For over a thousand years Poland has kept its national identity, although its borders have shifted dramatically from century to century. There were years when Poland ruled much of Europe; at other times, Poland as a state disappeared entirely and even its language was officially forbidden.
Poland's official history began in 966 when Mieszko I married a Czech princess and introduced Christianity to his people. Mieszko's son Boleslaw I expanded Poland's borders, but the country experienced many invasions and periods of instability over the following centuries. In 1386, Poland was strengthened by unification with Lithuania, and the next 200 years are considered the country's economic and cultural golden age.
By the 16th century, Poland was a commonwealth of nations and the largest state in Europe, extending from the Baltic to the Black Sea, and almost to Moscow. Government was by the Sejm, a parliament of noblemen who elected the monarch. Polish people made great achievements in the arts, sciences and architecture. A policy of religious tolerance meant that Poland also became a haven for Jewish refugees fleeing the religious wars that ravaged Europe.
The European wars of the 17th century were tragic for Poland. Almost half the population died in wars against the Cossacks (people from the northern shores of the Black and Caspian Seas), the Swedes and the Russians. By 1795, Poland no longer existed as a country; its territory was divided among Austria, Prussia and Russia.
Only a strong national spirit kept the memory of Poland alive in these years and enabled it to become a nation once again. While several rebellions were unsuccessful, in 1918, at the close of World War I, Poland regained its independence as a sovereign state.
The outbreak of World War II proved devastating. One-quarter of Poland's population, including three million Jews were killed by the Nazis. Many Jews died in concentration camps that were located in Poland; millions of others were imprisoned or exiled. Numerous Polish cities were levelled to the ground.
Peace did not end Poland's problems. At the Yalta summit, the United States and Great Britain allowed the Soviets to take Eastern Europe into their "sphere of influence." Communism became the official political and social system of Poland for the next four decades. In 1970, Polish dockyard workers began a movement that later become Solidarity, a million-strong confederation of workers. Solidarity demanded sweeping changes to the political system. The Communist Party responded by imposing martial law and imprisoning Solidarity's leader, Lech Walesa. These actions only increased opposition to communism, both nationally and worldwide. In 1988, the Party agreed to share political power. Elections were held and in 1989, a non-Communist government took over the new Polish Republic. Walesa served as President from 1990-1995. The success of Solidarity initiated a wave of democracy that swept across Eastern Europe and ultimately led to the downfall of the Soviet Union.