Poland, in Central Europe, is the EU’s 5th most populous member-state with 38.5 million, and its 6th-largest economy — with 500,000 years of human activity in its area, and borders that have changed dramatically throughout time. At its peak, beginning in late 15th century and extending for nearly 300 years, the Poland-Lithuania territory was the largest in Europe by a margin — and today this relatively small country retains its sense of former grandeur. The modern nation provides its people with free education through tertiary level, universal health care, and social security, for a high quality-of-life index (136.44) — particularly in areas of safety, climate, and cost of living.
Religion plays a major role in the culture of Poland. Freedom of religion is legally protected; however, the country remains one of the most religious, particularly Catholic (85.9%), in all of Europe — beginning in 966 C.E. Multiple Protestant religions together constitute only 0.4%, with another 0.4% made up of multiple others — and a growing secularism, with 12.1% unspecified. Nevertheless, Poland retains one of the highest levels of religious observance in Europe today, and a majority of its holidays are Catholic in origin. In 1980s, the Catholic church in Poland became identified with the anti-Communist movement, widely credited with contributing to the end of same.
Poland’s class structure was rigid prior to 1939; WWII saw the execution of many of the intelligentsia and nobility, while subsequent decades of Communism proved a powerful leveling factor in its emphasis on education and economic development of workers and peasants. The class system remains a social factor today, but has significantly less importance. In conjunction with the high value placed on religion, traditional values including marriage and family (including close friends) are still given prominence, though this is changing; social manners are exceedingly important, and the society remains essentially patriarchal. The arts, both traditional and modern and in the full spectrum, hold high value.
The story of Poland cannot be separated from that of its Jewish population, prior to WWII the largest minority group in the country — and the largest Jewish community in the world, a part of Poland for more than a millennium. By 1920s, Jews made up 25-50% of all major cities, and up to 90% of smaller towns, with the cities representing the cultural, intellectual, and religious centres of the global Jewish community. Generally integrated, even in the market towns or shtetls, though not entirely free of anti-Semitism, Jews and Poles together represented Poland — and the Jewish tradition in Poland represents a significant thread in Polish culture to this day.
Polish Jews became first a target of Russian pogroms in 1880s and 1890s; following WWI and Polish independence, increasing nationalism created a hostile atmosphere toward the country’s Jewish citizens, and many emigrated. Its still large Jewish community, and proximity to Germany, resulted in Poland becoming the primary target of the Nazis, who annexed the country and sought to eradicate its citizenry entirely — including the placement of its most prominent extermination camps, including the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau among many others, in Polish territory. Additional targets of these camps were non-Jewish Poles, homosexuals, Soviet POWs, and Roma. Today a highly sensitive and controversial topic, Polish government has outlawed any mention of these as “Polish death camps” — and is accused of attempting to “rewrite history” as a result; conversely, Warsaw is fast becoming one of the world’s top centres for Jewish art.
The residual trauma of WWII lives on in Poland, as conflict and massacre on such a large scale requires several generations of recovery. Warsaw, already 10% destroyed by 1939, suffered major damage in the 1943 liquidation of the large Warsaw Ghetto when all remaining Jews were sent to camps and the area razed. The city was then nearly obliterated, with 80-90% of its buildings destroyed, in retaliation for a 1944 partisan insurgence — to “make an example of Warsaw for others” — and in acknowledgement of inevitable Allied Forces takeover. In reality, the Nazis’ original plan had been to exterminate Poles as well as Jews — viewing them, along with much of Central and Eastern Europe, as untermenschen — inferiors. The 1944 destruction of Warsaw, including an attempt at cultural genocide in the deliberate violation of heritage, is widely viewed as incomprehensible, however, serving no obvious purpose as by then, the Nazis had abandoned their plans to colonise the region. Warsaw today is entirely rebuilt, of course, but its antiquity and culture are, to a large extent, recreation.. The old wounds lurk beneath and the controversy, over any possibility of Polish collaboration, rages on.
The Polish People’s Republic (1947-1989) represented Poland’s post-WWII period of Communism. Having been invaded initially by Soviet as well as Nazi troops, the fall to USSR was swift as the precedent had been laid; many decades earlier, in 1882, the Marxist First Proletariat Party had been founded in Poland. Polish citizens often report stability and security in the time of Communist rule — strong policing, lack of competitiveness, predictability with minimal stress — alongside a lack of free speech or voting rights, and generalised dysfunction. Following a typically difficult though exhilarating transformation era, one of democracy, pluralism, and openness, Poland today — 30 years on — has swung toward a similarly autocratic stance, albeit from a nationalistic right rather than Communist left. Today, in addition to the law established in 2018 against any mention of Polish complicity with Nazi Germany, a June 2019 law prohibits any promotion of Communist ideals — both of which have brought accusations of “authoritarianism”.
Poland has achieved a high standard and moderate cost of living, its infrastructure well-developed (or, as in the case of postwar Warsaw, redeveloped). Despite, or perhaps even because, of this, anti-immigrant policies and xenophobic trends are on the rise in Poland today; the country, in solidarity with neighboring Hungary, has staunchly refused to take its EU-designated share of refugees, sparking controversy within the EU structure over member-states’ adhering to agreed-upon policies. Further, its borders are only marginally open in comparison to other European nations — except, as some have identified, to countries such as Ukraine, with its ethnic and religious similarities. Political slogans such as “Poland First” and “Poland for Poles” — and a recent requirement for passports to include the phrase, “God, Honor, Motherland” — reflect a current trend toward populism, nationalism, conservatism, and isolationism.
Some traditional values and customs which continue today include: the the emphasis of one’s network of family and close friends in regard to social obligations and advancement; formality and manners, including conservative dress as well as direct but polite speech; gift-giving and hospitality, communal meals and removal of shoes indoors; personal virtue and honesty; deference to seniority and authority. In general, Poland is on the more religious, traditional, and conservative spectrum of Europe, with a high quality of life and respect for egalitarianism.