time, however, the Jagiellos were forced to contend with the growing power of the gentry, who by the 15th cent. began to acquire considerable political influence. In 1505 the gentry forced King Alexander (reigned 1501–6) to recognize the legislative power of the Sejm, or diet, which comprised a senate (made up of representatives of the landed magnates and of the high clergy) and a chamber (consisting of the deputies of the nobility and of the gentry). The liberum veto, which allowed any representative to dissolve the Sejm and even to annul its previous decisions, was applied with growing recklessness in the 17th and 18th cent.
Class Divisions and Foreign Conflicts
The Polish kings had always been elective in theory, but in practice the choice had usually fallen on the incumbent representatives of the ruling dynasty. After the death (1572) of Sigismund II, last of the Jagiellos, the theory that the entire nobility could take part in the royal elections was newly guaranteed. In practice, this meant that internal factional rivalry prevented the establishment of any great Polish dynasty; contested elections and insurrections by the gentry were frequent. Although the state was weakened, the constitution of the royal republic created a certain democratic egalitarianism among the gentry and noble classes. The peasantry, however, had been reduced to serfdom, and its condition tended to worsen rather than improve. The middle class was largely Jewish or German.
There was considerable religious toleration in 16th-century Poland and the progress of Protestantism was arrested without coercion by the Jesuits, who introduced the Counter Reformation in 1565. Relations between the Roman Catholic ruling class and the followers of the Greek Orthodox Church in Belarus and Ukraine (then parts of Lithuania) were less harmonious and helped to involve Poland in several wars with Russia.
Much of the reigns of Stephen Báthory (1575–86) and Sigismund III (1587–1632) was occupied by attempts to conquer Russia. The outstanding figure of their reigns was Jan Zamojski (1542–1605). Sigismund III, a prince of the Swedish ruling house of Vasa, also became king of Sweden; after his deposition (1598) by his Swedish subjects he continued to advance his claims and started a long series of Polish-Swedish wars. In addition, Sigismund defeated an armed revolt (1606–7) by the gentry and fought the Ottoman Turks. He was succeeded by his sons Ladislaus IV (1632–48) and John II (1648–68).
John's reign came to be known in Polish history as the “Deluge.” During his rule discontent in Ukraine flared in the rebellion of the Cossacks under Bohdan Chmielnicki. In 1655, Charles X of Sweden overran Poland, while Czar Alexis of Russia attacked from the east. Inspired by their heroic defense of the monastery at Częstochowa, the Poles managed to regroup and to save the country from complete dismemberment. The Peace of Oliva (1660) cost Poland considerable territory (including N Livonia), and by the Treaty of Andrusov (1667) E Ukraine passed to Russia. The Vasa dynasty ended with the death of John II. John III (John Sobieski; reigned 1674–96), who defended (1683) Vienna from the Ottoman Turk invaders, temporarily restored the prestige of Poland, but with his death Poland virtually ceased to be an independent country.
Partition and Regeneration
After John III, the fate of Poland was determined with increasing cynicism by its three powerful neighbors—Russia, Prussia, and Austria. In 1697 the elector of Saxony was chosen king of Poland as Augustus II by a minority faction supported by Czar Peter I. Augustus allied himself with Russia and Denmark against Charles XII of Sweden. In the ensuing Northern War (1700–1721), during which Poland was plundered several times, Charles XII maintained Stanislaus I (Stanislaus Leszczynski) as Polish king from 1704 to 1709. The War of the Polish Succession (1733–35), precipitated by Augustus's death, resulted in the final abdication of Stanislaus and the accession of Augustus III (1734–63). Under Augustus III, the Polish economy (still largely agricultural) declined and orderly politics was undermined by feuding among the great landed families, which was evident in the frequent use of the liberum veto.
