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History of Poland

From Homo Erectus and then during the Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages and throughout the Late Antiquity, the lands of present day Poland were populated by many different cultures, known from archeological research, but many still of uncertain ethnicity or linguistic affiliation. Slavic, Celtic, Germanic and Baltic peoples were among the prominent groups. The most famous archeological finding from Poland's prehistory is the Biskupin fortified settlement on Lake Biskupin, dating from the Lusatian culture of the early Iron Age.


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, was baptized in 966, adopting Catholic Christianity as the nation's new official religion, to which the bulk of the population converted in the course of the next centuries. In the twelfth century, Poland fragmented into several smaller states, which were later ravaged by the Mongol armies of the Golden Horde in 1241, 1259 and 1287. In 1320, Wladyslaw I became the King of a reunified Poland. His son, Casimir III, is remembered as one of the greatest Polish kings.


Poland was also a centre of migration of peoples and the Jewish community began to settle and flourish in Poland during this era (see History of the Jews in Poland). The Black Death which affected most parts of Europe from 1347 to 1351 did not reach Poland.[3]


Under the Jagiellon dynasty, Poland forged an alliance with its neighbour, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. A golden age ensued during the sixteenth century after the Union of Lublin which gave birth to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The szlachta (nobility) of Poland, far more numerous than in Western European countries, took pride in their freedoms and parliamentary system.



The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth at its greatest extent.In the mid-seventeenth century, a Swedish invasion ("The Deluge") and Cossack's Chmielnicki Uprising which ravaged the country marked the end of the golden age. Numerous wars against Russia coupled government inefficienty caused by the Liberum Veto, a right which had allowed any member of the parliament to dissolve it and to veto any legislation it had passed, marked the steady deterioration of the Commonwealth from a European power into a near-anarchy controlled by its neighbours. The reforms, particularly those of the Great Sejm, which passing of the Constitution of May 3, 1791, second modern constitution of the world, were thwarted with the three partitions of Poland (1772, 1793, and 1795) which ended with Poland's being erased from the map and its territories being divided between Russia, Prussia, and Austria.


Poles would resent their fate and would several times rebelled against the partitioners, particularly in the eighteenth century. Napoleon recreated a Polish state, the Duchy of Warsaw, but after the Napoleonic wars, Poland was again divided by the victorious Allies at the Congress of Vienna. The eastern portion was ruled by the Russian Czar as a Congress Kingdom, and possessed a liberal constitution. However, the Czars soon reduced Polish freedoms and Russia eventually de facto annexed the country. Later in the nineteenth century, Austrian-ruled Galicia, particularly the Free City of Kraków, became a center of Polish cultural life.


During World War I, all the Allies agreed on the restitution of Poland that United States President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed in Point 13 of his Fourteen Points. Shortly after the surrender of 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 (1919-1921) when Poland inflicted a crushing deafeat on the Red Army.



Poland between 1922 and 1938.The 1926 May Coup of Józef Pilsudski turned the reins of the Second Polish Republic over to the Sanacja movement. It lasted until the start of World War II in 1939, when Nazi Germany invaded on September 1 and the Soviet Union followed on September 17. Warsaw capitulated on September 28, 1939. As agreed in the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, Poland was split into two zones, one occupied by Nazi Germany and the other by the Soviet Union.


Of all the countries involved in the war, Poland lost the highest percentage of its citizens: over six million perished, half of them Polish Jews. Poland made the fourth-largest troop contribution to the Allied war effort, after the Americans, the British and the Soviets. At the war's conclusion, Poland's borders were shifted westwards, pushing the eastern border to the Curzon line. Meanwhile, the western border was moved to the Oder-Neisse line. The new Poland emerged 20% smaller by 77,500 square kilometres (29,900 sq mi). The shift forced the migration of millions of people, most of whom were Poles, Germans, Ukrainians, and Jews.



At the end of World War II, the blue territories were transferred from Poland to the Soviet Union, and the yellow territories from Germany to Poland.The Soviet Union instituted a new Communist government in Poland, analogous to much of the rest of the Eastern Bloc. Military alignment within the Warsaw Pact throughout the Cold War was also part of this change. In 1948, a turn towards Stalinism signalled the beginning of a new period of totalitarian rule. The People's Republic of Poland (Polska Rzeczpospolita Ludowa) was officially proclaimed in 1952. In 1956, the régime of Wladyslaw Gomulka became temporarily more liberal, freeing many people from prison and expanding some personal freedoms. Similar situation repeated itself in the 1970s under Edward Gierek, but most of the time persecution of communist opposition persisted. Labour turmoil in 1980 led to the formation of the independent trade union "Solidarity" ("Solidarnosc"), which over time became a political force. It eroded the dominance of the Communist Party and by 1989 had triumphed in parliamentary elections. Lech Walesa, a Solidarity candidate, eventually won the presidency in 1990. The Solidarity movement heralded the collapse of communism across Eastern Europe.


A shock therapy programme of Leszek Balcerowicz during the early 1990s enabled the country to transform its economy into a robust market economy. Despite temporary slumps in social and economic standards, Poland was the first post-communist country to reach its pre-1989 GDP levels. Most visibly, there were numerous improvements in other human rights, such as free speech. In 1991, Poland became a member of the Visegrad Group and joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) alliance in 1999 along with the Czech Republic 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.




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