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History of Poland (1945-1989)


The history of Poland from 1945 to 1989 spans the period of Soviet Communist dominance over the People's Republic of Poland following World War II. These years, while featuring many improvements in the standards of living in Poland, were marred by social unrest and economic depression.

Near the end of World War II, German forces were driven from Poland by the advancing Soviet Red Army, and the Yalta Conference sanctioned the formation of a provisional pro-Communist coalition government which ultimately ignored the Polish government-in-exile; this has been described as a betrayal of Poland by the Allied Powers in order to appease Soviet leader Josef Stalin.1 The new communist government in Warsaw increased its political power and over the next two years the Communist Polish United Workers' Party (PZPR) under Bolesław Bierut gained control of the People's Republic of Poland, which would become part of the postwar Soviet sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. A liberalizing "thaw" in Eastern Europe following Stalin's death in 1953 caused a more liberal faction of the Polish Communists of Władysław Gomułka to gain power. By the mid-1960s, Poland was experiencing increasing economic, as well as political, difficulties. In December 1970, a price hike led to a wave of strikes. The government introduced a new economic program based on large-scale borrowing from the West, which resulted in an immediate rise in living standards and expectations, but the program faltered because of the 1973 oil crisis. In the late 1970s the government of Edward Gierek was finally forced to raise prices, and this led to another wave of public protests.

This vicious cycle was finally interrupted by the 1978 election of Karol Wojtyla as Pope John Paul II, strengthening the opposition to Communism in Poland. In early August 1980, the wave of strikes led to the founding of the independent trade union "Solidarity" (Polish Solidarność) by electrician Lech Wałęsa. The growing strength of the opposition led the government of Wojciech Jaruzelski to declare martial law in December 1981. However, with the reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union, increasing pressure from the West, and continuing unrest, the Communists were forced to negotiate with their opponents. The 1988 Round Table Talks led to Solidarity's participation in the elections of 1989; its candidates' striking victory sparked off a succession of peaceful transitions from Communist rule in Central and Eastern Europe. In 1990, Jaruzelski resigned as Poland's leader. He was succeeded by Wałęsa in December's elections. The Communist People's Republic of Poland again became the Republic of Poland.

Creation of the People's Republic of Poland (1944-1956)

Wartime devastation

Poland's old and new borders in 1945.

Poland suffered heavy losses during World War II. While in 1939 Poland had 35.1 million inhabitants,2 at the end of the war only 19.1 million remained within its borders,2 and the first post-war census of February 14, 1946, showed only 23.9 million.3 Over 6 million Polish citizens - nearly 21.4 percent of Poland's population - died between 1939 and 1945456 Minorities in Poland were very significantly affected: before World War II, a third of Poland's population was composed of ethnic minorities; after the war, however, Poland's minorities were all but gone. Over 80 percent of Poland's capital was destroyed in the aftermath of the Warsaw Uprising.7 Poland, still a predominantly agricultural country compared to Western nations, suffered catastrophic damage to its infrastructure during the war, and lagged even further behind the West in industrial output in the War's aftermath. The losses in national resources and infrastructure amounted to over 30 percent of the pre-war potential.8

The implementation of the immense task of reconstructing the country was accompanied by the struggle of the new government to acquire a stable, centralized power base, further complicated by the mistrust a considerable part of the society held for the new regime and by disputes over Poland's postwar borders, which were not firmly established until mid-1945. In 1947 Soviet influence caused the Polish government to reject the American-sponsored Marshall Plan,9 and to join the Soviet Union-dominated Comecon in 1949. At the same time Soviet forces had engaged in plunder on Recovered Territories which were to be transferred to Poland, stripping it of valuable industrial equipment, infrastructure and factories and sending them to the Soviet Union.1011

Consolidation of Communist power (1945-1948)

The PKWN Manifesto, issued on July 22, 1944

Even before the Red Army entered Poland, the Soviet Union was pursuing a deliberate strategy to eliminate anti-Communist resistance forces in order to ensure that Poland would fall under its sphere of influence.12 In 1943, following the Katyn controversy, Stalin had severed relations with the Polish government-in-exile in London.13 However, to appease the United States and the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union agreed at the 1944 Yalta Conference to form a coalition government composed of the Communist Polish Workers' Party, members of the pro-Western Polish government in exile, and members of the Armia Krajowa ("Home Army") resistance movement, as well as to allow for free elections to be held.414

With the beginning of the liberation of Polish territories and the failure of the Armia Krajowa's Operation Tempest in 1944, control over Polish territories passed from the occupying forces of Nazi Germany to the Red Army, and from the Red Army to the Polish Communists, who held the largest influence under the provisional government.15 Thus, from its outset the Yalta decision favored the Communists, who enjoyed the advantages of Soviet support for their plan of bringing Eastern Europe securely under its influence, as well as control over crucial ministries such as the security services.14

Bolesław Bierut, President of Poland from 1947 to 1952.

