Poland: An Emerging Central European Power?

Poland joined the European Union in 2004 as part of the EU’s “big bang” of Eastern expansion. This broke the Cold War’s East-West divide and brought, according to the Polish narrative, “Central Europe back to Europe.” It was also a huge expansion for the EU, becoming the Union’s sixth largest member in terms of territory and bringing in 40 million new citizens.

Poland’s accession brought new resources to the EU: a large, cheap workforce, a new potential consumer base, the world’s fifth largest reserves of coal, vast tracts of farmland, and, as has been recently discovered, potentially significant reserves of shale gas. It also gave Europe control of Polish transport routes that have, for centuries, been used for both trade and invasion between Western Europe and the East.

In 2004, Poland was emerging from difficult post-Soviet reforms and reliance on international aid. The next decade would be the most economically and politically successful of its modern history; Poland grew rapidly in economic power and political influence. However, Poland’s decade of “easy” growth relied on EU investment; in the next decade, with Europe weakened, Poland will need a new economic model. If Poland wants to lead in Central Europe and the EU, it will need to adjust its geopolitical strategy.

SSI Banner Geography and Demographics

Poland is located on the North European Plain between the Carpathian and Sudeten mountain ranges to the south and the Baltic Sea to the north. Hills in Poland’s north mean that, while most of Poland’s rivers eventually drain into the Baltic, many of them also flow in long east-west strips. These conditions have also led to the formation of a breathtaking number of freshwater lakes.

Poland is extraordinarily well-watered, with many natural transport routes. Furthermore, Poland’s Carpathian territory is quite traversable. While countries value mountain ranges for defense and river creation, mountains often create economically underused territories. In Poland, however, this area is densely populated with accessible mines, forest reserves, and developed farmland and orchards.

Poland’s northern border is dominated by Gdansk Bay, a huge natural port. The city of Gdansk thrives there, moving trade from Poland’s largest river, the Vistula, to the Baltic Sea and international markets. Aside from the Gdansk area, the city of Szczecin, located in far northwest of Poland on the Oder River and near the German border, is Poland’s only other major seaport.

Central Poland is mostly flat and well connected by rivers. For many centuries, it has hosted agriculture and cities providing industry, services, and government administration. Perhaps most importantly, Central Poland has long served as a transport route between Western Europe and the East. The Carpathians, together with the Alps, divide Europe in two. Overland routes between them have naturally favored the flat passage through Poland. Poland has benefited from trade along this route.

This favorable geography has been made tragic by the fact that Poland lies between competing civilizations. To one side lays Western Europe (Germany and France). The other side has historically been dominated by Russia. Every major European conflict from Napoleon to WWII has used Poland as an invasion route. Poland itself has been spent most of the past two centuries divided or dominated as its neighbors have sought geopolitical advantage by dominating these routes.

Poland’s abundant, fertile land has long supported large populations. Modern Poland is about 25% smaller than the US state of California or roughly the same size as New Mexico. Its population is only about 1% less than California’s, however (35.5 million vs. 35.8).

Historically, Poland was a diverse nation. While Poles were always a majority, relatively open borders and historically tolerant laws attracted significant minorities of Ukrainians, Belarussians, Jews, and others. Poland’s Jewish population was especially vibrant. In 1931, Poland held the world’s second largest Jewish population – nearly 3.5 million. By 1945, however, nearly all minorities in Poland were gone – killed or displaced by WWII or moved outside Poland by the revision of borders that followed.

Today, more than 90% of the population in Poland is ethnically Polish, speaks Polish at home, and is Roman Catholic (historically the religion most associated with the Poles). No single minority represents more than 1% of the population. Poland’s Roman Catholics are some of Europe’s most devout (in terms of regular church attendance). The Catholic Church hold enormous influence in Poland – as is evident in such grand-scale projects like the Temple of Divine Providence, a complex being built in part with state funds, as well as the ubiquitous reverence of Pope John Paul II as the (perhaps) most popular Polish national hero.

A brief video from Stratfor, an American think tank on “Poland’s Geographic Challenge.”

