In November 1918, Poland regained independence after 123 years of being partitioned. Diplomatic and military efforts concerning the country’s borders continued until 1921. Among them was the notable war with Bolshevik Russia which culminated in the Battle of Warsaw in September 1920. The Polish victory not only saved the independence of Poland, but also shielded Europe from the Soviet aggression. The Polish state was reborn as a republic.
The system of parliamentary democracy was first set up by the Small Constitution of 1919, and consequently the Constitution of 1921. Poland was a multi-religious and multi-ethnic country (national minorities made up about 30% of the general populace).
In December 1918, as a result of the merger of the party Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania and the Polish Socialist Party - Left, the Communist Workers’ Party of Poland was created. Throughout its existence (from 1925 as the Communist Party of Poland - Komunistyczna Partia Polski, KPP) it operated as an illegal organisation. In 1922, the Young Communist League of Poland was created. Autonomous parts of the KPP were: The Communist Party of Western Belorussia, the Communist Party of Western Ukraine and the Communist Party of Upper Silesia. The communists supported the detachment of these regions from Poland, which was one of the reasons for their low popularity.
Communist activities (propaganda, diversion, organising demonstrations and worker strikes) were fought by the police and judicial system. Despite the repressions, the Communists continued to participate in elections until 1930 through proxy or cover organisations. Their biggest success was in 1928, when they managed to get 7 of the 444 seats in the Sejm (lower parliament chamber). In 1926, they supported the coup of marshal Józef Piłsudski, which was later considered a mistake. The rule of Piłsudski’s followers, called the “Sanation”, introduced gradual constraints to Polish democracy. This process intensified in 1935, when a new constitution granting numerous rights to the president was adopted.
During the civil war in Spain, activists of the KPP organised the recruitment of international brigades. During the Great Purge, all party leaders and hundreds of lower rank members staying in the Soviet Union were killed. On Stalin’s command, the Komintern dissolved the Communist Party of Poland in September 1938 amidst growing suspicions that it might be infiltrated by members of the Polish secret and special services.
The signing of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact paved the way for World War II, which began with the German (1 September 1939) and Soviet (17 September 1939) attack on Poland. More than half of the country (203,000 km²) ended up under Soviet occupation. Polish territories were incorporated into the USSR and Vilnius was given back to Lithuania for a short time.
The fast sovietisation was accompanied by repressions, mainly four mass deportations of more than 320,000 people in total. The Katyń massacre, which was a murder of almost 22 thousand officers, policemen, border and prison guards and political prisoners, became a symbol of the crimes against the Polish people. Tens of thousands were imprisoned in forced labour camps.
The outbreak of the German-Soviet war allowed for efforts to rebuild diplomatic connections with Moscow, which resulted in an amnesty for Polish citizens and the creation of an army under the Polish government in exile. Eventually, Polish soldiers were evacuated from the USSR and, in May 1943, after the discovery of mass graves in Katyń, Stalin broke off all diplomatic ties with the Polish government. Simultaneously, he began sowing the seeds for future Communist rule in Poland - the Union of Polish Patriots and military units were created and put under Soviet command. In the occupied country (outside the territory previously annexed by the USSR), a rebuilt Communist party (Polish Workers' Party - Polska Partia Robotnicza, PPR) operated from 1942 onwards.
In January 1944, the Red Army crossed the borders of pre-war Poland. However, Stalin simply considered these lands part of Soviet territory. In July 1944, the Polish Committee of National Liberation, which consisted of the PPR and a few other parties subject to the Communists, was created in Moscow. Finally, the successful suppression of the Warsaw Uprising by the German army paved the way for the Communist Party to seize power in Poland.
The new shape of the borders of Poland was decided upon by the great powers in Yalta and Potsdam. In compensation for the lost eastern territories, Poland gained western and northern lands taken from Germany. The total area of the country was 312,000 km². 6 million Polish citizens lost their lives in the Second World War. Massive migration - including forced migration - followed over the first few post-War years. The population was about 24 million in 1946 and would grow to 36 million by 1989.
