Moscow regarded Poland as vital for the security of the Soviet Union. In both world wars, armies had invaded Russia from this direction. For that reason alone, Moscow sought to control Poland. This would not be easy, for Poles had a long-standing hatred of the Russians, an entrenched Roman Catholicism, and a strong Peasant Party.
For a time in the Middle Ages, Poland had been the largest nation in Europe, but a fractious nobility unwilling to yield power to the central government led to its dismemberment in the late eighteenth century by Russia, Prussia, and Austria. Modern Poland reappeared as a consequence of World War I, created by the victorious Allies to serve as a buffer against a resurgent Germany but also to contain Bolshevik Russia, both of which sought to bring about its demise.
The new Polish state pursued an expansionist foreign policy to recover former Polish territory, alienating powers that might have helped defend it. Domestically, Poland suffered from too many small and unproductive farms, widespread illiteracy, a political system that led to numerous small parties and cabinet instability, divisions between the urban and rural segments of the population, and endemic anti-Semitism. In 1926, with Poland teetering on the edge of chaos, General Józef Piłsudski seized power with the intention of reforming the state. He held power as dictator until his death in 1935. Piłsudski at least had Polish interests at heart; his successors were simply inept.ń
On 1 September 1939, German forces invaded Poland, touching off World War II. Two weeks later, in accordance with secret provisions of the August 1939 German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact, Soviet forces attacked from the east. Poland was absorbed within a month and was divided between Germany and the Soviet Union. More fighting occurred when the Germans struck east in June 1941. Then in 1944 the Soviet armies drove the Germans west. Poland suffered terribly in the war, with more than 6 million dead.
Poles were not grateful to the Soviets for their liberation. Indeed, Poles held the Soviets responsible for the massacre of up to 15,000 Polish officers in the Katyń Forest near Smolensk in 1941 (which the Kremlin blamed on the Germans and for which it did not formally acknowledge responsibility until 1989). In London, the legally constituted Polish government-in-exile represented the nation, and under its direction, an underground state survived within Poland that included the secret Home Army. The exiled government also commanded a 200,000-man army-in-being. Led by Lieutenant General Władysław Anders, it fought gallantly on the Allied side in Italy and in other campaigns, ending the war as the fourth-largest Allied force in Europe. Geography prohibited these men from liberating their homeland, and ultimately most chose to live in the West rather than return to a communist Poland.
At the end of July 1944 the Soviet Army approached the Vistula, encouraging the Home Army to rise up. It did so on 1 August, driving the Germans from the city. For the next sixty-three days the embattled forces of General Tadeusz Bór-Komorowski fought the Germans, while Soviet Army forces did nothing to help. Some 260,000 Poles died in the abortive revolt, during which the Germans razed large areas of Warsaw. The Soviets maintained that the pause in their offensive was necessary, but foreign observers noted that the Germans smashed the core of national resistance, which greatly assisted in the imposition of a communist regime later.
The Soviets finally resumed their advance and took Warsaw in January 1945. By early February, most of Poland had been cleared of the Germans. The Soviets installed a provisional liberation government, the Polski Komitet Wyzwolenia Narodowego (PKWN, Polish Committee of National Liberation)—also known as the Lublin Committee—in Lublin in eastern Poland on 22 July 1944. This was the date subsequently observed by communist Poland for the establishment of the Polish state. After they took Warsaw, the Soviets moved the PKWN to Warsaw and recognized it as the provisional government of Poland.
In the fall of 1944, Prime Minister Stanisław Mikołajczyk of the London government traveled to Moscow with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in what proved to be a final opportunity for reconciliation. But Churchill's obstinate colleagues in London rejected the concessions he made there, whereupon Mikoflajczyk resigned and Moscow broke off relations with the London-based Polish government. Probably no genuinely representative government would have met Soviet requirements.
Postwar Poland was about four-fifths its prewar size. There was, however, no problem concerning minorities. Virtually all of Poland's prewar population of 3.5 million Jews had died during the war, a number of these with Polish complicity. Some 4 million Germans had also fled the Soviet Army advance at the end of the war. Agreement at Potsdam over the expulsion of Germans from former East Prussia led to the departure of an additional 2.5 million Germans during 1945–1947.