The Prime Minister of the Polish government-in-exile, Stanisław Mikołajczyk, resigned his post in 1944 and, along with several other exiled Polish leaders, returned to Poland, where a Provisional Government (Rząd Tymczasowy Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej; RTTP), had been created by the Communist-controlled Polish Committee of National Liberation (Polski Komitet Wyzwolenia Narodowego; PKWN) in Lublin.4 This government was headed by Socialist Edward Osóbka-Morawski, but the Communists held a majority of key posts. Both of these governments were subordinate to the unelected, Communist-controlled parliament, the State National Council (Krajowa Rada Narodowa; KRN), and were not recognized by the increasingly isolated Polish government-in-exile, which had formed its own quasi-parliament, the Council of National Unity (Rada Jedności Narodowej; RJN).

The new Polish Provisional Government of National Unity (Tymczasowy Rząd Jedności Narodowej; TRJN)-as the Polish government was called until the elections of 1947-was finally established on June 28, with Mikołajczyk as Deputy Prime Minister. The Communist Party's principal rivals were the veterans of the Armia Krajowa movement, along with Mikołajczyk's Polish Peasant Party (Polskie Stronnictwo Ludowe; PSL), and the veterans of the Polish armies which had fought in the West. But at the same time, Soviet-oriented parties, backed by the Soviet Red Army (the Northern Group of Forces would be permanently stationed in Poland)15 and in control of the security forces, held most of the power, especially in the Polish Workers' Party (Polska Partia Robotnicza; PPR) under Władysław Gomułka and Bolesław Bierut.16

Stalin had promised at the Yalta Conference that free elections would be held in Poland. However, the Polish Communists, led by Gomułka and Bierut, were aware of the lack of support for their side among the Polish population. Because of this, in 1946 a national referendum, known as "3 times YES" (3 razy TAK; 3xTAK), was held instead of the parliamentary elections. The referendum comprised three fairly general questions, and was meant to check the popularity of communist rule in Poland. Because most of the important parties in Poland at the time were leftist and could have supported all of the options, Mikołajczyk's PSL decided to ask its supporters to oppose the abolition of the senate, while the Communist democratic bloc supported the "3 times YES" option. The referendum showed that the communist plans were met with little support, with less than a third of Poland's population voting in favor of the proposed changes. Only vote rigging won them a majority in the carefully controlled poll.171618 Following the forged referendum, the Polish economy started to become nationalized.14

The Communists consolidated power by gradually whittling away the rights of their non-Communist foes, particularly by suppressing the leading opposition party, Mikołajczyk's Polish Peasant Party. In some cases, their opponents were sentenced to death-among them Witold Pilecki, the organizer of the Auschwitz resistance, and many leaders of Armia Krajowa and the Council of National Unity (in the Trial of the Sixteen).19 The opposition was also persecuted by administrative means, with many of its members murdered or forced into exile. Although the initial persecution of these former anti-Nazi organizations forced thousands of partisans back into forests, the actions of the UB (Polish secret police), NKVD and Red Army steadily diminished their number.

By 1946, rightist parties had been outlawed.14 A pro-government "Democratic Bloc" formed in 1947 that included the forerunner of the communist Polish United Workers' Party and its leftist allies. By January 1947, the first parliamentary election allowed only opposition candidates of the Polish Peasant Party, which was nearly powerless due to government controls.14 Results were adjusted by Stalin himself to suit the Communists, and through those rigged elections, the regime's candidates gained 417 of 434 seats in parliament (Sejm), effectively ending the role of genuine opposition parties.1419171618 Many members of opposition parties, including Mikołajczyk, left the country.18 Western governments did not protest, which led many anti-Communist Poles to speak of postwar "Western betrayal." In the same year, the new Legislative Sejm created the Small Constitution of 1947, and over the next two years, the Communists would ensure their rise to power by monopolizing political power in Poland under the PZPR.414

