Poland, officially the Republic of Poland, is a European country, bordered by Germany to the west; the Czech Republic and Slovakia to the south; Ukraine, Belarus to the east; and the Baltic Sea and Kaliningrad Oblast (a Russian exclave) and Lithuania to the north. The total area of Poland is , making it the 69th largest country in the world and the 9th largest in Europe. With a population of over 38.5 million people, Poland is the 34th most populous country in the world, the sixth most populous member of the European Union, and the most populous post-communist member of the European Union. Poland is a unitary state divided into 16 administrative subdivisions.
Many historians trace the establishment of a Polish state to 966, when Mieszko I, ruler of a territory roughly coextensive with that of present-day Poland, converted to Christianity. The Kingdom of Poland was founded in 1025, and in 1569 it cemented a longstanding political association with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania by signing the Union of Lublin, forming the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. The Commonwealth gradually ceased to exist in the years 1772-1795, when the Polish territory was partitioned among Germany, the Russian Empire, and Austria. Poland regained its independence (as the Second Polish Republic) at the end of World War I, in 1918.
Two decades later, in September 1939, World War II started with the invasions of Poland by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union (as part of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact). More than six million Polish citizens died in the war. In 1944, the Polish People's Republic was proclaimed and after a brief period of conflict, falsified referendum and elections Poland became a satellite state of the Soviet Union in 1947, and was accordingly renamed the People's Republic of Poland in 1952. During the Revolutions of 1989, Poland's communist government was overthrown and Poland adopted a new constitution establishing itself as a democracy and renaming itself the "Third Polish Republic".
Despite the vast destruction the country experienced during World War II, Poland managed to preserve much of its cultural wealth. There are currently 14 heritage sites inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list in Poland and 54 Historical Monuments. Since the end of the communist period, Poland has achieved a "very high" ranking in terms of human development.
How places in Poland are organized
Poland has a complicated history. From 1569-1795 it was part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. We call the subdivisions during that time commonwealth voivodships. From 1815-1914 it was known as Congress Poland. We call the subdivisions during that time congress governorates. From 1918-1939 it was known as the Second Polish Republic. We call the subdivisions during that time second republic voivodships. From 1945-1989 it was known as the People's Republic of Poland. We call the subdivisions from 1945-1975 People's republic voivodships. The subdivisions of Poland from 1975-1998, and the ones that replaced them in 1999 are both called "modern voivodships".
The Family History Library Catalog lists some places in Poland according to their second republic voivodships and others according to their people's republic voivodships. We follow their lead and title Polish place pages according to their second republic voivodship (preferred) or people's republic voivodship if known, with also-located-in links to the voivodships for other time periods if known.
All places in Poland
Further information on historical place organization in Poland
Historians have postulated that throughout Late Antiquity, many distinct ethnic groups populated the regions of what is now known as Poland. The ethnicity and linguistic affiliation of these groups have been hotly debated; the time and route of the original settlement of Slavic peoples in these regions have been the particular subjects of much controversy.
The most famous archeological find from the prehistory and protohistory of Poland is the Biskupin fortified settlement (now reconstructed as a museum), dating from the Lusatian culture of the early Iron Age, around 700 BC. Before adopting Christianity in 960 AD, the people of Poland believed in Svetovid, the Slavic god of war, fertility, and abundance. Many other Slavic nations had the same belief.
Poland began to form into a recognizable unitary and territorial entity around the middle of the 10th century under the Piast dynasty. Poland's first historically documented ruler, Mieszko I, accepted baptism in 966 and adopted Catholicism as the new official religion of his subjects. The bulk of the population converted in the course of the next few centuries. In 1000, Boleslaw the Brave, continuing the policy of his father Mieszko, held a Congress of Gniezno and created the metropolis of Gniezno and the dioceses of Kraków, Kołobrzeg, Wrocław.
As he writes in his chronicl of Gallus Anonymus, capitals Polish Piast dynasty during the reign of former Wrocław, Kraków and Sandomierz ("Boleslaus vero, in Wratislaw, et in Cracovia, et in Sandomir, sedes regni principales obtinuat").
