The Republic of Poland has been called the bridge between the East and the West. It borders the Czech Republic and Slovakia in the south, Ukraine and Belarus to the east, Germany to the west, and the Baltic Sea, Lithuania and Russia to the north. The country is 312,685 square kilometers -- roughly the size of New Mexico -- with a population of 39 million.
Polish is the official language, though German, English and variants of Slavonic languages are spoken by a small minority. A whopping 95 percent of the population is Roman Catholic.
Most of the country is part of the North European Plain, a vast lowland area that is coursed by several large rivers. The southern border is formed by the Sudetes and Carpathian mountain ranges.
World War II devastated the capital city of Warsaw. A few historic precincts have been rebuilt, and there is a charming Old Town, but most of the city is made up of drab postwar-era apartment blocks and office buildings.
Marie Curie -- who was awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry for the isolation of pure radium -- was born in Warsaw in 1867. Unlike the capital, the university city of Krakow was relatively untouched by the war and still retains its old spirit, with grand church spires and Renaissance architecture.
The Polish state was created more than 1,000 years ago under the Piast dynasty. By the end of the 16th century, the state had emerged as one of the largest, wealthiest and most powerful countries in Europe. In 1569, the Kingdom of Poland joined with Lithuania to create the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, or the Republic of Two Nations. The Commonwealth covered the territories of what is now Belarus, part of Ukraine, Latvia and a western portion of Russia.
Its economy was mostly agricultural and was based on a feudal system of noble landowners and an underclass of serfs bound to work in the grain fields. Its location straddled many important land and sea trading routes between the East and the West, an advantage that fueled its wealth for several centuries.
The Commonwealth’s political system -- often referred to as Golden Freedom or Noble’s democracy -- is seen as a forerunner to modern democracy. It had a powerful parliament that avoided being drawn into the Thirty Years’ War, a religious conflict that devastated much of Europe, but it successfully fought against Sweden, Russia and the Ottoman Empire. Its role in the defeat of the Ottoman Empire earned Poland the name “Antemurale Christianitatis” or “forefront of Christianity.”
By the 18th century, the Commonwealth had started to weaken. Beset by military defeats and growing anarchy inside the country, it became vulnerable to outside invasion.
In 1791, the Polish parliament adopted the Constitution of May Third -- Europe’s first modern codified constitution and the second in the world after the Constitution of the United States -- in an effort to shore up the political instability, but it was too late.
Only a few years later, the country dissolved as it was invaded and partitioned by Russia, Austria and Prussia. Poland was officially erased from the map by 1795 and did not regain full independence againuntil 1918 -- as the Second Polish Republic -- in the wake of World War I. In the 19th century, there were a series of Polish uprisings, and Napoleon created a Polish state, the Duchy of Warsaw, in 1807, which had some autonomy until being annexed to the Russian state in 1831.
The Second Polish Republic was destroyed a second time, at the beginning of World War II. In 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland and built Auschwitz, the concentration camp where 1.35 million Jews were murdered. The Polish government managed to survive in exile and played a role in the Allied Powers’ eventual victory. Poland lost a higher percentage of citizens than any other country involved in the war. Six million Poles died, half of them Jews.
After the war, Joseph Stalin seized a chunk of eastern Poland for the Soviet Union, and Poland became a Communist satellite state of the Soviet Union known as the People’s Republic of Poland.
Solidarity and the Fall of Communism
In the 1980s, the Polish anti-Communist reform movement Solidarity was formed in response to soaring prices and meager wages. Led by Lech Walesa, a shipyard worker in Gdansk, the group, considered the Eastern Bloc’s first free-trade union, helped shepherd the country from communism to democracy. Walesa won the Nobel Peace prize in 1983 and in 1989, Solidarity won the country’s first free elections in more than 40 years and became the first Eastern European country to overthrow Communist rule. The Third Polish Republic was established, and the country busied itself catching up with the West.
