Many historians refer to Poland as the "gods' playground". Because the country is situated on a wide plain, many invaders, from Napoleon to Hitler, took advantage of Poland's strategic location. Polish lands have been invaded by Magyars, Bohemians, Tartars, Teutonic Knights, Swedes, Prussians, Russians, Austrians, French, Germans and Soviets.
The first tribe, Polanie ("people of the fields"), settled here in the 8th century. The country of Poland was born in 966, when Mieszko I, Duke of the Polanie tribe, adopted Christianity and founded the Piast dynasty. The dynasty continued for 400 years with the last Piast being the greatest one: Kazimierz the Great, who, as the saying goes, "found the Poland made of wood, and left it made of stone". He brought Poland, especially its capital Krakow, to international prominence. Kazimierz the Great also invited Europe's much prosecuted Jews to settle here, establishing Poland as a haven for Jewish people - which it would remain until the Nazis arrived in 1939.
When Kazimierz's grand-niece, Jadwiga married the Lithuanian Prince Wladyslaw at the end of the 14th century, she started the next dynasty: the Jagiellonians. The Polish Golden Age falls within their reign: Poland flourished culturally, politically, economically, and its territory spread from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea.
A century later, the Jagiellonians died out and power shifted into the hands of the nobles, who elected foreign kings to govern Poland. Many of those kings had more interest in their own countries, and thus Polish resources were wasted. By the end of the 18th century the country lost much of its prominence and became a target for land-hungry empires which surrounded it. Over the course of less than 25 years Russia, Prussia, and Austria divided Poland's territory among themselves in three partitions. In 1795, Poland, nicknamed "the cake of kings" to be sliced and eaten at will, disappeared from Europe's map, not to resurface until 1918.
Even though the country was officially not there, the Polish spirit survived. Several uprisings against the foreign regimes mark the next hundred years. One of them was led by Tadeusz Kosciuszko (a hero of American Revolution), another failed uprising brought so much prosecution from Russia that many Poles emigrated to Paris, among them Frederic Chopin and Romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz, whose statue stands in Krakow Main Market Square. These Polish artists tried to preserve the nation's spirit with music inspired by Polish folk songs (Chopin) and words echoing the rich Polish tradition (Mickiewicz). The Catholic Church also played an important role in preserving the hope for a free Poland. Those who remained in Poland continued to fight for their freedom with swords and fists. Thus, by the end of the 19th century, the image of the Polish nation emerged: tireless, romantic insurgents. At the end of World War I, Poland regained its independence which lasted only for 20 years, until September 1, 1939 when the Nazis and the Soviets attacked its borders simultaneously.
The war years mark one of the darkest periods of Polish history, and the memories of its atrocities live in the social conscience up to the present. The Poles never gave in to the German occupiers, organizing first a fierce underground resistance and then the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the Warsaw Uprising, and they paid a high price for their resistance. By the end of the war 6 million of Poles had perished, half of them Jews. Most cities were destroyed, the country's art treasures were stolen by Germans and destroyed by Russians, and the people left without any prospects. The postwar settlement was achieved at the Yalta Conference in 1945 when Stalin managed to convince both Churchill and Roosevelt to leave Poland in the Soviet sphere of dominance. After all their suffering in the war, Poles felt betrayed by their Western allies.
The consequences of the Yalta agreement were long-term and grim. While the rest of Europe was rebuilding with the help of Marshall Plan, Stalin did not agree for Poland to receive any Western aid, and the Western Allies complied. A puppet communist government was installed in Warsaw and Poland started the slow recovery from its wounds. But the Polish spirit was alive and its longing for independence was expressed every couple of years through protests, demonstrations and strikes, most of them brutally put out. In 1980 the Solidarity movement with its leader Lech Walesa emerged as the leading force which helped not only Poland but the rest of Soviet occupied part of Europe to break free.
The first democratic elections were held in 1989 and Lech Walesa became Poland's first post-communist president. For the last 16 years Poland has been catching up with the rest of Europe. The country joined NATO in 1999 and became a member of European Union in 2004. Most foreigners are amazed when they visit Poland and see the beautiful, vibrant cities of Krakow or Gdansk or the colorful, dramatic countryside instead of the gray, dull Poland they envisioned. Finally, Poland is becoming what it should have been all along.