The Post-War Years, 1945-1990
After the outbreak of the German-Soviet war, the Soviet Union sent home a group of
Polish communists, who established the Polish Workers' Party. It was a small party, not
recognizing the legal authorities of the Polish state and enjoying no social support in
Poland. It was that party, however, which seized power in post-war Poland, helped by the
pressure of the Soviet Union.
As early as 1944, the Polish National Liberation Committee concluded an
agreement with the USSR establishing the eastern border of Poland along the Curzon Line,
confirmed by a treaty of August 16, 1945. The Potsdam Conference (July 17-August 2, 1945)
defined Poland's western border on the Odra and Nysa Rivers. Poland's territory amounted
to 312,000 sq. km., with a population of 24 million according to the census of 1946. The
shifting of the state westward was accompanied by the expulsion of the German population
(which had been determined at Potsdam,) as well as with the resettlement of millions of
Poles from the lost Eastern territories into new territories acquired by Poland.
The change of borders, the mass-scale migration in the war-damaged country, the
imposition on Poland of the Soviet political system, the continued stationing of Soviet
troops, the loss of independence--those were the factors defining the dramatic situation
of the Polish nation. Especially tragic were the destinies of the heroic leaders and
soldiers of the Home Army, who were arrested, killed or deported to Siberia, not to
mention the insults heaped on them by official propaganda.
The Provisional Government of National Unity was composed of representatives of the
Polish Workers Party (PWP), the Polish Socialist Party and the Polish Peasant Party, led
by Deputy Prime Minister Stanislaw Mikolajczyk, but actual power rested with the PWP,
which had full control over the army and secret police, and enjoyed Soviet support. After
the liquidation by terror of the remnants of the underground organizations, the political
attack was directed at the Polish Peasant Party.
Mikolajczyk counted on social support, but his party proved to be powerless in the face
of violence and election-rigging by the communists in the referendum of 1946 and the
parliamentary elections of 1947. The party was broken up and Mikolajczyk escaped from
The next step was liquidation of the Polish Socialist
Party. That aim was achieved by uniting the Polish Workers' Party and the Polish Socialist
Party into the Polish United Workers Party (PUWP) in December, 1948. Since that date the
communist party had a monopoly on power.
Efforts to win social support were made as early as the times of the Polish National
Liberation Committee, which issued a decree on agrarian reform. That reform was
indispensable in Poland, but political considerations took priority over economic common
sense, resulting in the creation of thousands of small farms under five hectares in area,
too small to be economically self-dependent. A war on illiteracy was declared, free
education and social insurance was made available to everyone. Low-priced books were
published in mass numbers. Those reforms, however, were accompanied by the suppression of
Polish national aspirations.
Neither the war-time losses nor the political situation managed to
break the will of Poles to live. The post-war years were marked by a demographic boom and
an enormous effort to rebuild the country. The Poles resettled from the USSR populated
Polish western territories, developing towns and villages. The people of Warsaw returned
to the sea of ruins that were left from what once had been the nation's greatest city.
In just a few years, Warsaw was rebuilt. The three-year plan of reconstruction
(1947-1949) was implemented very efficiently, as the authorities were still tolerating the
existence of cooperative and private enterprises after the nationalization of industry in
The year 1948 saw a major shift in communist policy. Having destroyed the private
sector, and thus market rules and balances, the communists introduced in their place a
centrally controlled economy. Costly investment projects, such as gigantic steel mills,
metal refineries and armament factories, were started. Poland's economic structure was
being adjusted to the needs of the USSR. In addition, the party began a forced
collectivization of farming.
In politics those were the worst years of the Stalinist terror. The peak moment of that
struggle against society came with an attack on the Church. Poland's Primate Cardinal
Stefan Wyszynski was imprisoned.
The disastrous economic situation, the failure of the six-year plan (1950-1955),
popular discontent and the political thaw in the USSR made the PUWP change its policies.
The party's small concessions, however, evoked great hopes and strong social pressure upon
the authorities. In June, 1956, it developed into worker's demonstrations in Poznan, which
were bloodily dispersed.
The breakthrough in politics came about in October, 1956. Wladyslaw Gomulka became the
First Secretary of the PUWP. His promise to embark upon the "Polish road to
socialism" won social support. Cardinal Wyszynski was released and the authorities
desisted from further persecution of the Church. The collectivization of farming was
discontinued. The innocent and illegally imprisoned soldiers of the Home Army were set
Gomulka, however, dissipated the support that he had enjoyed in October. He entered
into conflict with the Church and the important letter by Poland's Episcopate to German
bishops ("we do forgive and ask forgiveness,") opening up the difficult
Polish-German dialogue, evoked the party's vehement protest in 1965 and 1966.
Great harm was done to Poland by the conflict within the ruling party and the
anti-Semitic slogans employed by a part of the party apparatus. That faction, fighting for
power, tried to forge a bond with the populace on that basis. That attempt failed,
however, and the anti-Semitic faction did not come to power. A by-product of their
struggle, though, was the emigration of the remaining Polish Jews in 1968. This put the
good name of Poland in disrepute.
