November 8, 1998 No. 45 (524)

For Liberty's Sake
POLAND: 1918-1998

The Warsaw Voice's potted history of Europe's pounding heart.


As World War I drew to a close in 1918, Polish legions fighting in the armies of two of the partitioning (axis) powers (Germany and Austro-Hungary) exploited the axis's rapid defeat to push the victorious allies to support the idea of Polish "national self-determination." In November 1918, after 123 years of political nonexistence, the Polish state was finally reborn on the rubble of the German, Austro-Hungarian and Russian European empires. It was immediately faced with severe administrative, economic and social problems, many of which had not been envisaged. The large disparities between regions of the new territory, each of which had been administered by different partitioning powers, was particularly problematic. The country was also rife with political divisions, with competing political visions and strategies that had sprung up in each of the partitioned zones during World War I. Out of the confusion, the leading figure to emerge was Józef Piłsudski. He realized that while Poland owed its rebirth to the victory of the Western allies (as well as to the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917), its chances of successfully exploiting the geopolitical situation rested in large measure on the sympathetic acquiescence of the Western allies in Poland's cause. Given, however, that most Polish divisions had fought in the German and Austro-Hungarian armies, Piłsudski recognized that the first government of Prime Minister Jędrzej Moraczewski, which was opposed by the allied-supporting nationalist right, had to be short-lived. With Piłsudski's support, the right enforced its collapse followed by the appointment of a new prime minister, the well-known pianist Ignacy Paderewski, who had earlier worked for Poland's cause while living in the United States and France.

The first three years of independence were filled with military and diplomatic battling for the Polish state to be recognized, and wars to defend the new state borders against almost all neighboring countries. The 1919-1920 war against Bolshevik Russia ended with Poland's victory in the Battle of Warsaw in August 1920. Poland's borders were finally internationally recognized in 1923. The country had an area of 388,634 sq km and, according to a population census taken in 1921, 21,177,000 inhabitants.

Time and international stability were needed to reconstruct the state after the war and to consolidate and integrate the territories previously occupied by the three partitioning powers. Neither were forthcoming, however. By 1939, national industrial production per capita had not even reached its 1913 level, mainly due to the loss of the large Russian market and a customs war with Germany.


The 10th anniversary of independence witnessed the peak of Poland's inter-war economic growth. Before the economy collapsed after the Great Crash of 1929, the First National Exhibition was held in Poznań, showing the country's achievements in trade and industry. The nation's economic success was largely a product of the anti-inflationary orthodoxy of the Władysław Grabski government, which managed to introduce monetary reform with the help of an American stabilization loan in 1924. The Polish mark was replaced by the zloty, at an exchange rate against the U.S. dollar of 2.5:1. A brand-new port was built in Gdynia (in 1927) and linked by rail with Silesia; it soon became the biggest-capacity port on the Baltic. In 1928 the number of unemployed was only 80,000. After the Great Crash, in 1932, however, this figure had jumped to 1 million.

Politically, the decade was dominated by Marshal Józef Piłsudski, who was presented by the government as the figurehead of Poland's independence. In May 1926 he led a military coup which gave him almost complete power over the country. However, the facade of parliamentary democracy was retained, although its ineptitude-a result of the so-called March Constitution of 1921-was heavily criticized by Piłsudski's cabinet. The coup was initially supported by the left, although in 1928 Piłsudski finally broke contact with the Socialist Party. The authorities uncompromisingly curbed the center-left opposition (Centrolew), initiating court proceedings against its leaders. The nationalist right was also obliged to accept that it would not thereafter be able to regain power via the ballot box.


Like many other European countries during this period of great international tension, strong authoritarian tendencies emerged in Poland. This was reflected in the amendment of the constitution in April 1935. The new laws strengthened executive power, granting the president nearly unlimited powers. It also confirmed the special position of the army. Its inspector general and Piłsudski's successor as head of the military, Edward Rydz-Śmigły, was officially recognized as the state's second most important official.

The stronger role played by the army was, in large part, an effect of the growing threat from the Soviet Union and Germany, both of which were already engaged in massive arms programs. Added to this, Hitler's Germany began openly to criticize the 1918 Versailles Treaty's Polish-German borders. Soon after the Munich Pact in 1938, it demanded the right to annex the Free City of Gdańsk (Danzig) and create a corridor to East Prussia (which had been separated from the main bulk of Germany by the so-called "Polish corridor"). Germany, however, also invited Poland to join the Anti-Comintern Pact.