In the aftermath of the Yalta conference in 1945, Poland witnessed the creation of the Provisional Government of National Unity including the participation of a few independent politicians. Meanwhile, the legal government in exile lost the Allies’ support. The Polish Peasant's Party, led by Stanisław Mikołajczyk, was created as a legal opposition party. It was destroyed after the fraudulent elections in January 1947. At the same time, the resistance of the armed underground was broken, although small units kept on fighting for a few more years with the last partisan being killed in 1963.
In December 1948, the PPR absorbed the Socialist Party. The Polish United Workers' Party (Polska Zjednocozna Partia Robotnicza, PZPR) was created with Bolesław Bierut as its leader and single-handedly governed the country until 1981. The Alliance of Democrats and United Peasant's Party existed for mere decorative purposes. In the constitution of 1952, the name of the country was changed to People’s Republic of Poland (Polska Rzeczpospolita Ludowa, PRL). The constitution was edited by Stalin himself. The judicial system was based partially on pre-war laws which were gradually replaced by new ones.
The political system was inspired by the Soviet system: the Communist reign was based on the Party’s absolute power, nomenklatura, propaganda, censorship and security apparatus. The clout and position of the security apparatus was severely diminished in 1956, however it later experienced a systematic restoration to its former status. The Party had control over both the country and public life with the exception of the Catholic Church which maintained its independence.
The year 1956 brought the first crisis of the system. In June 1956, citizens of Poznań revolted, and by autumn the demonstrations had spread throughout the whole country. After Bierut’s death Edward Ochab became the new leader of the Party, replaced by Władysław Gomułka in October. He governed until the next mass protests in December 1970. The next First Secretary Edward Gierek stepped down after the strikes in the summer of 1980, which caused the creation of the Independent Self-governing Labour Union "Solidarity" led by Lech Wałęsa. After a year of Stanisław Kani’s rule, General Wojciech Jaruzelski took power and imposed martial law in December 1981.
The “Solidarity” movement survived in the underground while the symbolic reforms of the political system (establishment of the State Tribunal, the Constitutional Tribunal, and the Ombudsman) did not improve the overall situation. Two waves of strikes in 1988 forced the communists to begin talks with the opposition. This resulted in the Polish Round Table Talks (February-April 1989) which led to an agreement on a wide range of reforms regarding the political and economic systems of the PRL.
The partially free elections of June 1989 became a plebiscite in which the Polish populace rejected communism. Following the vote, a government with a non-communist prime minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki was created, even though Jaruzelski continued as the country’s president. Towards the end of 1989, both the name of the country (Republic of Poland - Rzeczpospolita Polska) and the coat of arms (eagle in a crown) were restored. In 1990, free presidential and local elections were held, followed by parliamentary elections in 1991. The Soviet Army finally left Poland in 1993.
In June 1944, units of the Home Army cooperated with the Red Army in the battles for Vilnius, Lviv, Lublin and other towns and cities. After this short period of cooperation, the Polish units were disarmed, officers arrested and those soldiers who refused to join the communist-controlled military were interned. Soviet repressions against the Polish underground continued throughout the following months. About 40,000 soldiers and Polish Underground State officials were deported deep into the Soviet Union. Thousands of others were repressed by the developing communist structures.
In 1945 about 40,000 - 50,000 people from Polish territories were deported to forced labour camps in the USSR, most of them from Upper Silesia. Until 1947, units of the NKVD were stationed in Poland and participated in battles against the anti-communist underground. The biggest operation of Soviet forces was the Augustów roundup in July 1945, during which over 7000 people were arrested and almost 700 killed.
The system of forced labour camps was established in 1945 and by 1950 there were 206 camps on Polish territory. The number of inmates is estimated at around 300,000. The last camps were closed in 1958. The number of political prison sentences between 1944 - 1956 is unknown, though at one point there were up to 50,000 political prisoners in the system. In the aforementioned time period, about 3,500 death sentences were imposed for political reasons, of which over 2,500 were carried out. On top of that, over 20,000 inmates died in prisons and labour camps. The overall number of victims of the 1944-1956 period is estimated at around 50,000.
