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History of Poland

Highly developed agricultural people have lived in the area that is now Poland for the last 7500 years, the Slavic people have settled in this territory for over 1500 years, and the History of Poland as a state spans well over a millennium. The territory ruled by Poland has shifted and varied greatly. At one time, in the 16th century, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was the largest state in Europe, before the rise of the Russian Empire. At other times there was no separate Polish state at all. Poland regained its independence in 1918, after more than a century of rule by its neighbours, but its borders shifted again after the Second World War.

Following its emergence in the 10th century, the Polish nation was led by a series of rulers who converted the Poles to Christianity, created a strong kingdom and integrated Poland into the European culture. Internal fragmentation eroded this initial structure in the 13th century, but consolidation in the 1300s laid the base for the new dominant Kingdom of Poland that was to follow.

Beginning with the Lithuanian Grand Duke Jogaila (Władysław II Jagiełło), the Jagiellon dynasty (1385–1569) formed the Polish-Lithuanian union. The partnership proved beneficial for the Poles and Lithuanians, who coexisted and cooperated in one of the most powerful states in Europe for the next three centuries. The Nihil novi act adopted by the Polish Sejm (parliament) in 1505, transferred most of the legislative power from the monarch to the Sejm. This event marked the beginning of the period known as "Golden Liberty", when the State was ruled by the "free and equal" Polish nobility. The Lublin Union of 1569 established the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth as an influential player in Europe and a vital cultural entity, spreading the Western culture eastwards.

By the 18th century the nobles' democracy had gradually declined into anarchy, making the once powerful Commonwealth vulnerable to foreign intervention. Over the course of three successive partitions by the countries bordering it (the Russian Empire, Habsburg Austria and the Kingdom of Prussia), the Commonwealth was significantly reduced in size the first two times and ultimately ceased to exist in 1795. The idea of Polish independence however was kept alive throughout the 19th century and led to several Polish uprisings against the partitioning powers.

Poland regained its independence in 1918, but the Second Polish Republic was destroyed by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union by their Invasion of Poland at the beginning of the Second World War. Nevertheless the Polish government in exile kept functioning and through the many Polish military formations contributed significantly to the Allied victory. Nazi Germany's forces were compelled to retreat from Poland as the Soviet Red Army advanced, which led to the creation of the People's Republic of Poland. The country's geographic location was shifted to the west and Poland existed as a Soviet satellite state. By the late 1980s Solidarity, a Polish reform movement, became crucial in causing a peaceful transition from a communist state to a capitalist democracy, which resulted in the creation of the modern Polish state.

Prehistory of Poland

The Stone Age era in Poland lasted five hundred thousand years and involved three different human species. The Stone Age cultures ranged from early human groups with primitive tools to advanced agricultural societies using sophisticated stone tools, building fortified settlements and developing copper metallurgy.

The Bronze and Iron Age cultures in Poland are known mainly from archeological research. Early Bronze Age cultures in Poland begin around 2400/2300 BC. The Iron Age commences ca. 750/700 BC. The subject of the ethnicity and linguistic affiliation of the groups living in central and eastern Europe at that time is, giving the absence of written records, speculative, and accordingly there is considerable disagreement. In Poland the most famous archeological finding from that period is the Biskupin fortified settlement (gord), representing the Lusatian culture of the early Iron Age.

Peoples belonging to numerous archeological cultures identified with Celtic, Germanic and Baltic tribes lived in and migrated through various parts of the territory that now constitutes Poland from about 400 BC. Expanding and moving out of their homeland in Scandinavia and northern Germany the Germanic people settled this territory and used it as migrating route for several centuries. Many Germanic tribes moved out of the area in the southern and eastern directions, while other remained. As the Roman Empire was nearing its collapse and the nomadic peoples invading from the east destroyed, damaged or destabilized the various Germanic cultures and societies, the Germanic people left eastern and central Europe for the safer and wealthier southern and western parts of the continent. The northeast corner of modern Poland's territory was and remained populated by Baltic tribes.

According to the currently predominant opinion, the Slavic tribes were not indigenous to the lands that were to become Poland. Their first waves settled the area of the upper Vistula River and elsewhere in southeastern Poland and southern Masovia, coming from the upper and middle regions of the Dnieper River, beginning in the second half of the 5th century, some half century after these territories were vacated by Germanic tribes.

From there the new population dispersed north and west over the course of the 6th century. Slavic people lived from cultivation of crops and were generally farmers, but also engaged in hunting and gathering. Their migration was probably caused by the pursuit of fertile soils and invasions of eastern and central Europe by waves of people and armies from the east, such as the Huns, Avars and Magyars.

A number of such Polish tribes formed small dominions beginning in the 8th century, some of which coalesced later into larger ones. Among those were the Vistulans (Wiślanie) in southern Poland with Kraków and Wiślica as their main centers. Major building of fortified centers and other developments in their country took place in the 9th century. From the early 10th century on the Polans (Polanie, lit. "people of the fields") of what is now Greater Poland became a moving force behind the historic processes that gave rise to the Polish state. The tribal unions built many gords – fortified structures with earth and wood walls and embankments, from the 7th century onwards. Some of them were developed and inhabited, others had a very large empty area and may have served primarily as refuges in times of trouble. The Polans settled in the flatlands around Giecz, Poznań and Gniezno that eventually became the foundation and early center of Poland, lending their name to the country. They went through a period of accelerated building of fortified settlements and territorial expansion beginning in the first half of the 10th century, and the Polish state developed from their tribal entity in the second half of that century.

Piast dynasty

The viability of the emerging state was assured by the early Piast leaders' persistent territorial expansion, which beginning with a very small area around Gniezno (before the town itself existed), lasted throughout most of the 10th century, resulting in a territory approximating that of the present day Poland. The Polanie tribe conquered and merged with other Slavic tribes, formed a tribal federation and then a centralized state, which after the addition of Lesser Poland and Silesia (taken from the Czech state during the later part of the 10th century) reached its mature form, including the main regions regarded as ethnically Polish.

Mieszko I was the first ruler of the Polans tribal union known from contemporary written sources. A pagan "king", Mieszko in 965 married Dubrawka, a Czech Christian princess. Mieszko's 966 conversion to Christianity in its Western Latin Rite is considered by many to be the founding event of the Polish state. In 968 the first missionary bishop was appointed, which counteracted the intended eastern expansion of the Magdeburg Archdiocese, established at the same time. Mieszko's state had a complex political relationship with the German Holy Roman Empire; it fought wars with the Polabian Slavs, the margraves of the Saxon Eastern March, and the Czechs. By around 990, when Mieszko I officially submitted his country to the authority of the Holy See (Dagome iudex), he had transformed Poland into one of the strongest powers in Eastern Europe. Contrary to what Mieszko had intended, his oldest son Bolesław managed to become the sole ruler of Poland. A man of high ambition and strong personality, he embarked on further territorial expansion to the west, south, and east. While often successful, the campaigns and the gains turned out to be of only passing significance and badly strained the resources of the young nation. Bolesław lost the economically crucial Western Pomerania together with the newly created bishopric in Kołobrzeg; the region had previously been conquered with great effort by Mieszko.