The Polish, squeezed between world powers, their country wiped off the map twice, are often known for a characteristically negative, complaining, pessimistic attitude (although often laced heavily with humor) – “trudno,” literally “difficult,” is commonly used to mean “there’s nothing to be done” or “c’est la vie.” However, with a long history of democratic values, they also remain an empowered people who, as a society, have historically offered strong opposition to perceived injustices.

Today, Poland’s main challenge is that, despite a decade of growth, it is one of the weakest economies of the European Union. Many of its young people leave to work elsewhere; Polish birth rates are down, the average age is growing, and Poland’s slow population decline, begun shortly after the end of the Soviet Union, is continuing. If this is not reversed, Poland could face budgetary problems soon.

Early History: The Kingdom of Poland

According to Polish legend, long ago there lived three brothers – Lech, Czech, and Rus – who ultimately fathered the great Slavic nations.

One day the three brothers went hunting together in the woods and, following different prey, strayed in different directions. Czech headed West, Rus East, and Lech North. Then, against the red of the setting sun, Lech stumbled upon a white eagle defending its nest in an old oak tree on a hill. He took the vision as a good omen and decided to build a stronghold around the oak, calling it Gniezno (from the Polish for “nest”), and adopted the white eagle against the red of the setting sun as his emblem, which can still be found on the Polish flag and coat of arms.


Poland’s coat of arms is based on the legendary origin story of the Slavic tribes.

Legend aside, Gniezno was the capital of Mieszko I, the first ruler of Poland mentioned in written records. Mieszko was baptized Roman Catholic in 966, and Poland has been associated with Catholicism ever since. Under Mieszko I and his son, Boleslaw I Chrobry (died 1025), Poland established borders roughly corresponding to those of modern Poland.

In the 11th century, already sensing threats at its borders (from the powerful and growing Holy Roman Empire, a precursor to Germany) as well as internally from pagan tribes that had not accepted the Catholic king, the Polish capital was moved from Gniezno, in Poland’s central plains, to Krakow, in the  more defensible Carpathians.

Poland fragmented in the early 12th century. Attempts were made to reunify, but several Mongol invasions in the 13th Century and wars with the Teutonic Knights  weakened and disrupted the country.

In the 14th century, Ladislaus, the Prince of Krakow, achieved significant unification through a combination of military conquest and winning local support. Ladislaus eventually gained enough power to win the blessing of the Pope, who crowned Ladislaus King of Poland in 1320, effectively ending other claims to the crown.

Ladislaus’ son, Casmir III, further expanded the kingdom and, perhaps most importantly, won local support in lands that had been fractious. Casmir codified laws and improved the state bureaucracy (in large part through education) in order to counterbalance and appease various elements of society. Not only did this allow him to strengthen his own rule, but also led to a system of checks and balances that would eventually lead to the establishment of “Golden Liberty,” the democratic principles that would help turn Poland into one of Europe’s most powerful and innovative states.

Casmir also built military and economic infrastructure, carried out monetary reform, and encouraged immigration to replenish a labor force weakened by two centuries of war. His General Charter of Jewish Liberties, the Statute of Kalisz, granted all Jews freedom of worship, trade, and travel and made Poland the favored home of Europe’s Jews. By the 16th century, more Jews lived there than in any other European country. Casmir attracted other immigrants as well, Germans and Armenians most notably.

Casmir III died in 1370. His crown, under treaty, was claimed by Louis, King of Hungary, who united the two kingdoms. Unpopular with Polish nobles, the union was dissolved when Louis died, but Louis’ young daughter, Jadwiga, was elected by the nobles to lead Poland. At the time, a ruling queen in Europe was almost unheard of. Jadwiga later married the Grand Duke of Lithuania, establishing a union that eventually flourished into the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth

Over the next two centuries, a long series of agreements brought the two countries ever closer together. Finally, Poland and Lithuania united, signing the Union of Lublin in 1569. One of the most modern democracies of the time, The Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, was a closely unified federal state with an elective monarchy, and governed through a system of local assemblies with a central parliament.

