History of Poland (1945–89)
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The history of Poland from 1945 to 1989 spans the period of Soviet communist dominance imposed after the end of World War II over what had become the People's Republic of Poland. 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, the advancing Soviet Red Army pushed out the Nazi German forces from occupied Poland. At the insistence of Joseph Stalin, the Yalta Conference sanctioned the formation of a new Polish provisional and pro-communist coalition government in Moscow, which ignored the Polish government-in-exile based in London. This has been described as a Western betrayal of Poland on the part of Allied Powers to appease the Soviet leader, and make sure that the Soviet forces continue to bear the brunt of the anti-Nazi offensive.
The Potsdam Agreement of 1945 ratified the westerly shift of Polish borders and approved its new territory between the Oder-Neisse and Curzon lines. Poland, as a result of World War II, for the first time in history became an ethnically homogeneous nation state without prominent minorities due to destruction of indigenous Polish-Jewish population in the Holocaust, the flight and expulsion of Germans in the west, resettlement of Ukrainians in the east, and the repatriation of Poles from Kresy. The new communist government in Warsaw solidified its political power over the next two years, while the communist Polish United Workers' Party (PZPR) under Bolesław Bierut gained firm control over the country, which would become part of the postwar Soviet sphere of influence in Eastern Europe.
Following Stalin's death in 1953, a political "thaw" in Eastern Europe caused a more liberal faction of the Polish communists of Władysław Gomułka to gain power. By the mid-1960s, Poland began experiencing increasing economic, as well as political, difficulties. In December 1970, a consumer 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 1976, the government of Edward Gierek was forced to raise prices again, and this led to another wave of public protests.
This vicious cycle and economic-political struggle acquired new characteristics with the 1978 election of Karol Wojtyła as Pope John Paul II, strengthening the opposition to communism in Poland, especially with Wojtyła's first papal visit to Poland in 1979. 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 1989 Round Table Talks led to Solidarity's participation in the 1989 election; its candidates' striking victory gave rise to the first of the succession of transitions from communist rule in Central and Eastern Europe. In 1990, Jaruzelski resigned as the President of the Republic of Poland and was succeeded by Wałęsa after the December 1990 elections.
- 1 Creation of the People's Republic of Poland (1944–48)
- 2 Stalinist era (1948–56)
- 3 Gomułka's road to socialism (1956–70)
- 4 Gierek decade (1970–80)
- 5 Final years of communist rule (1980–90)
- 6 See also
- 7 References
- 8 Further reading
- 9 External links
Creation of the People's Republic of Poland (1944–48)
Wartime devastation, border and population shifts
Poland suffered heavy losses during World War II. While in 1939 Poland had 35.1 million inhabitants, at the end of the war only 19.1 million remained within its new borders. The first post-war census of 14 February 1946 showed 23.9 million due to migration. Estimates vary, but up to 6 million Polish citizens died between 1939 and 1945. Due to the multiethnic diversity of prewar Poland reflected in national censuses, the number of ethnic Polish victims (a part of the above total) was perhaps 2 million. The approximate figure of 3 million Jewish Polish victims is generally accepted. 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, Poland's minorities were all but gone.
Poland, a predominantly agricultural country with poorly developed industrial base compared to Western nations, suffered catastrophic damage to its infrastructure during the war, which caused it to lag even further behind the West in industrial output. The losses in national resources and infrastructure amounted to over 30% of the pre-war potential. Poland's capital of Warsaw, over eighty percent destroyed in the aftermath of the Warsaw Uprising, was among the most devastated cities. However, the more economically backward eastern regions were lost by the Polish state and the more highly developed western areas acquired. Already in 1948 the prewar level of industrial production was exceeded in global and per capita terms.
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 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 pressure caused the Polish government to reject the American-sponsored Marshall Plan, and to join the Soviet Union-dominated Comecon in 1949. The Soviet forces present engaged in plunder of the former eastern territories of Germany which were being transferred to Poland, stripping it of valuable industrial equipment, infrastructure and factories and sending them to the Soviet Union.
After the Soviet annexation of the Kresy territories east of the Curzon line, about 2 million Poles were "repatriated" (moved or were transferred or expelled) from these areas into the new western and northern territories east of the Oder-Neisse line, which were transferred from Germany to Poland under the Potsdam Agreement. Others stayed in what had become the Soviet Union and more went to Poland after 1956. Additional settlement with people from central parts of Poland brought the number of Poles in what the government called the Recovered Territories up to 5 million by 1950. The former German population of 10 million had fled or was expelled to post-war Germany by 1950, of which 5 million were involved in involuntary transfers in the "Polish part of the operation". The expulsion of the Germans was the result of the Allied decisions finalized in Potsdam.
With the repatriation of Ukrainians from Poland to the Soviet Union and the 1947 Operation Vistula dispersing the remaining Ukrainian minority, and with most of the former Jewish minority exterminated by Nazi Germany during the Holocaust and many of the survivors emigrating to the West and to newly created Israel, Poland for the first time became an ethnically homogenous nation state. The government-imposed and spontaneous movements of people amounted to one of the greatest demographic upheavals in European history.
Warsaw and other ruined cities were cleared of rubble — mainly by hand — and rebuilt with great speed (one of the successes of the Three-Year Plan) at the expense of former German cities like Wrocław, which often provided the needed construction material. Wrocław, Gdańsk, Szczecin and other formerly German cities were also completely rebuilt.
Historian Norman Davies found the new Polish frontiers, from the Polish interests point of view, entirely advantageous, but arrived at at the cost of enormous suffering and specious justifications. The radically new Eastern European borders constituted a "colossal feat of political engineering", but could not be derived from immemorial historical determinations, as claimed by the communist propaganda.
The Regained Territories Exhibition (Polish: Wystawa Ziem Odzyskanych), a propaganda exhibition celebrating "the restoration of the Recovered Territories to Poland" after the end of Second World War, was opened on 21 July 1948 by Bolesław Bierut and lasted for 100 days. About 2 million people visited the exhibition and the Iglica monument was built in front of the Centennial Hall in Wrocław.
Consolidation of communist power
Even before the Red Army entered Poland, the Soviet Union was pursuing a deliberate strategy to eliminate anti-communist resistance forces to ensure that Poland would fall under its sphere of influence. In 1943, following the Katyn massacre, Stalin severed relations with the Polish government-in-exile in London. However, to appease the United States and the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union agreed at the February 1945 Yalta Conference to form a coalition government composed of the communists, including the Polish Workers' Party (Polska Partia Robotnicza; PPR), pro-Western elements in exile and in Poland, and members of the Armia Krajowa ("Home Army") resistance movement, as well as to allow for free elections to be held.
After the prewar Communist Party of Poland was eliminated in Stalin's purges in 1938 (some five thousand Polish communists were brought to Russia and killed), a group of survivors, led by Marceli Nowotko, Bolesław Mołojec and Paweł Finder, convinced in 1941 the Soviets in Moscow of the need to reestablish a Polish party. The conspirational core of the new Polish Workers' Party was assembled in Warsaw in January 1942, and after the deaths or arrests of the above leaders there, Władysław Gomułka emerged as PPR's First Secretary by the end of 1943. Gomułka was a dedicated communist in the national tradition of the Polish leftist movement, who loathed the Soviet practices he experienced while being trained in Russia and Ukraine in the 1930s, but was convinced of the historic necessity of alliance with the Soviet Union. He may have survived the purges because of being imprisoned in Poland for illegal labor-organizing activities in 1938–39. Throughout the German occupation, Gomułka remained in Poland and was not a part of the Moscow-reared Stalin's Polish circle. In Polish society of 1945, Gomułka's party was marginally small in comparison to other political groups.
