"For centuries, Poland has been known specifically for two things: badass spicy sausages, and getting epically fucked over by every other European nation in every possible way."
"And now we're gonna play a trick on the Poles and put them between Russia and Germany."Poland. The picked-on kid with glasses of the European school playground, but it hasn't always been.
— God (as seen here◊)
HistoryEarly history Poland arose when the West Slavic tribes of the region were united by the Piast dynasty of the Polans around about 1000, cleverly alternating between placating the German emperors and going behind their backs. Perhaps the most globally notable event of first two or three centuries of Poland's existence happened during a period of political fragmentation, when one of Polish regional princes invited The Teutonic Knights to help him against the pagan Prussians. It later became quite a nuisance, so to say. Reunified Poland, in dire need for allies, became associated with Lithuania. As the last pagan country in Europe, it also had a problem with the Knights, until Grand Duke Jogaila accepted the Polish crown, baptized himself and his realm (thus nullifying the reason of the Order's very presence) and became king Władysław of Poland. Together both countries broke the power of the Order. Over time Lithuania eventually merged with Poland, forming the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Together, Poland and Lithuania ruled over an enormous, immensely powerful and rich empire. The Golden Age The XVIth and XVIIth Centuries are known as, respectively, the Golden Age and the Silver Age of Polish history. Above all, this period is remembered for "Golden Liberty", when kings were elected and the franchise included 10% of the population, by far the most inclusive franchise in Europe until the end of the eighteenth century. The King had to share power with the Sejm, or the assembly (not to be confused with Senate, which was a separate upper House), which was itself controlled by the great noble houses (called magnates). The Commonwealth was also known for its religious tolerance (letting, for instance, Jews live more or less in peace when most countries reveled in senseless persecution), at a time when religious wars were consuming the rest of Europe. At its height, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was the largest country by land area in Europe. The Commonwealth in this period is also known for fielding the completely awesome winged◊ hussars. Just for the record — the Commonwealth is one of those complicated cases of historical countries that stubbornly refuse to fit into modern views of state and nationality. Until the Constitution of 3rd May, it was legally a union of two countries, Kingdom of Poland and Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The nobility of the Grand Duchy became for the most part Polonized, but the lower classes were too busy surviving to bother with that fashion, and later nation-builders had to start from the common folk to create anything not Polish; the nobles themselves preferred to identify as "the Noble nation". Thus, Poles see Poland as the successor to all of the Commonwealth, in spite of differences between the two parts, not to mention Ukraine. Lithuanians picture Lithuania as the successor to Grand Duchy, even though ethnic Lithuanians were actually a minority in a country mostly made of modern-day Belarus, and (due to assimilation) their upper classes were culturally Polish anyway. Ukrainians consider themselves descendants of the Ruthenian population of the region, particularly those who formed the Cossack Host, even though the Cossacks themselves were at least as much an occupation as an ethnic group. Belarussians had all of their upper classes assimilated, or killed off by Hitler and Stalin, so nobody was left to argue it's not just a swampy small part of Russia. All of the latter three, somewhat expectedly, also tend to see Poland as a sort of Big Brother Bully. The loss of independence But let's now come back to politics. Golden Liberty was a great inspiration for the American Revolution, but it had a flaw, to which we owe the existence of a strong US Presidency: any one noble could block laws (the Liberum Veto with which Europa Universalis players may be familiar), so as soon as one person got bribed by Russia, Prussia, or Austria, the country was in their hands. The Poles got tired of this at about the time of Washington and passed a new constitution, very progressive for the day (the second modern-type written constitution of a sovereign state in history,note inspired by the American constitution). Russia, Prussia, and Austria, the "three black eagles", decided that enough was enough and partitioned the country between them. Poles in Austria generally enjoyed the right to speak their language and quite a bit of self-rule, and were fairly supportive of the Habsburgs (even today, Emperor Franz Josef