A map of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth at its height in 1619, superimposed on today’s borders. Click here for original image. Click here for original image.

Like most pre-modern democracies, “citizens” were noble land-holders. In the Commonwealth, this amounted to about 15% of the population. Serfs, the majority of the population, had few rights.

The Commonwealth’s main innovation was the concept of “Golden Liberty,” which contains many elements now common to modern democracies. All citizens were considered equal. The King was elected and his power checked by parliament. Citizens held rights to form political organizations and to rebel against the king if their rights were broken. Furthermore, in 1573, the Warsaw Confederation confirmed the religious freedom of all citizens in the Commonwealth, promoting stability in its multiethnic society.

Geopolitically, the Polish-Lithuanian union was prompted largely by the common threat of Teutonic Knights, which the union neutralized forever in the iconic battle of Grunewald in 1410, an event and date memorialized in the works of Polish poets, authors and painters from Jan Matejko to Adam Mickiewicz. It plays an important part in Polish culture to this day.

The new state controlled many of the Baltic Sea’s most powerful ports and dominated trade there. The massive lands of the Commonwealth exported grain, furs, and other agricultural products. Revenues poured into a growing army, navy, infrastructure, and into colonizing the state’s Ukrainian lands, leaving a strong presence of Polish culture and Roman Catholicism there that continues to be felt today.

By the 17th century, the Commonwealth stretched from the Baltics to the Black Sea, encompassing all of present-day Belarus, most of Ukraine, and even (briefly) the city of Moscow itself. Its armies beat back Mongol invasions and pushed the Ottomon Empire permanently south of the Danube, earning praise from the Pope as a “defender of Catholic Europe.”

By the end of the 17th century, the King of Sweden had organized an alliance against the Commonwealth that would eventually surround it. Sweden invaded from the north while most of his enemy’s troops were fighting with the Ottomans in the south. Sweden’s rapid invasion, known as “the Deluge” in Polish history, stripped the Commonwealth of most of its ports. The Cossacks in Ukraine then rebelled and asked Russia for protection, further weakening the state’s southern border as well.


Map showing the results of the three partitions of Poland. Click here for original image.

Ravaged by war, stripped of its lands and ports, the Commonwealth tried to regroup by raising taxes and placing rising expectations on its serfs. This led to detrimental agricultural processes and further weakening of the economy. In addition, many of its enemies had industrialized to a far greater degree than it had. Unable to recover its military position, it was forced to accept the partitions of its lands between Prussia, Russia, and Austria-Hungry between 1772 and 1795. Poland was wiped off the map for over 200 years.

The population was split between very different worlds. Austria, for instance, granted considerable autonomy and saw relative stability. Russia, which took the largest share, tried to more fully annex its territory and saw numerous rebellions.

Poland: WWI to the End of Communism

Following WWI, Poland was resurrected with the support of Woodrow Wilson’s peace plan. The Second Polish Republic was a diverse state, with, for example, a Jewish population of 3.5 million, one of the world’s largest. The state lasted about 20 years (1918-1939) until it was invaded by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in September of 1939 at the outset of WWII. The dual invasion had been agreed upon by the two powers in advance under the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact.

German forces set up six major extermination camps in Poland, including Auschwitz. In the war, 2.7 to 2.9 million Polish Jews, and 2.7 million ethnic Poles died. The Germans plundered the land for natural resources of and the population for labor. The Soviets, after driving out the Nazis, took considerable property out of Poland, including whole factories, as war reparations.

Conflict Studies Banner Soviet troops remained in Poland until 1989. As the Second World War ended, the Soviets assisted local communists in taking over the administration. At the Yalta Conference, they bargained to keep the Polish territory they had taken under the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. Poland, in return, was given a smaller strip of formerly German territory to its West. In both territories, the inhabitants were expelled, displacing millions. In the end, Poland was transformed in a matter of years from one of Europe’s most diverse to one of its most homogenous nations – nearly all minorities had been killed, expelled, or had fled.

