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Cities in POLAND

Krakow Lodz Warsaw


Antiquity and early Middle Ages

In the Neolithic (4000-2000 BC), the first agricultural societies settled in modern-day Polish territory and trade routes sprang up right through the densely forested country. In the last millennium before, and several centuries AD, various groups such as the Celts, Scythians, Balts, Goths, Huns and many Germanic tribes occupied Polish territory, usually moved on again, but occasionally settled in these regions. It is almost certain that the Slavs, the ethnic group to which Poles belong, were also among these groups.

Various Slavonian tribes eventually settled between the Baltic Sea and the mountains of the Carpathians. In the mid-ninth century, the Polans (literally: the people of the field), who settled on the banks of the Warta River near present-day Poznan, became the dominant tribe in this region. Their legendary chieftain Piast managed to bring the different tribes together into a political unity and named the region Polska, or Poland, after the name of the tribe. The region later became known as Wielkopolska or Greater Poland. The earliest known ruler was a descendant of Piast, Count Mieszko I, who was converted to Christianity in 966.

Middle Ages

This day is considered the formal beginning of the Polish state. During the reign of Mieszko, the rest of the population was also Christianized and he made use of the church and the nobility to greatly increase his area. His son Boleslaw I managed to annex even larger areas. In 1000 the first archdiocese was founded and in 1025 Boleslaw was crowned the first king of Poland.

The main settlements in the north were Gniezno, Poznan and Kalisz, collectively known as Greater Poland. Lesser Poland or Malopolska included Krakow, Lublin, Sandomierz and Kielce. They both formed the heart of the Polish Empire. This empire also included Pomerania, Silesia and Mazovi .

After the death of Boleslaw I the empire fell apart but his successor Kazimierz I managed to restore unity and moved the capital to Kraków in 1040. Boleslaw II came into conflict with the Bishop of Kraków and had him executed. He was subsequently exiled and after his death in 1138, the Polish territory was divided between his four sons.

They each pursued an independent policy, dividing their lands among numerous heirs, dividing the empire into smaller and smaller duchies. As a result, the nobility and clergy gained more and more power. The lack of cooperation meant that the south was invaded by Tartars who conquered Legnica in 1241.

The north suffered from a wave of immigration from Prussia. In 1225 the Duke of Mazovi called on the Crusaders of the Teutonic Knights (Teutonic Knights) to drive the Prussians out of Polish territory. In 1275 the knights had completed their task, but annoying for the Poles was that these knights themselves occupied the north and did not intend to leave. On the contrary, by taking part in the trade of the Hanseatic League, they managed to build up a powerful position.

The Poles thus no longer had free access to the Baltic Sea and were also threatened by Bohemia from the south and Lithuania from the south. East. It was also bad internally due to the independent position and division of the nobility and the cities.

Only under King Wladislaw I and his son and successor Kazimierz III Wielki (the Great) Poland became somewhat united again and the resistance of the mighty cities was broken. Poland was now also moving abroad again because parts of the Ukraine were conquered. In contrast, they lost Silezi to the King of Bohemia.

Kazimierz also built castles all over Poland for the defense of Poland and promoted the development of trade, economy and culture. Jews who had fled from Central Europe were admitted to Poland without any problems and were even given a small degree of self-government. The nobility was further united by giving them their own rights and more important official functions. Here the foundation was laid for the later noble republic.

