Independence Day of the Republic of Poland
On 11 November 1918, 102 years ago, Poland regained its independence. On this day, after his release from the Magdeburg Fortress, Józef Piłsudski took over military command from the Regency Council and, three days later, assumed supreme authority over civilian matters, to finally “as Commander-in-Chief of the Polish Army [...] notify belligerent and neutral governments and nations” of the reappearance of “the reborn and independent Republic of Poland” on the map. After 123 years of captivity, Poland became a sovereign and internationally recognised state.
Five generations had fought in uprisings, cherished the Polish spirit and resisted Germanisation and Russification so that, in November 1918, Poles could taste freedom at last. Józef Piłsudski, Roman Dmowski, Ignacy Jan Paderewski, Gen. Józef Haller, Ignacy Daszyński, Wincenty Witos, and Wojciech Korfanty were the founding fathers of Independent Poland. Those statesmen came from diverse political backgrounds but in 1918 had a shared goal of rebuilding the Polish statehood.
The then Prime Minister Jędrzej Moraczewski described the atmosphere of this exceptional moment with these words: “One cannot convey this elation, this mad joy that the Polish people were filled with at that moment. After 120 years, the fetters burst open. Freedom! Independence! Reunion! Our own country! For ever! Chaos? Never mind. It is going to be fine. […] Who has not witnessed these brief days, who was not delirious with joy at that time with the whole nation, he will not experience the greatest joy in his life.”
Educational resources and materials of the Program Office „Niepodległa” .
Poland, country of central Europe. Poland is located at a geographic crossroads that links the forested lands of northwestern Europe to the sea lanes of the Atlantic Ocean and the fertile plains of the Eurasian frontier. Now bounded by seven nations, Poland has waxed and waned over the centuries, buffeted by the forces of regional history. In the early Middle Ages, Poland’s small principalities and townships were subjugated by successive waves of invaders, from Germans and Balts to Mongols. In the mid-1500s, united Poland was the largest state in Europe and perhaps the continent’s most powerful nation. Yet two and a half centuries later, during the Partitions of Poland (1772–1918), it disappeared, parceled out among the contending empires of Russia, Prussia, and Austria.
Even at a time of national crisis, however, Polish culture remained strong; indeed, it even flourished, if sometimes far from home. Polish revolutionary ideals, carried by such distinguished patriots as Kazimierz Pułaski and Tadeusz Kościuszko, informed those of the American Revolution. The Polish constitution of 1791, the oldest in Europe, in turn incorporated ideals of the American and French revolutions. Poles later settled in great numbers in the United States, Canada, Argentina, and Australia and carried their culture with them. At the same time, Polish artists of the Romantic period, such as pianist Frédéric Chopin and poet Adam Mickiewicz, were leading lights on the European continent in the 19th century. Following their example, Polish intellectuals, musicians, filmmakers, and writers continue to enrich the world’s arts and letters.
Restored as a nation in 1918 but ravaged by two world wars, Poland suffered tremendously throughout the course of the 20th century. World War II was particularly damaging, as Poland’s historically strong Jewish population was almost wholly annihilated in the Holocaust. Millions of non-Jewish Poles also died, victims of more partition and conquest. With the fall of the Third Reich, Poland effectively lost its independence once again, becoming a communist satellite state of the Soviet Union. Nearly a half century of totalitarian rule followed, though not without strong challenges on the part of Poland’s workers, who, supported by a dissident Catholic Church, called the economic failures of the Soviet system into question.
In the late 1970s, beginning in the shipyards of Gdańsk, those workers formed a nationwide movement called Solidarity (Solidarność). Despite the arrest of Solidarity’s leadership, its newspapers kept publishing, spreading its values and agenda throughout the country. In May 1989 the Polish government fell, along with communist regimes throughout eastern Europe, beginning Poland’s rapid transformation into a democracy.
That transformation has not been without its difficulties, as the Nobel Prize-winning poet Wisława Szymborska wrote a decade later:
I came to the paradoxical conclusion that some workers had it much easier in the Polish People’s Republic. They didn’t have to pretend. They didn’t have to be polite if they didn’t feel like it. They didn’t have to suppress their exhaustion, boredom, irritation. They didn’t have to conceal their lack of interest in other people’s problems. They didn’t have to pretend that their back wasn’t killing them when their back was in fact killing them. If they worked in a store, they didn’t have to try to get their customers to buy things, since the products always vanished before the lines did.