As a result of the support of Catherine II of Russia and Frederick II of Prussia, Stanislaus II (Stanislaus Poniatowski; reigned 1764–95), a member of the powerful Czartoryski family, was elected king of Poland. Prince Nikolai Repnin, the Russian minister at Warsaw, gained much influence in Polish internal affairs. Opposition to Russian domination led to the formation (with French help) in 1768 of the Confederation of the Bar, which, however, was suppressed militarily by Russia in 1772. Fearing that all Poland might fall into Russian hands, Frederick II proposed (1772) a partition plan to Catherine II, which later in the same year was modified to include Austria. Three successive partitions (1772, 1793, 1795) resulted in the disappearance (1795) of Poland from the map of Europe. Russia gained the largest share.
Despite the severe losses that the country suffered, there was a renewed spirit of national revival after 1772. It manifested itself in the thorough reform (including the abolition of the liberum veto) embodied in the May Constitution (1791) for the remaining independent part of Poland and in the heroic revolt (1794) led by Kosciusko. By the Treaty of Tilsit (1807), Napoleon I created a Polish buffer state, the grand duchy of Warsaw, under King Frederick Augustus I of Saxony. After Napoleon's defeat, the Congress of Vienna (1814–15) established a nominally independent Polish kingdom (“Congress Poland”), in personal union with the czar of Russia. The western provinces of Poland were awarded to Prussia; Galicia was given to Austria; and Kraków and its environs were made a separate republic.
A Polish nationalist revival led to a general insurrection in 1830 (known as the November Revolution) in Russian Poland. The Poles were at first successful, but their army was defeated (1831) at Ostrołęka, and the Russians reentered Warsaw. The Polish constitution was suspended, and the kingdom became virtually an integral part of Russia. Thousands of Poles emigrated, notably to Paris, which became the center of Polish nationalist activities. In 1846 an insurrection in Galicia by the peasantry against the gentry led to the annexation of Kraków by Austria. Rebellions broke out in 1848 in Prussian and Austrian Poland, and in 1863 the Poles in Russian Poland rose in the so-called January Revolution.
After crushing the revolt, the Russians began an intensive program of Russification. At the same time industry (especially the manufacture of textiles and iron goods) was developed and large estates were divided and given in freehold to peasants. A similar policy of Germanization in Prussian Poland was linked with Bismarck's Kulturkampf (see Ledóchowski, Count Mieczisław). Only in Austrian Galicia did the Poles enjoy a considerable degree of autonomy, but there the economy was very weak.
The Restoration of a Nation
In World War I the early efforts of the Polish nationalists were directed against Russia. Polish legions, led by Joseph Piłsudski, fought for two years alongside Germany and Austria. In Nov., 1916, Germany and Austria proclaimed Poland an independent kingdom, but Germany, which occupied the country, retained control over the Polish government. Piłsudski resigned and was imprisoned (July, 1917), and the independence movement from then on was centered at Paris. The defeat of the partitioning powers allowed Poland to regain its independence, which was proclaimed on Nov. 9, 1918. Piłsudski returned on Nov. 10 and was declared chief of state.
The Treaty of Versailles (1919) gave Poland access to the Baltic Sea via the Polish Corridor and forced Germany to return Prussian Poland to Poland. Gdańsk became a free city and parts of Silesia were awarded to Poland as a result of plebiscites. The Polish-Russian border proposed at the Paris Peace Conference (and later named after Lord Curzon of Great Britain) would have awarded to Russia large parts of the former eastern provinces of Poland, inhabited mainly by Belarusians and Ukrainians. However, Poland insisted on its 1772 borders. War broke out between Poland and Russia, and in 1920 the Poles drove the Russians back from Warsaw. In the Treaty of Riga (1921), Poland secured parts of its claims.
Poland also became involved in protracted disputes over Vilnius with Lithuania and over Teschen with Czechoslovakia. About one third of newly created Poland was made up of ethnic Germans, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Jews, and Lithuanians, and these minorities were generally treated inequitably. A republican constitution was adopted in 1921. Financial and agrarian reforms were undertaken and industrialization progressed, but the condition of the peasantry remained generally poor, and the landowning aristocracy retained most of its wealth.