It would be no overstatement to say Polish history has been characterised by a series of epic climbs, cataclysmic falls and back-from-the-brink recoveries.

The Poland that we would recognise today got its start around the first millennium, with the conversion to Christianity of Duke Mieszko I in 966. The early years, like surrounding kingdoms at that time, were filled with wars, conquests and Mongol invasions, but the kingdom thrived. The rule of Kazimierz III Wielki (Casimir III the Great, 1333–70) in the 14th century was particularly benign and brought the royal capital, Kraków, one of Central Europe’s first centres of higher learning (today’s Jagiellonian University) in 1364.

A major triumph came in 1410 with the defeat of the Teutonic Knights by a combined force of Poles and Lithuanians. A little over a century later, in 1569, the Poles and Lithuanians formalised their union, creating for a time Europe’s largest country.

The people of Warsaw had special reason to celebrate the union, as it meant shifting the capital there from Kraków around 1600. The rest of the 17th century, though, can be written off as a wash. Poland got sucked into a series of tragic wars, including a melee with Sweden that cost the country a quarter of its territory and a third of its people.

A vastly weakened Poland in the 18th century proved too tempting for neighbours Prussia, Russia and Austria, who agreed to carve up the country among themselves, leaving Poland off world atlases until the end of WWI.

The newly independent Poland got off to a decent start, but the country’s position between Germany and the Soviet Union was precarious. Both Hitler and Stalin coveted Polish territory and eventually went to war over it. Poland lost around a fifth of its population during WWII, including nearly all of the country’s three million Jews.

The war ended up shifting Poland’s border around 200km westward, while at the same time putting it firmly in the Soviet-controlled Eastern bloc. Communism was a period of hardship and stagnation that was eventually overcome as Soviet-backed regimes collapsed in Eastern Europe in 1989.

Poland has generally prospered since the fall of communism as a member of the European Union, though growth has been uneven, with big cities and the western regions of the country doing better than parts of the south and east.

Before the Poles

The lands of modern-day Poland have been inhabited since the Stone Age, with numerous tribes from the east and west calling its fertile plains home. Archaeological finds from both the Stone and Bronze Ages can be seen in many Polish museums, but the greatest example of pre-Slavic peoples resides in Biskupin: its fortified town from the Iron Age was built by the Lusatian tribe around 2700 years ago. The Celts, followed by the Germanic tribes and then the Baltic folk, all established themselves on Polish soil, but it wasn’t until the coming of the Slavs that Poland began to shape itself into a nation.

Slavic Origins & the Piast Dynasty

Although the exact date of the arrival of the first Slavic tribes is unknown, historians agree Slavs began settling the area between the 5th and 8th centuries. From the 8th century onwards, smaller tribes banded together to form greater conglomerations, thus establishing themselves more fully on the lands of the future Polish state.

The country’s name derives from one of these tribes, the Polanie (literally, ‘the people of the fields’), who settled on the banks of the Warta River near present-day Poznań. Their tribal chief, the legendary Piast, managed to unite the scattered groups of the surrounding areas into a single political unit in the 10th century, and gave it the name Polska (later Wielkopolska, meaning Great Poland). It wasn’t until the coming of Piast’s great-great grandson, Duke Mieszko I, that much of Poland was united under one dynasty, the Piast.

Christianity & Conquering

After Duke Mieszko I converted to Christianity, he did what most early Christian rulers did and began conquering the neighbours. Soon the entire coastal region of Pomerania (Pomorze) fell under his sovereignty, along with Śląsk (Silesia) to the south and Małopolska (Little Poland) to the southeast. By the time of his death in 992, the Polish state was established within boundaries similar to those of Poland today, and the first capital and archbishopric were established in Gniezno.

By that time, towns such as Gdańsk, Szczecin, Poznań, Wrocław and Kraków already existed. Mieszko’s son, Bolesław the Brave, continued his father’s work, even pushing the Polish border as far east as Kyiv. The administrative centre of the country was moved from Wielkopolska to the less vulnerable Małopolska, and by the middle of the 11th century Kraków was established as the royal seat.

When pagan Prussians, from the region that is now the northeastern tip of Poland, attacked the central province of Mazovia in 1226, Duke Konrad of Mazovia called for help from the Teutonic Knights, a Germanic military and religious order that had made its historic mark during the Crusades. The knights soon subjugated the pagan tribes but then bit the hand that fed them, building massive castles in Polish territory, conquering the port city of Gdańsk (and renaming it Danzig), and effectively claiming all of northern Poland as their own.