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, formally led by their Polish Committee of National Liberation (Polski Komitet Wyzwolenia Narodowego; PKWN), an early government, from late July 1944 in existence in Lublin. The Polish communists became the most influential Polish factor in the politics of emerging Poland. PKWN recognized the legal continuity of the March Constitution of Poland, as opposed to the April Constitution. On September 6, PKWN issued its momentous land reform decree, the consequences of which would fundamentally alter the antiquated social and economic structure of the country. Over one million peasant families benefited form the parceling of the larger estates.
Thus from its outset, the Yalta decision favored the communists, who enjoyed the advantages of Soviet support within the Soviet plan of bringing Eastern Europe securely under the influence of the Soviet Union, as well as control over crucial government departments such as the security services (this activity was initially dominated by Lavrentiy Beria's Soviet NKVD). Beginning in the later part of 1944, following the defeat of the Warsaw Uprising and the promotion of the populist program of the PKWN, the London exiled government's delegation was increasingly seen by the majority of Poles as a failed enterprise, its political-military organizations became isolated, and the resistance against the new communist political and administrative forces decisively weakened. The population was tired of the years of oppression and conflict and the ideas expressed in the PKWN Manifesto and their progressive implementation attracted widening social support.
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; RTRP) had been created by the PKWN and functioned from January 1945. This government was headed by Edward Osóbka-Morawski, a socialist, but the communists, mostly non-PPR Soviet employees, such as Michał Rola-Żymierski, held a majority of key posts. In April 1945, a Polish-Soviet treaty of friendship and cooperation was signed; it severely limited the possibilities of future Western or émigré impact or internal cooperation with non-communist political forces in Poland. The consecutive early Soviet-influenced governments were subordinate to the unelected, communist-controlled parliament, the State National Council (Krajowa Rada Narodowa; KRN), formed by Gomułka and his PPR in occupied Warsaw in January 1944. The communist governmental structures 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 Yalta agreement stipulated a governmental union in Poland of "all democratic and anti-Nazi elements". Mikołajczyk, who accepted the Yalta terms, went to Moscow, where he negotiated with Bierut the shape of a "national unity" government".
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 established on 28 June 1945. Osóbka-Morawski was kept as Prime Minister, Gomułka became First Deputy Prime Minister and Mikołajczyk Second Deputy and Minister of Agriculture. The government was "provisional" and the Potsdam Conference soon declared that before a regular government is created, free elections must be held and a permanent constitutional system established.
The communists' principal rivals were the veterans of the Armia Krajowa movement, Mikołajczyk's Polish People's (Peasant) Party (Polskie Stronnictwo Ludowe; PSL), and the veterans of the Polish armies which had fought in the West. Soviet-oriented parties, backed by the Soviet Red Army and in control of the security forces, held most of the power, concentrated especially in the Polish Workers' Party under Władysław Gomułka and Bolesław Bierut. Bierut represented the influx of appointees to the Polish party coming (during and after the war) from Russia and imposed by the Soviets, a process accelerated at the time of the PPR Congress of December 1945. The Party's membership dramatically increased from perhaps a few thousand in early 1945 to over one million in 1948.
As a show of communist rule and Soviet domination, sixteen prominent leaders of the Polish anti-Nazi underground were brought to trial in Moscow in June 1945. Their removal from the political scene precluded the possibility of a democratic transition called for by the Yalta agreements. The trial of the defendants, falsely and absurdly accused of collaboration with the Nazis, was watched by British and American diplomats without protest. The absence of the expected death sentences was their relief. The exiled government in London, after Mikołajczyk's resignation led by Tomasz Arciszewski, ceased to be officially recognized by Great Britain and the United States on 5 July 1945.
In the years 1945–47, about 500,000 Soviet soldiers were stationed in Poland. Between 1945 and 1948, some 150,000 Poles were imprisoned by the Soviet authorities. Many former Home Army members were apprehended and executed. During the PPR Central Committee Plenum of May 1945, Gomułka complained that the Polish masses regard the Polish communists as the "NKVD's worst agency" and Edward Ochab declared the withdrawal of the Soviet Army from Poland a high priority. But in the meantime tens of thousands of Poles died in the postwar struggle and persecution and tens of thousands were sentenced by courts on fabricated and arbitrary charges or deported to the Soviet Union. The status of Soviet troops in Poland was not legalized until late 1956, when the Polish-Soviet declaration "On the legal status of Soviet forces temporarily stationed in Poland" was signed. The Soviet Northern Group of Forces would be permanently stationed in Poland.
Rigged 1946 referendum and first elections of 1947
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 general population. To circumvent this difficulty, in 1946 a national plebiscite, known as the "3 times YES" referendum (3 razy TAK; 3×TAK), was held first, before the parliamentary elections. The referendum comprised three fairly general, but politically charged questions about the Senate, national industries and western borders. It was meant to check and promote the popularity of communist initiatives in Poland. Since most of the important parties at the time were leftist or centrist – and could have easily approved all three options – Mikołajczyk's PSL decided, not to be seen as merging into the "Government Bloc", to ask its supporters to oppose one of them: the abolition of the Senate. The communists voted "3 times YES". The partial results, reconstructed by PSL, showed that the communist side was met with little support; in Kraków where the actual ballots were counted, only 16% of the population voted in favor of their proposed Option One. However, the large-scale electoral fraud and intimidation won the communists a claimed majority of 68% in the carefully controlled poll, which led to the nationalization of industry and state control of economic activity in general, land reform, and a unicameral national parliament (Sejm).
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 People's Party (PSL). In some widely publicized cases, the perceived enemies were being sentenced to death on trumped up charges — among them Witold Pilecki, the organizer of the Auschwitz resistance, and numerous leaders of Armia Krajowa and the Council of National Unity. Many resistance fighters were murdered extrajudicially, or forced to exile. The opposition members were also persecuted by administrative means. Although the ongoing persecution of the former anti-Nazi and right-wing organizations by state security kept thousands of partisans in the forests, the actions of the Ministry of Public Security of Poland (UB, Polish secret police), NKVD and the Red Army steadily diminished their numbers. The right-wing insurgency faded after the amnesty of February 1947.
By 1946, all rightist parties had been outlawed, and a new pro-government Democratic Bloc was formed in 1947 which included only the Polish Workers' Party and its leftist allies. On January 19, 1947, the first parliamentary elections took place featuring primarily PPR and allied candidates and a potentially politically potent opposition from the Polish People's Party, whose strength and role had already been seriously compromised due to government control and persecution. Results were adjusted by Stalin himself to suit the communists, whose bloc claimed 80% of the votes. The British and American governments protested the poll for its blatant violations of the Yalta and Potsdam accords. The rigged elections effectively ended the multiparty system in Poland's politics. After the referendum dress rehearsal, the vote fraud was much better concealed and spread into various forms and stages and its actual scale is not known. With all the pressure and manipulations, a NKVD colonel charged with the election supervision reported to Stalin that about 50% of the vote was cast for the regime's Democratic Bloc nationwide. In the new Sejm, out of 444 seats, 27 were given to Mikołajczyk's party. Stanisław Mikołajczyk, who declared the results to be falsified and was threatened with arrest or worse, fled the country and other opposition leaders also left. Western governments did not act further and the Poles felt abandoned again. In the same year, the new Sejm created the Small Constitution of 1947. Over the next two years, the communists monopolized their political power in Poland.
