Introducing Poland

To celebrate their national identity, many people have myths that begin with the phrase, “When God was distributing the land, our people received. . . .” For the Poles, such a myth should begin “God awarded us with prime property in a bad neighborhood, located right between two neighboring bullies who constantly fight.” For a better part of its history, Poland’s destiny has been repeatedly influenced, if not determined, by actions of its often hostile neighbors. From the west, Germans would advance eastward; from the east, Russians, and later Soviets, would try to expand toward the west. In both cases, Poland lay in their path. Even when Poland was supposed to serve as a quiet buffer zone during the Cold War, political excitement and potential conflict constantly loomed on the horizon.

Yet, despite all attempts by others to assimilate or divide Poland, its people have managed to persevere and remain independent. Through time, they have overcome countless obstacles and miraculously have managed to preserve their ethnic identity and both cultural and political unity. During this process, Poland has appeared to be a country in transition, a country on a journey without an entirely clear final destination. Today, perhaps, the vision that represents the final destination is becoming clearer. This is especially true if the dream of a politically unified, boundary-free Europe becomes a reality. The country may finally find the long-awaited peace and prosperity for which it has so long searched in futility.

The transition from a troubled past to a hopeful future can be analyzed in many ways. Historically, Poland’s location on the huge North European Plain has played a prominent role. The territory occupied by present-day Poland was one of the main migration corridors across northern Europe. As the name suggests, Poland (meaning “flat plain”) is a relatively flat, low-­land region, with highlands occur only in the far south of the country. There were few barriers to prevent people from freely migrating across the land en route to other areas of the continent. Early on, Celtic and Germanic tribes marched through Poland to conquer riches of the Mediterranean realm and the Roman Empire. Attila the Hun also led his armies through the land that is now Poland, on his way to burn and pillage much of the rest of Europe. Napoleon Bonaparte assembled one of the largest military forces in history and passed through Poland on his way to Russia. Not long afterward, he rapidly retreated back to France, wishing that Poland—­
the land in between—was much smaller and easier to cross.

After Napoleon, Germany realized that it needed much more living space (lebensraum). Eastward expansion into Poland was considered the most logical means of achieving this goal. It neglected, of course, to consult the Poles for their opinion of such territorial aspirations. The Soviets, however, viewed Germany’s goal of expansion with the same contempt that it had directed toward Napoleon earlier. In order to protect itself from incursions by Western European powers, the Soviet Union decided to create a protective buffer zone between itself and the West. Thus, Poland spent a better portion of the twentieth century as a satellite country, a transitional buffer space between two opposing sides, with hardly had any opportunity to voice its opinions. According to an agreement between Soviet Union leader Joseph Stalin, and American president Harry S. Truman, Poland should have remained a democracy after the end of World War II. Unfortunately for the Poles, Stalin did not keep his word. The Soviet Union installed a puppet regime in Poland that lasted until the end of the Cold War in 1990.

Only very recently have the Poles been able to manage their own affairs and determine the future of their country. They have chosen to join the political and economic integration of a majority of Europeans, the European Union (EU). For the first time in their modern history, Poles have a voice in regional affairs that is equal to that of surrounding nations. Although they remain a people in cultural (including political) transition, they now look to the future with considerable optimism.

Economically, making the transition from a Communistic, government-­controlled economy to a market-driven one has been a primary national goal. When Poland was under the yoke of Communism, the country’s economy was structured to support the Soviet Union–dominated economic system. Despite having the population, resources, and knowledge base to diversify its economic base, Poland remained primarily an agricultural country. Its products were exchanged for those produced by members of the Warsaw Pact, a group of eastern European satellite states controlled by the Soviet Union. Poland’s low-lands provided necessary crops in exchange for more expensive products such as machinery and manufactured goods. Today, however, the situation is changing rapidly. Although agriculture is still very important to the country’s economy, the industrial and service sectors are developing rapidly. Poland’s goal is to follow the lead of the world’s economically well­developed countries and become a service sector–dominated postindustrial country.

In this process, Poles strive to accomplish yet another type of transition: a migration from rural to urban areas. With few exceptions, the world’s most economically developed countries have the highest percentage of urban population. Cities offer many advantages not found in the countryside. They provide greater opportunities for individual growth and development.