Bolesław Chrobry started by continuing his father's policy of alliance with the Holy Roman Empire. He skillfully took advantage of the death of Vojtěch Slavník or Wojciech, a Czech bishop in exile and missionary, whom Bolesław received and helped and who was killed in Prussia. The martyrdom of Wojciech in 997 gave Poland a patron saint, St. Adalbert, and soon resulted in the creation of an independent Polish province of the Church with an archbishop in Gniezno. The Congress of Gniezno took place in the year 1000, when the young emperor Otto III came as a pilgrim to visit St. Adalbert's grave, lent his support to Bolesław and created the Gniezno archdiocese as well as several subordinate dioceses. The Polish ecclesiastical province effectively served as an essential anchor and an institution to fall back on for the Piast state, helping it survive in the troubled centuries ahead. Otto died in 1002 and Bolesław's relationship with his successor Henry II turned out to be much more difficult, resulting in a series of wars in the coming years. The conflicts ended in 1018 with the Peace of Bautzen accord, on favorable for Bolesław terms. In 1025, shortly before his death, Bolesław I the Brave finally succeeded in obtaining the papal permission to crown himself, and became the first king of Poland.

After Bolesław's death his son, King Mieszko II, tried to continue his father's politics, having his kingdom act as an interventionist great power. This reinforced much of the old resentment and hostility on the part of Poland's neighbors, which Mieszko's two dispossessed brothers took advantage of, arranging for foreign invasions from the east and west in 1031. Mieszko was defeated and had to leave the country. Although later Bezprym and Otto were killed and Mieszko partially recovered, with Mieszko's death in 1034 the first Piast monarchy collapsed. Deprived of a government, Poland was ravaged by an anti-feudal and pagan rebellion, and in 1039 by the forces of Bretislaus I of Bohemia.

The nation made a recovery under Mieszko's son, Duke Casimir I (1016-1058), properly known as the Restorer, since he rebuilt the Polish monarchy and through several military campaigns the country's territorial integrity. He was aided in this endeavor by the recent adversaries of Poland, the Holy Roman Empire and Kievan Rus', who didn't find the chaos in Poland to be to their liking either. Casimir introduced a more mature form of feudalism, by settling his warriors on feudal estates and turning them into landed gentry, thus relieving the burden of financing large army units from the duke's treasury. Faced with the widespread destruction of Greater Poland after the Czech expedition, Casimir moved his court to Kraków, which replaced the old Piast capital Gniezno and functioned afterwards as the nation's capital for several centuries. Casimir's son Bolesław II the Bold, also known as the Generous (1040-1081), developed Polish military strength further and, as an active supporter of the papal side in its feud with the German emperors, with the blessing of Pope Gregory VII crowned himself king in 1076. There was an anti-Bolesław conspiracy or conflict that involved the Bishop of Kraków. Bolesław had Bishop Stanisław executed; subsequently Bolesław was forced to abdicate the Polish throne because of the pressure from the Catholic Church and the pro-imperial faction of the nobility. St. Stanislaus was to become the second martyr and patron saint of Poland. After Bolesław's exile the country found itself under the unstable rule of Władysław Herman, who was strongly dependent on Palatine Sieciech. When Władysław's two sons Zbigniew and Bolesław finally forced him to remove his hated protégé, Poland from 1098 was divided among the three of them, and after the father's death from 1102 to 1106 between the two brothers.

After a power struggle, Bolesław III the Wrymouth (1102-1138) became the Duke of Poland by defeating his half-brother in 1106-1107. Zbigniew had to leave the country, but received support from Emperor Henry V, who attacked Bolesław's Poland in 1109. Bolesław was able to defend his country because of his military abilities, determination and alliances, and also because of a national mobilization across the social spectrum; Zbigniew who later returned was eliminated. Bolesław's other major achievement was the conquest of Pomerania, a task begun by his father and completed by Bolesław around 1123. At that time also the Christianization of the region was initiated in earnest, an effort crowned by the establishment of the Pomeranian Wolin Diocese after Bolesław's death in 1140.

Before he died, Bolesław Krzywousty divided the country among four of his sons; a complex arrangement intended to preserve the country's unity, in practice ushered in a long period of fragmentation. For two centuries the Piasts were to spar with each other, the clergy, and the nobility for the control over the divided kingdom. The stability of the system was supposedly assured by the institution of the senior or high duke of Poland, based in Kraków and assigned to the special Seniorate Province that was not to be subdivided. This principle broke down already within the generation of Bolesław III's sons, when Władysław II the Exile, Bolesław IV the Curly, Mieszko III the Old and Casimir II the Just fought for power and territory in Poland, and in particular over the Kraków throne.

Early Medieval Poland was developing culturally as a part of the European Christendom. Intellectual and artistic activity was concentrated around the institutions of the Church, the courts of the kings and dukes (already Mieszko II and Casimir the Restorer were literate and educated), and increasingly around the households of the emergent hereditary elite. Along with the Dagome iudex act, the most important written document and source of the period (the 10th through the end of 12th centuries) is the chronicle by a foreign cleric from the court of Bolesław the Wrymouth known as Gallus Anonymus. A number of Pre-Romanesque stone churches were built beginning in the 10th century, often accompanied by "palatium" ruler residencies; those were followed by Romanesque buildings proper. Among the preeminent early monastic religious orders were the Benedictines and the Cistercians.

The 13th century brought fundamental changes in the structure of the Polish society and political system. Despite the fragmentation and constant internal conflicts, Poland's external borders mostly stabilized during this period. In mid 13th century Bolesław II the Bald granted Lubusz Land to the Margraviate of Brandenburg, which made possible the creation of the Neumark and had far reaching negative consequences for the integrity of the western border. Polish Western Pomerania broke its political ties with Poland and became also dependent on the Margraviate, which in 1307 extended its Pomeranian possessions even further east. In the south-east Leszek the White was unable to preserve Poland's supremacy over Galicia-Volhynia.