The Yalta Conference also established that a coalition government of the now-ruling communists would be formed with the government in exile. The communists, however, quickly gained full power and the People’s Republic of Poland was proclaimed in 1952. Soviet-style reforms in agriculture and industrialization began, but lagged in the economically devastated country. The population regularly faced shortages of food and goods. The Republic fell deeply in debt, particularly in the 1970s. Protests were common and were commonly put down with extreme force, including guns and tanks.

As this turmoil built, an independent trade union called “Solidarity” arose in 1980. It quickly grew into a social movement encompassing wide swathes of society from Roman Catholics to political activists. When the government banned the group and imprisoned its leaders, it grew in popularity. As an underground organization, it pushed for national strikes and eventually forced the government to allow elections in 1989. Solidarity won all but one race against the communists in those elections.

Solidarity soon led changes in the constitution to dissolve the People’s Republic, and establish a Third Polish Republic with restored democratic rights. In 1990, Lech Walesa, leader of Solidarity, was elected the Republic’s President.

Modern Poland – Modern Challenges

Poland thus remade itself in a bottom-up reform movement. Perhaps for this reason, Poland has fared considerably better than many other post-Soviet States. Russia, for instance, experienced a top-down changeover and experienced drastic spikes in inflation, massive loss of population, and political and social turmoil. Poland, however, has been relatively stable. A shock therapy program in 1990s was painful, but enabled the country to quickly transform to a market economy. In 1995, Poland became the first post-communist country to reach its pre-1989 GDP levels.

A short travel video showing Poland’s great variety of landscapes: its flat plains, wide rivers, shorelines, and mountains.

Since then Poland has been increasingly integrated into the West. In 1999, Poland joined NATO and in 2004 it joined the European Union. Joining Schengen in 2007 boosted Polish tourism, although it also meant securing the previously extremely porous borders with Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia and thereby extending the much criticized outer border of “fortress Europe” eastwards.

EU aid (amounting to $150 billion to date, more than the total sum of all Marshall plan investment in Western Europe, which adjusting for inflation would amount to about $104 billion today) has streamed into Poland since 2004, improving infrastructure, notably rail transport, boosting agricultural productivity, preserving cultural sites, and more. Signs that read “Twój pomysł, europejskie pieniądze” (“Your Ideas, European Money”) marking these projects can be found everywhere: restored buildings, new stations, tourist information centers, and more.

Critics complain that the massive spending has been inefficient. They point to the fact that individual income in Poland remains near the bottom of EU statistics and that the population remains numerically in decline. Public health is relatively poor, although after controlling for per capita income, health outcomes are only slightly below the OECD average. Poland has a heavily regulated universal public healthcare system augmented by a thin private insurance market. Large out-of-pocket payments and, in the case of specialist care, months-long waiting lists generate inequalities in access to care.

Poland also faces environmental problems. The communists utilized the rich domestic coal mines to build power plants. About 90% of Poland’s electricity is still generated with “dirty coal.” Acid rain has caused substantial forest damage and air pollution poses a public health risk. Substantial investments are still required to bring Polish industry in general in line with EU code.

Critics contend that spending should have focused on issues such as these: health, environment, and social mobility. Perhaps this could have stemmed the flow of approximately 2 million primarily young Poles who have emigrated and taken up jobs abroad since 2004, leaving behind an aging population weighing even heavier on state programs like health care. Further, recent studies show that most emigrants have no plans to return home. A weakened EU is unlikely to maintain such high levels of aid and investment, meaning that a major opportunity may have passed unseized.

Despite criticisms, however, Poland was the only country in Europe to avoid recession in the 2008-09 financial crisis. Poland has also enjoyed considerable foreign investment from firms looking to take advantage of Poland’s inexpensive labor, developing markets, and relatively weak currency (which make exports more profitable). This has provided Polish politicians with political clout in the EU.

Poland, having seen its fortunes change dramatically with the good or bad intentions of its neighbors, naturally takes its foreign policy very seriously. Also true to its history, Poland is seeking security and prosperity through unity with the states around it.