About 100 different laws served as the foundation for these large-scale repressions. In addition to imprisonment and forced labour, administrative punishments such as fees and arrests were also widely used. Within just a few years, between 1952-1955, over half a million peasants were given such punishments because they did not give their compulsory shares in produce to the authorities.
As a result of the 1956 amnesty, most political inmates were released. In the following years, political trials were not as commonplace, only a few tens to a few hundreds were sentenced annually. The repressions usually only increased in response to demonstrations and protests. For example, after the protests in Nowa Huta (1960) almost 500 people were arrested, out of which 87 were sentenced to prison while 119 were fined. During the strikes and demonstrations in March 1968, over 2,500 people were arrested, and 540 criminal investigations were launched. In December 1970, over 3,000 people were arrested. In June 1976, the number of arrests reached 634, of which 272 people received prison sentences of up to 10 years. During the period of martial law, the extent of overall repressions surged again – almost 10,000 people were interned, about 11,000 faced trials and the number of arrests and fines was many times bigger still. The last political prisoner of the PRL left prison in the end of December 1989.
The periodic mass upheaval also brought many casualties. In June 1956, 58 people were killed in Poznań 58; in December 1970, 45 were killed with a staggering 1165 wounded, and at least 56 people lost their lives following the declaration of martial law in 1981. The last count includes people who were killed during the pacification of several strikes and demonstrations, captured protesters murdered at police stations, and victims of assassinations.
As a result of the Second World War, Poland suffered heavy losses, both human and material. The latter amounted to 38% of all national property. More than half of all infrastructure and various industrial branches were destroyed. The desire to rebuild the country helped the new government mobilise the general population.
The first economic move of the communists was a land reform, proclaimed in September 1944. Its main purpose was to increase public support; this goal was never achieved, particularly due to the system of compulsory deliveries which the occupiers enforced until 1972. In January 1946, all industrial facilities employing over 50 people per shift were nationalised. In the territories gained from Germany, all property (private and national) was taken by the state.
In 1947, the government proclaimed the battle for trade, during which mass repressions were used to liquidate most private shops and wholesales. Other small enterprises (e.g. mills, food processing plants, metalworks) were taken over, based on decisions by the enterprise nationalisation commission. Another attack on private owners was the monetary reform of 1950 which deprived private owners of two thirds of their money. Simultaneously, the possession of foreign currencies and precious metals was forbidden until 1956.
The collectivisation of all agriculture was proclaimed in 1948. This decision was met with massive resistance by the peasants. The government cracked down on the resistance through a combination of repressions and higher tax rates for peasants. Until the second half of 1956, 9,975 cooperatives had been created, making up about 9% of all farmlands in the country. After taking power in 1956, Władysław Gomułka announced the end of forced collectivisation. This caused a massive decollectivisation of farming; 85% of all cooperatives disintegrated. In the following years, forced collectivisation was not reintroduced and the government’s attempts at encouraging the foundation of new cooperatives did not succeed. The government still owned the State Agricultural Farms (Państwowe Gospodarstwa Rolne), which had attained control over 18% of all Polish farmlands by 1989.
In 1949, the command economy was introduced. Intensive industrialisation took place under the six years plan from 1950-1955. Heavy industry was developed at the cost of consumption. The biggest state investment was Nowa Huta, the supposed perfect socialist town which incorporated a metalwork combine. After 1956, spending on consumption goods was increased for a short time. The focus of the command economy on heavy industry resulted in limits to consumption and price hikes, ultimately leading to several waves of social upheaval (1956, 1970, 1976, 1980).
In the beginning of the 1970s, the PRL took significant international loans which in turn led to a slightly better economic situation. The mistakes made in using them and the increase in interest rates, however, brought a deep economic crisis which lasted until the end of the 1980s. It was in this period that long queues in front of most shops as well as the rationing of many foods and industrial goods became symbols of the government’s failure.