The social status was becoming increasingly based on the size of feudal land possessions. Those included the lands controlled by the Piast princes, their rivals the great lay land owners and church entities, all the way down to the knightly class; the work force ranged from hired "free" people, through serfs attached to the land, to slaves (purchased or war and other prisoners). The upper layer of the feudal lords, first the Church and then others, were able to acquire economic and legal immunity, which made them exempt to a significant degree from court jurisdiction or economical obligations (including taxation) previously imposed by the ruling dukes.

The civil strife and foreign invasions, such as the Mongol invasions in 1241 and 1259, weakened and depopulated the many small Polish principalities, as the country became progressively more split. This, but also increasing in the developing economy demand for labor, caused a massive immigration of West European, mostly German settlers into Poland. The German, Polish and other new rural settlements were a form of feudal tenancy with immunity and German town laws were often utilized as its legal bases. The German immigrants were also important in the rise of the cities and the establishment of the Polish burgher (city dwelling merchants) class; they brought with them West European laws (Magdeburg rights) and customs which the Poles adopted. From that time on the Germans became one of the minorities in Poland.

In 1228, the Acts of Cienia were passed and signed into law by Władyslaw III. The titular Duke of Poland promised to provide a "just and noble law according to the council of bishops and barons." Such legal guarantees and privileges included also the lower level land owners - knights, who were evolving into the lower and middle nobility class known later as "szlachta". The fragmentation period weakened the rulers and established a permanent trend in Polish history, whereby the rights and role of the nobility were being expanded at the monarch's expense.

In 1226 Konrad I of Masovia invited the Teutonic Knights to help him fight the Prussian people, whose territory bordered his lands and who at that time were being subjected to increasingly forced (including papacy-sponsored crusades), but largely unsuccessful Christianization efforts. The Teutonic Order quickly overstepped the authority given to them by Konrad and in the following decades conquered large areas along the Baltic Sea coast and established their monastic state. When virtually all of the Western Baltic pagans became converted or exterminated, the Knights turned their attention to Poland and Lithuania. In 1325 the Poles and Lithuanians made a treaty to defend themselves against the unruly former allies, who were invading their lands. During 1327-1332 the Polish-Lithuanian armies fought the Order, which managed to capture Dobrzyń Land and Kujawy, recovered by Poland in 1343. The wars continued for most of the 14th and 15th centuries, until the remaining state of the Teutonic Knights was converted into the Protestant Duchy of Prussia under the King of Poland in 1525.

There were numerous attempts to unify the Polish state, including that of the Silesian dukes Henry I the Bearded and his son Henry II the Pious, who was killed in 1241 while fighting the Mongols at the Battle of Legnica. In 1295 Przemysł II of Greater Poland was the first, since Bolesław II, Piast duke crowned as King of Poland, but he ruled over only a part of the territory of Poland and was assassinated soon after his coronation. A more extensive unification of Polish lands was accomplished by a foreign ruler, Wenceslaus II of Bohemia of the Přemyslid dynasty, who married Przemysł's daughter and became King of Poland in 1300. Wenceslaus' heavy-handed policies soon caused him to loose whatever support he had earlier in his reign; he died in 1305. An important factor in the unification process was the Polish Church, which remained a single ecclesiastical province throughout the fragmentation period. Archbishop Jakub Świnka of Gniezno was an ardent proponent of Poland's reunification; he performed the crowning ceremonies for both Przemysł II and Wenceslaus II. Świnka supported Władysław Łokietek at various stages of the duke's career.

Culturally the 13th century brought a socially much broader impact of the Church, as a network of parishes was established and cathedral-type schools became more common. The leading monastic orders were now the Dominicans and the Franciscans, who interacted closely with the general population. Characteristic of the period was a proliferation of narrative annals, as well as other written records, laws and documents. More of the clergy were of local origin, others were expected to know the Polish language. Their most recognized representative in the intellectual sphere, where there was considerable achievement, is Wincenty Kadłubek, the author of an influential chronicle. Gothic architecture became the predominant style of churches and castles constructed beginning in the 13th century, and in art forms native elements were increasingly important. Significant advances took place in agriculture, manufacturing and crafts.

The 14th century unified Kingdom of Poland of the last two rulers of the Piast dynasty, Władysław the Elbow-high and his son Casimir the Great, wasn't quite a return of the Polish state from before the fragmentation. The regional Piast princes remained strong and for economic reasons some of them gravitated toward Poland's neighbors. The Kingdom lost Pomerania and Silesia, the most highly developed or economically important of the ethnically Polish lands, which left half of the Polish population outside the Kingdom's borders. The western losses had to do with the German expansion, and the lower Vistula was controlled by the Teutonic Order. Masovia was not to be fully incorporated into the Polish state anytime soon. Casimir stabilized the western and northern borders, tried to regain some of the lost territories, and partially compensated the losses by his new eastern expansion, which placed within his kingdom regions that were ethnically non-Polish.

Despite the territorial truncation Poland experienced a period of accelerated economic development and increasing prosperity. This included further expansion and modernization of agricultural settlements, the development of towns and their increasing role in briskly growing trade, mining and metallurgy. A great monetary reform was implemented during the reign of Casimir III.

Władysław Łokietek fought a lifelong uphill battle with powerful adversaries and left the Kingdom in a precarious situation, with limited area under its control and many unresolved issues, but he may have saved Poland's existence as a state. Supported by his Hungarian allies Władysław returned from exile and challenged Wenceslaus in 1304-1305. He took over Lesser Poland and the lands north of there, through Kuyavia all the way to Gdańsk Pomerania. In 1308 Pomerania was conquered by the Brandenburg state. In a recovery effort Łokietek agreed to ask for help the Teutonic Knights; the Knights brutally took over Gdańsk Pomerania and kept it for themselves. In 1313-1314 Władysław conquered Greater Poland. In 1320 Władysław I Łokietek became the first King of Poland crowned in the Wawel Cathedral, which was agreed to by Pope John XXII, despite the opposition from John of Bohemia, who also claimed the Polish crown. John undertook in 1327 an expedition aimed at Kraków, which he was compelled to abort, and a crusade against Lithuania in 1328, during which he formalized an alliance with the Teutonic Order. Władysław was helped by his alliances with Hungary and Lithuania, and from 1329 by a peace agreement with Brandenburg. A lasting achievement of John of Luxembourg (and Poland's greatest loss) was forcing most of the Piast Silesian principalities into allegiance.

