The Republic of Poland is bounded to the north by the Baltic Sea and the enclave of Kaliningrad (Russian Federation), to the north-east by Lithuania, to the east by Belarus, to the southeast by Ukraine, to the west by Germany and to the south by Slovakia and the Czech Republic.
Main languages: Polish
Main religions: Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox Church, Protestantism
Main minority groups: Germans 147,094 (0.4%), Kashub speakers 52,490 (0.1%), Belarusians 47,640 (0.1%), Ukrainians 27,172 (0.07%), Roma 12,731 (0.03%), Lemkos 5,850 (0.02%), Lithuanians 5,639 (0.01%), Russians 3,244, Slovaks 1,710, Jews 1,055, Tatars 447, Czechs 386, Armenians 262, and Karaites 43
[Note: all figures taken from the 2002 national census.]
Poland is highly homogenous, and according to the 2002 national census, nearly 97 per cent of the population are Polish.
Kashubs (or Kaszubs) live concentrated in north-central Poland, along the Baltic coast. They speak a regional language, and while Kashubs consider themselves to be of Polish nationality, some regard themselves as belonging to a separate ethnic group. The government does not recognize Kashub as an ethnicity.
The German, Belarusian, Ukrainian, Lithuanian, Russian, Slovak and Czech minorities live concentrated near Poland’s borders with their respective national homelands. The government previously considered Lemko Ruthenians (or Lemkos) as Ukrainians, but now recognizes them as a distinct nationality. In 1947 communist authorities forcibly dispersed much of the group throughout Poland and Ukraine.
The creation of a unified Polish state was consolidated in CE 966 by the Piast dynasty’s acceptance of Christianity. With that dynasty’s demise in the fourteenth century, the Polish throne passed to the Duke of Lithuania, Wladyslaw Jagiello. The rule of the Jagiellonian dynasty, considered the ‘golden age’ of Poland, lasted until the end of the sixteenth century. The Union of Lublin in 1569 united the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of Poland into the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. After the death of the last Jagiellonian king in 1572 no dynasty maintained itself for long. The participation of the entire nobility in royal elections frequently led to contested elections and civil wars.
Three successive partitions of Poland (1772, 1793, 1795) by Prussia, Russia and Austria-Hungary resulted in its disappearance from the map of Europe. During this period the occupying powers subjected the population to intense processes of Russification and Germanization. Poland regained independence in 1918. At that time ethnic minorities constituted some 34.5 per cent of the country’s population. Estimates suggest that within its borders lived some 5,000,000 Ukrainians (16 per cent), 3,000,000 Jews (9 per cent), 2,000,000 Belarusians (6 per cent) and 800,000 Germans (2.5 per cent). Russians, Lithuanians, Czechs, Roma and other minority groups constituted about 300,000 (1 per cent).
On 1 September 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland and thus precipitated World War II. The German invasion was followed on 17 September by a Soviet invasion of eastern Poland under previously agreed terms of the Soviet–German Friendship Treaty. This fourth partition of Poland lasted until June 1941 when Germany attacked the Soviet Union and German troops overran the entire territory of Poland. During their occupation of Poland, the Nazis methodically exterminated a large part of the population by massacres and starvation and in extermination camps such as Auschwitz (Oswiecim) and Majdanek. The worst fate was reserved for Polish Jews – about 3 million perished in concentration camps. Only an estimated 100,000 Polish Jews survived the Holocaust. Many of these emigrated to Israel, the United States, or elsewhere after the war.
At the end of World War II in 1945, the borders of Poland were moved some 500 kilometres westwards. As a result of the loss of substantial territories in the east, 489,000 of the 600,000 Ukrainians on Polish soil were moved by the new Polish authorities to the Soviet Union between 1945 and 1946, along with an estimated 36,000 Belarusians. The extension of Polish territory to the west resulted in the expulsion and expropriation of about 3,200,000 Germans between 1945 and 1949. Tens or even hundreds of thousands of these dispossessed Germans died from exposure, hunger, or other consequences of their expulsion.
As a result of the movements of peoples in the aftermath of the war, Poland became one of the most ethnically and religiously homogeneous countries in Europe, with over 97 per cent of its population being Poles and over 95 per cent belonging to the Roman Catholic Church.
The new communist authorities feared resistance from the Ukrainian minority, and in 1947, with assistance from the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia, forcibly redistributed around 200,000 Ukrainians and Lemkos throughout the country, and in particular to areas in north-west Poland from which ethnic Germans were being expelled.
In the 1980s, the Catholic Church and union movement presented a growing challenge to the communist regime, which was eventually overthrown in the wave of revolutions that swept Central and Eastern Europe in 1989-1990.
In May 2004 Poland joined the European Union.
In the post-communist period Poland became a functioning democracy, with a president and bicameral parliament. The president appoints a prime minister, subject to approval by the lower house of parliament, the Sejm. The electoral law requires that parties reach a five per cent threshold to attain membership in the Sejm and Senate, but there is an exception for recognized national minorities.
During the 1990s Poland entered into bilateral agreements with its neighbours on the protection of Germans, Belarusians and Ukrainians in Poland. In the lead up to its EU accession in May 2004, Poland made efforts to support national minorities and their cultures, including through legislative provisions in such fields as the educational and electoral systems, and through the August 2003 adoption of the Programme for the Roma Community. Efforts have also been made to solve the issues linked to monuments and cemeteries affecting many national minorities, including Germans, Jews, Karaites, Lemkos and Ukrainians. National minorities, including the Armenians, Belarusians, Russians, Slovaks and Ukrainians, have made demands for the establishment and support for cultural centres, museums and libraries.
Despite the exception for minority groups from the requirement to achieve five per cent of the vote to enter into parliament, following elections in October 2007, only one non-Pole (a German) had been elected to the Sejm, and none to the Senate.
In its 2007 ‘Report on Racism and Xenophobia in the Member States of the EU’, the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) noted that by banning discrimination in employment on the basis of race or ethnicity, by the beginning of the year Poland had only implemented the EU Council’s June 2000 Racial Equality Directive in part.
Societal discrimination and extremist violence against members of minority groups, including Roma, Jews, Germans, Ukrainians remains a problem in Poland. In June 2005 the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance criticized Polish police for their frequent failure to consider racist motives for attacks.