They ruled from their greatest castle of all, at Malbork, and within a matter of decades became a major European military power.

The Reign of Casimir III the Great

Under the rule of Kazimierz III Wielki (Casimir III the Great; 1333–70), Poland gradually became a prosperous and powerful state. Kazimierz Wielki regained suzerainty over Mazovia, then captured vast areas of Ruthenia (today’s Ukraine) and Podolia, thus greatly expanding his monarchy in the southeast.

Kazimierz Wielki was also an enlightened and energetic ruler on the domestic front. Promoting and instituting reforms, he laid down solid legal, economic, commercial and educational foundations. He also passed a law providing privileges for Jews, thus establishing Poland as a safe house for the Jewish community for centuries to come. Over 70 new towns were founded, and the royal capital of Kraków flourished.

In 1364 one of Europe’s first universities was established at Kraków, and an extensive network of castles and fortifications was constructed to improve the nation’s defences. There is a saying that Kazimierz Wielki ‘found Poland built of wood and left it built of stone’.

The Defeat of the Knights

The close of the 14th century saw Poland forge a dynastic alliance with Lithuania, a political marriage that increased Poland’s territory five-fold overnight and that would last for the next four centuries. The union benefited both parties – Poland gained a partner in skirmishes against the Tatars and Mongols, and Lithuania received help in the fight against the Teutonic Knights.

Under Władysław II Jagiełło (1386–1434), the alliance finally defeated the Knights in 1410 at the epic battle of Grunwald and recovered eastern Pomerania, part of Prussia and the port of Gdańsk.

For 30 years the Polish empire was Europe’s largest state, extending from the Baltic to the Black Sea.

But it was not to last. Threat of invasion became apparent towards the end of the 15th century – this time the main instigators were the Ottomans from the south, the Tatars of Crimea from the east, and the tsars of Moscow from the north and east. Independently or together, they repeatedly invaded and raided the eastern and southern Polish territories, and on one occasion managed to penetrate as far as Kraków.

Poland’s Golden Age

The early 16th century brought the Renaissance to Poland and during the reigns of Zygmunt I Stary (Sigismund I the Old; 1506–48) and his son Zygmunt II August (Sigismund II Augustus; 1548–72), the arts and sciences flourished. This is traditionally viewed as the kingdom’s ‘golden age’.

The bulk of Poland’s population at this time was made up of Poles and Lithuanians but included significant minorities from neighbouring countries. Jews constituted an important and steadily growing part of the community.

On the political front, Poland evolved during the 16th century into a parliamentary monarchy, with most of the privileges going to the szlachta (the feudal nobility), who comprised roughly 10% of the population. In contrast, the status of the peasants declined, and they gradually found themselves falling into a state of virtual slavery.

Hoping to strengthen the monarchy, the Sejm (an early form of parliament reserved for the nobility) convened in Lublin in 1569, unified Poland and Lithuania into a single state, and made Warsaw the seat of future debates. Since there was no heir apparent to the throne, it also established a system of royal succession based on direct voting in popular elections by the nobility, who would all come to Warsaw to vote.

Royal Republic

The ‘Royal Republic’ refers to the practice of ‘electing’ the kings by the nobility, a dubious idea that got its start when Zygmunt II August died without an heir. The decision to consider foreign candidates almost led to the unravelling of the ‘republic’. For each royal election, foreign powers promoted their candidates by bargaining and bribing voters. During this period, no fewer than 11 kings ruled Poland; only four were native Poles.

The first elected king, Henri de Valois, retreated to his homeland to take up the French crown after only a year on the Polish throne. His successor, Stefan Batory (Stephen Bathory; 1576–86), prince of Transylvania, was a much wiser choice. Batory, together with his gifted commander and chancellor Jan Zamoyski, conducted a series of successful battles against Tsar Ivan the Terrible and came close to forming an alliance with Russia against the Ottoman threat.

After Batory’s premature death, the crown was offered to the Swede Zygmunt III Waza (Sigismund III Vasa; 1587–1632), and during his reign Poland achieved its greatest extent ever, more than three times the size of present-day Poland. Despite this, Zygmunt is best remembered for moving the Polish capital from Kraków to Warsaw between 1596 and 1609.

Eastern Interlopers & the Deluge

The beginning of the 17th century marked a turning point in Poland’s fortunes. The increasing political power of the Polish nobility undermined the authority of the Sejm; the country was split up into several huge private estates, and nobles, frustrated by ineffective government, resorted to armed rebellion.