In 1370 Kazimierz died and the throne fell to Ludwik Wegierski (Louis of Hungary) of the genus Anjou. In 1384, his 11-year-old daughter Jadwiga was crowned queen (she was canonized by the Pope in 1997) and a year later forced to marry Jagiello, the grand duke of Lithuania. After the marriage, Poland and Lithuania were merged into a so-called personal union. Jagiello managed to defeat the Crusaders in the north and significantly expand the territory of Poland from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Poland was at the time economically, politically and culturally the center of this state with Kraków as its powerful center. Jagiello was succeeded in 1434 by his son Wladyslaw III, who fell against the Turks in 1444 in the Battle of Varna. He was succeeded by his brother Kazimierz IV who defeated the Teutonic Knights for good and in 1466 managed to win over West Prussia in the peace of Torun and East Prussia had to recognize Poland as a feudal high. Fortunately, Poland once again had unobstructed access to the Baltic Sea. At the end of the 15th century, major changes took place in many areas in Poland. Thus the nobility or “szlachta” increasingly powerful and they were assigned more and more public functions. This century also saw the birth of the Polish Diet or “Sejim” . The Sejim was made up of a chamber of deputies from the szlachta and senate, comprising ministers, magnates, bishops and army commanders. These sessions were so important that the king even attended them. This body was characterized by the “Liberum Veto” therefore any decision to legislate or tax had to be taken unanimously.

Sixteenth ”golden” century

The 16th century would be the “Golden Age” for Poland and the country was also the largest state in Europe. The Jagiellonians were in charge in Poland itself, but also in Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus, Rutheni, Ukraine, Bohemia and Hungary. Agriculture, mining and trade flourished and important trade routes cut across Polish territory. The Hanseatic cities in the north in particular played a major role in Poland's economic development. Culture also flourished under King Zygmunt I, partly due to the close connections with Italy after marrying an Italian daughter of a Milanese duke.

Zygmunt was succeeded by his son Zygmunt II. Despite three marriages, he remained childless and was in danger of disintegrating the personal union.

During this time, a new class of powerful families, the so-called "magnates", developed at the expense of the nobility. These families owned vast areas, many villages, towns, castles and often even a large army. In fact, they ruled what was then Poland, which, as a centrally ruled kingdom, was not so much anymore.

In 1569, the assembled nobility closed the Union of Lublin. In this, Poland and Lithuania were merged into a noble republic with a joint parliament and an elected king. In 1572 Zygmunt II died and the period of the electoral kings began. This meant, among other things, that the monarchy was accepted subject to a number of guarantees and conditions. Despite the strong position of the nobility, Poland was at that time the most democratically ruled country in Europe. The first elected king was Henryk Walezy (of Valois), the later King Henry III of France, who was soon succeeded, however, by Stefan Bathory, the prince of Transylvanian.

Seventeenth century

Meanwhile, the Counter-Reformation had started all over Europe and in Poland, too, everything was done to thwart the reformers. Under Zygmunt III Wasa in particular, the Polish counter-reformation seemed to have triumphed. In 1592 Zygmunt also became king of Sweden, but in 1604 he was again overthrown. In 1605 Sweden attacked Polish territory but was defeated. The relationship with Sweden remained very tense afterwards and, after a period of many conflicts, even led to the Thirty Years' War.

In 1609, the residence of Zygmunt III was moved from Kraków to Warsaw.

In 1632, Zygmunt was succeeded by his son Wladyslaw IV Waza, who waged war against the Russians and the Turks. He also initiated the counter-reformation against the mostly Protestant nobility. The Thirty Years' War ended with the Peace of Torun in 1648. Under the rule of Jan II Kazimierz Waza, however, dark clouds gathered over Poland again. In 1654, a Cossack revolt in Ukraine ensued and that meant the loss of a large part of Ukraine to Russia. At the same time, great financial problems arose as a result of the many wars that had been fought.

In 1655 Janus Radziwill brought the Swedes to Poland due to internal problems. However, this action turned out completely wrong, because of the “Swedish flood” Poland was damaged beyond repair. Large parts of Poland were forcibly ceded to Sweden, Russia and Prussia and economically Poland was completely aground; depopulation, destroyed cities, ruined crops and no more commercial activity. To make matters worse, Turkey declared war on Poland in 1672, but the Poles led by Jan Sobieski managed to defeat the Turkish army. After this, Sobieski was proclaimed King John III Sobieski. In 1683, Sobieski did another good deed by defeating the Turks who besieged Vienna. In this way he prevented Islam from spreading all over Europe.

