Mobilized for the Polish Army at the beginning of World War II, Rapacki served as an infantry lieutenant until captured by the Germans. He spent the remainder of the war in a German prisoner of war camp. Freed in March 1945, he soon joined the Polish Socialist Party. Upon the establishment of the Polish United Workers' Party (PUWP) in December 1948, he became a member of that party's Political Bureau, a post he held until 1970. During 1947–1969 he was also a deputy in the Sejm (Diet). During 1947–1950 he held the post of minister of navigation, and during 1950–1956 he served as minister of higher education.
In April 1956 Rapecki was appointed minister of foreign affairs. As such, he was regarded as the main architect of Polish foreign policy and enjoyed the trust of Polish First Secretary Władysław Gomułka. Aware of the limitations stemming from Poland's membership in the Warsaw Pact, Rapacki sought to exploit existing opportunities to conduct a more independent foreign policy from that of the Soviet Union while securing Polish interests. Particularly important to him was the so-called German question. Under Rapacki, Polish diplomacy was directed at winning international recognition of the inviolability of Poland's Oder (Odra) and Niesse (Nysa Luzycka) River frontier in the west. He also endeavored to establish diplomatic relations with the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG, West Germany). At the same time, he hoped to forestall West German rearmament.
Rapacki intended to construct a new European security system by creating a nuclear-free zone of the German Democratic Republic (GDR, East Germany), West Germany, Poland, and Czechoslovakia via his 1957 Rapacki Plan, which also sought to create a permanently divided Germany. The plan was endorsed by Moscow mainly for propaganda purposes, but it met stiff opposition from East Germany, West Germany, and the United States and was never enacted.
Moscow saw Poland's refusal to support the Soviet Union in its post-1956 controversy with the People's Republic of China (PRC) as a sign of too much foreign policy independence on the part of the Poles. In fact, during 1956–1970 secret PRC-U.S. talks were held in Warsaw. In 1966 Rapacki mediated talks between the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV, North Vietnam) and the United States. He also tried to cultivate economic relations with capitalist countries, an effort that bore little fruit. In 1968 his policies were vituperatively attacked by the orthodox faction of Polish national-communists. Gomułka defended him, but Rapacki resigned his post in April 1968 (the resignation was formally announced that December). Rapacki died in Warsaw on 10 October 1970.
Dziewanowski, M. K. The Communist Party in Poland: An Outline of History. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1959.; Stachura, Peter D. Poland in the Twentieth Century. New York: St. Martin's, 1999.