After 1956, a small private sector in retail, gastronomy, and small craftmanship developed in Poland. Despite the continuous harassment by state authorities, private entrepreneurs were able to mitigate some of the shortages. During the 1980s, the private sector developed more widely when the Polish diaspora that lived abroad was allowed to enter the Polish market with their businesses. In 1988, the government liberalised economic activities and vowed to ascertain the equality of state, cooperative and private entities. The liberalisation of prices led to hyperinflation just one year later.
Society and culture
Following the government takeover, the communists used propaganda to spark patriotic feelings rather than spread ideological messages. The purpose was to increase the meagre societal support. Education, science and culture were being rebuilt following the destruction of World War II. Huge human losses in these areas (and many people staying abroad) meant, on one hand, that new elites could be created more easily, but on the other hand it also made the state reliant on the few pre-war cadres, especially in the sciences, which had survived the years of turmoil.
The situation began to change in the years 1947-1948, together with the progressing sovietisation. In the following years all branches of social life were subjected to party control and purges. In culture, Socialist realism was proclaimed while the only permitted methodology in science and research was Marxism-Leninism. Schools became a place to shape the “new man” and university admissions procedures were controlled strictly.
After the party destroyed the opposition and took control of social organisations, the only independent institution was the Catholic Church. The increasing repressions had their culmination in 1953, when Primate Stefan Wyszyński was arrested. Wide-spread resistance forced the government to soften its policy in 1956. In the following years there was open conflict concerning the preparations for the millennium of the Baptism of Poland (1966). The position of the Church continued to grow stronger, especially after Pope John Paul II was elected in 1978.
As a result of repressions following the liquidation of the KPP, the communist cadres were relatively small in numbers. Moreover, they were divided between two competing groups – those who survived the war in the occupied country and those who spent it in the Soviet Union. The tension between them was visible in the Stalin period (imprisonment of Gomułka and his comrades) and in the 1960s (activity of the “partisans” faction). Since the beginning, the party had concentrated on recruiting new cadres, increasing its numbers within just a few years. After a while the main role was played by young activists who began their political work in the post-war period.
Between 1950 and 1955, around 700,000 people migrated from the countryside into the bigger cities due to the intensive industrialisation while hundreds of thousands more peasants took up jobs in the industrial sector without giving up their farm estates. Over the following years, the process of migration into the cities continued and saw the share of people working in agriculture fall from 60% to just 27%.
Because of the Holocaust and the decision of the victors of World War II to move the borders of Poland, the composition of nationalities changed drastically. The percentage of national minorities fell from 30% to 5% which decreased further over the following years because of waves of emigration. Moreover in 1947, the Polish government deported and dispersed 140,000 Ukrainians over the formerly German regions under the guise of fighting the Ukrainian underground resistance.
The liberalisation of 1956 and abandonment of Socialist realism spurred cultural growth, e.g. the foundation of the Polish Film School. Polish culture continued to grow abroad as well; in 1980 Czesław Miłosz got the Nobel Prize in Literature. The rebirth of the opposition in the mid-70s resulted in the creation of a more independent culture. Among other influences, the underground also benefited from the support of the Catholic Church in publishing books and culture magazines, and organising independent theatre plays and concerts. Independent cultural activity grew even stronger after martial law had been imposed.
The creation of a military under command of the communists began in 1943. Units were created according to the soviet model in which political officers played a big role. Because of the lack of officers, over 60% of the cadre were officers delegated from the Red Army in the initial stages. After making its way back westwards into Polish territory, the army experienced significant growth, but about half of all officers were still from the Soviet Union. Most of them returned to their motherland following the end of the war; the last Soviet officers left the country in 1948. Units of the Polish Armed Forces in the West did not return to their country. Some soldiers and officers returned individually although many of them were repressed in their home country.