Polish United Workers' Party and its rule
Additional force in Polish politics, the long-established Polish Socialist Party (Polska Partia Socjalistyczna, PPS), suffered a fatal split at this time, as the ruling Stalinists applied the salami tactics to dismember the opposition. Communist politicians cooperated with the left-wing PPS faction led by Józef Cyrankiewicz, prime minister under new president Bierut from February 1947, who personally visited Stalin in Moscow in March 1948 with the idea of a party merger. The Kremlin, increasingly uncomfortable with Gomułka's communist party leadership, concurred, and Cyrankiewicz secured his own political place for the future (until 1972). In December 1948, after the removal of Gomułka and imposition of Bierut as the communist Polish Workers' Party chief, the PPR and Cyrankiewicz's rump PPS joined ranks to form the Polish United Workers' Party (Polska Zjednoczona Partia Robotnicza; PZPR), in power for the next four decades. Poland became a de facto single-party state and a satellite state of the Soviet Union. Only two other parties were allowed to exist legally: United People's Party, a small farmers' party, and the Democratic Party, a token intelligentsia party (see also: political organization in Poland 1945-1989).
As the period of Sovietization and Stalinism began, PZPR was anything but united. The most important split among the communists occurred before the union with PPS, when the Stalinists forced Gomułka out of PPR's top office and suppressed his native communist faction. PZPR had become divided into several factions, which espoused different views and methods and sought different degrees of the Polish state's distinction and independence from the Soviet Union. While the official ideology, the Russian version of Marxism, was new to Poland, the communist regime continued, in many psychologically and practically important ways, the precepts, methods and manners of past Polish ruling circles, including those of the Sanation, the National Democracy, and the 19th century traditions of cooperation with the partitioning powers.
With Poland being a member of the Soviet Bloc, the Party's pursuits of power and reform were permanently hindered by the restrictions and limits imposed by the rulers of the Soviet Union, by the resentful attitude of Polish society, acutely conscious of its lack of national independence and freedoms, and by the understanding of the Party managers that their positions would terminate once they stop conforming to the requirements of the Soviet alliance (because of both the lack of public support and Soviet reaction). Poland's political history was governed by the mutual dependence of the Soviets and the Polish communists.
Stalinist era (1948–56)
Repression and its limits
The repercussions of Yugoslavia's break with the Soviet Union reached Warsaw in 1948. As in other Eastern Bloc countries, there was a Soviet-style political purge of communist officials in Poland, accused of "nationalist" or other "deviationist" tendencies. In September, Władysław Gomułka who opposed Stalin's direct control of the Polish PPR party, was charged, together with a group of communist leaders who like Gomułka spent the war in Poland, with ideological trespasses based on trumped up accusations, and dismissed from the post of its First Secretary. He was arrested by the Ministry of Public Security and interrogated by Romkowski and Fejgin on Soviet orders. Gomułka escaped physical torture unlike other communists persecuted under the regime of Bolesław Bierut, Jakub Berman and other Stalin's associates. He was put under house arrest without a typical show trial and released a few years later, in 1954 or 1955. Bierut, heading the victorious faction whose members spent the war in the Soviet Union, replaced Gomułka as party leader (PPR and then PZPR) until his own sudden death. Gomułka remained protected by his Polish comrades to the best of their ability and the record of his sometime defiance came in handy when in 1956 there was an opportunity for the Polish party to reassert itself.
The Stalinist government was controlled by Polish communists originating from wartime factions and organizations operating in the Soviet Union under Stalin, such as the Union of Polish Patriots. Their leaders at that time included Wanda Wasilewska and Zygmunt Berling. Now in Poland those who remained politically active and in favor ruled the country, aided by the Ministry of Public Security and the Soviet "advisers", who were placed in every arm of the government as a guarantee of the pro-Soviet policy of the state. The most important of them was Konstantin Rokossovsky (Konstanty Rokossowski in Polish), the Defense Minister of Poland from 1949 to 1956, former marshal and war hero in the Soviet Armed Forces, backed by a slew of well-trained Russian Commissars in control of Polish state security. Military conscription was introduced following a postwar hiatus and, under the careful tutelage of the Soviet advisers, the army soon reached its permanent size of 400,000 men.
The Soviet-style secret police and the central security office Urząd Bezpieczeństwa (UB) grew to around 32,000 agents as of 1953. At its Stalinist peak, there was one UB agent for every 800 Polish citizens. The MBP ministry was also in charge of the Internal Security Corps, the Civil Militia (MO), border guard, prison staff and paramilitary police ORMO used for special actions (with over 100,000 members). ORMO originated from popular self-defense efforts, a spontaneous reaction to the explosion of crime in the power vacuum of 1944–45. In February 1946 PPR channeled and formalized this citizen militia movement, creating its ostensibly crime control voluntary ORMO structure.
Primarily in Stalin's lifetime, the public prosecutors and judges as well as functionaries of MBP, Służba Bezpieczeństwa and GZI WP military police engaged in acts recognized by international law as crimes against humanity and crimes against peace. One example was the torture and execution of seven members of the 4th Headquarters of the combatant post-Armia Krajowa Wolność i Niezawisłość (WiN) organization in the Mokotów Prison in Warsaw, after the official amnesty and their voluntary disclosure. All executed members of WiN took active part in anti-Nazi resistance during World War II. The postwar Polish Army, intelligence and police were full of Soviet NKVD officers who stationed in Poland with the Northern Group of Forces until 1956.
Mass arrests continued during the early 1950s. In October 1950, 5,000 people were arrested in one night, in the so-called "Operation K"; in 1952 over 21,000 people were arrested. According to official data, there were 49,500 political prisoners in the second half of 1952. In one very shocking case, the former Home Army commander Emil Fieldorf was subjected to several years of brutal persecution in the Soviet Union and Poland before being executed in February 1953, just before Stalin's death.
Resistance to the Soviet and native Stalinists was widespread among not only the general population but also the PZPR ranks, which limited the oppressive system's damage in Poland to well below that of other European communist-ruled countries. Political violence after 1947 was not widespread. The Church, subjected to partial property confiscations, remained largely intact, the marginalized to a considerable degree intelligentsia retained its potential to affect future reforms, the peasantry avoided wholesale collectivization and remnants of private enterprise survived. Gradual liberalizing changes took place between Stalin's death in 1953 and the Polish October of 1956. Following the defection to the West and revelations of its official Józef Światło, the Ministry of Public Security was abolished in December 1954. Gomułka and his associates were freed from confinement, censorship was slightly relaxed, many political discussion groups were formed all over the country.
Nationalization and centrally planned economy
The last Polish–Soviet territorial exchange took place in 1951. Some 480 km2 (185 sq mi) of land along the border were swapped between the People's Republic of Poland and the Soviet Union. The adjustment was made to the decisive economic benefit of the Soviet side due to rich deposits of coal given up by Poland. Within eight years following the exchange, the Soviets built four large coal-mines there, producing 15 million tons of coal annually. Poland increased its area of scenic wooded ecosystems in the western part of the Eastern Carpathian Mountains and its territory became even more compact.
In February 1948, the Minister of Industry Hilary Minc attacked the Central Planning Office of Poland as a "bourgeois" remnant, the Office was abolished and the Polish Stalinist economy was born. The government, headed by President Bierut, Prime Minister Cyrankiewicz and Marxist economist Minc, embarked on a sweeping program of economic reform and national reconstruction. Poland was brought into line with the Soviet model of a "people's republic" and centrally planned socialist economy, in place of the façade of democracy and partial market economy which the regime had maintained until 1948.
