Poland is one of the largest nations in Europe. It is also a nation that has been through immense changes in its history. It has gone from being one of Europe’s largest empires to not even appearing on the map. Watch video below to see Poland’s borders change from 1635-now.
Now, it is important to consider that the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was at its largest in 1619, after the Truce of Deulino. This truce ended the Polish-Muscovite War, a series of conflicts between the Commonwealth vs The Tsardom of Russia and the Kingdom of Sweden. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth once included nations such as Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Latvia, southern Estonia, parts of Russia, and a tiny sliver of what is now Moldova. The westernmost regions of Poland were not part of that Commonwealth. It was a union between Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.
(Photo by Samotny Wędrowiec)
The first Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth started in 1569. Poland and Sweden had a complicated relationship. The Commonwealth would expand east and north, gaining territories such as Livonia and Prussia. These regions would prove to me a subject of contention between Poland and Sweden. Starting in 1648, the series of wars ravaged the Commonwealth. Unlike conflicts of the past, these conflicts were not limited to the peripheral regions. The central regions were affected too. Conflicts with Russia, the Ottoman Empire, Livonia, Ukraine, Sweden, and other neighboring nations would result in its decline. Poland would endure a series of invasions known as “the Deluge”. In particular, from the Tsardom of Russia, Brandenburg, Khmelnytsky Cossack Uprisings in Ukraine, and the Kingdom of Sweden.
War, and epidemics would decimate Poland’s population, and weaken the Commonwealth. Between 1764-1795, the Commonwealth underwent a series of partitions by Prussia, Russia, and Austria. These partitions took Poland off of the map. Through the 19th century and into the early 20th century, a series of rebellions took place. By 1918, the Second Polish Republic was established. This lasted until 1939. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. It was a neutrality pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. It was signed 23 August 1939. 1 September 1939, Nazi Germany attacked Poland. On 17 September 1939, the Soviet Union invaded Poland. 2 year later, Hitler would send the German Army on attacks in Eastern Poland, where Soviets had their positions. As World War II concluded, territories were redrawn. Poland would gain what was Germany’s easternmost regions. Danzig would become Gdansk, one of Poland’s port cities today. Poland would also lose its eastern regions. Those areas are now part of Belarus, Ukraine, and Lithuania. The borders were shaped by the demands made by Stalin in the Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement, which were brought up in the Tehran Conference of 1943, and again in the Yalta Conference of 1945.
Poland’s political geography has been shaped by its conflicts with its neighbors. This conflict has a physical geography element to it. Poland today is on the Great European Plain. Most of the nation is flat with the exception of the southernmost parts, where the Tatra Mountains are located. Poland’s location has made it a major thoroughfare for invasion. With relatively flat terrain, there were no buffer zones, except in the south. It has also influenced how its own empire has grown. Poland grew by expanding north, southeast, and east. Going directly south would make invasion difficult due to mountainous terrain. This is particularly so for what is now Ukraine. In the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, it occupied much of Ukraine except for the westernmost regions. The Carpathian Mountains are in Ukraine’s western areas. The rest of Ukraine is much less rugged, and has historically been more prone to invasion.
Poland has had conflicts with Russia, Austria, Germany, Sweden, the Ottoman Empire (at one this empire occupied southeast Europe), and Prussia. Many of the biggest conflicts have involved Russia, Sweden, Germany, and Prussia. Relatively flat land has made invasion strategically easy. Land plays a big part in war. Land is a resource. This is what should be considered.
Much of Poland has fertile soil, with the exception of the northern regions with its sandy soil. Fertile land for farming has long been a sought after resource. Another resource is warm water ports. Poland gets cold winters. However, its portion of the Baltic coast is warmer than most places along the Baltic Sea, being further south. Land and greater maritime access are often factors in fighting wars. Poland’s geography has been both an advantage and a disadvantage. Advantageous in terms of fertile soil, a greater access to the sea, and a mountainous buffer zone to the south. However, its geography of rolling hills and plains have given it a disadvantage. It has both been able to invade, and at the same time, be invaded from different directions.
Geography has been a factor in shaping Poland, from its height in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, to the Polish Partition, to what it is today.