In 1109, Bolesław III Wrymouth defeated the King of Germany Henry V in the Battle of Hundsfeld. In 1138, Poland fragmented into several smaller duchies when Bolesław III Wrymouth divided his lands among his sons. In 1226, Konrad I of Masovia, one of the regional Piast dukes, invited the Teutonic Knights to help him fight the Baltic Prussian pagans; a decision which would ultimately lead to centuries of warfare with the Knights. In the middle of 13th-century the Silesian branch of the Piast dynasty (Henry I the Bearded and Henry II the Pious, ruled 1238–1241) almost succeeded in uniting the Polish lands, but the Mongols devastated the country and won the Battle of Legnica where Duke Henry II the Pious died (1241). In 1320, after a number of earlier unsuccessful attempts by regional rulers at uniting the Polish dukedoms, Władysław I consolidated his power, took the throne and became the first King of a reunified Poland. His son, Casimir III (reigned 1333–1370), has a reputation as one of the greatest Polish kings, and gained wide recognition as a protector of trade. He extended his kingdom to 250% of its initial size. Casimir also extended royal protection to Jews.
The education of Polish society was a goal of rulers as early as the 12th century, and Poland soon became one of the most educated countries in Europe. The library catalogue of the Cathedral Chapter of Kraków dating back to 1110 shows that in the early 12th-century Polish intellectuals had access to European literature.
Casimir III realized that the nation needed a class of educated people, especially lawyers, who could codify the country's laws and administer the courts and offices. His efforts to found an institution of higher learning in Poland were finally rewarded when Pope Urban V granted him permission to open the University of Kraków.
The Golden Liberty of the nobles began to develop under Casimir's rule, when in return for their military support, the king made serious concessions to the aristocrats, finally establishing their status as superior to that of the townsmen, and aiding their rise to power. When Casimir died in 1370 he left no legitimate male heir and, considering his other male descendants either too young or unsuitable, was laid to rest as the last of the nation's Piast rulers.
Poland also became a magnet for migrants. Germans settled in the towns; the Jewish community began to settle and flourish in Poland during this era (see History of the Jews in Poland); the same applies in smaller number to Armenians. The Black Death which afflicted most parts of Europe from 1347 to 1351 affected Poland less severely.
The rule of the Jagiellon dynasty spanned the late Middle Ages and early Modern Era of Polish history. Beginning with the Lithuanian Grand Duke Jogaila (Władysław II Jagiełło), the Jagiellon dynasty (1386–1572) formed the Polish–Lithuanian union. The partnership brought vast Lithuania-controlled Rus' areas into Poland's sphere of influence and proved beneficial for the Poles and Lithuanians, who coexisted and cooperated in one of the largest political entities in Europe for the next four centuries. In the Baltic Sea region Poland's struggle with the Teutonic Knights continued and included the Battle of Grunwald (1410), where a Polish-Lithuanian army inflicted a decisive defeat on the Teutonic Knights, both countries' main adversary, allowing Poland's and Lithuania's territorial expansion into the far north region of Livonia. In 1466, after the Thirteen Years' War, King Casimir IV Jagiellon gave royal consent to the milestone Peace of Thorn, which created the future Duchy of Prussia, a Polish vassal. The Jagiellons at one point also established dynastic control over the kingdoms of Bohemia (1471 onwards) and Hungary. In the south Poland confronted the Ottoman Empire and the Crimean Tatars (by whom they were attacked on 75 separate occasions between 1474 and 1569), and in the east helped Lithuania fight the Grand Duchy of Moscow. Some historians estimate that Crimean Tatar slave-raiding cost Poland one million of its population from 1494 to 1694.
Poland was developing as a feudal state, with a predominantly agricultural economy and an increasingly powerful landed nobility. The Nihil novi act adopted by the Polish Sejm (parliament) in 1505, transferred most of the legislative power from the monarch to the Sejm, an event which marked the beginning of the period known as "Golden Liberty", when the state was ruled by the "free and equal" Polish nobility. Protestant Reformation movements made deep inroads into Polish Christianity, which resulted in the establishment of policies promoting religious tolerance, unique in Europe at that time. It is believed that this tolerance allowed the country to avoid the religious turmoil that spread over Europe during the late Middle Ages. The European Renaissance evoked in late Jagiellon Poland (kings Sigismund I the Old and Sigismund II Augustus) a sense of urgency in the need to promote a cultural awakening, and resultantly during this period Polish culture and the nation's economy flourished. In 1543 the Pole, Nicolaus Copernicus, an astronomer from Toruń, published his epochal works, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres), and thus became the first proponent of a predictive mathematical model confirming heliocentric theory which ultimately became the accepted basic model for the practice of modern astronomy. Another major figure associated with the era is classicist poet Jan Kochanowski.