Soviet-style centralized planning begun in 1950 with the Six-Year Plan. The plan focused on rapid development of heavy industry and (eventually futile) collectivization of agriculture. Among the main projects was the Lenin Steelworks and it supporting "socialist city" of Nowa Huta (New Steel Mill), both built from the scratch in the early 1950s near Kraków, of which Nowa Huta soon became a part. The land seized from prewar large landowners was redistributed to the poorer peasants, but subsequent attempts at taking the land from farmers for collectivization met wide resentment. In what became known as the battle for trade, the private trade and industry were nationalized. Within few years most private shops disappeared from Poland. The regime embarked on the campaign of collectivization (State Agricultural Farms were created), although the pace of this change was slower than in other Soviet satellites. Poland remained the only Eastern Bloc country where individual peasants would continue to dominate agriculture. A Soviet-Polish trade treaty, initiated in January 1948, dictated the dominant direction of Poland's future foreign trade and economic cooperation.
In 1948 the United States announced the Marshall Plan initiative to help rebuild postwar Europe and thus gain more political power there. After initially welcoming the idea of Poland's participation in the plan, the Polish government declined the American offer under pressure from Moscow. Also, 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. Although Poland received compensation in the form of the territories and property left behind by the German population of the annexed western territories, some dispute whether they were enough to compensate for the loss of the Kresy territories. Despite the lack of German compensation and American aid, the East European "command economies", including Poland, made some progress in the bridging of the historically existing wealth gap with the market economy driven Western Europe. The centrally planned socialist economies of Eastern Europe did relatively better than the West in terms of the post-war years growth, only to sustain economic damage later, especially after the 1973 oil crisis.
Reforms, resistance and beginning of de-Stalinization
The constitution of 1952 guaranteed universal free health care. In the early 1950s, the Stalinist 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 screened out what facts and interpretations were to be taught; history and other sciences had to follow Marxist views approved by ideological censorship. During 1951–53, a large number of prewar professors who were perceived as "reactionary" by the new regime was dismissed from universities. The government control over art and artists deepened. The Soviet-style socialist realism became the only formula accepted by the authorities after 1949. Most works of art and literature presented to the public had to be in line with the views of the Party and thus present its propaganda (see also: Socialist realism in Poland).
The reforms often brought relief for a significant part of the population. After the Second World War many people were willing to accept communist rule in exchange for the restoration of relatively normal life; hundreds 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 some of the remnants of the Armia Krajowa, the Wolność i Niezawisłość organization that originated from it and especially the Narodowe Siły Zbrojne, actively opposed the communists, hoping for a World War III that would liberate Poland. Those who took up arms against the communist regime are collectively known known as the cursed soldiers. Most had surrendered during the amnesty of 1947, but the brutal repressions by the secret police continued and some fought well into the 1950s.
The communists further alienated many Poles by persecuting the Catholic Church. The PAX Association created in 1947 and led by the former prewar far-right activist Bolesław Piasecki, attempted to divide the Catholic movement and promote a communist rule-friendly, collaborationist church. PAX did not get very far in molding the Catholic public opinion, but published numerous books and officially approved daily Catholic press. In 1953 the Primate of Poland, Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński was placed under house arrest, even though before he had been willing to make compromises with the government. In the early 1950s, the war against religion by the secret police led to the arrest and torture of hundreds of Polish religious personalities, culminating in the Stalinist show trial of the Kraków Curia. The Office of the Council of Ministers (Urząd Rady Ministrów) produced a list of government-approved Bishops. See also: Polish anti-religious campaign.
The new Polish Constitution of 1952 officially established the People's Republic of Poland and on paper guaranteed all sorts of democratic rights and freedoms. In reality, the country was controlled extra-constitutionally by the Polish United Workers' Party, which used its own rules and practices to supervise all governmental institutions specified in the Constitution. The post of President of Poland was replaced with the collective Council of State, but Bierut, the Party's first secretary, remained the effective leader of Poland. In the future, the existence of a constitution with democratic provisions would give the opposition a legal tool and a way to pressure the regime.
Stalin died in 1953, which was followed by a partial thaw in Poland. Nikita Khrushchev became First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. In March 1956 Khrushchev denounced Stalin's cult of personality at the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party and embarked on a reform course. The de-Stalinization of official Soviet ideology left Poland's Stalinist hardliners in a difficult position. While unrest and desire for reform and change among both intellectuals and workers was beginning to surface throughout the Eastern Bloc, the death of Stalin's ally Bierut in March 1956 in Moscow (the veteran hardliner chief was attending the Soviet party's congress) exacerbated an existing split in the Polish party. In March Bierut was succeeded by Edward Ochab as first secretary, Cyrankiewicz was kept as prime minister. Jakub Berman, dismissed in May, by Gomułka's decision was never prosecuted.
Beginning on 28 June 1956, workers in the industrial city of Poznań, who had repeatedly, but in vain petitioned the authorities to intervene and improve their deteriorating situation, went on strike and rioted in response to a cut in wages and changed working conditions. Demonstrations by factory workers turned into a huge city-wide protest. 16 tanks, 2 armoured personnel carriers and 30 vehicles were brought to bear by a local military commander. Some of them were seized by the protesters, who also broke into the local government buildings. 57 people were killed and several hundred injured in two days of fighting. Several major military formations entered the scene, but the army's role was mainly that of support of the police and the security forces action. At the Poznań radio station, Prime Minister Cyrankiewicz in his widely publicized speech warned and threatened the rioters: he "…who will dare raise his hand against the people's rule may be sure that… the authorities will chop off his hand". Of the 746 people officially detained during and in the aftermath of the disturbances, almost 80% were workers. The authorities launched an investigation, attempting to uncover a claimed premeditated instigation and involvement by Western or anticommunist underground centers. Such efforts were unsuccessful and the events were found to have been spontaneous and locally supported. The Poznań revolt's lasting impact was that it caused a deeper and more liberal realignment within the Polish communist party and its relationship to Moscow.
Deeply shaken by the protests and violence, the 7th Plenum of the Central Committee, held in July 1956, split into two groups, the "ethno-nationalist" Natolin and the "reformist" Puławy factions, named after the locations where they held their meetings. Natolin consisted largely of communist officials from the army and state security, including Mieczysław Moczar, Zenon Kliszko and Zenon Nowak, who advocated the removal of "Stalin's Jewish protégés", but were themselves of Stalinist sympathies. Puławy faction included communists of Jewish origin from the security apparatus, many of whom spent the war in the Soviet Union, disillusioned opportunists, and members of the old communist intelligentsia. Many were former Stalinist fanatics, past Gomułka's enemies, now turned liberal reformers and Gomułka's allies. Both factions supported the Sovietization of Poland with somewhat different aims, but the staunch Stalinists lacked the support of Khrushchev. The regime turned to conciliation: wage rises and other reforms for the Poznań workers were announced. In the Party and among the intellectuals demands calling for wider reforms of the Stalinist system were becoming more widespread and intense.
Realizing the need for new leadership, in what became known as the Polish October, the 8th Plenum chose Gomułka, who had been released from house arrest and without a Soviet approval reinstated in the Polish Politburo, as the new first secretary of PZPR. Gomułka, pledging to dismantle Stalinism, subsequently convinced the Soviet leaders that he would preserve the Soviet influence in Poland. Accompanied by ominous Soviet military moves, a Soviet high-level delegation led by Khrushchev flew into Warsaw to witness and influence the upheaval in the Polish party. After the sometimes confrontational encounters and negotiations, they soon returned to Moscow, where the Soviet leader announced on 21 October that the idea of an armed intervention in Poland should be abandoned. On the same day in Warsaw, the 8th Plenum unanimously voted for Gomułka, giving rise to the era of national communism in Poland. Poland's relations with Kremlin were not nearly as strained as Yugoslavia's and the end of Soviet influence in Eastern Europe was nowhere in sight. Recently, on 14 May 1955, the Warsaw Pact was signed in the Polish capital, to counteract the earlier establishment of NATO.