Poland's power is crumbling

Under Sobieski's rule, Poland, as the largest country in Europe, once again experienced a period of political recovery and prosperity. After the death of Sobieski, the state of Poland continued to decline and foreign powers and magnates took over. The magnates thus decided on the king's choice and the “Liberum Veto” organ without military power and without financial means, which put Poland in a state of anarchy, something that was certainly not stopped by the neighbors of Poland.

At this time the Saxons came to power with the weak King August II and after August came Stanislaw Leszczynski in 1704, who had returned to power by France and the powerful Potocki family. August II came back to the throne in 1709, this time with the help of the Russian Tsar Peter the Great. After his death, a war of succession ensued between the Russian-backed August III and the Polish rival candidate Stanislaw Leszczynski. In the meantime, Poland was getting further into crisis and calls for reform plans were growing.

That call was answered by the Czartoryski family, who eventually also took over. In 1764, this family appealed to Catherine the Great of Russia to put a cousin of the family on the throne. This worked, but Stanislaw August Poniatowski would become the last Polish king. He still managed to implement some radical reforms. He was able to strengthen the army and the Liberum Veto was abolished, causing foreigners and magnates to lose their grip on the political situation in Poland. This was not well received by the Prussians and the Russians in particular, who enforced all privileges for the nobility, the Landdag, the free choice of the king and the Liberum Veto to be restored.

They were helped in this by a number of Polish nobles who made an alliance, the “Confederation of Bar”. A real civil war then broke out, which, however, could not prevent Poland from being literally divided in 1772 by the Prussian King Frederick the Great, the Russian Empress Catherine the Great and Maria Theresa of Austria. Only a small protectorate remained of Poland.

Under the influence of the Enlightenment and an emerging nationalistic feeling, a new constitution was adopted on May 3, 1791, which was very modern for that time. Influenced by the French Revolution, a constitutional monarchy was established that was, however, not accepted by a number of magnates, and a Russian-backed "Confederation of Targowica". was closed (1792). Reform-minded Poles revolted that same year, but was crushed by Russia in 1793 and, together with Prussia, Poland was further divided between the three great powers of that time. On November 27, 1795, Stanislaw August was forced to resign and there was actually no longer a Polish state.

Kingdom of Poland and Russian oppression

The three occupiers immediately began to colonize the country and many Poles fled to France. They enlisted there in the army and hoped to be able to liberate the country one day. In 1797 campaigns were actually held and Napoleon also used these Polish troops. After Napoleon's victory over Prussia, Prussia lost part of its Polish territories and Napoleon founded the Grand Duchy of Warsaw. After this, another attempt was made to expel the Russians together with France, but this came to nothing due to the fall of Napoleon. At the Congress of Vienna in 1815, the Kingdom of Poland was formed in a personal union with Russia. There was a constitution on the French model, but the structure of Polish society remained largely the same, with power in the hands of the nobility, and peasants who remained subject to the noble landowners.

Constantine Pavlovich of Russia, the brother the Russian tsar took power and the highest official positions were also held by Russians. During this time the Jews in particular had to endure very hard. Most Jews had always occupied good positions in Polish society, but that changed after the Swedish wars and Cossack raids in the 19th century. Poland also had to deal with large numbers of Jewish refugees from Russia. They settled in eastern Poland, but were also pursued there by the pogroms of the tsarist police, which forced them to assimilate into the native population. During this time, Krakow became a free city republic and Austria retained Galici, one of the poorest regions of the then Austrian Empire. In 1830, King Constantine in Warsaw just escaped an attempt on his life, but he eventually died in 1831.

An uprising of the Poles immediately followed, but was repressed by the Russians with a heavy hand and was enforced with many restrictive measures. In the same year, a revolt broke out in the Prussian part of Poland. And here too strict measures were taken. Further German colonization of the area was continued and German became the main language. In 1846, an uprising broke out in Kraków, which was used by Austria to annex the city republic.