After Łokietek's death the old monarch's son, King Casimir III, later to be known as Kazimierz the Great, was a 23 year old who had no inclination for military life hardships, and by his contemporaries wasn't given much of a chance for overcoming the country's mounting difficulties or succeeding as a leader. But from the beginning Casimir acted prudently, purchasing in 1335 John's claims to the Polish throne, and after a couple of high-level arbitrations settling in 1343 the disputes with the Teutonic Order by a territorial compromise. At that time Poland started to expand to the east and through a series of military campaigns between 1340 and 1366 Casimir annexed the Halych-Volodymyr area of Rus'. Supported by Hungary, the Polish king in 1338 promised the Hungarian ruling house the Polish throne in the event he dies without male heirs.

Casimir unsuccessfully tried to recover Silesia by conducting military activities against the Luxembourgs between 1343 and 1348, but then blocked the attempted separation of Silesia from the Gniezno Archdiocese by Charles IV. Later until his death he pursued the Polish claim to Silesia legally by petitioning the pope; his successors had not continued his efforts.

Allied with Denmark and Western Pomerania (Gdańsk Pomerania was granted to the Order as an "eternal charity") Casimir was able to impose some corrections on the western border. in 1365 Drezdenko and Santok became Poland's fiefs, while Wałcz district was in 1368 taken outright, severing the land connection between Brandenburg and the Teutonic state.

Kazimierz the Great considerably strengthened the country's position in both foreign and domestic affairs. Domestically he integrated the reunited Polish state and helped develop what was considered the "Crown of the Polish Kingdom", the state within its actual, as well as past or potential (legal from the Polish point of view) boundaries. Casimir established or strengthened kingdom-wide institutions (such as the powerful state treasury) independent of the regional, class, or royal court related interests. Internationally the Polish king was very active diplomatically, cultivated close contacts with other European rulers and was a staunch defender of the Polish national interest. In 1364 he sponsored the Congress of Kraków, in which a number of monarchs participated, and which was concerned with the promotion of peaceful cooperation and political balance in Central Europe.

Immediately after Casimir's death in 1370, the heirless king's nephew, Louis of Hungary of the Angevin dynasty assumed the Polish throne. As Casimir's actual commitment to the Angevin succession seemed problematic from the beginning, Louis engaged in negotiations with Polish knights and nobility starting already in 1351; they supported him, exacting in return further guarantees and privileges for themselves. Right after the coronation Louis left his mother and Casimir's sister Elizabeth in Poland as a regent, himself returning to Hungary.

With the death of Casimir the Great the period of hereditary (Piast) monarchy in Poland ended. The land owners and nobles did not want a strong monarchy; a constitutional monarchy was established between 1370 and 1493.

During the reign of Louis I Poland formed a union with Hungary. In the pact of 1374 known as the Privilege of Koszyce the Polish nobility, granted very extensive concessions, agreed to extend the Angevin succession to Louis' daughters, as Louis also had no sons. This union lasted for twelve years and ended in war. After Louis' death in 1382 and a power struggle that ensued, the Polish nobility decided that Louis' youngest daughter Jadwiga should become the next "King of Poland". Upon their demands Jadwiga arrived in 1384 and was crowned at the age of eleven. The failure of the union of Poland and Hungary paved the way for the union of Lithuania and Poland.

Many large scale brick building projects were undertaken in the 14th century, in particular during Casimir's reign. Those included Gothic churches, castles, urban fortifications and homes of wealthy city residents. Especially notable are the many magnificent churches representing the Polish Gothic style; medieval sculpture, painting and ornamental smithery are well represented, especially as the furnishings of churches and liturgical equipment. For conflict resolution legal proceedings were being commonly used domestically, while bilateral or multilateral negotiations and treaties were increasingly important in international relations. The network of cathedral and parish schools became well developed, and in 1364 Casimir the Great, based on a papal concession, established the University of Kraków, the second oldest in central Europe. While many still traveled for university studies to southern and western Europe, the Polish language, along with the predominant Latin, is increasingly present in written documents.

Jagiellon Era

In 1385 the Union of Krewo was signed between Jadwiga and Jogaila, the Grand Duke of Lithuania (later known as Władysław II Jagiełło), beginning the Polish-Lithuanian Union and strengthening both nations in their shared opposition to the Teutonic Knights and the growing threat of the Grand Duchy of Moscow. The Union's intention was to create a common state under King Jagiełło. The idea turned out to be premature at that time (there were going to be territorial disputes and warfare between Poland and Lithuania or Lithuanian factions), but geographic consequences of the personal union and the preferences of the Jagiellon kings accelerated the process of reorientation of Polish territorial priorities to the east.

Between 1386 and 1572 Poland and Lithuania were ruled by a succession of constitutional monarchs of the Jagiellon dynasty. The political influence of the Jagiellon kings was diminishing during this period, which was accompanied by the ever increasing role in central government and national affairs of landed nobility. The royal dynasty however had a stabilizing effect on Poland's politics. The Jagiellon Era is often regarded as a period of maximum political power, great prosperity, and in its later stage the Golden Age of Polish culture.

The 13th and 14th century feudal rent system, under which each estate had well defined rights and obligations, degenerated around the 15th century, as the nobility tightened their control of the production, trade and other economic activities, created many directly owned agricultural enterprises known as folwarks, limited the rights of the cities and pushed most of the peasants into serfdom. Such practices were increasingly sanctioned by the law. For example the Piotrków Privilege of 1496, granted by King Jan Olbracht, banned rural land purchases by townspeople and severely limited the ability of peasant farmers to leave their villages. Polish towns, lacking national representation protecting their class interests, preserved some degree of self-government (city councils and jury courts), and the trades were able to organize and form guilds. The nobility soon excused themselves from their principal duty - mandatory military service in case of war (pospolite ruszenie). The nobility's split into two main layers was institutionalized in the Nihil novi "constitution" of 1505, which required the king to consult the sejm, that is the senate (highest level officials), as well as the lower chamber of (regional) deputies, before enacting any changes. The masses of ordinary szlachta competed or tried to compete against the uppermost rank of their class, the magnates, for the duration of Poland's independent existence.