The 20th Congress launched a process of partial democratisation of Polish political as well as economic life. The number of security agents was cut by 22% and 9,000 socialist and populist politicians were released from prison, on top of some 34,644 detainees across the entire country. Hardline Stalinists, such as Jakub Berman and Roman Romkowski, were removed from power and many Soviet officers serving in the Polish Armed Forces were dismissed, but very few were put on trial for the repressions of the Bierut period. The Puławy faction argued that mass trials of Stalinist officials, many of them Jewish, would incite animosity toward the Jews. Konstantin Rokossovsky and other Soviet advisers were sent home, and the Polish communist establishment and system took on a more independent orientation. Gomułka realized 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 a Soviet armed intervention of the kind that crushed the 1956 Hungarian Revolution in October. Gomułka had a pragmatic awareness of political realities and for the duration of his career he rewarded the Soviets for his internal leeway with loyal support. In one act of defiance, the Polish delegation at the United Nations abstained in November 1956 from the vote condemning the Soviet intervention in Hungary.
There were repeated attempts by some Polish academics and philosophers, many related to the prewar Lwów–Warsaw school - such as Leszek Kołakowski, Stanisław Ossowski and Adam Schaff - to develop a specific form of Polish Marxism. Their attempts to create a bridge between Poland's history and Marxist ideology were mildly successful, although stifled due to the regime's unwillingness to risk the wrath of the Soviet Union for deviating too far from the Soviet party line. Kołakowski, a leading "revisionist", was expelled from the Party in 1966 and in 1968 had to emigrate.
Scaling back of campaign promises
Poland welcomed Gomułka's rise to power with relief. Many Poles still rejected communism, but the realities of Soviet dominance dictated that Poland could not shake-off communist rule. Gomułka promised an end to police terror, greater intellectual and religious freedom, higher wages and the reversal of collectivization, and to a some degree he fulfilled these promises.
In October 1957, Poland's foreign minister Adam Rapacki proposed a European nuclear-free zone that would include the territories of Poland, West Germany, East Germany and Czechoslovakia. In August 1961 the new Berlin Wall cemented the division of Europe.
After the first wave of reform, Gomułka's regime started to move back on their promises. The communist control over the mass media and universities was gradually tightened, and many of the younger and more reformist members of the Party were forced out. The reform-promising Gomułka of 1956 turned into the authoritarian Gomułka of the 1960s. Although Poland enjoyed a period of relative stability in that decade, the idealism of the "Polish October" faded away. The decisions made at the XIII Plenum of the Central Committee (1963) meant a definite end of the post-October liberalization period. The demise of Gomułka's tactical allies, the Puławy faction, gradually replaced by Gomułka's own people, was marked by the removal from the Politburo of Roman Zambrowski, the leading Jewish politician.
Poland under Gomułka's rule was generally described as one of the more "liberal" communist regimes. However, Poles could still go to prison for writing political satire about the Party leader, as Janusz Szpotański did, or for publishing a book abroad. A March 1964 letter, signed by 34 leading intellectuals and delivered to the office of Prime Minister Cyrankiewicz, criticized the worsening censorship and demanded a more open cultural policy, as guaranteed by the Constitution. Jacek Kuroń and Karol Modzelewski were expelled from the Party and from 1965 imprisoned for written criticism of the Party rule and pointing out the contradictory nature of the supposedly workers' state. In the following years, the regime became steadily less liberal and more repressive. Gomułka's popularity declined as his initial vision lost its impetus. He reacted to increasing criticism by refusing to budge and insulating himself with the help of cronies, of whom Zenon Kliszko was the most influential; Kliszko's advice in the long run turned out not to be constructive. Intellectuals, students and other Poles became disillusioned and frustrated with Gomułka regime's record and his own self-righteous style. Within the Party, the Minister of the Interior Mieczysław Moczar and his nationalist-communist faction, "the Partisans" (and the much broader system of political clientele known as Moczarowcy), were looking for an opportunity to assert their dominance.
By the mid-1960s, Poland was starting to experience economic, as well as political difficulties. Similar to other communist regimes, Poland was spending too much on heavy industry, armaments and prestige projects, and too little on consumer production. The failure of Soviet-style collectivization returned the collectivized land to the peasants, but most of their farms were too small to be prosperous and productivity in agriculture remained low. Economic relations with West Germany were frozen due to East German interference and resistance to economic integration (CEMA). Gomułka ignored the signs of economic depression. His autocratic methods prevented the major changes required to halt a downward economic spiral.
The 1962 Szczecin military parade led to a road traffic accident in which a tank of the People's Army of Poland crushed bystanders, killing seven children and injuring many more. A panic in the crowd resulted in further injuries. The incident was covered up for many years by the communist authorities.
In 1965, the Conference of Polish Bishops issued the Letter of Reconciliation of the Polish Bishops to the German Bishops. In 1966, the celebrations of the 1,000th anniversary of the Baptism of Poland led by the Primate, Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński and other bishops, who toured the country, turned into a huge demonstration of the power and popularity of the Catholic Church in Poland. In fierce competition, the state authorities conducted their own national celebrations, stressing the origin of the Polish statehood, but the display of the Polish Church hierarchy's ability to command huge crowds in a land ruled by the communists must have impressed the Catholic prelates in the Vatican and elsewhere. The state-church dialogue, symbolized by the presence of the few Znak independent Catholic deputies in parliament, was rapidly deteriorating.
By the 1960s, rival government officials had begun to plot against Gomułka. His security chief Mieczysław Moczar, a wartime communist partisan commander, formed "the Partisans", a new faction based on principles of communist nationalism and anti-intelligentsia and anti-Jewish sentiments. The party leader in Upper Silesia, Edward Gierek, who had been exposed to the communist ideology while growing up in a working class environment in Western Europe, also emerged as a possible alternative leader.
In March 1968, student demonstrations at Warsaw University broke out in the wake of the government's banning of the performance of a play by Adam Mickiewicz (Dziady, written in 1824) at the National Theatre in Warsaw earlier that year, because of its alleged "anti-Soviet references". Subsequently state security and ORMO units attacked protesting university students in several major cities.
In what became known as the March 1968 events, Moczar used the spontaneous and informal celebrations of the outcome of the 1967 Arab–Israeli war and the Warsaw theatre affair as pretexts to launch an anti-intellectual and anti-Semitic (officially designated as "anti-Zionist") press campaign, whose real goal was to weaken the pro-reform liberal party faction and other circles. Thousands, generally secular and integrated people of Jewish origin lost their jobs and some 15,000 emigrated, between 1967 and 1971.
Following the current enforcement activity and in the wake of the growing citizen discontent in the following years, the Ministry of Public Security engaged in massive expansion of the ORMO force, which at its peak in 1979 reached over 450,000 members.
Among the ways in which the government responded to the March events 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 Armia Krajowa, the main pro-Western wartime partisan movement. The communist regime became alienated from the leftist intelligentsia, who were disgusted with the public displays of anti-Semitism. Many Polish intellectuals opposed the government campaign, some openly, and Moczar's security apparatus became as hated as Berman's had been. Polish emigrants to the West founded organizations that encouraged opposition within Poland; their campaign damaged the Polish regime's reputation abroad, particularly in the United States.
Gomułka's regime reasserted itself and was saved by a combination of international and domestic factors, including the Moczar faction's inability to take over the party and state apparatus. The Soviet Union, now led by Leonid Brezhnev, was preoccupied with the crisis in Czechoslovakia and not inclined to support personal changes in the Polish leadership; the Soviets also opposed Moczar because they suspected him of anti-Soviet nationalism. The Polish workers failed to support the intellectuals and students and to rise up against the regime, because they did not know and distrusted the leadership of the protest movement and because the government placated them with higher wages. Their internal dynamics had not reached the threshold of mass action at that time. The Catholic Church, while protesting against police violence against the opposition, was also not willing to support a direct confrontation with the regime.
