Poland Table of Contents
Monument to Poland's greatest classical composer, Frédéric Chopin, in Lazienki Park, Warsaw
THE SEVENTH-LARGEST country in Europe, Poland is located in the middle of the North European Plain that extends from the Netherlands to the Ural Mountains of Russia. Although its topography is broken by some terrain variations, especially in the south, most of Poland lacks significant changes of elevation. The combination of geographic location and topography has strongly influenced Polish society and the country's relations with surrounding nations.
In the years following World War II, Poland, like other East European countries, underwent a rapid, planned transition from a predominantly agrarian to a predominantly industrial society. When the country came under communist control in 1945, Polish society also was subjected to a set of rigid ideological tenets. Communist dogma failed to change the intellectual or spiritual outlook of most Poles, however, because traditional institutions such as the Roman Catholic Church and the family remained strong support structures for alternative viewpoints. On the other hand, the institutions created by the communist regimes fundamentally influenced the day-to-day functions of Polish society. This influence was especially pervasive in areas such as health and education, where state programs made services accessible to more of the population, albeit in a homogenized and regimented form.
Among the permanent results of communist ideology was the disappearance of the landed aristocracy, which had played an especially large role in governance and in preserving Polish culture and national consciousness, especially during the more than 100 years when Poland was partitioned. The disruption of traditional social hierarchies and barriers also brought substantially more upward mobility as the urban population came into direct contact with the peasants. Within a decade of the communist takeover, however, the initial benefits of this social engineering had faded, and in 1956 the first of several waves of unrest swept the country. Subsequent social and economic stagnation mobilized intellectuals and workers to stage increasingly widespread and effective protests. These protests eventually overthrew communism and ended its suppression of social diversity. Nevertheless, the forty-four-year postwar communist period left permanent marks on the Polish way of life even after the state control structures crumbled in 1989.
World War II resulted in a marked homogenization of the Polish population, which previously had been ethnically and religiously rather diverse. Massive relocations of ethnic populations resulting from boundary changes and the destruction of most of Poland's Jewish population in the Holocaust meant that a country previously two-thirds ethnically Polish and spiritually Roman Catholic entered the postwar era with a population over 90 percent Catholic and over 98 percent ethnically Polish.
Demographically, Poland in 1992 was a young country, more than 64 percent of whose population was under forty years of age. The country also had one of Europe's highest birth rates. By 1980 nearly half of employed Poles belonged to a socioeconomic group different from that of their parents, showing the mobility of the younger generations across traditional class lines. By 1980 less than one-quarter of working Poles remained in agriculture, and about two-thirds were either manual or white-collar workers in urban areas. About one-third of the postwar intelligentsia came from worker families, while about one-quarter came from peasant families. These numbers represented a drastic change from the predominance of the aristocracy in the intelligentsia before World War II.
Both by cultural tradition and by recent social policy, Poles were relatively well educated. The 1990 literacy rate was 98 percent. At that time, more than 17 percent of Poles had postsecondary education, and 4 percent had achieved advanced college degrees.
The end of communist rule in 1989 presented new challenges to Polish society and to government policy makers. The concept of universal, state-guaranteed protection from unemployment, sickness, and poverty was challenged as Poland turned toward privatization and opened its economy to market forces. Although society had retained a healthy skepticism about the benefits of total socialization, postcommunist governments could not devise replacement social programs fast enough to avoid bitter social dissatisfaction when the security of the old system disappeared.
Data as of October 1992
Poland Table of Contents