The movement’s influence intensified the spread of anti-Communist sentiments throughout the rest of the Eastern Bloc countries and spawned a series of peaceful counterrevolutions that are said to have contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Today, however, Solidarity has negligible political influence.
As a democratic republic, Poland is organized under a Council of Ministers, which is currently led by Prime Minister Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz. The president, currently Lech Kaczynski, is elected by popular vote every five years, and serves as the head of state. Voters also elect a two-house parliament, which consists of a 460-member lower house, Sejm, and a 100-member senate.
Triple-digit inflation in the 1990s prompted Poland to adopt a liberalized economic reform plan. A new constitution was drafted in 1997. In 1999, Poland joined NATO, and in 2004, it joined the European Union, hailed as a successful example of the transition from a partially state-capitalist market economy to a primarily privately owned market economy. Poland has a large agricultural sector that could make it a leading food producer in the European Union, but fiscal problems remain a top concern for the country. The country continues to be plagued by the highest unemployment rate in the European Union, and a lack of investment has hampered development. Exports include clothes, electronics, automobiles, aircraft, military vehicles, medicine, food and chemical products.
Poland decided to further increase its international profile by aiding the U.S.-led military campaign in Iraq. More than 2,000 Polish troops were stationed in south-central Iraq in September 2003. Poland initially planned to withdraw all the troops by the end of 2005, but the withdrawal was postponed. The troops are now set to remain until the end of 2006.
SOURCES: BBC; Chopin Society; The Guardian; National Geographic; Lonely Planet; Piano Society; Infoplease; CIA Factbook; Wikipedia (a free-content encyclopedia that it is written collaboratively by people from around the world).Back to top
This leading news magazine -- published in Polish and English -- offers searchable archives as well as daily news from Poland. Established in 1988, it is the oldest and largest English-language weekly in Poland.
This government site hosts a wealth of material on Poland. Visitors can listen to Polskie radio live, hear an audio rendition of the national anthem, check the weather in Poland and research the country’s economic history. There’s a calendar of major cultural events and detailed maps of the country. Visitors can also link directly to the official Web sites of each major city.
This English-language blog is dedicated to news analysis and commentary about Poland. The blog includes a mix of commentary from individuals and excerpts pulled from Polish publications. One recent entry announces “Whistleblower 24.7,” an Internet project that allows people to anonymously post instances of business and government corruption, which, according to a report by Transparency International, is on the rise.
Visitors to this site can listen to Chopin compositions, including Scherzo no. 1 and Piano Concerto no. 1. It also includes analysis of Chopin’s works, a full list of albums, links and biographical information.
The Frederic Chopin Society in Warsaw was founded more than 70 years ago. Visitors can follow links to download a free Chopin ringtone for their cell phones, listen to Chopin’s music and read about Chopin’s life in English or Polish.
Based in London, the Chopin Society was founded in 1971 to celebrate the composer and increase knowledge and appreciation of his music. The site publishes lists of upcoming recitals and lectures and offers an article about Chopin’s visit to Britain.
The Chopin Foundation of the United States links to information from chapters around the world. The foundation has its own publication, and back issues can be found on the site. It is based in Florida.
This site from the Piano Society, displaying one of the more moody photographs of Chopin, contains dozens of MP3 recordings of Chopin’s work, a link to a sheet music distributor and several articles written about Chopin.
This site offers customized searches for Chopin-related events throughout the world, biographical information and numerous links. Visitors can also browse through archived articles on Chopin and find the results of previous piano competitions.
Visitors can download, for free, Franz Liszt’s biography of Chopin, Life of Chopin, at Project Gutenberg.
This Oscar-nominated 1945 drama stars Paul Muni and Merle Oberon, with Cornel Wilde as Chopin. It is a romantic and exaggerated retelling of Chopin’s love affair with writer George Sand, replete with a blood-spattered keyboard as Chopin’s health tragically declines.
Compiled by Singeli AgnewBack to top
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