Over the course of history, Poland’s borders have been drawn and redrawn: as a nation, its destiny is irrevocably tied to its geographic position at the heart of Europe. Nonetheless, for centuries, it maintained a formidable and prosperous presence as part of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth.
In the 1500s, Poland’s Renaissance boom brought new Universities and exciting modes of thought, but disaster struck in 1795 when the imperial forces of Austria, Prussia and Russia took the country for themselves and divided it into three partitions. At the front-line of the Great War of 1914, Poland lost one million inhabitants, continued to suffer deep persecution under Nazi Germany, and later, considerable oppression as part of the Soviet Union.
Since the fall of the Eastern Bloc, Poland has sought to redefine itself as an independent, democratic and forward-looking nation – an approach epitomised by the capital, Warsaw, today a robust and staunchly competitive place where you can witness the social transformations rendered by a political shift to the free market. To glimpse the regal past, head instead to the old Medieval city of Kraków, an ancient seat of power filled with intellectual airs and immaculately preserved architecture.
The influence of Catholicism is widespread throughout the country – indeed, the birth of Poland can be traced to the moment the Slavic ruler Mieszko I stopped worshipping the Pagan fertility god of Svetovid and converted to Christianity, but the Jewish faith, too, has greatly shaped Poland’s history. Old Jewish neighbourhoods in several cities are now regenerating, whilst the memorial of Auschwitz-Birkenau remains an important place of pilgrimage and remembrance.