is remembered fondly in southern Poland, while praising other rulers of the "three black eagles" would make Poles twitch); this was also partly due to the fact that the Catholic Habsburgs much preferred the Catholic Poles to the Orthodox Ukrainians who also lived in Austria's chunk of Poland. Poles in Prussia were, at first, well-treated (Frederick the Great required the heir to the throne to be fluent in Polish, although this was never really implemented). After the Napoleonic Wars, borders were shuffled and the smaller number of Poles left in Prussia were often in ethnically-mixed areas such as Upper Silesia and found their circumstances changed drastically for the worse, especially after the abolition of their autonomy in 1848. Political hardship (like Bismarck's efforts at Germanification, mainly by settler colonialism), rather than breaking the Prussian Poles, substantially strengthened their national identity and spirit, but economic hardship compelled many of them to move to the thriving Rhineland (where they were a much smaller minority) or to the Americas. The Russian Tsars really didn't like Poles, partly due to the fact that Russia had been virtually prostrate before Polish economic and military power in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and so, after they were finally victorious, the Russians went out of their way to punish the Poles under their rule. Not surprising, then, that the Poles tried, several times, to regain their independence (not counting the rioting during the Revolution of 1905). The first big time, the November Uprising, they actually had something of a chance, as the Russian part of Poland was technically autonomous and in personal union with Russia (known as Congress Poland), and as such had a halfway decent military. Unfortunately, the Uprising was botched from the beginning. Not surprisingly, the Russians took further steps to eliminate the Polish threat, which meant that the second big uprising, the January Uprising, was restricted to guerilla warfare and ended in tragedy, and the abolition of Polish autonomy, with many Poles being sent to Siberia. note Twentieth Century So during WW 1, many Poles, including future leaders such as Pilsudski and Sikorski, joined Austro-Hungarian forces (though there was a Russian-loyal faction, led by a Nationalist leader Roman Dmowskinote ) and helped the Central Powers to establish a puppet Polish Kingdom in former Russian territory, as the lesser of two evils. If sent to the western front, they usually deserted to join the French Foreign Legion. After the war, Piłsudski and his people founded a new, independent Poland which managed to defeat the Soviets in the Polish-Soviet War against terrible, terrible odds through sheer strategic brilliance. This defeat convinced the Soviets that they weren't in any shape to spread their revolution, which kept them bottled up for about thirty years. Immediately after the collapse of the Russian Empire resulted in the renewed independence of most of the former Commonwealth, Poland laid claim to the Lithuanian city of Vilnius,note leading to a war between the former allies. The Ukrainians who had invited the Poles in to rescue them from the Reds found that Warsaw, ultimately, had none of their best interests at heart (Piłsudski personally was very ashamed by this). The new Poland's German minority also suffered. Poland ended up suffering from a sluggish economy caused by a century of exploitation and field trips from World War I military powers, being surrounded by many powerful enemies, and deep internal tensions between Poles, Lithuanians, Belarusians, Ukrainians, Germans, and Jews, and political factions everyone belonged to. The tensions became more severe in certain areas and relaxed in others after a military coup and the establishment of the "Government of Moral Sanitation". Then, in 1939, everything fell apart with Germans and Soviets paying a visit over the borders. The War During the War, Poland suffered one of the most brutal occupation in the world (tied with Japan's occupation of Manchuria). The Holocaust was carried out in Polish territory, and it was the official intention of the Nazis to plunder Poland and starve it to death. Contrary to popular wisdom, the Poles fought brilliantly against overwhelming odds, never surrendered, and even when stabbed in the back by the Commies, escaped to fight another day. The cavalry charging tanks was a myth, by the way; the incident that inspired this story involved a Polish cavalry division (actually mounted infantry, like most cavalry of the time, though with traditions and training) which routed a German infantry division but was counter-attacked by armoured cars. Additionally, while some Polish cavalry units did deliberately engage German armor, they did so dismounted while wielding anti-tank rifles. The Poles didn't take occupation lying down. As well as organising a resistance movement, tens