The rejection of those demands ultimately led to the outbreak of World War II. Poland was attacked by Germany and the Soviet Union, which had earlier agreed on the division of Poland. The Nazi army crossed the Polish border on Sept. 1, 1939, and the Red Army attacked on Sept. 17. Western Ukraine and western Belarus were incorporated into the Soviet state. The land occupied by the Germans was divided into two parts: The western half was incorporated into the Third Reich and the south and east became the so-called General Government administrated by the Nazi authorities.

Throughout the occupation of the country, an underground Polish state functioned. The Home Army (AK), a conspiratorial military formation, the biggest organization of its type in Europe, carried out a regular partisan war outside the cities, and diversion and sabotage operations. In the cities, spectacular military actions were organized, for example, attacks on German dignitaries, Nazi police officers, as well as collaborators and informers. The Allies were also provided invaluable information on the German military industry, for example, on the V-1 and V-2 rockets produced in Poland.


After World War II Poland, although theoretically on the winning side, was a devastated country stripped of sovereignty. War operations and the Nazi reign of terror had caused the death of 6 million Polish citizens, half of whom were Jews-the victims of the Holocaust. Warsaw was practically razed to the ground as a result of two large-scale patriotic attacks on the occupiers: the Ghetto Uprising in 1943 and the Warsaw Uprising in 1944.

As a result of the Conference at Yalta, Poland's borders changed. In exchange for the territories taken over by the Soviet Union, the three victorious powers gave Poland former German lands, and set the border on the Oder and Neisse rivers. The German population was displaced westward, and Poles who had to leave Poland's former eastern territories resettled in their stead. After the war, Poland had about 25 million inhabitants on an area of 312,000 sq km-almost 77,000 sq km less than in 1939.

In the first years after the war fighting in Poland continued. The independence-seeking underground movement, which fought the occupiers throughout the war and remained faithful to the government-in-exile in London, tried to oppose Soviet hegemony and the puppet Polish communist authorities instituted by the Soviet Union. Poland was terrorized by the UB, the Public Security Office, and the Stalinist NKVD (secret police) also played an active role in implementing the new political order, for example, by supervising the referenda-which were manipulated by the communists anyway-on the state's political system. A large group of independence activists, high- and medium-rank officers of the prewar Polish army, and the leaders of the AK were sentenced to death or many years of imprisonment in show trials based on prefabricated accusations. Some of those arrested were taken to the Soviet Union and made to face Soviet tribunals. This happened, for example, to 16 leaders of the AK and the London government-in-exile representation office, who were sent to labor camps in Siberia.

For the first three years the communists tolerated a private sector in the economy, but in 1948 the Soviet model of central planning was officially adopted. The Polish Workers' Party (PPR) won political dominance, and all opposition, even that in the Polish Socialist Party (PPS), was eliminated. After having "cleared the ranks of rightist and nationalist elements," the PPS and PPR merged in December 1948, creating the Polish United Workers' Party (PZPR) which held the monopoly on power in Poland for the next 40 years.


Poland entered the second postwar decade as "the merriest barracks of the Soviet camp." Unlike other member-states of the Warsaw Pact and the Council of Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon), social resistance in Poland forced the rulers to accept the existence of individual farms, the autonomy of the Catholic Church and a certain degree of freedom of science and culture. Protests against the Stalinist state, which culminated in 1956, beginning with a bloody workers' rebellion in Poznań in June, accelerated the ongoing liberalization of the system which had been started three years earlier, after Stalin's death.

The power struggle culminated in the return of the PZPR Central Committee's First Secretary Władysław Gomułka, the promoter of "the Polish way of socialism." Gomułka had been removed from the party leadership eight years earlier and politically marginalized. Despite his strong attachment to most communist dogmas, Gomułka pragmatically accepted a limited opening to the West, to a degree unprecedented in Soviet satellite countries. He also promoted the reduction of Soviet control over the country's political and economic life.

The achievements of the so-called Polish thaw didn't last long, however. By 1958, the communists had practically eradicated workers' councils, which had given them a say on how their firm was managed. There was also a conflict between the authorities and the church over the right to display crucifixes in schools and censorship had increased. Reform of the centralized, bureaucratic system of economic management was practically abandoned.