Meanwhile, foreign invaders were systematically carving up the land. Jan II Kazimierz Waza (John II Casimir Vasa; 1648–68), the last of the Vasa dynasty on the Polish throne, was unable to resist the aggressors – Russians, Tatars, Ukrainians, Cossacks, Ottomans and Swedes – who were moving in on all fronts. The Swedish invasion of 1655–60, known as the Deluge, was particularly disastrous.

The last bright moment in the long decline of the Royal Republic was the reign of Jan III Sobieski (John III Sobieski; 1674–96), a brilliant commander who led several victorious battles against the Ottomans. The most famous of these was the Battle of Vienna in 1683, in which he defeated the Turks and checked their advancement into Western Europe.

The Rise of Russia

By the start of the 18th century, Poland was in decline and Russia had evolved into a mighty expansive empire. The tsars systematically strengthened their grip over the flailing country, and Poland’s rulers effectively became puppets of the Russian regime. This became crystal clear during the reign of Stanisław August Poniatowski (1764–95), when Catherine the Great, empress of Russia, exercised direct intervention in Poland’s affairs. The collapse of the Polish empire was just around the corner.

Poland Under Partition

During your travels in Poland, you’re likely to hear reference to the ‘partition’, the period at the end of the 18th century when Poland was carved up between its more-powerful neighbours, Prussia, Russia and Austria. The partition period lasted all the way to the end of WWI. For 123 years Poland disappeared from world maps.

The partition initially led to immediate reforms and a new, liberal constitution, and Poland remained relatively stable. Catherine the Great could tolerate no more of this dangerous democracy, though, and sent Russian troops into Poland. Despite fierce resistance, the reforms were abolished by force.

Enter Tadeusz Kościuszko, a hero of the American War of Independence. With the help of patriotic forces, he launched an armed rebellion in 1794. The campaign soon gained popular support and the rebels won some early victories, but Russian troops, stronger and better armed, defeated the Polish forces within a year.

Despite the partition, Poland continued to exist as a spiritual and cultural community, and a number of secret nationalist societies were created. Since revolutionary France was seen as their major ally in the struggle, some leaders fled to Paris and established their headquarters there.

WWI & the ‘Second Republic’

Though most of the fighting in WWI, at least on the eastern front, was staged on Polish land and caused staggering loss of life and livelihood, paradoxically, the war led to the country’s independence.

On the one side were the Central Powers, Austria-Hungary and Germany (including Prussia); on the other, Russia and its Western allies. Since no formal Polish state existed, there was no Polish army to fight for the national cause. Even worse, some two million Poles were conscripted into the Russian, German or Austrian armies, and were obliged to fight one another.

After the October Revolution in 1917, Russia plunged into civil war and no longer had the power to oversee Polish affairs. The final collapse of the Austrian empire in October 1918 and the withdrawal of the German army from Warsaw in November brought the opportune moment. Marshal Józef Piłsudski took command of Warsaw on 11 November 1918, declared Polish sovereignty, and usurped power as the head of state.

WWII

If Poles had been asked in the 1930s to sketch out a nightmare scenario, many would likely have said ‘Germany fighting the Soviet Union over Poland’, and that’s more or less what happened.

The war that would vastly reshape the country started at dawn on 1 September 1939 with a massive German invasion. Fighting began in Gdańsk (at that time the Free City of Danzig) when German forces encountered a stubborn handful of Polish resisters at Westerplatte. The battle lasted a week.

Simultaneously, another German line stormed Warsaw, which finally surrendered on 28 September. Despite valiant resistance, there was simply no hope of withstanding the numerically overwhelming and well-armed German forces; the last resistance groups were quelled by early October.

Hitler’s policy was to eradicate the Polish nation and Germanise the territory. Hundreds of thousands of Poles were deported en masse to forced-labour camps in Germany, while others, primarily the intelligentsia, were executed in an attempt to exterminate the spiritual and intellectual leadership.

The Jews were to be eliminated completely. At first they were segregated and confined in ghettos, then shipped off to extermination camps scattered around the country. Almost the whole of Poland’s Jewish population (three million) and roughly one million other Poles died in the camps. Resistance erupted in numerous ghettos and camps, most famously in Warsaw.

Soviet Invasion

Within a matter of weeks of the German invasion, the Soviet Union moved into Poland and claimed the country’s eastern half. Thus, Poland was yet again partitioned. Mass arrests, exile and executions followed, and it’s estimated that between one and two million Poles were sent to Siberia, the Soviet Arctic and Kazakhstan in 1939–40. Like the Germans, the Soviets set in motion a process of intellectual genocide.

