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Poland - Introduction

Poland is one of the largest countries in Central Europe with a total territory (comprising land area, internal waters and territorial sea) of 322,575 square kilometers. Situated on the Baltic Sea, Poland has a coastline of 770 kilometers and is bordered by Germany, the Czech Republic, the Slovak Republic, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania and the Russian Federation. Poland's terrain is comprised largely of lowlands traversed by its main river, the Vistula, with lakes, rivers and marshes across the northern and central regions, and several mountain ranges, including the Tatras, in the south. Poland has more than 90,000 square kilometers of forest (approximately 30.1 percent of Poland's total land area) and 140,000 square kilometers of arable land (approximately 44.1 percent of Poland's total territory).

With a population of approximately 38.1 million, Poland is also one of the most populated countries in Central Europe. Population density is estimated at approximately 122 persons per square kilometer, with approximately 61.1 percent of the population living in urban areas. Warsaw, the capital of Poland and its largest city, has an estimated population of 1.7 million. Sixteen other urban centers each have populations in excess of 200,000.

The cultural heritage of Poland, and the sense of nationhood that accompanies that heritage, evolved in a continuous process that began before the year A.D. 1000. Over the same period, the nation's history was a long series of dramatic shifts that included changes of dynasties, drastic realignment of frontiers, foreign invasion and occupation, and repeated partition by more powerful neighbors. Especially in the era that followed the collapse of Poland's 400-year federation with neighboring Lithuania at the end of the eighteenth century, the political and physical geography of Europe played a key role in Poland's fate. For the next two centuries, Poland was surrounded and often dominated by powerful expansionist Austrian, German, and Russian states. Poland's flat topography and central location invited invasion and made it strategically important during the many wars among European powers.

In the most recent phase of foreign domination, the post- World War II period between 1945 and 1989, Poland lay at the center of Soviet-dominated economic and military alliances, Comecon (see Glossary) and the Warsaw Pact (see Glossary), respectively. Socially, Poles suffered totalitarian repression of independent groups of all kinds, state-prescribed monolithic education doctrine, strict censorship, and repeated attempts to stifle their religious self-expression. Economically, Poland's subjugation resulted in a Soviet-style centralized planning system that produced early industrial growth but then stagnated in spite of repeated government restructuring programs. Comecon also isolated Poland's foreign trade from market competition throughout the communist era.

Politically, economic inertia and repression by communist regimes stimulated major incidents of nationwide social unrest that forced several changes of government between 1956 and 1981. Certain state controls were also relaxed during that period. The last and most enduring expression of social discontent was initiated by the Solidarity labor movement in 1980. Although officially illegal from 1981 to 1989, Solidarity was the symbolic spearhead of Poland's national revival and the foundation of the democratization movement that unexpectedly ousted communist rule in 1989.

In 1989 Poland was in the vanguard of political upheaval that swept communism from most of Eastern Europe and set the members of the Soviet-dominated Warsaw Pact on the course of drastic political and economic reform. In important ways, however, Poland had remained beyond the control of the communist political system that swallowed up Eastern Europe, even when that system was at its most formidable in the 1950s. As Poland's government bureaucracy, army, and internal security system assumed the classic forms of centralized totalitarianism, Polish society adjusted to official regimentation by establishing pragmatic alternative channels for economic and spiritual sustenance. The most visible and structured social institution of all, the Roman Catholic Church, actually increased in stature in the communist era. Most Poles responded to foreign domination by intensifying the unique linkage between their religion and their sense of secular nationality. Especially in the 1980s, the activism and stature of the church and labor groups prepared the ground for Poland to reassert the national independence that it had enjoyed only briefly in the previous 200 years.

Poland today is ethnically almost homogeneous (98% Polish), in contrast with the World War II period, when there were significant ethnic minorities -- 4.5 million Ukrainians, 3 million Jews, 1 million Belarusians, and 800,000 Germans. The majority of the Jews were murdered during the German occupation in World War II, and many others emigrated in the succeeding years. Most Germans left Poland at the end of the war, while many Ukrainians and Belarusians lived in territories incorporated into the then-U.S.S.R. Small Ukrainian, Belarusian, Slovakian, and Lithuanian minorities reside along the borders, and a German minority is concentrated near the southwest city of Opole.Germans constitute the largest minority group, numbering approximately 153,000 persons concentrated principally in Silesia. Smaller ethnic and national groups have cultural ties to neighboring states such as Belarus, Ukraine and Lithuania. It is estimated that approximately 93.0 percent of the population is Roman Catholic.



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