Following Italian unification, unrest in Poland also increased, leading to some timid reforms, such as the reopening of the University of Warsaw and the replacement of some Russian officials by Poles. In 1861 there was another demonstration for the unification of Poland and a little later a real uprising. This uprising failed because the peasants did not participate and prompted the Russians to pull the strings very tight again.

In general, it can be said that both Russia and Prussia strived to abolish all that was Polish. Since 1871, the Prussian part of Poland was part of the German Empire under the leadership of Chancellor Bismarck. Bismarck pursued a tough Germanization policy in order to eliminate the Polish nobility, the language and the Catholic Church.

World War I and Interbellum

When the First World War broke out, the Polish Marshal Józef Pilsudski was allowed to cross the Russian border with a large army. However, when the Germans were losing, Pilsudski was proclaimed president of the Polish republic, which was also recognized by the Allies. In the Treaty of Versailles in 1918, the border with the loser Germany was only partially defined. Only after popular votes in East Prussia and Upper Silesia final decisions would be made on these areas. Pilsudski wanted a federation with the Lithuanian, Ukraine and Belarusian territories. All of this led to the Polish-Russian war in which even Warsaw seemed to fall into the hands of the Russians. Miraculously, Pilsudski managed to prevent this. In 1921 the final border was set by the Allies and it ran east of the so-called Curzon line. Politically and economically things were not going so well at that time in the mainly agricultural Poland. Attempts were made to improve the situation through agricultural reforms, for example, and the Americans also put a lot of money into the country, but all this was for nothing when the worldwide crisis broke out in 1929. The constitution introduced two chambers with representatives of the people, but this did not work out well either. The Sejm, the Polish parliament, overthrew several cabinets so that not much came of government. This prompted Pilsudski to commit a coup d'état in 1926 and continue to lead Poland as dictator.

World War II and communist rule

On September 1, 1939, more than a million German soldiers invaded Poland, while Russians invaded the country from the east. Warsaw capitulated after an unequal battle on September 17 and Poland was then divided among the two aggressors. Many Jews were also deported in Poland and taken to concentration camps, including Auschwitz, Treblinka, Majdanek and Sobibor.

In 1943, a major uprising broke out in the Warsaw ghetto. And Warsaw itself revolted in 1944.

Ultimately, six million Poles died in World War II and 70% of the cultural heritage was destroyed. Poland was liberated from the Germans on January 17, 1945.

At the Yalta Conference, the new borders of Poland were established; the Oder-Neisse line and the Curzon line. However, almost half of the Polish territory had to be surrendered to the then Soviet Union and in return Poland was pushed to the west, as it were. The Communist Party, in close cooperation with the Soviet army, quickly took power, partly through fraudulent elections in 1947. In addition, they assumed all important positions and the country was kept under control by an extensive police apparatus. The communists wanted a society after the Russian example and after the constitutional amendment in 1952 all power was concentrated in the communist party. The population has always opposed this situation, which has been exacerbated by the economic situation with low wages and poor working conditions.

This inevitably led to strikes that were, however, repressed with great violence. The situation only improved after the death of Bierut, the first communist president. And after the famous anti-Stalin speech by President Khrushchev of the Soviet Union. Bierut was succeeded by Wladislaw Gomulka, the new General Secretary of the Communist Party. In 1959 he succeeded in expelling the Stalinists from the government and the party, but still remained completely bound by the policies and decisions of Moscow.

Economic crisis

Economically it went very badly around 1970 and in December 1970 food prices were also drastically increased. Strikes followed, but were crushed with a very hard hand. A few days later, Gomulka was succeeded by Gierek, who implemented some liberalizations and thereby managed to raise the standard of living slightly and to temper the discontent among the population. However, this did not last long and slowly but surely the population found out that Poland had entered a deep economic crisis and that radical reforms were necessary to turn the tide. The discontent was supported by the church, which had regained some rights. In addition, a Pole was elected pope for the first time in history in 1978.