Government-in-Exile & Homegrown Resistance

Soon after the outbreak of war, a Polish government-in-exile was formed in France under General Władysław Sikorski, followed by Stanisław Mikołajczyk. It was shifted to London in June 1940 as the front line moved west.

The course of the war changed dramatically when Hitler unexpectedly attacked the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941. The Soviets were pushed out of eastern Poland by the onslaught and all of Poland lay under Nazi German control. The Führer set up camp deep in Polish territory, and remained there for over three years.

A nationwide resistance movement, concentrated in the cities, had been put in place soon after war broke out to operate the Polish educational, judicial and communications systems. Armed squads were set up by the government-in-exile in 1940, and these evolved into the Armia Krajowa (AK; Home Army), which figured prominently in the Warsaw Rising.

The Tide Turns

Hitler’s defeat at Stalingrad in 1943 marked the turning point of the war on the eastern front, and from then on the Red Army successfully pushed westwards. After the Soviets liberated the Polish city of Lublin, the pro-communist Polish Committee of National Liberation (PKWN) was installed on 22 July 1944 and assumed the functions of a provisional government. A week later the Red Army reached the outskirts of Warsaw.

Warsaw at that time remained under Nazi German occupation. In a last-ditch attempt to establish an independent Polish administration, the AK attempted to gain control of the city before the arrival of the Soviet troops, with disastrous results. The Red Army continued its westward advance across Poland, and after a few months reached Berlin. The Nazi Reich capitulated on 8 May 1945.

At the end of WWII, Poland lay in ruins. Over six million people, about 20% of the prewar population, lost their lives, and out of three million Polish Jews in 1939, only 80,000 to 90,000 survived the war. Its cities were no more than rubble; only 15% of Warsaw’s buildings survived. Many Poles who had seen out the war in foreign countries opted not to return to the new political order.

Communist Poland

Though Poland emerged from WWII among the victorious powers, it had the misfortune of falling within the Soviet-dominated Eastern bloc.

The problems started at the Yalta Conference in February 1945, when the three Allied leaders, Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin, agreed to leave Poland under Soviet control. They agreed that Poland’s eastern frontier would roughly follow the Nazi Germany–Soviet demarcation line of 1939. Six months later Allied leaders set Poland’s western boundary along the Odra (Oder) and the Nysa (Neisse) Rivers; in effect, the country returned to its medieval borders.

The radical boundary changes were followed by population transfers of some 10 million people: Poles were moved into the newly defined Poland, while Germans, Ukrainians and Belarusians were resettled outside its boundaries. In the end, 98% of Poland’s population was ethnically Polish.

As soon as Poland formally fell under Soviet control, Stalin launched an intensive Sovietisation campaign. Wartime resistance leaders were charged with Nazi collaboration, tried in Moscow and summarily shot or sentenced to arbitrary prison terms. A provisional Polish government was set up in Moscow in June 1945 and then transferred to Warsaw. After rigged elections in 1947, the new Sejm elected Bolesław Bierut president.

In 1948 the Polish United Workers’ Party (PZPR), the country's communist party, was formed to monopolise power, and in 1952 a Soviet-style constitution was adopted. The office of president was abolished and effective power passed to the first secretary of the Party Central Committee. Poland became an affiliate of the Warsaw Pact.

Bread & Freedom

Stalinist fanaticism never gained as much influence in Poland as in neighbouring countries, and soon after Stalin’s death in 1953 it all but disappeared. The powers of the secret police declined and some concessions were made to popular demands. The press was liberalised and Polish cultural values were resuscitated.

In June 1956 a massive industrial strike demanding ‘bread and freedom’ broke out in Poznań. The action was put down by force and soon afterwards Władysław Gomułka, a former political prisoner of the Stalin era, was appointed first secretary of the Party. At first he commanded popular support, but later in his term he displayed an increasingly rigid and authoritarian attitude, putting pressure on the Church and intensifying persecution of the intelligentsia.

It was ultimately an economic crisis, however, that brought about Gomułka’s downfall; when he announced official price increases in 1970, a wave of mass strikes erupted in Gdańsk, Gdynia and Szczecin. Again, the protests were crushed by force, resulting in 44 deaths. The Party, to save face, ejected Gomułka from office and replaced him with Edward Gierek.

