This is a book about a vaguely defined space in northeastern Europe and the people who have lived there during the past two hundred years. Most of them have usually (but not always) called themselves “Poles,” and the country they live in has usually (but not always) been called “Poland.” Neither the place nor the people are all that noteworthy in the grand scheme of things. Nowadays about two thirds of the population live in towns and cities, but a century ago the area was mostly agricultural. It isn’t a particularly prosperous region, but by world standards it isn’t particularly poor either. The United Nations Human Development Index, which combines measures of health, education, and wealth, places Poland at 39th out of 187 countries. Actually, if income inequality (or the comparative lack thereof) is taken into account, Poland jumps to number 30. Polish life expectancy at birth is just over 76 years, above the global average of 69.8 but below the 80+ years enjoyed by the earth’s most long-lived peoples. With a gross national income per capita of US$17,451 per year, the people we’ll be discussing in this book are placed 41st in the world, quite distant from the rarified wealth of the Qataris, Singaporeans, or Norwegians, but also well above the global average of $10,082.1

As we move back into the past, we can’t be quite so precise about the comparative standing of the people calling themselves Polish, but in very rough terms the picture looks about the same: most ...

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