The 1569 Union of Lublin established the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, a more closely unified federal state with an elective monarchy, but which was governed largely by the nobility, through a system of local assemblies with a central parliament. The establishment of the Commonwealth coincided with a period of great stability and prosperity in Poland, with the union soon thereafter becoming a great European power and a major cultural entity, occupying approximately one million square kilometers of central Europe, as well as an agent for the dissemination of 'Western culture' through Polonization in modern-day Ukraine, Belarus and Western Russia. Poland-Lithuania suffered from a number of dynastic crises during the reigns of the Vasa kings Sigismund III and Władysław IV and found itself engaged in major conflicts with Russia, Sweden and the Ottoman Empire, as well as a series of minor Cossack uprisings.
From the middle of the 17th century, the nobles' democracy, suffering from internal disorder, gradually declined, thus leaving the once powerful Commonwealth vulnerable to foreign intervention.
From 1648, the Cossack Khmelnytsky Uprising engulfed the south and east eventually leaving Ukraine divided, with the eastern part, lost by the Commonwealth, becoming a dependency of the Tsardom of Russia. This was soon followed by the 'Deluge', a Swedish invasion, which marched through the Polish heartlands and damaged Poland's population, culture and infrastructure. Famines and epidemics followed hostilities, and the population dropped from roughly 11 to 7 million.
Sobieski's reign marked the end of the nation's golden-era. Soon, finding itself subjected to almost constant warfare and suffering enormous population losses as well as massive damage to its economy, the Commonwealth fell into decline. The government became ineffective as a result of large scale internal conflicts (e.g. Lubomirski's Rokosz against John II Casimir and rebellious confederations) and corrupted legislative processes. The nobility fell under the control of a handful of magnats, and this, compounded with two relatively weak kings of the Saxon Wettin dynasty, Augustus II and Augustus III, as well as the rise of Russia and Prussia after the Great Northern War only served to worsen the Commonwealth's plight. Despite this The Commonwealth-Saxony personal union gave rise to the emergence of the Commonwealth's first reform movement, and laid the foundations for the Polish Enlightenment.
The Great Sejm convened by Stanisław August in 1788 successfully adopted the 3 May Constitution, the first set of modern supreme national laws in Europe. However, this document, accused by detractors of harbouring revolutionary sympathies, soon generated strong opposition from the Commonwealth's nobles and conservatives as well as from Catherine II, who, determined to prevent the rebirth of a strong Commonwealth set about planning the final dismemberment of the Polish-Lithuanian state. Russia was aided in achieving its goal when the Targowica Confederation, an organisation of Polish nobles, appealed to the Empress for help. In May 1792 Russian forces crossed the Commonwealth's frontier, thus beginning the Polish-Russian War.
The defensive war fought by the Poles and Lithuanians ended prematurely when the King, convinced of the futility of resistance, capitulated and joined the Targowica Confederation. The Confederation then took over the government. Russia and Prussia, fearing the mere existence of a Polish state, arranged for, and subsequently in 1793 executed, the Second Partition of the Commonwealth, which left the country deprived of so much territory that it was practically incapable of independent existence. Eventually, in 1795, following the failed Kościuszko Uprising, the Commonwealth was partitioned one last time by all three of its more powerful neighbours, and with this, effectively ceased to exist.
The Age of Partitions
Poles rebelled several times against the partitioners, particularly near the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century. One of the most famous and successful attempts at securing renewed Polish independence took place in 1794, during the Kościuszko Uprising, at the Racławice where Tadeusz Kosciuszko, a popular and distinguished general who had served under Washington in America, led peasants and some Polish regulars into battle against numerically superior Russian forces. In 1807, Napoleon I of France 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 of 1815. The eastern part was ruled by the Russian tsar as a Congress Kingdom which possessed a very liberal constitution. However, the tsars soon reduced Polish freedoms, and Russia annexed the country in virtually all but name. Thus in the latter half of the 19th century, only Austrian-ruled Galicia, and particularly the Free City of Kraków, created good environment for free Polish cultural life to flourish.
Throughout the period of the partitions, political and cultural repression of the Polish nation led to the organisation of a number of uprisings against the authorities of the occupying Russian, Prussian and Austrian governments. Notable among these are the November Uprising of 1830 and January Uprising of 1863, both of which were attempts to free Poland from the rule of tsarist Russia. The November uprising began on 29 November 1830 in Warsaw when, led by Lieutenant Piotr Wysocki, young non-commissioned officers at the Imperial Russian Army's military academy in that city revolted. They were soon joined by large segments of Polish society, and together forced Warsaw's Russian garrison to withdraw north of the city.