Another attempt to raise prices in 1976 incited labour protests, and again workers walked off the job, this time in Radom and Warsaw. Caught in a downward spiral, Gierek took out more foreign loans, but, to earn hard currency with which to pay the interest, he was forced to divert consumer goods away from the domestic market and sell them abroad. By 1980 the external debt stood at US$21 billion and the economy had slumped disastrously.

By then, the opposition had grown into a significant force, backed by numerous advisers from the intellectual circles. When, in July 1980, the government again announced food-price increases, the outcome was predictable: fervent and well-organised strikes and riots spread like wildfire throughout the country. In August, they paralysed major ports, the Silesian coal mines and the Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk.

Unlike most previous popular protests, the 1980 strikes were nonviolent; the strikers did not take to the streets, but stayed in their factories.

Solidarity & the Collapse of Communism

The end of communism in Poland was a long and drawn-out affair that can be traced back to 1980 and the birth of the Solidarity trade union.

On 31 August of that year, after protracted and rancorous negotiations in the Lenin Shipyard, the government signed the Gdańsk Agreement. It forced the ruling party to accept most of the strikers’ demands, including the workers’ right to organise independent trade unions, and to strike. In return, workers agreed to adhere to the constitution and to accept the Party’s power as supreme.

Workers’ delegations from around the country convened and founded Solidarity (Solidarność), a nationwide independent and self-governing trade union. Lech Wałęsa, who led the Gdańsk strike, was elected chair.

It wasn’t long before Solidarity’s rippling effect caused waves within the government. Gierek was replaced by Stanisław Kania, who in turn lost out to General Wojciech Jaruzelski in October 1981.

The trade union’s greatest influence was on Polish society. After 35 years of restraint, the Poles launched themselves into a spontaneous and chaotic sort of democracy. Wide-ranging debates over the process of reform were led by Solidarity, and the independent press flourished. Such taboo historical subjects as the Stalin–Hitler pact and the Katyń massacre could, for the first time, be openly discussed.

Not surprisingly, the 10 million Solidarity members represented a wide range of attitudes, from confrontational to conciliatory. By and large, it was Wałęsa’s charismatic authority that kept the union on a moderate and balanced course.

Martial Law & Its Aftermath

In spite of its agreement to recognise the Solidarity trade union, the Polish government remained under pressure from both the Soviets and local hardliners not to introduce any significant reforms.

This only led to further discontent and, in the absence of other legal options, more strikes. Amid fruitless wrangling, the economic crisis grew more severe. After the unsuccessful talks of November 1981 between the government, Solidarity and the Church, social tensions increased and led to a political stalemate.

When General Jaruzelski unexpectedly appeared on TV in the early hours of the morning of 13 December 1981 to declare martial law, tanks were already on the streets, army checkpoints had been set up on every corner, and paramilitary squads had been posted to possible trouble spots. Power was placed in the hands of the Military Council of National Salvation (WRON), a group of military officers under the command of Jaruzelski himself.

Solidarity was suspended and all public gatherings, demonstrations and strikes were banned. Several thousand people, including most Solidarity leaders and Wałęsa himself, were interned. The spontaneous demonstrations and strikes that followed were crushed, military rule was effectively imposed all over Poland within two weeks of its declaration, and life returned to the pre-Solidarity norm.

In October 1982 the government formally dissolved Solidarity and released Wałęsa from detention, but the trade union continued underground on a much smaller scale, enjoying widespread sympathy and support. In July 1984 a limited amnesty was announced and some members of the political opposition were released from prison. But further arrests continued, following every public protest, and it was not until 1986 that all political prisoners were freed.

The Gorbachov Impact

The election of Mikhail Gorbachev as leader in the Soviet Union in 1985, and his glasnost and perestroika programs, gave an important stimulus to democratic reforms throughout Central and Eastern Europe.

By early 1989, Jaruzelski had softened his position and allowed the opposition to challenge for parliamentary seats.

These ‘semifree’ elections – semifree in the sense that regardless of the outcome, the communists were guaranteed a number of seats – were held in June 1989, and Solidarity succeeded in getting an overwhelming majority of its candidates elected to the Senate, the upper house of parliament. The communists, however, reserved for themselves 65% of seats in the Sejm.

Jaruzelski was placed in the presidency as a stabilising guarantor of political changes for both Moscow and the local communists, but a non-communist prime minister, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, was installed as a result of personal pressure from Wałęsa.

This power-sharing deal, with the first non-communist prime minister in Eastern Europe since WWII, paved the way for the domino-like collapse of communism throughout the Soviet bloc. The Communist Party, losing members and confidence, historically dissolved itself in 1990.