In August 1968 the People's Army of Poland took part in the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. Some Polish intellectuals protested, and Ryszard Siwiec burned himself alive during the official national holiday celebrations. The Polish participation in the crushing of the Czech liberal communism (or socialism with a human face, as it was called then) further alienated Gomułka from his former liberal supporters. But within the Party, the opposition to Gomułka faded and the 5th Congress of the PZPR in November reconfirmed his rule. Brezhnev, who attended the gathering, used the occasion to expound his Brezhnev Doctrine, a self-granted Soviet right to forcefully intervene if an allied state strays too far from the fraternal course.
1970 food riots and the ousting of Gomułka
In 1970 Gomułka scored a major a political victory when Poland obtained a West German recognition of the post-World War II borders. German Chancellor Willy Brandt, who signed the agreement, also asked on his knees for forgiveness for the crimes of the Nazis (Warschauer Kniefall). His gesture was understood in Poland as being addressed to all Poles, although it was actually made at the site of the Warsaw Ghetto and was thus directed primarily toward the Jews. The notable reconciliation process between the Polish and German nations was initiated five years earlier, when the Polish Church issued its famous Letter of Reconciliation of the Polish Bishops to the German Bishops, criticized then by the Polish government.
Gomułka felt secure after the new agreement with West Germany, which he considered his milestone political achievement. But the event could not mask the economic crisis into which Poland was drifting, exacerbated by Soviet demands for more military spending. Although the system of fixed, artificially low food prices kept urban discontent under control, it caused further economic strain. In the long run the situation was unsustainable, and on December 12, 1970 (just before Christmas), the regime suddenly announced massive increases in the prices of basic foodstuffs, the government's main source of hard currency when exported. It is possible that the price rises were actually imposed by Gomułka's enemies in the Party, who planned to maneuver him out of power. The new measures were incomprehensible to many urban workers, and their provocative timing (the most intense food purchase period for most Polish families) led to strong social reaction and ultimately Gomułka's fall from power.
On December 14–19, 1970 mass demonstrations against the price rises broke out in the northern coastal cities of Gdańsk, Gdynia, Elbląg and Szczecin. The Party's Central Committee was deliberating in Warsaw, but a smaller conference, led by Gomułka, issued authorization for a limited use of lethal force to defend lives and property. Among the party leaders who arrived on the coast and directed the local enforcement actions, initially in Gdańsk, were Zenon Kliszko and Stanisław Kociołek. In Gdynia, the soldiers were instructed to prevent protesters from returning to factory buildings; they fired into a crowd of workers emerging from commuter trains. Fatal confrontations took place also in Szczecin. The exact number of people killed in the region in December is not known, but is believed to be higher than the officially given figure of 44.
The protest movement spread to other cities, leading to more strikes and causing angry workers to occupy many factories (see also the 1971 Łódź strikes). The general strike across Poland was scheduled for December 21, 1970.
The Party leadership meeting in Warsaw recognized the danger that the working-class revolt presented to their system, and, in consultations with the disturbed Soviet leaders, proceeded with arranging the resignation of Gomułka, who was by then stressed out and ill. Several of his collaborators were also removed. Edward Gierek was drafted as the new First Secretary. Mieczysław Moczar, another strong contender, was not trusted (or even was blamed for the current debacle) by the Soviets. Afterwards prices were lowered, wage increases were announced, and sweeping economic and political changes were promised. Gierek went to Gdańsk and met the workers personally, apologizing for the mistakes of the past, and saying that as a worker himself, he would now govern Poland for the people.
Gierek decade (1970–80)
Catching up with the West
Gierek, like Gomułka in 1956, came to power on a raft of promises that everything would be different from now on: wages would rise, prices would remain stable, there would be freedom of speech, and those responsible for the violence at Gdynia and elsewhere would be punished. Although Poles were much more sceptical than they had been in 1956, Gierek was believed to be an honest and well-intentioned man, and his promises bought him some time. He used this time to create a new economic program, one based on large-scale borrowing from banks in the West — mainly from the United States and West Germany — to buy technology that would upgrade Poland's production of export goods. This massive borrowing, estimated to have totaled 10 billion US dollars, was used to re-equip and modernize Polish industry, and to import consumer goods to give the workers more incentive to work.
For the next four years, Poland enjoyed rapidly rising living standards and an apparently stable economy. Real wages rose 40% between 1971 and 1975, and for the first time many Poles could afford to buy cars, televisions and other consumer goods. Poles living abroad, including veterans of the Armia Krajowa and the Polish Armed Forces in the West, were invited to return and to invest their money in Poland, which many did. The peasants were subsidized to grow more food. Poles were able to travel — mainly to West Germany, Sweden and Italy — with little difficulty. There was also some cultural and political relaxation. As long as the "leading role of the Party" and the "fraternal alliance with the Soviet Union" were not criticized, there was a limited freedom of speech. With the workers and peasants reasonably happy, the regime knew that a few grumbling intellectuals could not pose a serious challenge.
"Consumer communism", based on the present global economic conditions, raised the living standards and expectations in Poland, but the program faltered suddenly in the early 1970s because of worldwide recession and increased oil prices. The effects of the 1973 oil crisis produced an inflationary surge followed by a recession in the West, which resulted in a sharp increase in the price of imported consumer goods, coupled with a decline in demand for Polish exports, particularly coal. Poland's foreign debt rose from US$100 million in 1971 to US$6 billion in 1975, and continued to rise rapidly. Continuing borrowing from the West had become increasingly difficult. Consumer goods began to disappear from Polish shops. The new factories built by Gierek's regime also proved to be largely ineffective and mismanaged, as the basics of market demand and cost effectiveness were often ignored.
In 1975, Poland and almost all other European countries became signatories of the Helsinki Accords and a member of Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the creation of which marked the high point of the period of "détente" between the Soviet Union and the United States. Despite the regime's promises that the freedoms listed in the agreement would be implemented in Poland, there was little change. However, the Poles were gradually becoming more aware of the rights they were being denied and emboldened by the knowledge of their government's treaty obligations.
Economics and politics of chronic shortages
The government, increasingly unable to borrow money from abroad, had no alternative but to raise prices, particularly for basic foodstuffs. The fear of a repeat of the 1970 worker rebellion kept prices artificially frozen at the 1970 levels. In June 1976, under pressure from Western creditors, the government introduced sudden and radical price increases: butter by 33%, meat by 70%, and sugar by 100%. The result was an immediate nationwide wave of strikes, with violent demonstrations and looting at Płock and Radom. Gierek backed down at once, dismissing Prime Minister Piotr Jaroszewicz and repealing the price rises. At that time the government looked economically foolish and politically weak and was subjected to destabilizing pressures.
The 1976 disturbances and the subsequent arrests and dismissals of worker militants gave rise to the development of, more significant than in the past, contacts between the workers and the intellectual opposition to the regime. A group of intellectuals led by Jacek Kuroń and Adam Michnik founded the Workers' Defence Committee (Komitet Obrony Robotników; KOR). The aim of the KOR was at first simply to assist the worker victims of the 1976 repression, but it inevitably became a political resistance group. Working to support the spontaneous workers' movements, the intellectual dissidents in a practical sense accepted the leadership of the working class in opposing the regime. Many more intellectuals were brought into active opposition than in the past. The economic and political failures of the Gierek government led many of them to join or rejoin the opposition. Among the new opposition groups formed were the Confederation of Independent Poland (KPN), Free Trade Unions of the Coast (WZW) and the Movement for Defense of Human and Civic Rights (ROPCiO). They tried to resist the regime by denouncing it for violating the Polish constitution, Polish laws and Poland's international obligations.