A better opportunity to obtain a formal education, improved health care, a greater variety of life-­
choice options, more jobs with higher wages, and more abundant services are just some of the urban amenities. Most lands with a predominantly rural population are generally among the world’s less-­
developed countries (LDCs), in which basic agriculture is the leading economic activity. Poor schooling and health care, few jobs and high unemployment, a large and rapidly growing population, and other factors impose a burden upon these countries’ economic, political, and social systems. Poland’s goal to join the developed nations will require a significant rural-to-­urban population shift. This objective cannot be accomplished overnight, and, if not properly managed, it could contribute to political instability.

The environment in Poland today is different from the past, when the main national issues revolved around the fight for political independence. Poles today firmly believe that their emancipation from the Cold War underdog position is best left as a matter for high school history textbooks. Their new reality is an equal partnership decision-making process that is designed to help all Europeans. When occasional “hiccups” occur in this transition, nations work together for mutual benefit. As the largest country in area and population to join the European Union in two decades, Poland has received plentiful help without having to lose its political identity. Additionally, Western European countries have invested billions of dollars in the transformation of the country’s economy. As a member of the European Community, political and economic boundaries are largely removed, thereby allowing Poles individually to choose their own destiny.

This leads us to the last important aspect of Poland’s transition presented in this introduction: the people themselves. Several generations of Poles were born and raised in times when individuals had little, if any, say about the direction of their lives. In many ways, their lives were predetermined by a political system in which they had to follow what the Soviets decided was “best” for the people. What that system developed was the illusion that masses of people were entirely satisfied with their way of life and were unwilling to change. Generations that came of age in the 1990s and later, however, have little if any recollection of those earlier times. They see the world through a different lens, one in which people are free to establish their own goals in pursuit of individual achievement. Young Poles perceive change as a positive process in their society. They are willing to take chances for what they believe will improve their quality of life.

This book will attempt to paint a big picture of Poland, its environment, people, history, and culture. It does not provide answers to all questions. Rather, it attempts to give readers insights that will help them better understand this European country and its ongoing cultural transition. Following this Introduction is a chapter on Poland’s physical geography. The physical environment is to humans what a canvas is to a painter—­the base upon which other layers are added. Without the base, the picture would not exist, but without layers, the canvas would have no meaning at all.

Next, we discuss the oldest layer of the painting, the Poles’ cultural history. This chapter informs the reader about Polish origins and cultural development through time. Chapter 4 discusses Poland’s people in terms of their population, settlement, and culture (i.e., way of life). It describes the main cultural traits of contemporary Poland’s people, those elements that create a unique Polish identity. Topics include demographic characteristics, ethnicity, religion, language, and other traits. Chapter 5 investigates Poland’s current political conditions. The main goal is to explain from a geographic perspective how the distribution of power affects the ordinary people in different parts of Poland. The analysis of economic factors that influence current development, and their spatial distribution, is the theme of Chapter 6. When combined, politics and economics often serve as the key measurement of people’s well-­being. Human activities and well-­being tend to differ from place to place, thereby creating regional differences. The impact of regional diversity on Poland’s geographic landscapes is discussed in Chapter 7. Cultural and historical factors have contributed greatly to the country’s regional geographic patterns, which are described in this chapter. Finally, we will be reminded that the goal of studying the geography of a particular people is not limited to gaining an understanding of present-day conditions and patterns. Rather, geographic analysis offers a powerful tool by which one can better understand how past experiences and present conditions will affect the future of a people and their country. The last chapter, therefore, serves a dual purpose: It offers both a conclusion and a prediction of the possible outcomes of Poland’s journey through its current transitional stage.

Among the difficulties an author faces when writing about countries is that of using proper terms in regard to places. In this way, Poland and its toponyms (place names) are no exception. The names of cities, rivers, provinces, and other features have been recorded in literature in various versions—­ including Polish, German, and English. The capital city, for example, is Warsaw in English (the version used in this book), Warszawa in Polish, and Warschau in German. This book attempts to avoid confusion and help readers by relying on the most common English-­language spellings.