The first king of the new dynasty was the Grand Duke of Lithuania Jogaila, or Ladislaus II as the King of Poland. He was elected a King of Poland in 1386, after becoming a Christian and marrying Jadwiga of Anjou, daughter of Louis I, who was Queen of Poland in her own right. Jogaila's rivalry in Lithuania with his cousin Vytautas was settled in 1401 in the Union of Vilnius and Radom. Vytautas became the Grand Duke of Lithuania for life under Jogaila's nominal supremacy, but the agreement made possible close cooperation between the two nations, necessary to succeed in the upcoming struggle with the Teutonic Order. The campaign of summer of 1410 included the Battle of Grunwald, where the Polish and Lithuanian-Rus' armies completely defeated the Teutonic Knights. The offensive that followed lost its impact with the ineffective siege of Malbork. The failure to take the fortress and eliminate the Teutonic (later Prussian) state had for Poland dire historic consequences in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. After 1410 there were negotiations and peace deals that didn't hold, more military campaigns and arbitrations. One attempted, unresolved arbitration took place at the Council of Constance. There in 1415 Paulus Vladimiri, rector of the Kraków Academy, presented his Treatise on the Power of the Pope and the Emperor in respect to Infidels, where he advocated tolerance, criticized the violent conversion methods of the Teutonic Knights, and postulated that pagans have the right to peaceful coexistence with Christians and political independence. This stage of the Polish-Lithuanian conflict with the Teutonic Order ended with the Treaty of Melno in 1422.

During the Hussite Wars (1420-1434) Jagiełło, Vytautas and Sigismund Korybut were invoved in political and military maneuvering concerning the Czech crown, offered by the Hussites first to Jagiełło in 1420. Zbigniew Oleśnicki became known as the leading opponent of a union with the Hussite Czech state.

The Jagiellon dynasty was not entitled to automatic hereditary succession, as each new king had to be approved by nobility consensus. Władysław Jagiełło had two sons late in his life, from his last marriage. In 1430 the nobility agreed to the succession of the future Władysław III, only after the King gave in and guaranteed the satisfaction of their new demands. In 1434 the old monarch died and his minor son Władysław was crowned; the Royal Council led by Bishop Oleśnicki undertook the regency duties.

In 1438 the Czech anti-Habsburg opposition, mainly Hussite factions, offered the Czech crown to Jagiełło's younger son Casimir. The idea, accepted in Poland over Oleśnicki's objections, resulted in two unsuccessful Polish military expeditions to Bohemia.

After Vytautas' death in 1430 Lithuania became embroiled in internal wars and conflicts with Poland. Casimir sent as a boy by King Władysław on a mission there in 1440, was surprisingly proclaimed a Grand Duke of Lithuania, and stayed in Lithuania.

Oleśnicki gained the upper hand again and pursued his long-term objective of Poland's union with Hungary. At that time Turkey embarked on a new round of European conquests and threatened Hungary, which needed the powerful Polish-Lithuanian ally. Władysław III in 1440 assumed also the Hungarian throne. Influenced by Julian Cesarini, the young king led the Hungarian army against the Ottoman Empire in 1443 and again in 1444. Like his mentor, Władysław Warneńczyk was killed at the Battle of Varna.

Beginning toward the end of Jagiełło's life, Poland was practically governed by a magnate oligarchy led by Oleśnicki. The rule of the dignitaries was actively opposed by various szlachta groups. Their leader Spytek of Melsztyn was killed during an armed confrontation in 1439, which allowed Oleśnicki to purge Poland of the remaining Hussite sympathizers and pursue his other objectives without significant opposition.

In 1445 Casimir, the Grand Duke of Lithuania, was asked to assume the Polish throne vacated by the death of his brother Władysław. Casimir was a tough negotiator and did not accept the Polish nobility's conditions for his election. He finally arrived in Poland and was crowned in 1447 on his terms. Becoming a King of Poland Casimir also freed himself from the control the Lithuanian oligarchy had imposed on him; in the Vilnius Privilege of 1447 he declared the Lithuanian nobility having equal rights with Polish szlachta. In time Kazimierz Jagiellończyk was able to remove from power Cardinal Oleśnicki and his group.

In 1454 the Prussian Confederation, an organization of Prussian cities opposed to the rule of the Teutonic Knights, asked King Casimir to take over Prussia and stirred up an armed uprising against the Knights. Casimir declared a war on the Order and a formal incorporation of Prussia into the Polish Crown; those events led to the Thirteen Years War. The weakness of pospolite ruszenie (the szlachta wouldn't cooperate without new across-the-board concessions from Casimir) prevented a takeover of all of Prussia, but in the Second Peace of Thorn (1466) the Knights had to surrender the western half of their territory to the Polish crown (the areas known afterwards as Royal Prussia), and to accept Polish-Lithuanian suzerainty over the remainder (the later Ducal Prussia). Poland regained Gdańsk Pomerania and with it the all-important access to the Baltic Sea. Other 15th century Polish territorial gains or rather revindications included the Duchy of Oświęcim and Duchy of Zator on Silesia's border with Lesser Poland, and there was notable progress regarding the incorporation of the Masovian duchies into the Crown.

Sigismund I the Old supported the arts and built the presently existing Wawel Renaissance castle. Sigismund II had no children, thus ending Poland's last hereditary succession.

Poland's personal union with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania paved the way for closer relations of the two states. By the Union of Lublin in 1569 a unified Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (Rzeczpospolita) was created, stretching from the Baltic Sea and the Carpathian mountains to present-day Belarus and western and central Ukraine (which earlier had been Kievan Rus' principalities).

During this period Poland became the home to Europe's largest Jewish population, as royal edicts guaranteeing Jewish safety and religious freedom, issued during the 13th century, contrasted with bouts of persecution in Western Europe. This persecution intensified following the Black Death of 1348–1349, when some in the West blamed the outbreak of the plague on the Jews. Much of Poland was spared from this disease, and Jewish immigration brought their valuable contributions and abilities to the rising state. The greatest increase in Jewish population occurred in the 18th century, when the Jews constituted up to 7% of the population.

Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth

During the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, in the 16th century, Poland became an elective monarchy, in which the king was elected by the hereditary nobility. This king would serve as the monarch until he died, at which time the country would have another election.

In 1572, the Polish King Sigismund II Augustus died without any heirs. The political system was not prepared for this eventuality, as there was no method of choosing a new king. After much debate it was determined that the entire nobility of Poland would decide who the king was to be. The nobility were to gather near Warsaw and vote in a “free election”.

The first such Polish royal election was held in 1573. The four men running for the office were Henri of Valois (Henryk Walezy), who was the brother of the King of France Charles IX, the Russian Czar Ivan IV the Terrible, Archduke Ernest from the Austrian Habsburg dynasty, and the King of Sweden, Johan Vasa III. Henri of Valois was the winner in a very disorderly election. But after serving as Polish king for only four months, he received the news that his brother, the King of France, had died. Henri of Valois then abandoned his Polish post and went back to France, where he claimed the throne as Henry III.

From 1569 the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth suffered a series of Tatar invasions. The borderland area to the south-east was in a state of semi-permanent warfare until the 18th century. Some researchers estimate that altogether more than 3 million people were captured and enslaved during the time of the Crimean Khanate.