Over the course of the next seven months, Polish forces successfully defeated the Russian armies of Field Marshal Hans Karl von Diebitsch and a number of other Russian commanders; however, finding themselves in a position unsupported by any other foreign powers, save distant France and the newborn United States, and with Prussia and Austria refusing to allow the import of military supplies through their territories, the Poles accepted that the uprising was doomed to failure. Upon the surrender of Warsaw to General Ivan Paskievich, many Polish troops, feeling they could not go on, withdrew into Germany and there laid down their arms. Poles would have to wait another 32 years for another opportunity to free their homeland.
When in January 1863 a new Polish uprising against Russian rule began, it did so as a spontaneous protest by young Poles against conscription into the Imperial Russian Army. However, the insurrectionists, despite being joined by high-ranking Polish-Lithuanian officers and numerous politicians were still severely outnumbered and lacking in foreign support. They were forced to resort to guerrilla warfare tactics and ultimately failed to win any major military victories. Afterwards no major uprising was witnessed in the Russian controlled Congress Poland and Poles resorted instead to fostering economic and cultural self-improvement.
Despite the political unrest experienced during the partitions, Poland did benefit from large scale industrialisation and modernisation programs, instituted by the occupying powers, which helped it develop into a more economically coherent and viable entity. This was particularly true in the Greater Poland, Pomerania and Warmia annexed by Prussia (later becoming a part of the German Empire); an area which eventually, thanks largely to the Greater Poland Uprising, was reconstituted as a part of the Second Polish Republic and became one of its most productive regions.
Reconstitution of Poland
During World War I, all the Allies agreed on the reconstitution of Poland that United States President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed in Point 13 of his Fourteen Points. A total of 2 million Polish troops fought with the armies of the three occupying powers, and 450,000 died. Shortly after the armistice with 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 defeat on the Red Army at the Battle of Warsaw, an event which is considered to have ultimately halted the advance of Communism into Europe and forced Vladimir Lenin to rethink his objective of achieving global socialism. Nowadays the event is often referred to as the "Miracle at the Vistula".
During this period, Poland successfully managed to fuse the territories of the three former partitioning powers into a cohesive nation state. Railways were restructured to direct traffic towards Warsaw instead of the former imperial capitals, a new network of national roads was gradually built up and a major seaport was opened on the Baltic Coast, so as to allow Polish exports and imports to bypass the politically charged Free City of Danzig.
The inter-war period heralded in a new era of Polish politics. Whilst Polish political activists had faced heavy censorship in the decades up until the First World War, the country now found itself trying to establish a new political tradition. For this reason, many exiled Polish activists, such as Jan Paderewski (who would later become Prime Minister) returned home to help; a great number of them then went on to take key positions in the newly formed political and governmental structures. Tragedy struck in 1922 when Gabriel Narutowicz, inaugural holder of the Presidency, was assassinated at the Zachęta Gallery in Warsaw by painter and right-wing nationalist Eligiusz Niewiadomski.
The 1926 May Coup of Józef Piłsudski turned rule of the Second Polish Republic over to the Sanacja movement. By the 1930s Poland had become increasingly authoritarian; a number of 'undesirable' political parties, such as the Polish Communists, had been banned and following Piłsudski's death, the regime, unable to appoint a new leader, began to show its inherent internal weaknesses and unwillingness to cooperate in any way with other political parties.
World War II
The Sanacja movement controlled Poland until the start of World War II in 1939, when Nazi Germany's and Slovakia Invasion of Poland (1939) on 1 September and the Soviet invasion of Poland on 17 September, which followed the breaking of the Soviet–Polish Non-Aggression Pact, occurred. Warsaw capitulated on 28 September 1939. As agreed in the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, Poland was split into two zones, one occupied by Nazi Germany while the Kresy, or Borderlands, fell under the control of the Soviet Union. In 1939–1941, the Soviets had moved hundreds of thousands of Poles across the Soviet Union, and the Soviet secret police, NKVD, had executed thousands of Polish prisoners of war (inter alia Katyn massacre).
In addition to the organised units of the 1st Army and the Forces in the Nazi-occupied Europe, the domestic underground resistance movement, the Armia Krajowa, or Home Army, fought to free Poland from German occupation and establish an independent Polish state. The wartime resistance movement in Poland was one of the three largest resistance movements of the entire war and encompassed an unusually broad range of clandestine activities, which essentially functioned as an underground state complete with degree-awarding universities and a court system. The resistance was, however, largely loyal to the exiled government and generally resented the idea of a communist Poland; for this reason, on 1 August 1944 they initiated Operation Tempest and thus began the Warsaw Uprising. The objective of the uprising was to drive the German occupiers from the city and help with the larger fight against Germany and the Axis powers, however secondary motives for the uprising sought to see Warsaw liberated before the Soviets could reach the capital, so as to underscore Polish sovereignty by empowering the Polish Underground State before the Soviet-backed Polish Committee of National Liberation could assume control. However, a lack of available allied military aid and Stalin's reluctance to allow the 1st Army to help their fellow countrymen take the city, ultimately led to the uprising's failure and subsequent planned destruction of the city.