In May 1945, the Internal Security Corps (Korpus Bezpieczeństwa Wewnętrznego) was created explicitly to fight the armed underground. After a few months these units were put under direct control of the Ministry of Public Security. By 1950, the Corps had grown to around 41,000 soldiers. Despite the patriotic attitudes of most of the soldiers (shown for example by wearing traditional badges with a crowned eagle), the Army was also used as part of mass propaganda campaigns, e.g. before the January 1947 election.
In 1949, the number of Soviet officers started to increase again, particularly with regards to the higher ranks. In November that year, the Soviet Marshal Konstantin Rokossovsky was appointed the Polish minister of national defence. At the same time, around 9,000 officers promoted before the war or deemed conspirators were dismissed from the military; others were arrested and executed. Due to the international situation, the army was expanded to 2.5 times its initial size, amounting to 356,000 soldiers in 1953. The militarisation took over the whole economy; about 15% of the Polish government’s budget was spent on the army. Military service was also a tool for repressions – recruits deemed “hostile” due to their background or opposition activity were sent to construction or mining battalions where they were forced to do heavy labour.
In June 1956, the army was used to suppress the riots in Poznań. The main demand of the protesters in Autumn 1956 was the withdrawal of all Soviet military units and the dismissal of Marshal Rokossovsky. The first demand was not fulfilled, but Rokossovsky was removed from office along with most of the Soviet officers. A small part of the previously repressed officers was reinstated. The size of the army was consequently greatly reduced.
In the 1960s, the traditional respect associated with wearing a uniform was used for propaganda purposes including initiatives targeted at the Church. The military remained an important tool for the indoctrination of the younger generations. In March 1968, officers in plain clothes helped disperse the rally in Warsaw that sparked mass student protests. In December 1970, 27,000 soldiers as well as 1,300 tanks and armed vehicles were used to suppress the protests, over twice as many secured strategically important facilities all over the country.
In August 1968, the Second Polish Army took part in the intervention of the Warsaw Pact militaries in Czechoslovakia. 25,000 soldiers and 1,100 tanks and armed vehicles were used altogether. On a lesser scale, the Polish military participated in armistice and peacekeeping missions (e.g. in Korea, Vietnam, Egypt and Syria).
The importance of the military grew after Wojciech Jaruzelski was made Prime Minister (II 1981) and the First Secretary of the Party (X 1981). On 13 December 1981, martial law was imposed, and the Military Council of National Salvation took power. 70,000 soldiers and 3,650 tanks and armed vehicles were used to crack down on the popular demonstrations across the country. Crucial branches of economy were militarised which meant that military officers took over factories and institutions. Despite lifting martial law in 1983, generals continued to play a major role in the party and state structures until the fall of the communist system.
Dudek Antoni, Gryz Ryszard, Komuniści i Kościół w Polsce 1945-1989, Kraków 2003
Dudek Antoni, Paczkowski Andrzej, Poland, [in:] Krzysztof Persak, Łukasz Kamiński (eds.), A Handbook of the Communist Security Apparatus in East Central Europe 1944-1989, Warsaw 2005, p. 221-283
Friszke Andrzej, Opozycja polityczna w PRL 1945–1980, Londyn 1994
Jarosz Dariusz, Polityka władz komunistycznych w Polsce w latach 1948–1956 a chłopi, Warszawa 1998
Kaliński Janusz, Economy in Communist Poland. The Road Astray, Warsaw 2014
Kersten Krystyna, Narodziny systemu władzy. Polska 1943-1948, Warszawa 1985
Paczkowski Andrzej, The Spring Will be Ours. Poland and Poles from Occupation to Freedom, University Park 2003
Skórzyński Jan, Krótka historia Solidarności 1980–1989, Gdańsk 2014
Wnuk Rafał, Poleszak Sławomir, Jaczyńska Agnieszka, Śladecka Magdalena (eds.), Atlas polskiego podziemia niepodległościowego 1944-1956/The Atlas of the Independence Underground in Poland, Warszawa - Lublin 2007