In 1593, 1626, 1637-1638 and 1648-1654 several Cossack uprisings took place. The last one led by Bohdan Khmelnytsky lasted for six years. As a result of several requests from the Ukrainian hetman Ukraine was taken under the protection of Russia. The agreement was made in January of 1654 in the city of Pereyaslavl (Ukraine). This development led to a new Russian-Polish war that lasted from 1654 to 1667. In the end, the parties signed an agreement in the village of Andrusovo near Smolensk, according to which eastern Ukraine now belonged to Russia (with a high degree of local autonomy and an internal army).

The elections of kings lasted until the Partitions of Poland. The elected kings in chronological order were: Henri of Valois, Stefan Batory, Zygmunt III Vasa, Władyslaw IV Vasa, Jan Kazimierz, Michał Korybut Wiśniowiecki, Jan III Sobieski, Augustus II the Strong, Stanisław Leszczyński, Augustus III and Stanisław August Poniatowski.

Two of the elective kings are more highly regarded than the others. Stefan Batory was determined to reassert the deteriorated royal prerogative, at the cost of alienating the powerful noble families. Jan III Sobieski commanded the allied Relief of Vienna operation in 1683, which turned out to be the last great victory of the "Republic of Both Nations". Stanisław August Poniatowski, the last of the Polish kings, was a controversial figure. On the one hand he was a driving force behind the substantial and constructive reforms belatedly undertaken by the Commonwealth. On the other, by his weakness and lack of resolve, especially in dealing with imperial Russia, he doomed the reforms together with the country they were supposed to help.

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, following the Union of Lublin, became a counterpoint of sorts to the absolute monarchies gaining power in Europe. Its quasi-democratic political system of Golden Liberty, albeit limited to nobility, was mostly unprecedented in the history of Europe.

However the series of power struggles between the lesser nobility (szlachta), the higher nobility (magnates) and elected kings undermined citizenship values and gradually eroded the government's ability to function and its authority. The infamous liberum veto procedure was used to paralyze parliamentary proceedings beginning in the second half of the 17th century. After the series of devastating wars in the middle of the 17th century (most notably the Chmielnicki Uprising and The Deluge) Poland-Lithuania stopped being an influential player in the politics of Europe. Its economy and growth were further damaged by the nobility's reliance on agriculture and serfdom, which delayed the industrialization of the country. By the beginning of the 18th century, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the largest European state, was little more than a pawn of its neighbours (the Russian Empire, Prussia and Austria) who interfered in its domestic politics almost at will.

The Bar Confederation of 1768-1772 was the first in a series of uprisings and wars aimed at preserving Poland's independence, but it was directed not only against Russia, but also against King Stanisław August and his reform camp. The Bar Confederation was quelled and the country was punished with the First Partition of Poland, in which Russia, Prussia and Austria took big chunks of the Commonwealth's territory.

With the coming of the Polish Enlightenment in the second half of the 18th century, the movement for reform and revitalization of the country made important gains, culminating in the adoption of the Constitution of May 3, the first modern codified constitution on the European continent. However the reforms, which transformed the Commonwealth into a constitutional monarchy, were viewed as dangerous by Poland's neighbours, who didn't want the rebirth of the strong Commonwealth.

Before the Commonwealth could fully implement and benefit from its reforms, it was invaded in 1792 by Russia aided by the local anti-reform alliance of conservative nobility known as the Targowica Confederation. The ensuing war was not lost, at least not yet, but the King surrendered and the pro-Russian Targowica took over. The Empire responded with the Second Partition nevertheless, in which only Russia and Prussia participated.

In the wake of the 1792 war and the Second Partition a new conspiracy came into being. Among its leaders were both the civilian personalities of the reform movement and military officers of the previous war. The Kościuszko Rising erupted in March of 1794. When it too became extinguished, the three partitioning powers executed the final, or Third Partition, and the Commonwealth ceased to exist.

Partitioned Poland

Polish independence ended in a series of Partitions (1772, 1793 and 1795) undertaken by Russia, Prussia and Austria. Russia gained most of the Commonwealth's territory including nearly all of the former Lithuania (except Podlasie and lands west of the Niemen River), Volhynia and Ukraine. Austria gained the populous southern region henceforth named GaliciaLodomeria, after the Duchy of Halicz and Volodymyr. In 1795 Austria also gained the land between Kraków and Warsaw, between the Vistula and Pilica rivers. Prussia acquired the western lands from the Baltic through Greater Poland to Kraków, as well as Warsaw and Lithuanian territories to the north-east and Podlasie.

Following the French emperor Napoleon I's defeat of Prussia, a small Polish state was set up in 1807 under French tutelage as the Duchy of Warsaw. When Austria was defeated in 1809, Galicia was added, giving the new state a population of some 3.75 million, a quarter of that of the former Commonwealth. Polish nationalists were to remain among the staunchest allies of the French as the tide of war turned against the French, inaugurating a relationship that continues into the present.

With Napoleon's defeat, the Congress of Vienna in 1815 converted most of the Duchy of Warsaw into the so-called Kingdom of Poland, ruled by the Russian tsar, until the Russian dynasty was deposed from the throne by the Kingdom's Parliament during the November Rising of 1830/31. After the January Rising of 1863 the Kingdom was fully integrated into Russia proper. The national uprisings were bloodily subdued by the partitioning powers, which did not extinguish the striving of Polish patriots to regain their independence. The opportunity for freedom appeared only after World War I, when the oppressing states were defeated or weakened by war and revolution.

Second Republic

World War I and the political turbulence that was sweeping Europe in 1914 offered the Polish nation hopes for regaining independence. By the end of World War I Poland had seen the defeat or retreat of all three occupying powers. On the outbreak of war the Poles found themselves conscripted into the armies of Germany, Austria and Russia, and forced to fight each other in a war that was not theirs. As many Poles sympathized with France and Britain, they found it hard to fight them on the Russian side. They also had little sympathy for the Germans.

Polish independence was eventually proclaimed on November 3, 1918 and later confirmed by the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. The same treaty also gave Poland some territories annexed by the Germans and Austrians during the partitions (see Polish Corridor). The post-war eastern borders of Poland were determined by Polish victory in the Polish-Soviet War. According to the British historian A.J.P. Taylor, the Polish-Soviet War "largely determined the course of European history for the next twenty years or more. […] Unavowedly and almost unconsciously, Soviet leaders abandoned the cause of international revolution." It would be twenty years before the Bolsheviks sent their armies abroad to "make revolution".

