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To the east of Germany, on the western border of Central Europe, lies Poland, one of the most populous members of the European Union today. A historical center of migration and home to numerous ethnic groups, it traces its identity as a unified nation to the adoption of Christianity by its ruler Mieszko I in 966, which started a sequence of events collectively known as the “Baptism of Poland” that not only cemented Mieszko’s power, but helped to unify the Polish people.
Poland fragmented into several smaller states in the 12th century, but was reunified under King Wadysaw I in 1320. It forged a union with its neighbor Lithuania in 1410, and experienced a long period of stability in which its culture and economy flourished, helped in part by the country’s tolerance toward religious dissent, which allowed it to escape the worst of the religious upheavals that engulfed most of Western Europe at that time. A golden age ensued, giving rise to the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, during which time its borders expanded until it became the largest country in Europe.
This golden age ended with a Swedish invasion and a Cossack uprising in the 17th century—the end of the 18th century saw Poland erased from the map entirely, its territory partitioned among Russia, Prussia, and Austria. It wasn’t until the end of World War I that Poland was reconstituted as the Second Polish Republic.
Poland was divided again during World War II, as part of a pact between Russia and Germany. By the end of that conflict, over six million of its citizens had died and the size of the country had diminished by 20%. The second half of the 20th century saw Poland firmly under the influence of the U.S.S.R. until the Revolutions of 1989, after which it officially became the Third Polish Republic.
Since the 1990s Poland has experienced an economic turnaround, and the nation became a full member of the European Union in 2004. It is considered to have one of the healthiest economies of the post-communist countries, and is the only member of the EU to escape the effects of the recent recession. It boasts an intellectual legacy ranging from Nicolaus Copernicus to Marie Curie, and an artistic tradition that includes Roman Polanski, Frederick Chopin, and Joseph Conrad. Its capital city, Warsaw, features a mixture of modern thoroughfares and winding cobblestone streets.