Allied agreements at the July 1945 Potsdam Conference assigned to Polish administration the former German territories east of the Elbe and Vistula Rivers, along with Gdańsk (former German Danzig) and southern East Prussia. The Soviet Union took the major city of Königsberg, which became Kaliningrad, as well as eastern Poland to approximately the Curzon Line (set by the Allied powers in 1920 after World War I as Poland's eastern border). In effect, Poland had been moved westward by about 150 miles. In its acquisition of Silesia from Germany, Poland secured a strong industrial base and a more balanced economy. Instead of the former narrow corridor to the Baltic, Poland now possessed about 250 miles of seashore. Although the Western powers at Potsdam accepted Polish administration of these regained territories, no peace treaty legalized the annexation. Domestically, the PKWN carried out a program of repression, especially in the new territories, eliminating centers of resistance and either killing, arresting, or sending to Soviet labor camps thousands of people.
On 21 June 1945, Bolesław Bierut established in Warsaw the Provisional Government of National Unity. Strong British and American pressure induced the communists to admit Mikoflajczyk as deputy premier, along with three other representatives, and the West then reluctantly recognized it as the legal government of Poland. The Yalta agreement had called for "free and democratic" elections, but not until January 1947 did the regime feel confident enough to call elections, which hardly met the Yalta criteria. The old Peasant Party had been so completely infiltrated by the communists that Mikoflajczyk formed a new opposition peasant organization known as the Polish People's Party, which became an immediate target of the government. No one was surprised when the government bloc, which included nominal participation of several captive parties, won 394 out of 444 seats in the first parliament. Later that year Mikoflajczyk fled abroad. Poland was now completely dominated by the communists. At the end of 1948, the Polish Workers' Party absorbed the Polish Socialist Party to form the Polska Zjednoczona Partia Robotnicza (PZPR, Polish United Workers' Party).
Socialist Józef Cyrankiewicz was premier after 1947, but Bierut was the leading figure in the state. Elected by the parliament as president, he served in that post from 1945 to 1952, when a new constitution abolished that office. He then became premier. After Bierut's death in Moscow of a cerebral hemorrhage early in 1956, Edward Ochab became the new strongman. Nevertheless, ultimate power rested in the minister of defense, Soviet Marshal Konstantin Rokossovsky. Born in Poland, on the Kremlin's orders he became a Polish citizen and de facto Soviet viceroy.
The PZPR dominated Polish life. Opposition politicians were either eliminated or jailed. Control was assured by the secret police and Soviet occupation forces. The government also proceeded against the Catholic Church, leading to the trials of priests and bishops and even the arrest of the primate of Poland, Cardinal Stefan Wyszyłski, in 1953.
The de-Stalinization campaign that followed the death of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin in March 1953 and especially Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's denunciation of him at the Twentieth Party Congress of the Communist Party in 1956 produced shockwaves throughout the Soviet bloc. The initial impetus for events in 1956 in both Poland and Hungary came from intellectuals and youth pointing out the failures of the regimes to follow the communist ideal.
Restiveness in Poland became direct action on 28–29 June 1956 in Poznań (Posen) with a large demonstration in which industrial workers demanded redress of grievances. A mob attacked the headquarters of the security police. Army troops, rushed to the scene, refused to fire upon the crowds. Order was restored only by the dispatch of large numbers of security police.
The government sought to blame the rioting on foreign agents and provocateurs but was soon forced to admit the justice of the complaints. It dared bring to trial in September only a dozen young men, ages eighteen to twenty-two, none of whom were charged with political crimes. Their testimony evoked considerable public sympathy.
The Poznań riots led to Berman's resignation and brought Władysław Gomułka to power in October. He had served as party secretary after the postwar government had come to power, but he had placed Polish national interests ahead of those of the Soviet Union and had been dismissed from his posts and imprisoned until late 1954. The Kremlin was sufficiently worried about this transfer of power that Khrushchev invited himself to Warsaw, arriving there with a number of key Soviet leaders and generals, including commander of Warsaw Pact armies Marshal Ivan Konev. With talk of Soviet military intervention, factory workers and students mobilized.
Khrushchev eventually agreed that Gomułka might assume power. The agreement that was worked out allowed the Poles control of their own internal affairs in return for the maintenance of communism and adherence to the Warsaw Pact. One immediate sign of the new relationship was the departure for the Soviet Union of Marshal Rokossovsky.