Regionally, Poland founded the Visegrád Group in 1991 with fellow post-Communist Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Hungry. This non-institutionalized structure has relied on the personal support and political will of all four heads of government – and has not always been successful in its attempts to coordinate foreign policy. Poland also formed the Weimar Triangle in 1991 with Germany and France to support regular meetings of their foreign ministers with the goal of coordinating foreign policy, strengthening European integration, and providing Europe with the basis for a united response to crises. Both of these groups now have a military component under Polish leadership. Operational since 2013, the Weimar Battle Group has about 2000 soldiers plus logistical and medical support. The Visegrád Battlegroup should become operational by 2016. An additional formation has been announced that will coordinate troops between Ukraine, Lithuania, Poland, and potentially several other states in the region.

More broadly, Poland has been one of the most active supporters the EU’s Common Security and Defense Policy. In 2015, former Polish Prime Minister and current EU President Donald Tusk proposed a strengthened EU energy union strategy. This included collective energy purchases to increase the EU’s bargaining power, use of coal reserves and permitting shale gas extraction, diversifying the EU’s gas supply, and providing EU funding for up to 75% of the cost of more gas pipeline interconnections between member states. Privately, Poland is also seeking to build a liquefied natural gas port in northern Poland, as well as gas interconnectors to the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

This increased use of hydrocarbons run counter to Germany’s and the EU Commission’s green ideals, but would greatly benefit Poland (whose coal and undeveloped shale gas reserves are substantial).

A half-hour travel documentary on modern Poland.

Poland has been extremely active in the Ukrainian crisis, providing support for and encouraging greater EU support for the new Ukrainian authorities. Poland, a long-time ally of the US, has also coordinated with US officials in working to support the new regime. Having another ally, one with which it shares cultural ties, along its southern border, and being able to freely access an economic space encompassing the Baltic Sea and stretching to the Black Sea (as it did under the Commonwealth) would be to Poland’s great geopolitical advantage.

A final issue Poland faces today is whether to adopt the currently unstable Euro. Well over half of Poland’s trade is with EU members, particularly Germany, giving Poland clear interests in Euro monetary policy. However, having not adopted the currency, it has little say in that currency’s development.

Polish politicians are attempting to sell the Polish populace on the idea of adoption. Arguments most recently turned to security, saying that being more integrated with Europe would provide greater security from an increasingly belligerent Russia. This may resonate with Poles who, according to polls, felt less secure in 2014 than in any year since 1991.

In moving to unify Europe and especially Central Europe, Poland could have an important role in shaping Europe’s future. Nonetheless, the Poles will face a number of challenges in the decade to come. Its demographic situation and Europe’s slowing economy mean that Poland’s current model of easy growth based on aid and cheap labor is not sustainable. Wages must be raised and standards of living increased to maintain its human capital. Poland can continue its successes of the last decade, but will have to again embark on difficult domestic reforms as well as pursue a vigorous foreign policy to maintain its security and improve its own economic position.

SRAS Programs in Warsaw, Poland

About the Author

Josh Wilson

Josh has been with SRAS since 2003. He holds an M.A. in Theatre and a B.A. in History from Idaho State University, where his masters thesis was written on the political economy of Soviet-era censorship organs affecting the stage. He lived in Moscow from 2003-2022, where he ran Moscow operations for SRAS. At SRAS, Josh still assists in program development and leads our internship programs. He is also the editor-in-chief for the SRAS newsletter, the SRAS Family of Sites, and Vestnik. He has previously served as Communications Director to Bellerage Alinga and has served as a consultant or translator to several businesses and organizations with interests in Russia.

Program attended: All Programs

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Joshua Seale

Josh Seale is pursuing an MA in interdisciplinary German and European Studies at Georgetown University with a specialization in German-Polish relations. He holds a BA in Germanic Studies from the University of Chicago and has interned abroad in Germany and studied abroad previously in Poland. He also served as an SRAS Home and Abroad Scholar in Warsaw, Poland.

View all posts by: Joshua Seale