History of Poland – in short

by Michael Gimm Holdensen

The history of Poland is something else, and unfortunately, much of it is not in a cool way.

Before we decided to travel to Eastern Europe and Poland as the first country, our knowledge of the whole area was limited. Eastern Europe is something I have associated with countries that are far behind Western countries. When I thought of Poland before, it was often associated with cheap labour. But also “those Eastern Europeans” who come to Denmark to take values with them back home – in one way or another. 

This is a perception of the Poles that many have in Denmark. Probably also in most other Western European countries. But Poland is just SO much more! And before I get back to that, I want to tell you briefly about some of the milestones in Poland’s history.

Poland’s history is long and full of monumental events. It has shaped both the Poles and the Poland we see on the map of Europe today.

Facts about Poland

Poland is a European country located geographically in north-eastern Europe. It is part of the European Union and has been since 2004. The capital of Poland is Warsaw.
The capital of Poland is called Warsaw.

Poland borders Germany and the Czech Republic to the west, Slovakia to the south, and Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine to the east.
You can also get to Russia from Poland, as the Russian city of Kaliningrad also shares a border with Poland.

Poland is part of Eastern Europe. But since joining the EU, it has undergone significant changes and today emerges as one of the most modern countries in the old Eastern bloc.

  • Population = Approx. 38 millions.
  • Currency = Polish Zloty (PLN).
  • The capital is called Warsaw.
  • The Poles are Roman Catholic (above 90%).
  • Poland’s total area is 312,000 km2.

Poland’s development from origin to greatness and decline

The Poles, belonging to West Slavic descent, came to Europe somewhere from the East around 527 and settled. 

From 1386 until the mid-1600s, Poland and Lithuania were a Union and tremendous decisive power in Europe. Geographically, it spanned present-day Poland and Lithuania and Belarus, Latvia, Estonia, and Ukraine. Also includes parts of what is today western Russia. In the mid-1600s, however, the Union went downhill after too many wars and “too much” democracy. 

In 1772 Poland was invaded by Russia, Prussia and Austria, with large parts divided between the three. Poland still exists but was ruled by the three countries until 1795. By 1795 the rest of Poland was divided between the three superpowers and ceased to exist – at least as a country on the map of Europe.

The history of Poland was almost erased from the history books

During the next 123 years, Poland existed only in people’s hearts, with each generation trying to get their homeland back through uprisings. After World War I, they returned to the map as a United States demand.
Some years later, during World War II, Poland was struck again, and many villages were partially or entirely destroyed.

A thought-provoking anecdote from the period after 1795 was that the countries that had taken control of Poland did everything they could to get Poland written out of the history books. These actions were justified at the time by the fact that the Poles were not skilled enough for numerous matters, and it was therefore in the Poles’ best interest that they were ruled – by Germans and others.
These narratives about the Poles and other Eastern European countries from that time partly still linger today and lead many in the West to believe that we are better than those in the East.

Auschwitz is a tragic part of Poland's history

Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp is a sad part of Poland’s history.

The Polish Jews

Around the end of the 14th century, the Jews came to Poland. They had also tried to settle elsewhere in Europe, but everywhere they were displaced or were victims of massacres. Even though they did not behave unconditionally well towards the Jews in Poland, the Jews were still allowed to be there. In addition, two kings in a row in the 14th century issued a series of laws to protect the Jews. They were further encouraged to settle in Poland on a large scale.

From the history of Poland, it appears that Poland was multiethnic until World War II. With about 30% of non-Polish origin. There were many different religions and many different languages. About 10% of the Poles or in the near of 3 million inhabitants were Jews. It was then about 20% of all Jews worldwide, and Poland was the country where the second most Jews lived.

During WWII, Hitler killed about 2 million non-Jewish Poles and nearly 3 million Jewish Poles, and today the composition of the population is quite different.

Westerplatte in Gdańsk

Westerplatte in Gdańsk, where the Germans first docked in Poland during WWII.

Poland in 2021

One of the things we’ve noticed in particular as we go around the cities or countryside in Poland is that everybody looks pretty much the same. We haven’t seen anyone wearing a headscarf yet, and we see mostly white people. We do notice a lot of churches, of which there have been quite a few built throughout Poland’s history. 

They are everywhere, and this is very fitting as the Poles seem to be one of the most religious countries in Europe. 

According to a statement from the EU, about 90% of Poles are Catholic. The remainder belongs to smaller denominations, and very few are non-believers. One of these smaller denominations is the Polish Orthodox, which we witnessed up close in eastern Poland near Białowieża.
Islam and Judaism are virtually non-existent in Poland today.

In Krakow, I spoke to a tourist guide who was a bit younger than me. He told me that it’s probably mostly an appearance that the Poles care so much about the Church. Also, according to him, there was a huge difference between young and old. The older ones are very religious, and the younger ones are very similar to us in Denmark. We are baptised but don’t practice the faith so much. 

Division in society between young and old

Our guide also told us that there had been a division in society because of the government’s actions. These include curtailing media rights, overturning the laws of EU courts in favour of their own, and various other things. 

The younger generation is often more pro-EU than, the older, and this has something to do with the Church. He said that the Church and the government helped each other. So in Church, where mainly the elderly come, the message is that you should support your government. In return for that help, the Church is financially compensated. 

It was, of course, a statement by one man, but it sounded to him as if it was a prevailing attitude among Poles. It was a development that many young people were very unhappy about, as it moved Poland away from the democracy that the EU is working to spread.

Our guide’s statements correlate very well with the stories we read in the press about Poland at the time of writing (November 2021).

Warsaw skyscrapers in Poland

An obvious sign of Poland’s strong development in Warsaw.

Our own impression of Poland’s development

As you can read in our post about our 45 days in Poland, we experienced Poland’s history in all the places we visited. But even though we tried to understand it, it was the everyday things that made the most impression. For example, Poland exceeded our expectations in so many ways and is so much nicer than we expected. And your money goes a long way, 30-40% further than in Denmark.

Poland is a country that is changing. In the cities, one skyscraper or architect-designed building after another is popping. In the countryside, residential houses were built on a grand scale. You could see the poles put a lot of effort into restoring and preserving the towns we visited, and whether we were in the countryside or the cities, it seemed that the Poles had a good life. Although sometimes it could be hard to get a smile from them.

The infrastructure in Poland

The roads we rode were nothing short of formidable! Italy has a long way to go, compared to the roads we rode in Tuscany this summer on our agriturismo holiday. In Poland, there is new asphalt almost everywhere, to the enjoyment of us and our little yellow VW bus.

The cycle paths were of mixed quality compared to Danish cycle paths. In Poland, cycle paths are typically located on one side of the road, with bikes cycling in both directions. Occasionally, the cycle path changes sides, so you have to cross the road with a pedestrian crossing. Other times, the cycle paths end, and you ride on the pavement.

We should say that we did not share these paths with many others except bike messengers. So cycling around is probably not as common in Poland as in Denmark. However, we would recommend bringing bikes but using an APP to find the best route. We used Bikemap, which was free and worked well.

Would you like to visit Poland?

We highly recommend it! See which cities we like best in our post 45 days in Poland.

Our Instagram profile @TheGimms also has many day-to-day stories about Poland’s history and how we experienced it.

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