For the rest of the 1970s, resistance to the regime grew, assuming the forms of trade unions, student groups, clandestine newspapers and publishers, ROPCiO and KOR, importing books and newspapers, and even a "flying university". The regime practiced widespread police surveillance, beatings, torture, firings, and other forms of repression against the democracy movement. Gierek simultaneously tried to buy off dissatisfied workers and keep the Soviet Union convinced that Poland was a loyal ally. But the Soviet alliance was at the heart of Gierek's problems: following the Brezhnev Doctrine and because of Poland's strategic position between the Soviet Union and Germany, at this stage the Soviets would not allow Poland to drift out of its orbit, as Yugoslavia and in part Romania had done. Nor would they allow any fundamental economic reform that could endanger the "socialist system".
Polish Pope John Paul II
On 16 October 1978, Poland experienced what many Poles literally believed to be a miracle. The Archbishop of Kraków, Karol Wojtyła, was elected Pope at the Vatican, taking the name John Paul II. The election of a Polish Pope had an electrifying effect on what was at that time one of the last idiosyncratically Catholic countries in Europe. When John Paul toured Poland in June 1979, half a million people came to welcome him in Warsaw, and in the next eight days, about ten million Poles attended at least one of his numerous outdoor masses. Overnight, John Paul became the most important person in Poland, leaving the regime not so much opposed as ignored. However, John Paul did not call for rebellion; instead, he encouraged the creation of an "alternative Poland" of social institutions independent of the government, so that when the next crisis came, the nation would present a united front.
Failing economy and labor unrest of 1980
By 1980, the communist leadership was completely trapped by Poland's economic and political dilemmas. The regime had no means of legitimizing itself, since it could never win a free election. The authorities had no choice but to make another attempt to raise consumer prices to realistic levels, but they knew that doing so would certainly spark another worker rebellion, much better-organized than the 1970 or 1976 outbreaks. Western bankers had loaned over $500 million to the government of Poland, and at a meeting at the Bank Handlowy in Warsaw on 1 July 1980 made it clear that low prices of consumer goods could no longer be subsidized by the state. The government gave in and announced a system of gradual but continuous price rises, particularly for meat. A wave of strikes and factory occupations began at once, with the biggest ones taking place in Lublin, coordinated from the KOR's headquarters in Warsaw. From the end of World War II until 1978, the US government loaned and gave the communist regime in Poland $677 million; in 1979 it granted an additional $500 million in loans and loan guarantees.
The leadership made little effort to intervene and the country awaited further developments. By this time, the Polish communists had lost their Stalinist zealotry of the 1940s; they had grown corrupt and cynical during the Gierek years and had no stomach for bloodshed. In early August, the strike wave reached the politically sensitive and restless Baltic Sea coast, with a strike at the Lenin Shipyards in Gdańsk. Among the leaders of this strike was Lech Wałęsa, an electrician who would soon become a figure of international importance. The strike wave spread along the coast, closing the ports and bringing the economy to a halt. With the assistance of the activists from KOR and the support of many intellectuals, the workers occupying the various factories, mines and shipyards across Poland were organizing as a united front (see also Jastrzębie-Zdrój 1980 strikes).
The leadership was now faced with a choice between repression on a massive scale and an agreement that would give the workers what they wanted, while preserving the outward shell of communist rule. They chose the latter, and on 31 August, Wałęsa signed the Gdańsk Agreement with Mieczysław Jagielski, a member of the Party Politburo. The Agreement acknowledged the right of Poles to associate in free trade unions, abolished censorship, abolished weekend work, increased the minimum wage, increased and extended welfare and pensions, and abolished Party supervision of industrial enterprises. The rule of the Party was significantly weakened in what was regarded by many as a first step toward dismantling its monopoly of power, but nonetheless preserved, as it was recognized as necessary to prevent Soviet intervention. The fact that all these economic concessions were completely unaffordable escaped attention in the wave of national euphoria that swept the country. In addition to the Gdańsk Agreement, similar documents were signed in Szczecin (Szczecin Agreement), Jastrzębie-Zdrój, and at Katowice Steelworks. The period that started afterwards is often called the first part of the "Polish carnival" - with the second one taking place in the late 1980s.
Final years of communist rule (1980–90)
The Gdańsk Agreement, an aftermath of the August 1980 labor strike, was an important milestone. It led to the formation of an independent trade union "Solidarity" (Polish Solidarność), founded in September 1980 and originally led by Lech Wałęsa. In the 1980s, it helped form a broad anti-communist social movement, with members ranging from people associated with the Catholic Church to anti-communist leftists. The union was backed by a group of intellectual dissidents, the KOR, and adhered to a policy of nonviolent resistance. In time, Solidarity became a major Polish political force in opposition to the communists.
The ideas of the Solidarity movement spread rapidly throughout Poland; new unions were formed and joined the federation. The Solidarity program, although concerned chiefly with trade union matters, was universally regarded as the first step towards dismantling the communists' dominance over social institutions, professional organizations and community associations. By the end of 1981, Solidarity had nine million members — a quarter of Poland's population and three times as many as the Polish communist party. Using strikes and other tactics, the union sought to block government policies. Apart from workers, both individual farmers and students created their own independent organizations: Rural Solidarity and Independent Students' Union.
In September 1980, the increasingly frail Gierek was removed from office and replaced as Party leader by Stanisław Kania. Kania made promises of the sort that Gomułka and Gierek had made when each came power. But whatever goodwill the new leader gained, it lasted for an even shorter period than it had been the case in 1956 and 1971, because there was no way that the regime could have kept the promises it had made at Gdańsk, even if it wanted to. The authorities were still trapped by the contradiction between following economic necessity and generating political instability. The government could not revive the economy without abandoning the state control of prices, but this would trigger another general strike. Nor could it gain the support of the population through political reform, because of the threat of Soviet intervention. GNP fell in 1979 by 2%, in 1980 by 8% and in 1981 by 15–20%. Public corruption had become endemic and housing shortages and food rationing were just some of the many factors contributing to the growing social unrest. Hunger demonstrations took place across the country in summer of 1981 and a massive warning strike in spring of 1981. An example of mass protests that occurred at that time was the 1981 general strike in Bielsko-Biała.
Imposition of martial law
On 13 December 1981, claiming that the country was on the verge of economic and civil breakdown, and alleging a danger of Soviet intervention, Wojciech Jaruzelski, who had become Prime Minister and then the Party's First Secretary that year, began a crack-down on Solidarity. Martial law was declared, the Union was suspended and most of its leaders temporarily imprisoned. Polish state militia (Milicja Obywatelska, the police) and paramilitary riot police ZOMO suppressed the strike action and demonstrations. A series of violent attacks included the pacification of Wujek Coal Mine during which 9 people were killed. After a series of street demonstrations against military rule, which reached its climax on August 31, 1982, the "Military Council of National Salvation" banned Solidarity officially on October 8, 1982. Martial law was formally lifted in July 1983, though many heightened controls on civil liberties and political life, as well as food rationing, remained in place throughout the mid-to-late 1980s.