of thousands of Polish men escaped from the country and made their way to Britain and France to continue the fight, forming entire squadrons of airmen and divisions of ground troops. By the end of the war, there were ~250 thousand Poles fighting alongside the Western Allies, with another ~200 thousand aiding the Soviets. Suffice it to say that Poland had more than its fair share of Awesome Moments during the period. Poland lost a fifth of its population in the war- seven million people in all, mostly civilians. Out of a pre-war Jewish population of 3.3 million, only 300,000 survived (Poland's Jewish population were Polish citizens; Israel did not exist until after the war). Most of whom were then expelled by the Communists. Post-War era After the war, the country was taken over by the Reds with Rockets, who shoved Poland's eastern border west a few hundred miles, expelling millions of Poles from their ancestral homes, and shoved Poland's western border a few hundred miles further west, depositing them in former Eastern Germany, where they in turn kicked millions of Germans out of their ancestral homes, thus accounting for the country's suspiciously straight borders (the western border follows the line of the Oder and Neisse rivers) and the fact that Warsaw, originally chosen as the capital for its central location, is no longer especially central. Stalin was not a nice guy. Poland suffered long and hard under deeply incompetent Communist rule, and eventually Polish people were instrumental in its downfall. note Post-1989, Poland joined NATO and The European Union. The latter led to a large movement of Poles to the UK and caused a Polish plumber scare in France. Poland, along with Ukraine, hosted Euro football championships in 2012. The games' overwhelmingly positive reception came off as a shock to many Poles, who by then were used to thinking of their country as one big international humiliation. Home of the trade unionist with the impressive moustache (who became President) and formerly had identical twins as its President and Prime Minister. Also home of a very famous and popular former pontiff.
Polish is a West Slavic language, a group which also includes Czech and Slovak and a number of minority languages. note It is the most spoken member of the group and the second-most spoken Slavic language, with 40 million native speakers (38 million in Poland itself) and over a million second language speakers (no exact figure exists). Brace yourself now, 'cause you're in for a hell of a ride. Polish language is hard, meaning it is both hard to learn and pronounce. It has many "hard" consonants like:
TriviaWhere the Brits would make jokes about the stupid Irish, Americans used to make jokes about stupid Poles (Polacks, if you're being really offensive; idiot journalist Giles Coren recently brought richly-deserved criticism upon himself for using it in an article in which he suggested that Polish expats had no business in Britain because of what their ancestors actually didn't do to his), but this seems to have died off sometime in The Seventies, or transferred over to the Brits, since many migrants go to the UK nowadays. The origin of the stereotype is probably history: the large wave of Polish immigration to the US came after the large wave of German immigration; Germans generally stereotyped the Poles as being a bit slow. Poles also tended to settle where Germans had shown up the generation prior: for instance, the 1850s-80s saw big German immigration to the Great Lakes region, while the 1870s-1920s (ish) saw big Polish immigration to the same area (sidenote: Chicago consequently has the world's highest concentration of ethnic Poles outside of Poland). The jokes probably spread from the more-settled Germans to the wider population. In the meantime, some ethnically German Americans continued to use the word "Polack" for "any stupid person"; a few even forgot that it was originally a slur and have to be embarrassingly corrected by their Polish friends. Polish gamers infested Dawn of War (and several other online games) for a long time, filling it with servers apparently devoted to nationalism (PL PL PL POLSKA, similar to BR) and being really bad at the game. Two things which don't mix very well, by the way - if you're so proud of your nationality, it's best not to spam that nationality out while you're getting your rear handed to you. Notes on Poland: On the subject of "things you must know about X country before writing about it":
Famous Real Life Poles:
The flag's colors, common throughout the world, originate from a merging of the heraldic symbols of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth: the White Eagle of Poland and the "Pahonia", coat of arms of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, featuring a white knight on horseback on a red field; the state ensign adds on the white half the Polish coat of arms — a crowned white eagle on a red field.