From the mid 1920s to mid 1930s the Polish government was under the control of Józef Piłsudski, the politically-moderate war hero who had engineered the defeat of the Soviet forces. Polish independence had boosted the development of culture, but Poland was hit hard by the Great Depression. The new Polish state had had only 20 years of relative stability and uneasy peace before Poland's neighbours attacked. In 1939, under constant threat from Germany, Poland entered into a full military alliance with Britain and France. In August, Germany and Russia signed a secret agreement concerning the future of Poland, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.

World War II

On August 23, 1939 Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union signed the Ribbentrop–Molotov non-aggression pact, which secretly provided for the dismemberment of Poland into Nazi and Soviet-controlled zones. On September 1, 1939 Hitler ordered his troops into Poland. On September 17 the Soviet troops invaded and took control of most of the areas of eastern Poland having significant Ukrainian and Belarusian populations under the terms of this agreement. After Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, Poland was completely occupied by German troops.

The Poles formed an underground resistance movement and a Polish government in exile, first in Paris and later in London, which was recognized by the Soviet Union. During World War II 400,000 Poles fought under the Soviet command, and 200,000 went into combat on western fronts in units loyal to the Polish government in exile. Many Polish refugee camps were set up, including one in Valdivadé, near Kolhapur in India. The camp numbered about 5000 refugees, and the Polish embassy of the government in exile had its office in Bombay. The camp existed from 1943 to 1948.

In April 1943 the Soviet Union broke relations with the Polish government in exile after the German military announced that they had discovered mass graves of murdered Polish army officers at Katyń, in the USSR. The Soviets claimed that the Poles had insulted them by requesting that the Red Cross investigate these reports. In July 1944 the Soviet Red Army and the Peoples' Army of Poland controlled by the Soviets entered Poland, defeated the Germans (losing 600,000 of their soldiers), and established a communist-controlled "Polish Committee of National Liberation" in Lublin.

There was powerful hatred of the Nazis in Warsaw, and there was often resistance, of which the most famous instance was the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. The uprising, in which most of the Warsaw population participated, was largely instigated by the underground Armia Krajowa, the Home Army. The uprising was planned with the expectation that the Soviet forces, who had arrived in the course of their offensive and were waiting on the other side of the Vistula River in full force, would help in battle over Warsaw. However the Soviets betrayed the Poles, stopping their advance at the Vistula and branding them as criminals on radio broadcasts. For the next two months the Soviets calmly watched as the Nazis brutally suppressed the forces of the pro-western, loyal to the government in exile Polish underground. Historian Norman Davies has said that to comprehend the numbers killed, one would have to imagine the Twin Towers 9/11 disaster every day for 63 days, and it still wouldn't be enough. After a hopeless surrender on the part of the Poles, the Germans carried out Hitler's order that "there not be two bricks standing" in Warsaw, systematically levelling the city. They retreated only in January 1945 when the Soviets resumed their offensive.

During the war about 6 million Polish citizens were killed by the Germans, and 2.5 million were deported to Germany for forced labour or to extermination camps such as Oświęcim-Auschwitz. In 1941-1943 Ukrainian nationalists (OUN and Ukrainian Insurgent Army) massacred more than 100,000 Poles in Galicia and Volhynia. During 1939-1941 1.45 million people inhabiting Eastern Poland (Kresy) were deported by the Soviet regime, of whom 63.1% were Poles and 7.4% were Jews. Previously it was believed that about one million Polish citizens died at the hands of the Soviets, however recently Polish historians, based mostly on queries in Soviet archives, estimated the number of deaths at about 350,000.

The Soviet government retained most of the territories captured as a result of the Nazi-Soviet pact in 1939 (now western Ukraine, western Belarus and the area around Vilnius), compensating Poland with parts of Silesia, Pomerania and southern East Prussia, along with Gdańsk ("Regained Territories"), which were granted to Poland. Most of the German population there was expelled to Germany.

During World War II over half a million fighting men and women and 6 million civilians (22% of the total population) died. About 50% of these were Polish Christians and other non-Jews and 50% were Polish Jews. Approximately 5,384,000, or 89.9% of Polish war losses (Jews and Gentiles) were the victims of prisons, death camps, raids, executions, annihilation of ghettos, epidemics, starvation, excessive work and ill treatment. So many Poles were sent to concentration camps that virtually every family had someone close to them who had been tortured or murdered there.

There were one million war orphans and over half a million war disabled. The country lost 38% of its national assets (Britain lost 0.8%, France lost 1.5%). Half the prewar Poland was expropriated by the Soviet Union, including the two great cultural centres of Lwów and Wilno. Many Poles could not return to the country for which they had fought because they belonged to the "wrong" political group, or came from prewar eastern Poland incorporated into the Soviet Union, or having fought in the West were warned not to return because of the high risk of persecution. Others were arrested, tortured and imprisoned by the Soviet authorities for belonging to the Home Army (see Cursed soldiers), or persecuted because of having fought on the western front. Although technically "victors", they were not allowed to partake in victory celebrations.

People's Republic of Poland

250px|thumb|right|Map showing the different borders and territories of Poland and Germany during the [[20th century, in their three main “incarnations”: Russian Empire’s Congress Poland/German Empire, Second Polish Republic-Free City of Danzig/Weimar Germany, West Germany-East Germany-West Berlin/People's Republic of Poland and current Germany/Poland, in dark gray]] In June 1945, following the February Yalta Conference, a Polish Provisional Government of National Unity was formed; the US recognized it the next month. Although the Yalta agreement called for free elections, those held in January 1947 were controlled by the Communist Party. The communists then established a regime entirely under their domination. The Polish government in exile existed until 1990, although its influence was degraded.

In October 1956, after the 20th Soviet Party Congress in Moscow ushered in destalinization and riots by workers in Poznań ensued, there was a shakeup in the communist regime. While retaining most traditional communist economic and social aims, the regime of First Secretary Władysław Gomułka began to liberalize internal Polish life.

In 1968 this trend was reversed when student demonstrations were suppressed and an anti-Zionist campaign initially directed against Gomułka supporters within the party eventually led to the emigration of much of Poland's remaining Jewish population. In December 1970, disturbances and strikes in the port cities of Gdańsk, Gdynia, and Szczecin, triggered by a price increase for essential consumer goods, reflected deep dissatisfaction with living and working conditions in the country. Edward Gierek replaced Gomułka as First Secretary.

Fueled by large infusions of Western credit, Poland's economic growth rate was one of the world's highest during the first half of the 1970s. But much of the borrowed capital was misspent, and the centrally planned economy was unable to use the new resources effectively. The growing debt burden became insupportable in the late 1970s, and economic growth had become negative by 1979.