During the chaotic years of Solidarity and martial law, Poland entered a decade of economic crisis, which was officially acknowledged by the regime. Work on most of the major investment projects that had begun in the 1970s was discontinued, resulting in landmarks such as the Szkieletor unfinished skyscraper in Kraków. Rationing and queuing became a way of life, with ration cards (kartki) necessary to buy basic consumer staples such as milk and sugar. As Western governments applied economic sanctions to express their dissatisfaction with the government repression of the opposition, access to imported luxury goods became even more restricted. Most of the available scarce resources of Western currency had to be used to pay the crushing rates on Poland's foreign debt, which reached US$23 billion by 1980. The government, which controlled all official foreign trade, responded by continuing to maintain a highly artificial exchange rate with Western currencies. The exchange rate worsened distortions in the economy at all levels, resulting in a growing black market and the development of a shortage economy.
The regime of General Jaruzelski unsuccessfully tried various expedients to improve the performance of the economy. To gather foreign currency, the government established in all Polish cities a chain of state-run Pewex stores, where goods could only be bought with Western currency, as well as issued its own ersatz U.S. currency (bony). During the era hundreds of thousands of Poles emigrated looking for jobs and better life abroad. The government was increasingly forced to allow more small-scale private enterprises to function, departing further from the 'socialist' model of economy.
Facing the inevitable
The ruling communist/military establishment slowly and gradually came to realize that a deal of some sort with the opposition would eventually be necessary. The constant state of economic and societal crisis meant that, after the shock of martial law had faded, people on all levels again began to organize against the regime. Solidarity was gaining more support and power, though it had never approached the levels of membership it enjoyed in the 1980–81 period. At the same time, the dominance of the communist party further eroded as it lost many of its members, who had been outraged by the imposition of martial law. Throughout the mid-1980s, Solidarity persisted solely as an underground organization, supported by a wide range of international supporters, from the Catholic Church to the Central Intelligence Agency. Starting from 1986, other opposition structures such as the Fighting Solidarity, the Federation of Fighting Youth, and the Orange Alternative "dwarf" movement founded by "Major" Waldemar Fydrych began organizing street protests in form of colorful happenings that assembled thousands of participants and broke the fear barrier which had been paralysing the population since the imposition of martial law. By the late 1980s, Solidarity was strong enough to frustrate Jaruzelski's reforms, including his failed attempt to gain a popular mandate for changes in a national referendum held in November, 1987. Renewed nationwide strikes in May and August 1988 were also one of the factors that forced the government to open a dialogue with Solidarity on 31 August 1988.
The perestroika and glasnost policies of the Soviet Union's new leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, were another factor in stimulating political reform in Poland. In particular, Gorbachev essentially repudiated the Brezhnev Doctrine, which had stipulated that attempts by its Eastern European satellite states to abandon communism would be countered by the Soviet Union with force. This change in Soviet policy, along with the hardline stance of US President Ronald Reagan against Soviet military interventions, removed the specter of a possible Soviet invasion in response to even wide-ranging reforms. It also eliminated the key argument which had repeatedly been employed by Polish regimes as a justification for maintaining communism in Poland.
By the close of its 10th plenary session on 18 January 1989, the communist party had decided to approach the leaders of Solidarity for formal talks. From 6 February to 4 April, 94 sessions of talks between 13 working groups, which became known as the "Round Table Talks" (Polish: Rozmowy Okrągłego Stołu), radically altered the structure of the Polish government and society. The talks resulted in an agreement to vest political power in a newly created bicameral legislature, and in a president who would be the chief executive.
On 4 April 1989, Solidarity was again legalized and allowed to participate in semi-free elections on 4 June 1989. This election had restrictions imposed, designed to keep the communists in power, since only one third of the seats in the Sejm, the key lower chamber of parliament, would be open to Solidarity candidates. The other two thirds were to be reserved for candidates from the communist party and its two allied, completely subservient parties. The communists thought of the election as a way of staying in power, while gaining some legitimacy to carry out reforms. Many critics from the opposition believed that by accepting the rigged arrangement Solidarity had bowed to government pressure, guaranteeing the communists domination in Poland into the 1990s.
When the results were released, a political earthquake followed. The victory of Solidarity surpassed all predictions. Solidarity candidates captured all the seats they were allowed to compete for in the Sejm, while in the Senate they captured 99 out of the 100 available seats (the other seat went to an independent, who later switched to Solidarity). At the same time, many prominent communist candidates failed to gain even the minimum number of votes required to capture the seats that were reserved for them. The communists suffered a catastrophic blow to their legitimacy.
The next few months were spent on political maneuvering. The two formerly puppet parties allied with the communists decided to break away and adopt independent courses. The new communist prime minister, General Czesław Kiszczak, who was appointed on 2 August 1989, failed to gain enough support in the Sejm to form a government, and resigned on 19 August 1989. He was the last communist head of government in Poland. Although Jaruzelski tried to persuade Solidarity to join the communists in a "grand coalition", Wałęsa refused. By August 1989, it was clear that a new Prime Minister would have to be chosen from among the Solidarity nominees. Jaruzelski resigned as First Secretary of the communist party on 29 July 1989, forced to come to terms with the prospect of new government being formed by political opposition. The increasingly insecure communists, who still had military and administrative control over the country, were appeased by a compromise in which Solidarity allowed General Jaruzelski to remain head of state. Jaruzelski won by just one vote in the National Assembly presidential election of 19 July 1989, even though his name was the only one on the communist ballot. He won through an informally arranged abstention by a sufficient number of Solidarity MPs. Wojciech Jaruzelski became President, but Solidarity elected representative Tadeusz Mazowiecki assumed the office of Prime Minister. He was appointed on 24 August 1989. The new non-communist government, the first of its kind in communist Europe, was sworn into office on 13 September 1989. It immediately adopted radical economic policies, proposed by Leszek Balcerowicz, which transformed Poland into a functioning market economy over the course of the next year.
The striking electoral victory of the Solidarity candidates in these limited elections, and the subsequent formation of the first non-communist government in the region in decades, encouraged many similar peaceful transitions from communist party rule in Central and Eastern Europe in the second half of 1989.
In 1990, Jaruzelski resigned as Poland's president and was succeeded by Wałęsa, who won the 1990 presidential elections. Wałęsa's inauguration as president in December, 1990 is thought by many to be the formal end of the communist People's Republic of Poland and the beginning of the modern Republic of Poland. The communist Polish United Workers' Party dissolved itself in 1990, and transformed into the Social Democracy of the Republic of Poland. The Warsaw Pact was formally dissolved on 1 July 1991; the last post-Soviet troops left Poland by 1993. On 27 October 1991, the first entirely free Polish parliamentary elections since the 1920s took place. This completed Poland's transition from a communist party rule to a Western-style liberal democratic political system.
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- Lukowski, Jerzy & Zawadzki, Hubert (2001). A Concise History of Poland. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-55917-0.
- Machcewicz, Pawel. Rebellious Satellite: Poland 1956 (Stanford University Press, 2009) 280 pp. online review
- Topolski, Jerzy (1986). An Outline History of Poland. Warsaw, Interpress Publishers.
- Zamoyski, Adam (1993). The Polish Way: A Thousand-Year History of the Poles and Their Culture. Hippocrene Books. ISBN 0-7818-0200-8.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Polish People's Republic.|
- The CWIHP Document Collection on Poland in the Cold War
- Photos and films of PRL (Polish)
- Polish Press Agency gallery of photos forbidden until 1989 and Photos of normal life (Polish)
- posters Muzeum PRL: PRL Poster gallery (Polish)
- Internet Museum of People's Republic of Poland (Polish)
- Soviet Archives concerning Poland (1980–1984) by Vladimir Bukovsky
- Presentation The Solidarity Phenomenon (PL, EN, DE, FR, ES, RU)
- Commonwealth of Diverse Cultures: Poland's Heritage
- Vintage Poland: Pretty in Polska - slideshow by Life magazine
- The short film Poland Reconstruction (1971) is available for free download at the Internet Archive [more]