For much of the medieval and early modern periods, Poland was one of the largest states in Europe, although generally cut off from the mainstream of European life. By the 18th century, however, Poland was little more than a confused buffer state between Austria, Prussia and Russia, which eventually carved Poland up between them between 1772 and 1795.
A small area surrounding Warsaw briefly claimed some form of independence between 1807 and 1831 – as the Grand Duchy of Warsaw and Congress Poland – but subsequently became a province of Russia. Poland did not re-acquire independence until 1918. In 1926, a military regime ousted the civilian administration and governed Poland until it was once again pulled apart by powerful neighbours, this time Germany and the Soviet Union, after their 1939 Anti-Aggression Pact. As Britain had previously committed to defend Polish sovereignty, they declared war on Germany and so sparked the Second World War.
In 1941, Germany drove the Soviet Union out of Poland, to be ejected, in turn, by the USSR within four years. At the end of the Second World War, the Soviet-backed Polish Workers’ Party formed a coalition government under the leadership of Wladyslaw Gomulka.
The Solidarnosc (Solidarity) labour movement grew rapidly in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In 1981, the former army chief-of-staff, General Jaruzelski, imposed martial law with the support of Moscow. Solidarnosc was banned and its senior figures were imprisoned.
The early 1980s saw a tense struggle between the state and the unions. Ultimately, the advent of the Gorbachev era in the USSR made it possible for them to come to some accord. In 1988, following a virtual economic crash, the government resigned and began to negotiate with Solidarnosc on economic and constitutional reforms. Solidarnosc was legalised in 1989, paving the way for elections to the new bicameral National Assembly in June the same year.
In 1989 Tadeusz Mazowiecki became the first non-communist prime minister of a Warsaw Pact country. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Poland found itself in a completely new political and economic environment and this led to a deep split within Solidarnosc and its ultimate collapse.
Since 1989 the principal policies have been to ensure entry into both NATO and the European Union. As the largest of the former Eastern European states, Poland’s position is crucial. Both aims have now been achieved. Poland joined NATO in July 1997 and the EU in May 2004.