Another force in Polish politics, Józef Piłsudski's old party, the Polish Socialist Party (Polska Partia Socjalistyczna; PPS), suffered a fatal split at this time, as the communist applied the "salami tactics" to dismember any opposition. Communists support a faction led by Józef Cyrankiewicz; eventually in 1948, the Communists and Cyrankiewicz's faction of Socialists merged to form the Polish United Workers' Party (Polska Zjednoczona Partia Robotnicza; PZPR). Mikołajczyk was forced to leave the country, and Poland became a de facto single-party state and a satellite state of the Soviet Union.16 Two facade small parties, one for farmers (Zjednoczone Stronnictwo Ludowe) and one for the intelligentsia (Stronnictwo Demokratyczne), were allowed to exist. A period of Sovietization and Stalinism thus began.14

Bierut era (1948-1956)

The repercussions of Yugoslavia's break with Stalin reached Warsaw in 1948. As in the other eastern European satellite states, there was a purge of Communists suspected of nationalist or other "deviationist" tendencies in Poland.20 In September, one of communist leaders, Władysław Gomułka, who had always been an opponent of Stalin's control of the Polish party, was accused of harboring a "nationalistic tendency," dismissed from his posts, and imprisoned.1920 However no equivalent of the show trials that took place in the other Eastern European states occurred, and Gomułka escaped with his life.18 Bierut replaced him as party leader.14

The new Polish government was controlled by Polish Communists who had spent the war in the Soviet Union. They were "assisted"-and in some cases controlled-by Soviet "advisers" who were placed in every part of the government; Polish Army, intelligence and police were full of Soviet officers. The most important of these advisers was Konstantin Rokossovsky (Konstanty Rokossowski in Polish), the Defense Minister from 1949 to 1956. Although of Polish parentage, he had spent his adult life in the Soviet Union, and had attained the rank of Marshal in the Soviet Armed Forces.2122

This government, headed by Cyrankiewicz and economist Hilary Minc, carried through a program of sweeping economic reform and national reconstruction. The Stalinist turn that led to the ascension of Bierut meant that Poland would now be brought into line with the Soviet model of a "people's democracy" and a centrally planned socialist economy,14 in place of the façade of democracy and market economy which the regime had preserved until 1948.16 Fully Soviet-style centralized planning was introduced in the Six-Year Plan, which began in 1950.14 The plan called for accelerated development of heavy industry and forced collectivization of agriculture. In what became known as the "battle for trade," the private trade and industry were nationalized, the land seized from prewar landowners was redistributed to the peasants.14 The regime embarked on the collectivization of agriculture (as seem in the creation of Państwowe Gospodarstwo Rolne),16 although the pace for this change was slower than in other satellites;14 Poland remained the only Soviet bloc country where individual peasants dominated agriculture.

In 1948 the United States announced the Marshall plan, its initiative to help rebuild Europe. After initially welcoming the idea of Polish involvement in the plan, the Polish government declined to participate under pressure from Moscow.19 Following the uprising of 1953 in East Germany, Poland was forced by the Soviet Union to give up its claims to compensation from Germany, which as a result paid no significant compensation for war damages, either to the Polish state or to Polish citizens.23 Although Poland received compensation in the form of the territories and property left behind by the German population of the annexed western territories, it is disputed whether they were enough compensation for the loss of Kresy territories.11 This marked the beginning of the wealth gap, which would increase in years to come, as the Western market economies grew much more quickly than the centrally planned socialist economies of Eastern Europe.

Millions of Poles relocated from the eastern territories annexed by the Soviet Union into the western territories, which Soviets transferred from Germany to Poland. By 1950, 5 million Poles had been re-settled in what the government called the Regained Territories. Warsaw and other ruined cities were cleared of rubble-mainly by hand-and rebuilt with great speed,16 one of the successes of the Three-Year Plan.

The constitution of 1952 guaranteed universal free health care.24 In the early 1950s, the Communist regime also carried out major changes to the education system. The Communist program of free and compulsory school education for all, and the establishment of new free universities, received much support. The Communists also took the opportunity to screen out what facts and interpretations were to be taught; history as well as other sciences had to follow a Marxist view as well as be subject to political censorship.14 At the same time between 1951 and 1953 a large number of pre-war reactionary professors was dismissed from the universities. The control over art and artists was deepened and with time the Socialist Realism became the only movement that was accepted by the authorities. After 1949 most of works of art presented to the public had to be in line with the voice of the Party and represent its propaganda.