Gomułka, now PZPR secretary, ended forced agricultural collectivization, and the number of collective farms soon fell from more than 10,000 to fewer than 2,000. Indeed, by 1985, 80 percent of Poland's farms were privately owned. Gomułka also moved to change the relationship of the state with the Catholic Church. Cardinal Stefan Wyszyłski was released from detention and allowed to assume his post. The Catholic Church was permitted freedom of worship, the right to build churches and maintain its own publications, and the opportunity to advance religious education in the schools. In return, Wyszyłski and the Church supported the new regime and provided it with a popular base.
In May 1956, Gomułka worked out an agreement with the Soviet Union for the repatriation to eastern Poland of some 250,000 Poles living in the Soviet Union. He proved a loyal supporter of Soviet foreign policy, and Polish troops participated in the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Gomułka was not a liberal, and the PZPR retained strict control.
Economic problems led to severe rioting in 1970 and 1976. In December 1970, Gomułka was replaced as the regime's strongman following food riots after the government announced sharp increases in the price of basic foodstuffs. Troops fired on workers at Gdynia. Edward Gierek, the PZPR secretary, was from Silesia, where he had been hardened by work in the mines from age thirteen. In an effort to build support, he immediately reversed the price increases. He also opened Poland to foreigners and allowed more Poles to travel abroad. In addition, he devoted attention to more consumer goods, made possible by massive foreign loans, chiefly from the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG, West Germany) as part of German Foreign Minister Willy Brandt's Ostpolitik. Poland's foreign aid debt swelled to more than $20 billion by the 1980s, which was badly handled and was used largely to industrialize. There was also rampant corruption. Sharp increases in prices in 1976 led to strikes, and once more riot police had to be called in.
In October 1978 Archbishop Karol Wojtyfla was elected pope as John Paul II. The news of his elevation electrified Poland. He was the first Polish pope and, for that matter, the first from behind the Iron Curtain. In June 1979, John Paul II paid a tumultuous nine-day visit to his homeland.
In the summer of 1980 a spate of chaotic strikes occurred, triggered by a sharp rise in meat prices announced by the Gierek government in July. The strikes were centered in two areas that were vital for the Polish economy: the Baltic ports, especially Gdańsk, and the coal fields of Silesia. Coal was the country's chief commodity export and was vital for the economy. The unrest began in August at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk. There, 16,000 workers went on strike, demanding free trade unions and the right to strike. Gierek was forced to resign in September, ostensibly for health reasons. In a surprise move, Stanisław Kania replaced him.
The unrest at Gdańsk led to strikes in Silesia, where 200,000 miners demanded safety improvements and the same rights won by the Baltic workers. The government made the same concessions in Silesia. Kania took a conciliatory stance toward the strikers and tried to placate both the Soviets and the Poles. The strike leader turned union chief was electrician Lech Wałęsa. This was the beginning of Solidarność (Solidarity), the first non-communist trade union of the Eastern bloc.
With workers threatening a general strike throughout the country, the government gave in, granting free unions and the right to strike but also agreeing to loosen press censorship and grant freedom to jailed dissidents and access to the state press and broadcast services by the Catholic Church. In return, the workers recognized the supremacy of the Communist Party in the country (although not over the unions), paid homage to the Soviet alliance, and promised not to form a political party. Ultimately, Solidarity claimed 10 million members, more than half the Polish workforce.
Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev hoped to contain these problems peacefully, approving a loan of about $100 million to Poland—a small sum compared to the massive foreign debt. The other side of the coin, however, was the largest Warsaw Pact military maneuvers in a decade, dubbed "Brotherhood in Arms, 1980," held in September along the German Democratic Republic (GDR, East Germany) border with Poland. These seemed to many highly reminiscent of the 1968 Warsaw Pact maneuvers along the Czech border, just before tanks rolled into Prague.
The Kremlin could not allow the Gdańsk settlement to stand. Free trade unions in Poland raised the unacceptable risk of labor unrest throughout the Soviet Empire, where the economies of all of the satellites faced similar difficulties. There was even a danger of such worker unrest permeating the Soviet Union itself. The Soviet leadership hoped to avoid armed intervention. Poland had an army of 210,000 troops in 15 divisions, with 650 first-line aircraft. The Polish Navy was the largest non-Soviet fleet in the Warsaw Pact. No one was certain what the Polish armed forces might do. Western analysts were calculating that the Soviets might need an invasion force of a million men. But Soviet leaders were prepared to intervene if necessary, even at this risk and the end to détente with the United States.
