Historians have recorded that in ancient times a variety of distinct tribal groups inhabited this land now called Poland. Primary among these were Slavic tribes. Celts, Balts, Scythians, Huns, Goths and Germanic peoples also inhabited this land at various times. The earliest settlement found was the fortified settlement of Biskupin, dating from the turn of the Bronze Age and the Early Iron Age (750 - 600 BC.).
In 966, Duke Mieszko I of the Piast dynasty, a pagan and Poland's first recorded leader, converted to Christianity and this event is considered the birth of the Polish nation. The Slavic tribes that he united to form Poland consisted of around a million people.
In 1138, Poland was divided into four kingdoms upon the death of King Boleslaw Krzywousty (Boleslaw ‘Wry-mouthed’). In his will, he divided Poland’s territory between his four sons in an attempt to avoid arguments between them for his throne, in effect making Poland weaker. It was further weakened by the wars waged by his sons against each other.
The Christian Crusades (1095-1291) were a wide series of military campaigns fought across Europe. The First Crusade, organized by Emperor Alexus with assistance from Pope Urban II and sanctioned by the Latin Roman Catholic Church, was begun in order to restore Christian access to holy places in and around Jerusalem.
In 1226 Konrad I invited the Teutonic Knights, a crusading military order during the Middle Ages, to help him fight the Baltic pagans. This decision would ultimately lead to centuries of warfare pitting Poland against the Knights, with the Knights ruthless in their war against the Baltic pagans.
In 1241 Poland became subject to sustained attacks by the Mongol Tatars. These expert horsemen used the element of surprise and their terrific speed to attack and burn towns and villages, forcing the conquered inhabitants to pay tax to them and taking them into slavery.
In 1333 Kazimierz Wielki (Casimir the Great) was crowned king and went on to become one of Poland’s most memorable kings. He reigned over a period of peace in Poland’s history due in part to his reliance on diplomacy, rather than war, to resolve disputes with neighbours. He strengthened the country’s fortifications and its economy. In 1364 he founded the Krakow Academy, the second university to be founded in central Europe.
In 1385, Lithuania's Grand Duke Jagiello accepted Poland's offer to become its king. He consequently converted pagan Lithuania to Christianity and established a personal union between the two lands that lasted for 400 years. Under Jagiello, Poland and Lithuania defeated the Teutonic Knights in 1410 at the Battle of Grunwald, greatly weakening the Order’s hold on the country.
In the 1500s the 'Renaissance' came to Poland; Polish, rather than Latin, became the official language and literature and learning flourished. In 1569, the Polish Parliament unified Poland and Lithuania into a Commonwealth (or one state).
In 1573 via the Warsaw Confederation, religious tolerance was enshrined in law. At this time, in addition to its majority Catholic population, Poland was also home to Jews, Christian Armenians, Orthodox Christians and people of other faiths.
Near the end of the century King Sigismund III moved Poland’s capital city from Krakow to Warsaw because of its central location between the Commonwealth's existing capitals of Krakow and Vilnius.
In the middle of the 17th century Sweden invaded Poland. Much of the Commonwealth was virtually destroyed as cities were burned and plundered. An estimated 4 million lay dead due to that war, as well as epidemics and the resulting famine. The 17th century was a time of much turmoil for Poland, with attacks by Mongol Tartars and Ottoman Turks and Cossack rebellions.
In 1683, under John III Sobieski, the King of Poland, the Commonwealth's military prowess was re-established. In 1687 Polish armies under John III Sobieski rode to the aid of Austrian and German armies in Vienna, who were fast losing their battle against the invading Ottoman army. The arrival of the Polish King and his armies tipped the scales in favour of the European allies, leading them to victory in this battle and halting the Ottoman Empire’s advance into Europe.
Despite this, because Poland had been subjected to almost constant warfare during this century and had suffered massive damage to its economy, the Commonwealth fell once again into decline.
In the late 1700s Poland's three powerful neighbors, Austria, Prussia and Russia coveted Poland. None wanted war with each other so they just decided to divide the now-weakened Poland in a series of agreements called the Three Partitions of Poland. These took place in 1772, 1793 and 1795, with the latter effectively erasing Poland from the map. Even at this dark time, however, the country‘s government managed to ratify a constitution called the Constitution of May 3rd. It was the very first constitution in Europe and the second in the world after the U.S. constitution.
The time of the partitions was a time of oppression for Polish people. In the Prussian partition particularly, efforts were made to ban the Polish language in bureaucracy and schools. Underground schools were established for children to preserve the Polish language. Large numbers of Polish intelligentsia including writers, poets and composers such as Frederic Chopin, fled Poland to live in exile in France.
The partitions of Poland lasted 123 years and were a time of turmoil; the Poles rebelled several times against the partitioners. Russia was the most aggressive and the Poles were forced to resort to guerrilla warfare tactics. Many uprisings were organised, with the 1831-1832 and 1863-1864 uprisings being the most significant.
Fortunately there was a light at the end of the tunnel as during the partitioning large scale industrial projects were constructed and modernization programs instituted by the occupying powers, which (in the end) would help Poland develop economically once again. This was particularly true in the Prussian and German partitions, while the Russian partition was significantly poorer and less industrialized.
And then came World War I. With Poland's three occupying powers at war with each other, Poland became the main fighting ground. There was no Polish army, so Poles were forced into the Russian, German, and Austrian armies and forced to fight against one another.
Shortly after the armistice with Germany in November 1918, Poland regained its independence as the Second Polish Republic, however, the country was devastated by the war, and approximately one million Poles had died.
