Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Republic of Poland

The first time I went to Poland was in 1998.  I was working for T.G.I. Friday's and they sent me there for a month to open a new restaurant in Gdańsk.  I absolutely loved it.  And not just because of the Żubrówka.  I knew that when I moved to the Czech Republic that I would be sure to find my way back to Poland.  In 2010, I went to Kraków and, in 2011, I went to Wrocław.  There are still lots of other places on my list of places to visit including Częstochowa, Katowice, Lublin, Łódź, Poznań, Szczecin, Białystok, Toruń and Karkonoksi National Park.  With Natalie leaving soon, we decided on a quick weekend trip to Warsaw.  So here's a little bit about the Republic of Poland.

Depending on how one looks at the map determines where Poland is.  Many people think of Eastern Europe but officially it is in Central Europe.  It is on the Baltic Sea and shares borders with Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania and the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad.  Poland is the 9th largest country in Europe; slightly smaller than New Mexico.  With over 38.5 million people it is the 6th most populous country in the European Union.

Christianity was brought to the area in 966 AD and the Kingdom of Poland was formed in 1025.  In 1569, it became part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth until 1795 when it was divided amongst Prussia, the Russian Empire and the Habsburg Empire.  At the end of WWI, in 1918, Poland regained its independence.

In 1939, WWII broke out when Nazi Germany invaded western Poland.  Two weeks later the Soviet Union invaded Poland from the east.  The country was split in to two zones.  In the west, the Nazis set up six major concentration camps such as Auschwitz and Treblinka. In the east, the Soviet secret police executed thousands of Polish P.O.W.s, such as at Katyń.

Although occupied from the beginning of the war Poles fought against its invaders.  Polish forces stationed abroad made up the 4th largest allied force after the Soviets, British and Americans.  The Resistance in Poland was one of the largest and most organized underground resistance forces of the war.

Of all countries in WWII, Poland lost the highest percentage of people.  Nearly one-fifth of the population, over 6 million people, was killed.  Half of them were Polish Jews.  Poland didn't reach its prewar population levels until the 1970s.

At the end of the war, Poland lost 20% of its territory.  Its border shifted westward and absorbed part of Germany's territory while it lost land in the east to the Soviet Union.  Poland became a satellite of the USSR and the People's Republic of Poland was declared in 1952.

Despite the country's destruction in WWII, much of its cultural wealth was preserved.  Poland is home to 14 UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

The independent trade union, Solidarność (Solidarity), was formed during labor turmoil in 1980.  In 1981 martial law was declared for 1½ years.  Many people believe that martial law was declared in order to prevent the Soviets from invading like they did in Hungary in 1956 and in Czechoslovakia in 1968.  Others feel that the communists cracked down so that the ruling party maintained power.  Solidarity became a political force and was the beginning of the end for communist regimes in Europe.  In 1989, the country had its first free elections and Solidarity's Lech Wałesa became President in 1990.

Prior to the war, Poland was religiously diverse with large Jewish, Protestant and Orthodox minorities.  Afterwards, the country became almost entirely Roman Catholic.  The communists definitely didn't have any success in trying to get rid of religion in Poland.  Almost 90% of the country is Catholic, with about 75% practicing, and it is one of the most devout countries in Europe.  Of course, Pope John Paul II being Polish probably didn't hurt.

Poland, along with Hungary and Czech Republic, joined NATO in 1999.  In 2004, all three also joined the EU.  In 2007, Poland joined the Schengen area.  Poland still uses the Złoty as its currency but it must eventually switch to the Euro.

Poland's policy to liberalize the economy since 1990 has made it a success story.  It was the only EU country to avoid a recession during the 2008-2009 economic downturn, even though its per capita GDP is way below the EU average.  In spite of the global financial crisis, the economy has not entered a recession.  Since joining the EU, many poles have gone to work in the UK, Germany and Ireland for higher wages.  There are around 20 million ethnic Poles abroad.  The largest number of ethnic Poles, outside of Poland, is in the USA.

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