Gomułka fought against the German invasion in September 1939 but then went into hiding in southern Poland until 1941. There he cofounded the Polska Partia Robotnicza (PPR, Polish Workers' Party), a revived version of the Communist Party. In 1943 he became the secretary-general of the party's Central Committee.
Following World War II, Gomułka played an active role in establishing a Soviet-style Polish government. He remained the head of the PPR and served as deputy premier of Poland from 1945 to 1949. A Polish nationalist, Gomułka did not view his colleagues who had spent the war in the Soviet Union with much respect. He also opposed certain Stalinist policies, such as collectivization of agriculture.
Moscow considered Gomułka too independent-minded, and on 3 September 1948 he was accused of "rightist-nationalist heresy" and harboring sympathy for the Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito. Gomułka was promptly purged from the party. In January 1949 he was arrested and lost his position in the government. He was released from house arrest in 1954 after Josef Stalin's death.
Two years later, following Nikita Khrushchev's condemnation of Stalin's crimes and growing unrest in Poland, Gomułka was readmitted to the Communist Party (PZPR) and in October 1956 was asked by the party leadership to become its first secretary. This move was an unpopular one with the Soviets, who were exceedingly reluctant to accept Gomułka as Poland's leader. It was only after Khrushchev's visit to Warsaw that Moscow accepted Gomułka.
From 1956 on, First Secretary Gomułka dominated the Polish political scene. He firmly controlled the government, established slightly more freedom for Poles, and moved away from Stalinist terror tactics. But Poland maintained its close ties with the USSR, as Gomułka did not favor major reform. He reintroduced tight party control over society, and workers' councils organized in 1956 were placed under government surveillance and control. No substantive economic changes were introduced, as Gomułka regarded any major economic reform as an attempt to reintroduce capitalism in Poland.
State relations with the Roman Catholic Church improved and were generally less tense than under Gomułka's predecessors, although secularization remained the official party policy. In March 1968 Gomułka survived a serious crisis that shook Poland and was probably aimed at removing him from leadership. The crisis, which had begun with student demonstrations, evolved into an anti-Semitic hysteria underwritten by the party and the state-controlled media. Several hundred students and professors were purged from universities, and tens of thousands of Polish Jews were forced to emigrate. In the summer of 1968 Gomułka supported the Warsaw Pact's intervention in Czechoslovakia, and Polish tanks along with units from other countries entered Prague to bring an end to the Prague Spring.
Neither the crisis nor the Warsaw Pact intervention solved Poland's growing economic or political problems, however. Gomułka's position was weaker than ever, yet he continued to cling to power. He and the party had lost the confidence of the people, and the centrally run economy could not provide even basic supplies. On 13 December 1970 Gomułka was forced to act to stave off a complete economic collapse. When he ordered a wide range of price increases without prior notice, workers went on strike and began mass protests. Gomułka blamed the unrest on "capitalist agents," and he dispatched police and army troops to Gdańsk to quell the protesters. In the ensuing clash with the authorities, hundreds of demonstrating workers were killed or wounded. The party leadership, now fearing an even larger conflict, replaced Gomułka as first secretary with Edward Gierek.
In early 1971 Gomułka was suspended from the party's Central Committee and was removed from the Council of State. He then lived in relative obscurity, dying in Warsaw on 1 September 1982.
Biskupski, M. B. The History of Poland. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2000.; Paczkowski, Andrzej. The Spring Will Be Ours: Poland and the Poles from Occupation to Freedom. State College: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003.