Logo of the Polish United Workers' Party

Those and other reforms, while more or less controversial, were greeted with relief by a significant faction of the population. After the Second World War many people were willing to accept even Communist rule in exchange for the restoration of relatively normal life; tens of thousands joined the communist party and actively supported the regime. Nonetheless a latent popular discontent remained present. Many Poles adopted an attitude that might be called "resigned cooperation." Others, like the remnants of the Armia Krajowa, and Narodowe Siły Zbrojne and Wolność i Niezawisłość, known as the cursed soldiers, actively opposed the Communists, hoping that a possible World War III would liberate Poland. Although most had surrendered during the amnesty of 1947, the brutal repressions by the secret police led many of them back into the forests, where a few continued to fight well into the 1950s.12

The Communists further alienated many Poles by persecuting the Catholic Church.14 The Stowarzyszenie PAX ("PAX Association") created in 1947 worked to undermine grassroot support from the Church and attempted to create a Communist Catholic Church. In 1953 the Primate of Poland, Stefan Cardinal Wyszyński, was placed under house arrest, although before that he had been willing to make compromises with the government.1416

Stefan Cardinal Wyszyński, imprisoned Primat of Poland.

The new Polish Constitution of 1952 officially established Poland as a People's Republic,19 ruled by the Polish United Workers' Party, which since the absorption of the left wing of the Socialist Party in 1948 had been the Communist Party's official name. The post of President of Poland was abolished, and Bierut, the First Secretary of the Communist Party, became the effective leader of Poland.

Stalin had died in 1953. Between 1953 and 1958 Nikita Khrushchev outmaneuvered his rivals and achieved power in the Soviet Union. In March 1956 Khrushchev denounced Stalin's cult of personality at the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party.19 The de-Stalinization of official Soviet ideology left Poland's Stalinist hard-liners in a difficult position.18 In the same month as Khrushchev's speech, as unrest and desire for reform and change among both intellectuals and workers was beginning to surface throughout the Eastern Bloc, the death of the hard-line Bierut in March 1956 exacerbated an existing split in the PZPR.18 Bierut was succeeded by Edward Ochab as First Secretary of the PZPR, and by Cyrankiewicz as Prime Minister.

Gomułka period (1956-1970)


Władysław Gomułka.

The Polish Communists were divided into two informal factions, named Natolin and Puławy after the locations where they held their meetings: the Palace of Natolin near Warsaw and Puławska Street in Warsaw.25 Natolin consisted largely of ethnic Poles of peasant origin who in large part had spent the war in occupied Poland, and had a peculiar nationalistic-communistic ideology. Headed by Władysław Gomułka, the faction underlined the national character of Polish local communist movement.19 Puławy faction included Jewish Communists, as well as members of the old Communist intelligentsia, who in large part spent the war in the USSR and supported the Sovietization of Poland.

In June 1956, workers in the industrial city of Poznań went on strike.1916 Demonstrations by striking workers turned into huge riots, in which 80 people were killed. Cyrankiewicz tried to repress the riots at first, threatening that "any provocateur or lunatic who raises his hand against the people's government may be sure that this hand will be chopped off."26 But soon the hard-liners realized that they had lost the support of the Soviet Union, and the regime turned to conciliation: it announced wage rises and other reforms. Voices began to be raised in the Party and among the intellectuals calling for wider reforms of the Stalinist system.

Realizing the need for new leadership, in what became known as Polish October, the PZPR chose Władysław Gomułka as First Secretary in October 1956-a moderate who had been purged after losing his battle with Bierut;19 Gomułka had successfully convinced the Soviet Union that he would not allow its influence on Eastern Europe to diminish.1814 Even so, Poland's relations with the Soviet Union were not nearly as strained as Yugoslavia's. As a further sign that the end of Soviet influence in Poland was nowhere in sight, the Warsaw Pact was signed in the Polish capital of Warsaw on May 14, 1955, to counteract the establishment of the Western military alliance, NATO.

Hard-line Stalinists such as Berman were removed from power, and many Soviet officers serving in the Polish Armed Forces were dismissed,1822 but almost no one was put on trial for the repressions of the Bierut period. The Puławy faction argued that mass trials of Stalin-era officials, many of them Jewish, would incite animosity toward the Jews. Konstantin Rokossovsky and other Soviet advisors were sent home, and Polish Communism took on a more independent orientation.1416 However, Gomułka knew that the Soviets would never allow Poland to leave the Warsaw Pact because of Poland's strategic position between the Soviet Union and Germany. He agreed that Soviet troops could remain in Poland, and that no overt anti-Soviet outbursts would be allowed. In this way, Poland avoided the risk of the kind of Soviet armed intervention that crushed the revolution in Hungary that same month.