The Rise & Fall of Lech Wałęsa

In November 1990, Solidarity leader Lech Wałęsa won the first fully free presidential elections and the Third Republic of Poland was born. For Wałęsa it marked the high point of his career and for Poland the start of a very rocky rebirth.

In the first few months of the new republic, the government’s finance minister, Leszek Balcerowicz, introduced a package of reforms that would change the centrally planned communist system into a free-market economy almost overnight. His economic plan, dubbed ‘shock therapy’ for the rapid way that it would be implemented, allowed prices to move freely, abolished subsidies, tightened the money supply, and sharply devalued the currency, making it fully convertible with Western currencies.

The effect was almost instant. Within a few months the economy appeared to have stabilised, food shortages became glaringly absent and shops filled up with goods. On the downside, prices skyrocketed and unemployment exploded. The initial wave of optimism and forbearance turned into uncertainty and discontent, and the tough austerity measures caused the popularity of the government to decline.

As for Wałęsa, while he was a highly capable union leader and charismatic man, as president he proved markedly less successful. During his statutory five-year term in office, Poland witnessed no fewer than five governments and five prime ministers, each struggling to put the newborn democracy back on track. His presidential style and accomplishments were repeatedly questioned by practically all of the political parties and the majority of the electorate.

The Country Turns to the Left

Wałęsa was defeated in the 1995 presidential election by Aleksander Kwaśniewski – a former communist. Though the election was close, it marked quite a comedown for Solidarity and for Wałęsa, its anti-communist folk hero.

With the post of prime minister in the hands of another former communist, Włodzimierz Cimoszewicz, and parliament moving to the left as well, the country that had spearheaded the anti-communist movement in Central and Eastern Europe oddly found itself with a firmly left-wing government – a ‘red triangle’ as Wałęsa himself had warned.

The Catholic Church, much favoured by Wałęsa during his term in the saddle, also lost out and didn’t fail to caution the faithful against the danger of ‘neopaganism’ under the new regime.

President Kwaśniewski’s political style proved to be much more successful than Wałęsa’s. He brought much-needed political calm to his term in office, and was able to cooperate successfully with both the left and right wings of the political establishment. This gained him a degree of popular support, and paved the way for another five-year term in office in the presidential election in October 2000. Wałęsa, trying his luck for yet another time, suffered a disastrous defeat, collecting just 1% of the vote this time around.

On 1 May 2004, under Kwaśniewski’s presidency, Poland fulfilled its biggest post-communist foreign-policy objective, joining the European Union along with seven other countries from Central and Eastern Europe.

The Disaster at Smolensk

Outside of the traditional ups and downs of Poland’s electoral politics, the year 2010 brought epic tragedy to the leadership that affected both the right and left of the political establishment and threw the entire country into prolonged sorrow.

On 10 April that year a Polish air-force jet carrying 96 people, including president Lech Kaczyński, his wife and a high-level Polish delegation of 15 members of parliament, crashed near the Russian city of Smolensk. There were no survivors. The plane had been flying in from Warsaw for a memorial service to mark the 70th anniversary of the WWII-era massacre of Polish officers at Katyń Forest.

The pilot attempted to land the plane in heavy fog at a military airport, struck a tree on the descent and missed the runway. An initial high-level Russian commission placed the blame on pilot error, though an official Polish government report, released in 2011, assigned blame to both the Polish side and to air-traffic controllers on the Russian side.

The crash brought overwhelming grief to the country and a procession of high-level funerals. However, it also served to unite the country’s fractured politics – albeit briefly – and ultimately proved the strength of the country’s democracy. While many leading officials were killed, there was no ensuing succession crisis.

Following the disaster, the presidency fell to parliamentary speaker Bronisław Komorowski, who promptly called for early elections. Komorowski, of the right-leaning Civic Platform party, won in a run-off against the late president’s twin brother, Jarosław Kaczyński. Komorowski served as president until the elections of 2015, when he was defeated at the ballot box by the right-of-centre Andrzej Duda.

Good Reads on the ‘89 Revolution

  • The Magic Lantern: The Revolution of ‘89, by Timothy Garton Ash
  • 1989: The Struggle to Create Post–Cold War Europe, by Mary Elise Sarotte
  • The Year that Changed the World, by Michael Meyer

More Reading on Poland in WWII

  • No Simple Victory: World War II in Europe, by Norman Davies
  • Rising ‘44: The Battle for Warsaw, by Norman Davies
  • Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin, by Timothy Snyder
  • Between Two Evils, by Lucyna B Radlo