Famous Poles include the astronomer Copernicus, the composer Chopin, the scientist Maria Curie-Sklodowska, film-makers Roman Polanski and Krzysztof Kieslowski, and the late Pope, John-Paul II.
The Republic of Poland is located in Central Europe. It is bordered by the Baltic Sea to the north-west along a 524-km coastline, by Germany to the west; the Czech and Slovak republics to the south; and Russia, Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine to the east and north-east. Most of the country is a plain with no natural boundaries except the Carpathian Mountains in the south and the Oder and Neisse rivers in the west. Other major rivers, which are important to commerce, are the Vistula, Warta, and Bug.
Poland’s current constitution dates from 1997. The President is elected by popular vote for a five-year term. The 460 members of the lower house of parliament (the Sejm) and the 100 members of the senate, are directly elected by a system of proportional representation to serve four-year terms.
Poland’s traditional dishes include beetroot soup, cabbage rolls (cabbage leaves stuffed with meat and rice) and pierogi (dumplings stuffed with cabbage and mushrooms, for example).
The Polish state is over 1 000 years old. In the 16th century Poland was one of the most powerful countries in Europe. With victory at the Battle of Vienna in 1683, King Jan III Sobieski of Poland was able to break the Ottoman siege of Vienna and end the threat of a possible occupation of western Europe.
Great (north) Poland was founded in 966 by Mieszko I, who belonged to the Piast dynasty. The tribes of southern Poland then formed Little Poland. In 1047, both Great Poland and Little Poland united under the rule of Casimir I the Restorer. Poland merged with Lithuania by royal marriage in 1386. The Polish-Lithuanian state reached the peak of its power between the 14th and 16th centuries, scoring military successes against the (Germanic) Knights of the Teutonic Order, the Russians, and the Ottoman Turks.
Lack of a strong monarchy enabled Russia, Prussia, and Austria to carry out a first partition of the country in 1772, a second in 1792, and a third in 1795. For more than a century thereafter, there was no Polish state, just Austrian, Prussian, and Russian sectors, but the Poles never ceased their efforts to regain their independence. The Polish people revolted against foreign dominance throughout the 19th century. Poland was formally reconstituted in Nov. 1918, with Marshal Josef Pilsudski as chief of state. In 1919, Ignace Paderewski, the famous pianist and patriot, became the first prime minister. In 1926, Pilsudski seized complete power in a coup and ruled dictatorially until his death on May 12, 1935.
Despite a ten-year nonaggression pact signed in 1934, Hitler attacked Poland on Sept. 1, 1939. Soviet troops invaded from the east on Sept. 17, and on Sept. 28, a German-Soviet agreement divided Poland between the USSR and Germany. Wladyslaw Raczkiewicz formed a government-in-exile in France, which moved to London after France's defeat in 1940. All of Poland was occupied by Germany after the Nazi attack on the USSR in June 1941. Nazi Germany's occupation policy in Poland was designed to eradicate Polish culture through mass executions and to exterminate the country's large Jewish minority.
The Polish government-in-exile was replaced with the Communist-dominated Polish Committee of National Liberation by the Soviet Union in 1944. Moving to Lublin after that city's liberation, it proclaimed itself the Provisional Government of Poland. Some former members of the Polish government in London joined with the Lublin government to form the Polish Government of National Unity, which Britain and the U.S. recognized. On Aug. 2, 1945, in Berlin, President Harry S. Truman, Joseph Stalin, and Prime Minister Clement Attlee of Britain established a new de facto western frontier for Poland along the Oder and Neisse rivers. (The border was finally agreed to by West Germany in a nonaggression pact signed on Dec. 7, 1970.) On Aug. 16, 1945, the USSR and Poland signed a treaty delimiting the Soviet-Polish border. Under these agreements, Poland was shifted westward. In the east, it lost 69,860 sq mi (180,934 sq km); in the west, it gained (subject to final peace conference approval) 38,986 sq mi (100,973 sq km).
Geography & Climate
The north of Poland, stretching to the Baltic Sea, consists almost entirely of lowlands, while the Carpathian Mountains (including the Tatra range) form the southern border. The Masuria region forms the largest and most-visited lake district in Poland. Poland is rich in natural mineral resources, including iron, zinc, copper and rock salt. The Wieliczka salt mine, constructed in the 13th century, contains an entire town below ground with a sanatorium, theatre, church and café! Everything from stairs to chandeliers is made from salt.
The climate in Poland is determined mainly by the country's geographical location and geography. Poland is in the temperate latitudes, where maritime air from the North Atlantic and continental air from the east converge, causing frequent day-to-day and year-to-year variability in the weather patterns.
The average annual temperature in Poland is about 8'C and varies for the regions of Poland depending on height above sea level and distance from the Baltic Sea. In the summer, for instance, temperatures are lower in northern Poland because of the Baltic Sea. The lowest temperatures are in the mountains and the highest are in western and central Poland.
Spring arrives slowly in April, bringing mainly sunny days after a period of alternating winter and spring -like conditions. In the summer months of June, July and August, showers alternate with dry, sunny weather and the temperature averages about 18'C; the maximum summer temperature is 40'C.
Early autumn is generally sunny and warm before a period of rainy, colder weather in November begins the transition into winter. Winter, which may last one to three months, is cold and cloudy and brings frequent snowstorms but relatively low total precipitation. The average temperature in January is about -4'C but it can fall as low as -35'C.
Mountains & Rivers
There are several mountain ranges in Poland, located mainly in the Southern part of the country. They are, from West to East, the Sudeten (Sudety), Beskidy, Tatras (Tatry), Gorce, Pienins (Pieniny), and the Bieszczady Mountains. North of Beskidy Mountains is the Gory Swietokrzyskie range. All of these mountain ranges, except for the Sudeten and Gory Swietokrzyskie, belong to the Carpathia Mountains (Karpaty), which extend from West to East and form a natural southern border of Poland.
Most of these mountain ranges don't rise to more than 1,700 m above sea level. The Tatra Mountains are the only exception, with their highest peak being Rysy, rising to 2,499 m above sea level.
The highest peaks of particular mountain groups are:
- Tatra Mountains - Rysy (2,499 m)
- Beskidy Mountains - Babia Gora (1,723 m)
- Sudeten Mountains - Sniezka (1,602 m)
- Bieszczady - Tarnica (1,346 m)
Most of Polish rivers lies in the basin of the Baltic Sea, and much of it at the also in river valleys: in the valley of the Vistula River and its tributaries lies 53.9% of the territory, along the Odra River and its tributaries - 34%, and 0.8% along the Baltic Coast and Niemen Rivers. The longest Polish rivers are:
- Vistula - 1,047 km
- Odra - 854 km
- Warta - 808 km
- Bug - 772 km
- Narew - 484 km
- San - 443 km
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