By the turn of the 21st century, Poland was a market-based democracy, abundant in products of all kinds and a member of both NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) and the European Union (EU), allied more strongly with western Europe than with eastern Europe but, as always, squarely between them.
A land of striking beauty, Poland is punctuated by great forests and rivers, broad plains, and tall mountains. Warsaw (Warszawa), the country’s capital, combines modern buildings with historic architecture, most of which was heavily damaged during World War II but has since been faithfully restored in one of the most thoroughgoing reconstruction efforts in European history. Other cities of historic and cultural interest include Poznań, the seat of Poland’s first bishopric; Gdańsk, one of the most active ports on the busy Baltic Sea; and Kraków, a historic centre of arts and education and the home of Pope John Paul II, who personified for the Polish their country’s struggle for independence and peace in modern times.
Poland lies at the physical centre of the European continent, approximately between latitudes 49° and 55° N and longitudes 14° and 24° E. Irregularly circular in shape, it is bordered to the north by the Baltic Sea, to the northeast by Russia and Lithuania, and to the east by Belarus and Ukraine. To the south the border follows the watershed of the Beskid (Beskidy), Carpathian (Karpaty), and Sudeten (Sudety) mountains, which separate Poland from Slovakia and the Czech Republic, while to the west the Neisse (Nysa Łużycka) and Oder (Odra) rivers define the border with Germany. Its current frontiers, stretching for 2,198 miles (3,538 km), were drawn in 1945. Except for its southern mountainous regions, the country consists almost entirely of lowlands within the North European Plain.
The natural landscape of Poland can be divided broadly into three relief groups: the lowlands, the highlands, and the mountains. The eastern extremes of Poland display characteristics common to eastern Europe, but the rest of the country is linked to western Europe by structure, climate, and the character of its vegetation. The lowland characteristics predominate: the average elevation of the whole country is only 568 feet (173 metres) above sea level, while more than three-fourths of the land lies below 650 feet (198 metres).
Poland’s relief was formed by the actions of Ice Age glaciers, which advanced and receded over the northern part of the country several times during the Pleistocene Epoch (from about 2,600,000 to 11,700 years ago). The great and often monotonous expanses of the Polish lowlands, part of the North European Plain, are composed of geologically recent deposits that lie over a vast structural basin.
In the southern part of the country, by contrast, older and more diverse geologic formations are exposed. The mountainous arc of the Carpathians, dating from the mountain-building Paleogene and Neogene periods (from about 65 to 2.6 million years ago), dominates the topography. Around the northern rim of the Carpathians lie a series of structural basins, separating the mountain belt proper from a much older structural mass, or foreland, that appears in the relief patterns of the region as the Bohemian Massif, the Sudeten, and the Little Poland Uplands (Wyżyna Małopolska).
The relief structure can be divided more specifically into a series of east-west–trending zones. To the north lie the swamps and dunes of the Baltic Sea coast; south of these is a belt of morainic terrain with thousands of lakes, the southern boundary of which marks the limit of the last ice sheet. The third zone consists of the central lowlands, whose minimal relief was created by streams issuing from the retreating glaciers. This zone is the Polish heartland, the site of agriculture in places where loess has been deposited over the relatively infertile fluvioglacial deposits. The fourth zone is made up of the older mountains and highlands to the south; though limited in extent, it offers spectacular scenery. Along the southern border of the country are the Sudeten and Carpathian ranges and their foothills.
The Baltic Coastal Plain stretches across northern Poland from Germany to Russia, forming a low-lying region built of various sediments. It is largely occupied by the ancient province of Pomerania (Pomorze), the name of which means “along the sea.” The scarcely indented Baltic coastline was formed by wave action after the retreat of the ice sheet and the raising of sea levels. The Pomeranian (Pomorska) Bay in the west and the Gulf of Gdańsk in the east are the two major inlets. In the southern portion of the former, two islands block off the Szczeciński Lagoon (Zalew Szczeciński), into which the Oder River discharges its waters. In the Gulf of Gdańsk, the Vistula (Wisła) River forms a large delta. Sandbars, on which the winds have created large dunes, line much of the coast, separating the coastal lakes and lagoons from the sea.
The main urban centres are the ports of Szczecin (German: Stettin) on the lower Oder and Gdańsk (German: Danzig) and Gdynia in the east. The central portion of the Baltic Coastal Plain is scantily populated—there are only small fishing ports, of which Kołobrzeg is the most important—and the landscape has a desolate beauty.