There were also repeated attempts by some Polish academics and philosophers, many related to the pre-war Lwow-Warsaw School and later Poznań School-such as Kazimierz Ajdukiewicz, Tadeusz Czeżowski, Leszek Kołakowski, Tadeusz Kotarbiński, Stanisław Ossowski, Adam Schaff-to develop a specific form of Polish Marxism. While their attempts to create a bridge between Poland's history and Soviet Marxist ideology were mildly successful, they were nonetheless always stifled due to the regime's unwillingness to risk the wrath of the Soviet Union for going too far from the Soviet party line.27

National communism

Poland welcomed Gomułka's rise to power with relief.18 Many Poles still rejected communism, but they knew that the realities of Soviet dominance dictated that Poland could not escape from communist rule. Gomułka promised an end to police terror, greater intellectual and religious freedom, higher wages and the reversal of collectivization, and to a certain extent he indeed fulfilled all of these promises.191416 The January 1957 elections were more liberal than previous communist elections but still no opposition candidates were permitted to run.25

Gomułka's Poland was generally described as one of the more "liberal" Communist regimes,4 and Poland was certainly more open than East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Romania during this period. Nevertheless, under Gomułka, Poles could still go to prison for writing political satire about the Party leader, as Janusz Szpotański did, or for publishing a book abroad. Jacek Kuroń, who would later become a prominent dissident, was imprisoned for writing an "open letter" to other Party members. As Gomułka's popularity declined and his reform Communism lost its impetus, the regime became steadily less liberal and more repressive.14

After the first wave of reform, Gomułka's regime started to move back on their promises, as the power of the Party, such as Party's control of the media and universities, was gradually restored, and many of the younger and more reformist members of the Party were expelled. The reform-promising Gomułka of 1956 was replaced by the authoritarian Gomułka. Poland enjoyed a period of relative stability over the next decade, but the idealism of the "Polish October" had faded away.191416 What replaced it was a somewhat cynical form of Polish nationalism intervened with communist ideology, fueled by a propaganda campaigns such as the one against West Germany over its unwillingness to recognize the Oder-Neisse line.

By the mid-1960s, Poland was starting to experience economic, as well as political, difficulties.19 Like all the Communist regimes, Poland was spending too much on heavy industry, armaments and prestige projects, and too little on consumer production.19 The end of collectivization returned the land to the peasants,14 but most of their farms were too small to be efficient, so productivity in agriculture remained low. Economic relations with West Germany were frozen because of the impasse over the Oder-Neisse line. Gomułka chose to ignore the economic crisis, and his autocratic methods prevented the major changes required to prevent a downward economic spiral.

The fourth congress of the Polish United Workers' Party, held in 1963.

By the 1960s, other government officials had begun to plot against Gomułka. His security chief, Mieczysław Moczar, a wartime Communist partisan commander, formed a new faction, "the Partisans", based on principles of Communist nationalism and anti-inteligencja and anti-Jewish sentiment.19 The Party boss in Upper Silesia, Edward Gierek, who unlike most of the Communist leaders was a genuine product of the working class, also emerged as a possible alternative leader.

In March 1968 student demonstrations at Warsaw University broke out when the government banned the performance of a play by Adam Mickiewicz (Dziady, written in 1824) at the Polish Theatre in Warsaw, on the grounds that it contained "anti-Soviet references." In what became known as the March 1968 events Moczar used this affair as a pretext to launch an anti-intellectual and anti-Semitic press campaign (although the expression "anti-Zionist" was the one officially used) whose real goal was to weaken the pro-reform liberal faction.1916 Approximately 20,000 Jews lost their jobs and had to emigrate.4

The communist government reacted in several ways to the March events. One was an official approval for demonstrating Polish national feelings, including the scaling down of official criticism of the prewar Polish regime, and of Poles who had fought in the anti-Communist wartime partisan movement, the Armia Krajowa. The second was the complete alienation of the regime from the leftist intelligentsia, who were disgusted at the official promotion of anti-Semitism. Many Polish intellectuals opposed the campaign, some openly, and Moczar's security apparatus became as hated as Berman's had been. The third was the founding by Polish emigrants to the West of organizations that encouraged opposition within Poland. The campaign damaged Poland's reputation abroad, particularly in the United States.16

Two things saved Gomułka's regime at this point. First, the Soviet Union, now led by Leonid Brezhnev, made it clear that it would not tolerate political upheaval in Poland at a time when it was trying to deal with the crisis in Czechoslovakia. In particular, the Soviets made it clear that they would not allow Moczar, whom they suspected of anti-Soviet nationalism, to be leader of Poland. Secondly, the workers refused to rise up against the regime, partly because they distrusted the intellectual leadership of the protest movement, and partly because Gom