Soviet leaders hoped that Kania could roll back the reforms. His failure to accomplish this led to the February 1981 appointment of General Wojciech Jaruzelski as premier, replacing Jozef Pinkowski. With Brezhnev issuing thinly veiled warnings that "the pillars of the socialist state" were in jeopardy, Jaruzelski called for a moratorium on strikes. Solidarity ignored this and, in March and April 1981, staged a warning strike to dramatize their newest demands of the right for Polish farmers to form their own union and a call for punishment of officials who had harassed Solidarity members. Jaruzelski accused Solidarity of abusing its right to strike and again appealed for a moratorium on strikes. Meanwhile, there were new Warsaw Pact maneuvers in and around Poland.
In July and August the Communist Party, voting for the first time via secret ballot, reelected Kania as first secretary, but Silesian coal miners went out on strike in protest against dwindling food supplies and government meat rationing. In September, Solidarity held its first national congress and passed resolutions calling for free elections in Poland and the right of workers to manage the factories.
The Soviets bluntly condemned these Solidarity actions, leading Jaruzelski to order a sweeping law-and-order crackdown. In October, Kania was abruptly ousted as PZPR chief by the Polish Central Committee, and Jaruzelski took charge as the first military man to rule Poland since World War II. He called for an immediate end to strikes. In November, Wałęsa, Jaruzelski, and Cardinal Josef Glemp, the head of the Catholic Church in Poland, met in a domestic summit, but talks between Solidarity and the government broke down. In December 1981, Solidarity called for mass demonstrations and urged the formation of workers' guards to protect unionists. It also called for a national referendum on establishing a non-communist government.
Jaruzelski's response came on 13 December with a declaration of a state of national emergency and martial law and the arrest of some 6,000 people, including Solidarity leaders. Massive military presence in the streets prevented unrest. Key factories came under military control. These moves, along with the knowledge that the Soviets would have intervened had Jaruzelski not taken such drastic steps, prevented violence. To many outside observers, it seemed obvious that Solidarity had gone too far.
U.S. President Ronald Reagan retaliated by imposing economic sanctions on Poland. Gradually, the Jaruzelski regime eased up considerably. In 1987 it released Solidarity leaders from prison. Martial law restrictions were also ultimately ended. In an unprecedented move, the government also put on public trial four officers of the security police who murdered the popular Solidarity supporter Father Jerzy Popiefluszko. The fundamental problems continued, however, and Poland remained an economic basket case.
Jaruzelksi spent the next few years trying to hold off pro-Moscow hard-liners and Westernizing liberals in his own party, bring to an end the economic boycott by the West, and preserve some role for the Communist Party. With the emergence of Mikhail Gorbachev as Soviet leader, Jaruzelski moved toward reform and accommodation with Solidarity. Roundtable talks in 1988 led to the legalization of Solidarity. Under Jaruzelksi's leadership, the party accepted democratization and entered into discussions that it assumed might lead to power-sharing but would stop short of a surrender of power. This proved impossible, and in the June 1989 national parliamentary elections, Solidarity candidates swept into power. Jaruzelski resigned as premier but won election the next month as president by a narrow margin. Tadeusz Mazowiecki became the first non-communist premier in the Soviet bloc since 1945.
Poland made the transition to democratic government and, in January 1990, opted for the more difficult—in the short term—economic policy of complete free enterprise. The next month, the Polish United Workers' Party dissolved itself. At the end of 1990, the first fully free elections in postwar Poland took place, and Wałęsa was elected president.
Poland remained the major beneficiary of Western investment from among the former Eastern bloc countries. Prewar problems continued for some time, however. A staggering foreign debt crippled economic growth, although in 1994 finance ministers of the leading Western powers agreed to a plan whereby Western banks slashed half of the $13 billion commercial debt, a great boost to what was by then Europe's fastest-growing economy.
Spencer C. Tucker
Davies, Norman. God's Playgound: A History of Poland, Vol. 2, 1795 to the Present. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981.; Kaminski, Bartlomiej. The Collapse of State Socialism: The Case of Poland. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991.; Ost, David. Solidarity and the Process of Anti-Politics: Opposition and Reform in Poland since 1968. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990.; Paczkowski, Andrzej. The Spring Will Be Ours: Poland and the Poles from Occupation to Freedom. State College: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003.; Torańska, Teresa. "Them": Stalin's Polish Puppets. New York: HarperCollins, 1987.