At the war's conclusion, Poland's territory was shifted westwards, pushing the Kresy in accordance with the Curzon Line. Meanwhile, the western border moved to the Oder-Neisse line. As a result, Poland's territory was reduced by 20%, or . The shift forced the migration of millions of people, most of whom were Poles, Germans, Ukrainians, and Jews. Of all the countries involved in the war, Poland lost the highest percentage of its citizens: over 6 million perished – nearly one-fifth of Poland's population — half of them Polish Jews. Over 90% of deaths were non-military in nature. Only in the 1970s did Poland again approach its prewar population levels. An estimated 600,000 Soviet soldiers died in conquering Poland from German rule.
Postwar communist Poland
At the insistence of Joseph Stalin, the Yalta Conference sanctioned the formation of a new Polish provisional and pro-Communist coalition government in Moscow, which ignored the Polish government-in-exile based in London; a move which angered many Poles who considered it a betrayal by the Allies. In 1944, Stalin had made guarantees to Churchill and Roosevelt that he would maintain Poland's sovereignty and allow democratic elections to take place; however, upon achieving victory in 1945, the occupying Soviet authorities organised an election which constituted nothing more than a sham and was ultimately used to claim the 'legitimacy' of Soviet hegemony over Polish affairs. The Soviet Union instituted a new communist government in Poland, analogous to much of the rest of the Eastern Bloc. As elsewhere in Communist Europe the Soviet occupation of Poland met with armed resistance from the outset which continued into the fifties.
The People's Republic of Poland (Polska Rzeczpospolita Ludowa) was officially proclaimed in 1952. In 1956 after the death of Bolesław Bierut, the régime of Władysław Gomułka became temporarily more liberal, freeing many people from prison and expanding some personal freedoms. A similar situation repeated itself in the 1970s under Edward Gierek, but most of the time persecution of anti-communist opposition groups persisted. Despite this, Poland was at the time considered to be one of the least oppressive states of the Soviet Bloc.
Labour turmoil in 1980 led to the formation of the independent trade union "Solidarity" ("Solidarność"), which over time became a political force. Despite persecution and imposition of martial law in 1981, it eroded the dominance of the Communist Party and by 1989 had triumphed in Poland's first partially free and democratic parliamentary elections since the end of the Second World War. Lech Wałęsa, a Solidarity candidate, eventually won the presidency in 1990. The Solidarity movement heralded the collapse of communist regimes and parties across Europe.
A shock therapy programme, initiated by Leszek Balcerowicz in the early 1990s enabled the country to transform its socialist-style planned economy into a market economy. As with all other post-communist countries, Poland suffered temporary slumps in social and economic standards, but it became the first post-communist country to reach its pre-1989 GDP levels, which it achieved by 1995 largely thanks to its booming economy.
Most visibly, there were numerous improvements in human rights, such as the freedom of speech, internet freedom (no censorship), civil liberties (1st class) and political rights (1st class), according to Freedom House. In 1991, Poland became a member of the Visegrád 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 1 May 2004. Subsequently Poland joined the Schengen Area in 2007, as a result of which, the country's borders with other member states of the European Union have been dismantled, allowing for full freedom of movement within most of the EU. In contrast to this, the section of Poland's eastern border now comprising the external EU border with Belarus, Russia and Ukraine, has become increasingly well protected, and has led in part to the coining of the phrase 'Fortress Europe', in reference to the seeming 'impossibility' of gaining entry to the EU for citizens of the former Soviet Union.
On 10 April 2010, the President of the Republic of Poland, Lech Kaczyński, along with 89 other high-ranking Polish officials died in a plane crash near Smolensk, Russia. The president's party were on their way to attend an annual service of commemoration for the victims of the Katyń massacre when the tragedy took place.
In 2011, national census elections took place. Polish presidency in the EU started that year and the elections took place (they were won by the ruling party). Poland joined European Space Agency in 2012, as well as organised the Euro 2012 (along with Ukraine) and the process of digitisation started.
In 2013 Poland also became a member of the Development Assistance Committee.