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A BRIEF HISTORY OF POLAND

Copyright 1994 - AngloPol Corporation -- Distributed by the Polonia Media Network

Part 13

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.

Posting of National Liberation Committee ManifestoAs 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 Poland.

Unification Congress of 1948The 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.

Warsaw in RuinsNeither 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 1946.

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 free.

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 PUWP.

PUWP Congress of 1975The 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 any legitimacy.

First Sec. Gierek and Pres. Ford sign agreementAn 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.

Shipyard in GdanskIn 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 many
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 Peace Prize.

Riot in WarsawIn 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 Poland.

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.

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