A brief history of Poland - focused on the Second World War« Back
Because of its central location, Poland has historically been trampled upon by its powerful neighbours. When WW1 broke out in 1914, Poland found itself sandwiched between the central powers of Germany and Austria (including Prussia) on one side, and Russia and its Western allies on the other side. After Poland's invasion, depending on where people lived, they were conscripted into the different armies and made to fight against each other. Eventually, however, Austria collapsed, a civil war broke out in Russia and Germany withdrew from Warsaw, resulting Poland regaining its independence and forming the 'Second Republic.'
Between WW1 and WW2 a war broke out between the Soviets and Poland between 1919 and 1920 in which Poland defeated the red army gaining back vast areas of land which are now Belarus and the Ukraine. Still aware of the threat of its powerful neighbours, in 1930 Poland signed a non-aggression pact, with Germany and Russia. This proved to be fruitless, however, as another non-aggression pack was signed between Germany and Russia in 1939, in which Hitler and Stalin included a secret protocol in which they planned to divide up Poland between themselves.
World War 2 began with the invasion of Poland on 1st Sept 1939 by the Germans from the East and shortly afterwards on 17th Sept, the Soviets attacked Poland from the West. The Polish resistance was crushed within a month and just over a year and a half later, Hitler unexpectedly attacked the Russians, and pushed them out of Poland, beginning a 3 year Nazi occupation of Poland.
Hilters plan was to 'Germanise' Poland. He ordered hundreds of thousands of Polish citizens to controlled labour camps while identifying and executing spiritual and intellectual leaders to eliminate any threat of resistance. The Jewish people were to be eliminated in their entirety and to begin with, they were segregated into 'Ghettos,' which were restricted zones set up to contain Jewish people, established in most of the major cities around Poland. The Ghettos were horrifically over populated and bread disease and malnutrition amongst their occupants. More ominously, the Ghettos were established to hold the Jews until the Germans decided what to do with them.
It was in early 1942 that Hitler announced what became know as 'the final solution' at the Wannsee conference, which was to be the mass execution of Jews in the death camps. Within the same year, the death camps of Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka and Auschwitz-Birkenau were operational which were to systematically execute 5 million people before the end of the war, which included 3 million Jews, about 1million Poles and also 1m gypsies and homosexuals.
Hitlers defeat in Stalingrad in early 1943, signified the turning point of the war on the eastern front and in the summer of 1944 the Soviet began to push westwards into Poland, displacing the Nazis on their way. As the Red army pushed Westward, they surprised the Nazis in the city of Krakow causing them to leave rapidly and saving this beautiful medieval city from being razed to the ground.
The Polish government in exile in London was concerned that the Soviets would replace the Nazis as the occupiers of Poland and on July 26th instructed the general of the Polish Home Army to capture Warsaw from the Germans in and attempt to establish a Polish administration before the arrival of the Russians. The ensuing 63 day battle was know as the 'Warsaw Uprising' in which a brave and tragic attempt by the Polish Home Army was eventually crushed by the Germans with the death of 10's of thousands of soldiers an estimated 200,000 civilians, many of whom were executed by the Germans. During the uprising the red army were positioned within a short distance at the line of the Vistula river and could have aided the liberation of the first European city had it not been for various political and military miscalculations from higher levels.
In 1989, Poland was the first of the former Eastern bloc county to hold democratic elections, leading to the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, Poland tasted freedom and stability for the first time and has progressed significantly since. Poland is now part of Nato as of 1999 and joined the EU in May 2004. Poland remains reasonably cheap and safe, with hospitable people who welcome visitors. Over the past decade, it has developed into a modern, vibrant and progressive state, yet at the same time it maintains its traditional culture. It's a fascinating destination and now is a good time to go.