In October 1978, the Archbishop of Kraków, Cardinal Karol Józef Wojtyła, became Pope John Paul II, head of the Roman Catholic Church. Polish Catholics rejoiced at the elevation of a Pole to the papacy and greeted his June 1979 visit to Poland with an outpouring of emotion.

On July 1, 1980, with the Polish foreign debt at more than $20 billion, the government made another attempt to increase meat prices. A chain reaction of strikes virtually paralyzed the Baltic coast by the end of August and, for the first time, closed most coal mines in Silesia. Poland was entering into an extended crisis that would change the course of its future development.

On August 31, 1980, workers at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk, led by an electrician named Lech Wałęsa, signed a 21-point agreement with the government that ended their strike. Similar agreements were signed at Szczecin and in Silesia. The key provision of these agreements was the guarantee of the workers’ right to form independent trade unions and the right to strike. After the Gdańsk agreement was signed, a new national union movement "Solidarity" swept Poland.

The discontent underlying the strikes was intensified by revelations of widespread corruption and mismanagement within the Polish state and party leadership. In September 1980, Gierek was replaced by Stanisław Kania as First Secretary.

Alarmed by the rapid deterioration of the PZPR's authority following the Gdańsk agreement, the Soviet Union proceeded with a massive military buildup along Poland's border in December 1980. In February 1981, Defense Minister Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski assumed the position of Prime Minister, and in October 1981, was named First Secretary of the Communist Party. At the first Solidarity national congress in September–October 1981, Lech Wałęsa was elected national chairman of the union.

On December 1213, the regime declared martial law, under which the army and ZOMO riot police were used to crush the union. Virtually all Solidarity leaders and many affiliated intellectuals were arrested or detained. The United States and other Western countries responded to martial law by imposing economic sanctions against the Polish regime and against the Soviet Union. Unrest in Poland continued for several years thereafter.

In a series of slow, uneven steps, the Polish regime rescinded martial law. In December 1982, martial law was suspended, and a small number of political prisoners were released. Although martial law formally ended in July 1983 and a general amnesty was enacted, several hundred political prisoners remained in jail.

In July 1984, another general amnesty was declared, and two years later, the government had released nearly all political prisoners. The authorities continued, however, to harass dissidents and Solidarity activists. Solidarity remained proscribed and its publications banned. Independent publications were censored.

In late 1980s the government was forced to negotiate with Solidarity in the Polish Roundtable Negotiations. The Polish legislative elections in 1989 became one of the important events marking the fall of communism in Poland.

Third Republic

The government's inability to forestall Poland's economic decline led to waves of strikes across the country in April, May and August 1988. The "round-table" talks with the opposition began in February 1989. These talks produced an agreement in April for partly-open National Assembly elections. The failure of the communists at the polls produced a political crisis. The round-table agreement called for a communist president, and on July 19, the National Assembly, with the support of a number of Solidarity deputies, elected General Wojciech Jaruzelski to that office. However, two attempts by the communists to form governments failed.

On August 19, President Jaruzelski asked journalist/Solidarity activist Tadeusz Mazowiecki to form a government; on September 12, the Sejm voted approval of Prime Minister Mazowiecki and his cabinet. For the first time in more than 40 years, Poland had a government led by noncommunists.

In December 1989, the Sejm approved the government's reform program to transform the Polish economy rapidly from centrally planned to free-market, amended the constitution to eliminate references to the "leading role" of the Communist Party, and renamed the country the "Republic of Poland." The Polish United Workers' (Communist) Party dissolved itself in January 1990, creating in its place a new party, Social Democracy of the Republic of Poland.

In October 1990, the constitution was amended to curtail the term of President Jaruzelski.

In the early 1990s, Poland made great progress towards achieving a fully democratic government and a market economy. In November 1990, Lech Wałęsa was elected President for a 5-year term. In December Wałęsa became the first popularly elected President of Poland.

Poland's first free parliamentary elections were held in 1991. More than 100 parties participated, and no single party received more than 13% of the total vote. In 1993 parliamentary elections the Alliance of the Democratic Left (SLD) received the largest share of votes. In 1993 the Soviet Northern Group of Forces finally left Poland.

In November 1995, Poland held its second post-war free presidential elections. SLD leader Aleksander Kwaśniewski defeated Wałęsa by a narrow margin—51.7% to 48.3%.

In 1997 parliamentary elections two parties with roots in the Solidarity movement — Solidarity Electoral Action (AWS) and the Freedom Union (UW) — won 261 of the 460 seats in the Sejm and formed a coalition government. In April 1997, the first post-communist Constitution of Poland was finalized, and in July put into effect.

Poland joined NATO in 1999.

In the presidential election of 2000, Aleksander Kwaśniewski, the incumbent former leader of the post-communist SLD, was re-elected in the first round of voting. After September 2001 parliamentary elections SLD (a successor of the communist party ) formed a coalition with the agrarian PSL and leftist UP.

Poland joined the EU in May 2004. Both President Kwaśniewski and the government were vocal in their support for this cause. The only party decidedly opposed to EU entry was the populist right-wing League of Polish Families (LPR).

In the autumn of 2005 Poles voted in both parliamentary and presidential elections. September's parliamentary poll was expected to produce a coalition of two centre-right parties, PiS (Law and Justice) and PO (Civic Platform). During the increasingly bitter campaign however, PiS launched a strong attack on the liberal economic policies of their allies and overtook PO in opinion polls. PiS eventually gained 27% of votes cast and became the largest party in the Sejm ahead of PO with 24%. Presidential elections in October followed a similar script. The early favorite, Donald Tusk, leader of the PO, saw his opinion poll lead slip away and was beaten 54% to 46% in the second round by the PiS candidate Lech Kaczyński (one of the twins, founders of the party). Coalition talks ensued simultaneously with the presidential elections. However, the severity of the campaign attacks had soured the relationship between the two largest parties and made the creation of a stable coalition impossible. The ostensible stumbling blocks were the insistence of PiS that it controls all aspects of law enforcement: the Ministries of Justice and Internal Affairs, and the special forces; as well as the forcing through of a PiS candidate for the head of the Sejm with the help of several smaller populist parties. PO also wanted to control the law enforcement and the situation ended up in the stalemate. The PO decided to go into opposition. PiS then formed a minority government which relied on the support of smaller populist and agrarian parties (Samoobrona, LPR) to govern. This became a formal coalition, but its deteriorating state made early parliamentary elections necessary.

After the 2007 parliamentary elections the government of Donald Tusk, the chairman of PO was formed. The current government is made of two parties, PO and the peasants' party, PSL.

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