This week we’ve made it all the way to Poland. Despite a painful past, the nation has managed to find its place as one of the most developed and vibrant countries in the region.
- Capital (and Largest City): Warsaw
- Population (2014): 38,484,000 (34th)
- Total Area: 312,679 km² (71st)
- Official Language: Polish
- Currency: Polish złoty (zł) (PLN)
It wasn’t until the Middle Ages – around the 10th century in fact – when Poland began to take shape as a recognizable entity. Prior to this, it was a loose collection of pagan tribes that inhabited the area. This newfound structure went hand in hand with a (sometimes troubled) conversion to Christianity that took place over the next several centuries.
Many different rulers had their time at the reigns of the Polish state throughout the Middle Ages. Among the most renowned is Casimir III (1333-1370) who turned a poor and weak country into a thriving power while also making great contributions to civil society, cultural works, and granting protection and rights to Jewish immigrants. When he died he left no heirs, which signaled the beginning of the Jagiellon dynasty. The dynasty brought more lands under Polish control (including Lithuania) and won a great victory over the Teutonic Knights at the Battle of Grunwald.
Over time, the feudal Polish state evolved into a federal commonwealth (with Lithuania) where the nobility still held most of the control. Despite growing in stature, Poland still had to contend with regional rivals such as the Ottoman Empire and Crimean Tatars. Regardless, the country managed to deal with these threats and remained a growing force until its decline in the early 1600’s.
The following centuries were often arduous for the Polish people. Other nearby powers – including Russia, Prussia, and Austria – picked over the country’s land; often breaking it up amongst themselves. By the end of the 18th century, Poland was for all intents and purposes no longer an independent country. Further partitions took place and what we know as Poland today no longer existed.
While Poland would see brief periods of semi-independence (particularly during the zenith of Napoleon’s power), the country was continually broken up by its more powerful neighbours. It wasn’t until World War I when the country managed to gain back its independence. Thanks in part to the insistence of Woodrow Wilson in his Fourteen Points; the sacrifice of the Polish people during the conflict was rewarded with the birth of a ‘new’ nation.
Of course this wasn’t meant to last. In a story everyone knows all too well, Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939 and thrust Europe once again into the throes of war. The Polish people suffered greatly at the hands of the Nazi regime, with scores of resistance members and Jewish people killed. Many Poles still managed to fight against the Axis powers – working with the other Allied nations in the process. In the end Poland regained most (but not all) of its lost territory while a staggering 6 million citizens were killed.
While not a member of the Soviet Union, Poland soon found itself a member of the communist bloc and largely beholden to Moscow – despite widespread resistance. Eventually a movement, known as Solidarity, was able to lead Poland on a path to democracy – and as a consequence set the stage for the collapse of communist governments across Europe.
Since the end of the Cold War, Poland has sought to grow closer to the West – joining NATO in 1999 and the EU in 2004. While the country has largely been a success story (even co-hosting the 2012 European Football Championships), there has been tragedy as well – namely in 2010 when then-President Lech Kaczyński died in a plane crash. Still, Poland has remained strong and looks to the future with renewed vigor.
Polish culture has developed and shifted greatly over the millennia of the country’s history. Slavic, Byzantine, Germanic, and other cultural characteristics can be seen across Poland – and have been amalgamated with local traditions to create a unique Polish culture.
Poland has also been known throughout the years for a tolerance of minorities and focus on equality. This goes all the way back to the Jewish people in medieval times but can also be seen today in a high level of gender equality.
Polish art is also renowned across the world – both in the visual sphere and with regards to architecture. This is especially evident when wandering the older parts of the country’s cities. Like many parts of Polish culture, art and architecture reflects the eclectic history of the country with a wide range of styles and influences.
Sports are also popular in Poland, and it should be of no surprise that soccer is the most widely followed. The national team experienced their heyday in the 70’s and 80’s – finishing third at two separate World Cups. The team has recently qualified for the upcoming Euro 2016 tournament and is led by one of the current top strikers in the world – Robert Lewandowski of Bayern Munich.
Poland is a relatively large country that mostly consists of a plain with the Baltic Sea to the north and Carpathian mountains to the south. Within the country, there are the lowlands, uplands, lake region (with numerous forests), the mountains, and the coastal plains.
The largest city in Poland by far is the capital – Warsaw. The city has grown into a cultural and commercial centre, not just of Poland but also of all Central Europe. The city has been through hell and back over the years, but has always managed to recover from near devastation – earning the title of Phoenix City.
Did you know?
- ‘The Witcher’ series of novels by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski spawned a successful trilogy of video games. The series is so important to Poland and Polish culture that the second game was gifted to President Obama during a state visit
- Warsaw is known for its skyscrapers – among the most in Europe
- Pierogies are one of the most well-known examples of Polish food
- Poland is part of the vodka belt – and has produced the drink for more than half a millennium
- The military uses a two-fingered salute
- The country is staunchly Roman Catholic
- Poland is the third highest consumer of beer (on average) in Europe
- The Polish astronomer Copernicus first suggested that the universe may not revolve around the Earth
- Pizza is often consumed with ketchup – to each his own
- The gentlemanly kissing of women’s hands by men is still widely practiced
Despite a sometimes-tragic history, Poland has fought hard to retain its unique and vibrant culture while keeping one eye firmly fixed on a bright future.
Stay tuned to the Current for our Country of the Week. We’ll explore the familiar and the foreign, plus uncover some hidden gems (see them all HERE).
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