His prestige falling, Gomulka scored his last success. On December 7, 1970, Poland and
the Federal Republic of Germany [West Germany] concluded a treaty recognizing the border
on the Odra and Nysa Rivers. A week later, however, strikes broke out in Gdansk, Gdynia
and Szczecin. The party reacted using force, with troops shooting at the defenseless
crowds of workers. Gomulka lost power and Edward Gierek became the First Secretary of the
The new team undertook another attempt at reforming the
system, the second one after 1956, but quickly withdrew from the effort. The party's
bureaucratic structures, created within the framework of the planned economy, defended
their powers, while industrial lobbies defended investment projects that had nothing to do
with market demand. A symbol of that economic waste was the gigantic, technologically
out-of-date Katowice steel mill. An enormous Polish investment in the Soviet fuel complex
ensured deliveries of raw materials, but made the country dependent on a single supplier.
The agricultural policy, which neglected private farms, caused difficulties and shortages
in the food market. Large credits extended by the highly industrialized nations postponed
the disaster, but could not prevent it. The degeneration of the system was further
accelerated by the low professional and moral level of the ruling team.
When strikes broke out again in 1976, they were crushed by force, although the
authorities did not resort to shooting at the crowds. A group of intellectuals established
a Workers Defense Committee to stand for oppressed workers [known as KOR in Polish]. The
authorities harassed KOR members, but stopped short of using terror.
KOR was a small group, as were the other opposition groups. The majority of Poles
feared open action against the authorities, but the incompetence of the ruling group,
corruption, lack of prestige and dependence on the USSR deprived the governing powers of
important role in shaping social attitudes was played by culture. Despite censorship and
administrative interference, the patronage of the state and some leeway left to artistic
creativity permitted the development of the Polish film school, theater, arts, music and
literature after 1956. Of great importance to the loosened fetters of censorship was the
literary and scientific activity pursued in exile. Radio Free Europe played a significant
role in molding public opinion. Similar roles were played by the Paris-based periodical
"Kultura" and a number of similar publications. As a result, Poles were not
isolated from European culture, which was, indeed, so close to them. The importance of the
emigre cultural community was highlighted by the awarding of the Nobel Prize for
literature to Czeslaw Milosz in 1980.
The essential influence upon Polish attitudes continued to be the Catholic Church,
which preserved not only the faith, but lasting moral principles and national traditions.
The elevation of Cardinal Karol Wojtyla to the papacy in October, 1978, and his homecoming
as Pope John Paul II in June, 1979, were breakthrough events. In hailing the Pope, Polish
society, divided by a ban on the establishment of independent social organizations,
recovered its unity and its sense of dignity.
In the summer of 1980, Poland was swept by a wave of strikes. Lech
Walesa assumed leadership of the strike committee at the Gdansk Shipyard. The most
outstanding Polish intellectuals became the workers' advisers. The authorities had to
institute negotiations on the a list of 21 demands, which, together with pay raises and
other things, called for an end to censorship and the establishment of free trade unions.
Devoid of any program, the ruling group agreed to make concessions. Within two months, the
enormous, ten-million-strong Solidarity trade union [Solidarnosc] came into
being. It was a union and, at the same time, a reform and independence-oriented social
movement, resorting to peaceful methods only.
Nevertheless, the party's concessions were only of a transitional nature. The PUWP's
successive first secretaries, Stanislaw Kania and Wojciech Jaruzelski were under double
pressure: from the conservative party apparatus and the Soviet Union, which itself was in
the declining phase of Leonid Brezhnev's rule. After eighteen months of the
conflict-ridden co-existence between the Solidarity and the PUWP, of blocking reforms by
the party, of provocations and the deteriorating economic situation and strikes, martial
law was imposed at midnight on December 12, 1981. Solidarity leaders were interned;
strikes, which erupted in protest, were crushed with force (seven miners were killed at
the Wujek colliery); and military units were sent to control factories and offices.
The public responded with massive civil resistance to martial law. Before a month had
passed, tens of underground newspapers and publications appeared. That fact alone rendered
censorship and party propaganda helpless and fruitless. The tragic alienation of the
authorities from the people, lasting since 1945, became even more evident.
The people turned to the Church for protection, with the latter providing the venues
for meetings and patriotic demonstrations. When in 1984 officers of the "security
service" murdered the popular priest, Jerzy Popieluszko, the public mood reached its
boiling point. Direct perpetrators were put on trial, revealing the disintegration of the
state apparatus. Martial law solved no problems; power was slipping from the hands of the
ruling group; the economy was a shambles. On the other hand, society's resistance was
growing, as was the prestige of the opposition. In 1983 Lech Walesa received the Nobel
In 1988 Poland was again swept by a wave of strikes. In 1989
roundtable talks between the authorities and the opposition were arranged and held with
the mediation of the Church. The talks were helped by a favorable international situation
-- perestroika in the USSR and the support of the Western states for reforms in
June saw elections that had been agreed upon in the roundtable contract. The party did
not even win the votes of its own members. It retained with difficulty only those offices
which had been allocated to it beforehand by the contract with the opposition. The
satellite political parties (the UPP and the DP) moved to the opposition side. Owing to
the efforts of Lech Walesa and other leaders, the first non-communist government in the
Soviet bloc came into being with Tadeusz Mazowiecki as Prime Minister.
Poland's example speeded up changes in all of Central-Eastern Europe, making it the
father of modern democracy in that area of the world.