In 1980, discontent led to a series of strikes. The strikes at the Lenin shipyard in Gdansk in particular attracted full international attention. Lech Walesa led a nationwide strike committee, which was eventually recognized by the government and went on as the union "Solidarnosc" (Solidarity). Although the many strikes intensified chaos, this union continued to exert great pressure on the government to thoroughly reform its socio-economic policies.

In response to these developments, General Jaruzelski became Prime Minister in February 1981 and party leader in October. On December 13, he seized all power and martial law was declared and thousands of people arrested. In January 1982, Jaruzelski regained control of the tense situation, which resulted in the end of martial law at the end of 1982.

In 1985, everything was back to normal and Jaruzelski was elected president of Poland. However, the economy was still very bad and strikes broke out again in 1988.

Poland the first to detach from the Soviet Union

In June 1989, the first free elections were held for the new Senate. The communists were wiped out and the opposition won all available seats. In the Sejm, the opposition was allocated a total of 35% of the seats. However, the former communists' allies, the Democratic Party and the Peasants' Party, quickly sided with the opposition. In July Jaruzelski stepped down as party leader and was succeeded by outgoing Prime Minister Rakowski. Jaruzelski was still elected president with great difficulty. On August 19, Tadeusz Mazowiecki was appointed Prime Minister on the nomination of Walesa. At the eleventh party congress in January 1990, the Communist Party (PZPR) disbanded and was succeeded by the Social Democracy of the Republic of Poland (SdRP), which, together with the left-wing trade union OPZZ, formed the Alliance of the Democratic Left (SLD). Between 1990 and 1993, the 45,000-strong Soviet army in Poland would withdraw.

At the beginning of 1990, Finance Minister Leszek Balcerowicz began radical economic reforms to combat hyperinflation, which was 1989 had risen above 1000%. The sharp fall in inflation was accompanied by a sharp drop in living standards, massive unemployment and a recession. After a split in the Solidarity union, Mazowiecki and Walesa both ran for presidential elections at the end of 1990. In the second round on December 9, Walesa triumphed with more than 74% and on December 22 he was appointed president. In January 1991 a new cabinet under the leadership of Jan Krzysztof Bielecki took office. With Germany on Nov. 1990 signed a treaty regarding the establishment of the Oder-Neisse border, followed by a friendship treaty between the two countries on June 17, 1991. The Warsaw Pact was formally dissolved by the six remaining members on July 1 in Prague.

In June, President Walesa suffered a personal defeat when the Sejm – despite two presidential vetos – adopted a new electoral law in view of the first democratic elections on 27 October 1991. Those elections resulted in a fragmented parliament. Jan Olszewski (Dec. 1991- June 1992), Waldemar Pawlak (June- July 1992) and Hanna Suchocka (July 1992- May 1993) successively formed a government.

Suchocka stayed on until the new elections under a new electoral law in September 1993. These elections were a victory for the ex-communists and the Polish Peasants' Party (PSL) finished second. Together they got two-thirds of the seats in the Sejm and three-quarters of the seats in the Senate, which was more than enough for the formation of a new government. The coalition pledged to pursue the policy of privatization and other reforms. Economically, the nineties were favorable years with growth of around 6%. In September 1993, the last Russian troops left Poland.

In the November 1995 presidential election, SLD leader Aleksander Kwasniewski beat Lech Walesa by a small margin. In the same year, a money reform came about (zloty upgrading) and a start was made on privatizing small and medium-sized state-owned enterprises. In the summer of 1996, parliament approved a reform plan to slim down central government and limit the role of government in the economy. At the same time, Poland became the third former communist country to join the OECD.

