Poland is located at the heart of the European continent. The country is a meeting place not only for cultures and ideas, but also for conflict and confrontation.
Poland's borders have changed many times over the centuries. Its present borders were set after World War II ended in 1945. Poland has seven neighbors: Germany, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, and Russian Kaliningrad.
Poland has a variety of striking landscapes, from the sandy beaches of the Baltic Sea coast in the north and the rolling central lowlands to the snowcapped peaks of the Carpathian and Sudeten Mountains in the south. Poland has more than 1,300 lakes throughout the country.
Map created by National Geographic Maps
PEOPLE & CULTURE
Religion is a very important part of Polish life. The majority of the population (about 87 percent) is Roman Catholic. In 1978, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, archbishop of Krakow, became the first-ever Polish pope. He took the name John Paul II and was head of the Catholic Church until his death in 2005.
Poland's large tracts of forested land provide refuge for many animals, including wild boar and the European bison, called a wisent. Once extinct in the wild, the wisent was reintroduced using animals bred in captivity. Poland's Bialowieza Forest is home to the world's largest population of these rare bovines.
Poland's forests are the ideal habitat for many of Europe's endangered species, including brown bears, wild horses, chamois goats, Eurasian lynxes, and the continent's largest population of gray wolves.
Wars and pollution, however, have taken a toll on Poland's land and have hurt the populations of animals that rely on these habitats. The government is trying to reverse the damage. There are now 23 national parks in Poland, 1,269 nature reserves, and a hundred bird sanctuaries.
GOVERNMENT & ECONOMY
Under communism, Poland became a highly industrialized country. Mining, steelworks, and machinery production are still the major industries there.
Changing from communism to a free market economy in the 1980s caused much upheaval in Poland. Even today, though most people are better off than they were under Soviet rule, wages are low and unemployment is high. Since joining the European Union in 2004 Poland's economy has grown rapidly.
Poland's first civilization dates back to about 2000 B.C., but it wasn't until A.D. 966 that the region's tribes became united under the Slavic chief Mieszko, first prince of Polska.
In the late 1500s, Poland and Lithuania joined together and formed a large, powerful commonwealth with elected kings. By the late 1700s however, Poland had been weakened by a series of wars with its neighbors. In 1795, it was conquered and divided up among Russia, Prussia (now Germany), and Austria. Poland ceased to exist as a country for 123 years.
In 1918, after World War I, Poland was restored as a country. But just 21 years later, Germany and the Soviet Union attacked, intent on dividing Poland between them. The aggression marked the beginning of World War II and led to nearly 45 years of Soviet occupation.
In 1980, Polish workers began protesting communist rule under the now-famous union banner of Solidarity. In 1989, after nearly a decade of clashes between the government and Solidarity activists, democratic elections were held, and the country was renamed the Republic of Poland. In 1990, the Polish Communist Party was dissolved.