The Polish–Soviet War (1919–1921) brought fighting again to Poland (but this time) the Polish army inflicted a crushing defeat on the Red Army at the Battle of Warsaw in 1920 under Marshal Pilsudski. As a result Poland gained lands in western Belarus and Ukraine.
In 1926, a coup brought an authoritarian government into power, and a number of undesirable political parties followed. In an effort to prevent future regional wars Poland signs non-aggression pacts with Germany and the Soviet Union, that however would soon prove worthless.
World War II was about to rear its ugly head, as on September 1, 1939, Nazi Germany invaded western Poland. On September 17, the Soviet Union invaded eastern Poland and the country was now split into two war zones. These two invasions were later found to have been the result of a secret pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.
In 1941 the Germans attacked the Soviet Union which proved to be a bad decision, however, over the next three years Nazi Germany controlled Poland and the worst for the long-suffering Polish people was yet to come.
Many Poles were deported to labor camps and intellectuals were executed. Most of Poland's Jewish population, including many non-Jews, would die in Nazi death camps set up throughout Poland at Maidanek, Birkenau and Auschwitz. And in a hard to read (fact-of-war) the Germans exterminated most of Poland's three million Jews, along with Jews from other occupied countries.
The Soviet Army also brought much suffering to the Polish people. In 1940 the Soviets executed over twenty thousand Polish prisoners of war, including officers, and buried them in a mass grave. During the war the Soviet Army also sent many Polish people to forced labour in Siberia.
1943 brought the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Jews in the ghetto bravely but fruitlessly fought back against the Nazi effort to transport the remaining ghetto population to concentration camps. In the end 13,000 Jews were killed in the ghetto within 24 hours, and the remaining 50,000 were shipped to the Treblinka concentration camp.
In 1944 the Warsaw Uprising broke out. Polish soldiers and citizens rose up to drive the Nazis out of Warsaw. The uprising lasted for 63 days, but it was brutally crushed and Warsaw razed to the ground. Over 10,000 soldiers and over 100,000 civilians perished, including children who had participated in the fighting. The Soviets, while they expressed their support for the Poles in this uprising against the Nazis, did not help them fight.
In 1944, Russia's Red Army was victorious over the Germans so Russia consequently set up a Communist-dominated government for Poland.
In 1945 World War II finally ended. Six million Poles had died in this war – this was 20 percent of the country’s entire pre-war population. But, again, this was not the end of Poland’s suffering. That same year, Russia, the United States, and Great Britain met at Yalta and handed Poland over to Soviet Union control and a Communist government. This was a crushing blow to the Polish people’s hopes for freedom after a devastating war.
1947 to 1956 was an era of Stalinist oppression and terror in Poland. Former members of the Polish Army and citizens who expressed disapproval of the Communist government were arrested, interrogated, tortured and sent to gulags.
Repressed seemingly forever, in 1956 the Polish people attempted to gain their freedom from Russia. A reformed government was elected without Soviet approval, prisoners were freed from jails and some personal freedoms were reinstated.
This blatant defiance did not sit well in Russia, Nikita Khrushchev, the head of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, paid a visit and Russian armies gathered on the Polish border.
The fight back against Communism continued, with large protests against the government by students and shipyard and other workers organized in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. These protests were brutally crushed by the government. Churches became popular gathering places once again and Poland, slowly but surely, managed to rebuild its war-devastated industries.
In 1978, in a real morale builder for the country, Karol Wojtyla, the Archbishop of Krakow, was elected Pope. Taking the name John Paul II, he was the first non-Italian pope in nearly 500 years and jubilation quickly spread across Poland. John Paul II visited Poland several times after he was elected. The Communist authorities wanted to ban his visits, fearing it would embolden the people to further protests. Each time, however, they would relent and allow his visit, as they feared even worse protests if he was banned from visiting. These visits caused the rebirth of hope in many Poles.
In 1980, the pot of discontent boiled; strikes and riots ensued as the economy had crumbled to its lowest point and the Polish people had yet to regain a decent standard of living. It began at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk, where labor turmoil led to the formation of the independent trade union named "Solidarity," which over time became a significant political force.
In response to the growing strikes, in December of 1981 Martial Law was declared. Its goal was to crush Solidarity. At midnight members of the opposition were arrested and telephones ceased to function. Soldiers occupied the streets and curfews were introduced. Censorship of all correspondence was put into effect. Over ten thousand people were imprisoned before Martial Law ended in July 1983.
The dominance of the Communist Party was coming to an end, when in 1989, Poland's first free elections were held, and Lech Walesa, a brash union organizer and "Solidarity" candidate won the presidency in 1990. In the eyes of many, the "Solidarity" movement caused the collapse of communism across Eastern Europe.
The transfer from a socialist-style planned economy into a market economy proved somewhat difficult, and there were temporary slumps in social and economic standards. Regardless, Poland became the first post-communist country to reach real economic success.
In 1999, Poland joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) alliance, and in 2003, Poles voted to join the European Union (EU) in a countrywide referendum. Poland became a full member of the EU in 2004.
Tragedy returned to Poland on April 10, 2010, when the country's President, Lech Kaczynski, along with 89 other high-ranking Polish officials died in a plane crash near Smolensk, Russia.
Today, this virtually indestructible country is beginning to shine on the world stage, and for travelers, Poland presents some of the most interesting historical sites and attractions in all of Europe.
From large modern cities to quaint little towns; from Gothic castles to Medieval villages, and from Baltic Sea beaches to the tree-covered mountains and resorts of the south, Poland is now ready to be explored.