In 1997, a new constitution, which had taken years of work, was accepted by both chambers and entered into force. He established the country as a parliamentary democracy with a free market economy. In September 1997, the parliamentary elections were a major victory for the opposition Electoral Action Solidarity (AWS), a coalition of over 20 conservative, Catholic and nationalist organizations around the Solidarity trade union. Jerzy Buzek became prime minister of a coalition between AWS and the liberal Freedom Union in October.

In 1997, the European Union decided that Poland could eventually join the EU. That same year, NATO invited Poland to join the alliance, which was completed in March 1999.

At the end of May 2000, the Liberal Freedom Union (UW) withdrew from Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Leszek Balcerowicz withdrew from the government coalition with the right-wing Solidarity Electoral Action (AWS). In the background there was the national conflict over economic reform policy, which, according to the UW, was opposed by part of the AWS. After a failed gluing attempt, the Buzek government continued as a minority cabinet at the beginning of June.

In the presidential elections held in October 2000, incumbent President Aleksander Kwasniewski (SLD) already had the absolute majority in the first round with 54% to obtain. AWS candidate Marian Krzaklewski got 16%, while ex-president Lech Walesa got just 1% of the vote. Kwasniewski was re-elected for a term of five years. The voter turnout was 61%.

On May 1, 2004, Poland joined the European Union.

The September 2005 parliamentary elections were won by the conservative Law and Justice Party (PiS), with 28% of the vote. Its ally, the liberal-conservative Civic Platform (PO), came in at 26%. The big loser was the ruling Alliance of the Democratic Left (SLD), the social-democratic successor of the communist party with only 11% of the vote (still 41% in 2001 !!).

The presidential elections of October 2005 were won by the conservative Lech Kaczynski with 54% of the vote. Just over 50% of the emperors showed up to choose between Kaczynski of the Order and Justice Party (PiS) and his rival Donald Tusk of the liberal Civic Platform.

On October 31, 2005, a government led by Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz was installed, of which only PiS is a part. On November 10, 2005, the new government received the confidence of Parliament. PiS has received support for this from the highly populist Samoobrona (Self Defense), the ultra-conservative League of Polish Families (LPR) and the Peasants' Party PSL. Donald Tusk has been Prime Minister of Poland since November 16, 2007 after Civic Platform won the elections.

In May 2009, Poland received a loan from the IMF to combat the effects of the credit crisis. President Lech Kaczynski was killed in a plane crash in April 2010.

In July 2010, Bronislaw Komorowski of the center-right Civic Platform wins the second round presidential election of Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the twin brother of Lech Kaczynski. In July 2011, Poland takes up the rotating presidency of the EU for the first time. The October 2011 parliamentary elections are won by the Civic Platform led by Donald Tusk. As of February 2014, Donald Tusk is still the Prime Minister and in March 2014 he strongly condemns Russia's occupation of Crimea. In June 2014, the government just survived a motion of censure after an eavesdropping scandal.

In September 2014, Tusk resigns to become President of the European Council, Ewa Kopazc becomes Prime Minister. In May 2015, Andrzej Duda of the right-wing Law and Justice party wins the presidential election. In October 2015, that party won the absolute majority in the parliamentary elections. Beate Szydlo will become the new prime minister in November 2015.

In 2016 there is a controversy with the EU over a new media law that will give the Polish state more influence over the appointments to radio and television. The EU calls this decision contrary to European values. In 2017, relations between Poland and most of the EU remain tense, due to the government's aim of influencing appointments to the judiciary. This escalates in December 2020, Poland threatens to vote against the EU budget together with Hungary because recipients of EU money can be held accountable for their dealings with the rule of law. In 2020 Andrzej DUDA is reelected president. Recent rulings from Poland's constitutional court have said national law can take precedence over EU law, raising tensions with Brussels and prompting the EU's move toward legal action. The European Commission announced in December 2021 it was starting an infringement procedure against Poland for undermining EU law and the independence of its national judiciary.


Dydynski, K. / Poland
Lonely Planet

Hus, M. / Polen
ANWB media,

Wijnands, S. / Polen

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Last updated May 2024
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