Poland’s location makes it a crossroads between Eastern, Central, Northern, and Western Europe, and throughout its history it has absorbed many cultural influences. Among the former Eastern Bloc countries, it was one of the first to join NATO and the EU, and is recognized for the relative ease with which it has made the transition to a democratic, free market society.
Poland has faced several hardships during its long history, as well as great successes. Once the largest country in Europe, the ancient kingdom’s power peaked around the 16th century, after which it was partitioned among Russia, Prussia, and Austria. The country was reestablished following World War I, but its sovereignty was soon threatened again during World War II; it notoriously fell to the German blitzkrieg after only 28 days. The war took a huge toll on Poland, causing it to lose nearly 21.4% of its population, the highest of any country, as well as substantial territory. It was occupied by Russia after the German surrender, and hosted the signing of the Warsaw Pact, which effectively turned the country into a Soviet satellite for the next 40 years.
The 1980s saw the decline of communism in Poland, largely due to the efforts of the politically influential trade union Solidarity. Since then it has made significant progress in instituting democracy, human rights, and international trade. Growth has been steady, and the government is undertaking intensive structural reforms in order to adopt the euro by 2013. Major industries include automobile and electronic manufacturing, and with vast tracts of arable land, Poland is likely to become a major food producer in the EU. It is a leading center of foreign investment in Central Europe, and its numerous universities and widespread access to education have encouraged numerous corporations to establish research and development centers in Poland, leading to its emergence as a regional R&D hub.
Poland faced widespread emigration after opening its borders to the West, but these trends seem to be changing. Falling unemployment rates have begun to attract many former emigrants back to their homeland, and these constitute the majority of people who move to Poland. Vietnamese are the largest foreign minority in Poland, as the two countries have a long tradition of cultural exchange. As business opportunities expand in the country, more people are moving there for work as well. Poland offers many opportunities for international study, and a striking natural landscape that attracts an increasing number of visitors. It is home to several primeval forests, one of the few deserts on the European continent, and a variety of animals that have become extinct in the rest of Europe.
Although once a culturally and linguistically diverse nation, war and its aftermath have made Poland largely homogeneous. Polish is spoken almost universally, and although there are a few regional dialects, these differ from one another much less than dialects in other languages, making communication across the country quite easy. Russian was once the most widely studied second language, but in recent years English and German have become more common.