Poland did not avoid the youth protests that were spreading across Europe. In May, student demonstrations at Warsaw University and at several other universities were swiftly quashed. They were followed by a campaign against the intelligentsia and those who became labeled as supporters of Zionism. Both were, in fact, politically motivated-an attempt by Minister of Internal Affairs Mieczysław Moczar to assume power. There are many indications that he was following Moscow's orders-this was the year when Soviet Secretary General Leonid Brezhnev announced his doctrine on limited sovereignty of Eastern Bloc member-states. Some historians believe that the Soviet Union, concerned by the developments in neighboring Czechoslovakia (where Warsaw Pact troops intervened several months later), had a hand in provoking the March 1968 events in Poland. The power struggle between the supporters of nationalist communism, led by Moczar, and those favoring liberal communism, ended up in the mass emigration of intelligentsia with Jewish roots. A large part of the emigrants were in fact forced to leave, given a so-called one-way ticket and stripped of Polish citizenship.

The country had also been experiencing economic stagnation for several years by the late 1960s. Less than three years later, in December 1970, food price hikes finally caused a serious workers' revolt on the coast. The joint operation of the militia and army led to a massacre in which, according to some historians, several hundred people died. The December events forced Gomułka to give up his post. His successor, Edward Gierek, from Silesia, initiated a further opening of Poland to the West-involving taking out loans and buying licenses. After 10 years of Gierek's management, this policy led to a record foreign debt and a deep economic crisis.


For Poles, the most important event of this year was the election of Cracow archbishop, Cardinal Karol Wojtyła, as pope. For the first time in 454 years, the Holy See had a non-Italian head. The joy of the Polish people clearly contrasted with the communist authorities' confusion and uncertainty about how to act in this new situation. The beginning of John Paul II's pontificate coincided with the start of a new stage of the Cold War, which intensified after the Soviet Union initiated a new phase of the nuclear arms race, and invaded Afghanistan. Poland, like other states in the Eastern Bloc, was paying indirectly through its obligation to pay more for Soviet raw materials. The central planning system was proving increasingly inefficient, and the Western technologies Poland bought turned out to be either outdated or dependent on a regular supply of Western components.

In 1976 another attempt to reduce the huge subsidies on food prices failed after civil unrest in Radom and Ursus. The participants of the strikes were dealt with in such a heavy-handed manner by the authorities that an open opposition organization, the Workers' Defense Committee (KOR), was established in their defense. This was a unique organization in the whole Soviet Bloc. In contrast to the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia, Polish authorities didn't regularly use brutality when repressing dissidents, though members and supporters of the KOR and other similar organizations were arrested, laid off work, and forbidden to leave the country. The main reason behind the authorities' relatively "liberal" attitude was the rapidly increasing debt to the West-something that necessitated at least some outward signs of respect for Western opinion.

The election of John Paul II and his visit to Poland in 1979 provided the opposition with a new impulse. A little over a year later a nearly nationwide strike was organized and the independent and self-governing Solidarity Trade Union was founded. At the end of August 1980 the authorities signed an agreement with the workers' strike committees which were advised by intellectuals from the KOR and Catholic Intelligentsia Club (KIK). The agreement included a provision for the gradual liberalization of the political system.

After a year and a half of political struggle, martial law was introduced on Dec. 13, 1981. It lasted until 1983. Power was taken over by the Military Council for National Salvation headed by Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski. Several thousand Solidarity activists were interned, censorship of correspondence was implemented, and travel around the country limited. More blood was shed on Dec. 17, 1981 when militia troops shot dead nine miners while suppressing protests at Wujek coal mine in Silesia. Later, the victims of political fighting included Father Jerzy Popiełuszko, Solidarity chaplain, who was kidnapped and murdered by secret service agents on Oct. 16, 1984.


Poland's basic tasks included improving the functioning of the economy given the crisis of central planning and growing foreign debt, and changing the methods of managing the country. Due to unpaid interest the Polish debt had risen to $33 billion by 1987. After new waves of strikes in the spring and summer of 1988, Mieczysław Rakowski's new government took steps to liberalize the economy. However, dialogue with the opposition and the possibility of open political contestation met with strong resistance within the PZPR leadership. Both sides could remember the forcible solving of the conflict between the authorities and Solidarity in December 1981.

The signs of crisis in the communist system throughout the world were increasingly visible. The following year brought about significant changes to Poland and other members of the Eastern Bloc. Poland became the pioneer of the changes dubbed "The Autumn of Nations" in Europe. The authorities agreed to start negotiations with the opposition at the turn of 1989. The so-called Round Table Talks, on the conditions of a peaceful reform of the political system, lasted two months and resulted in a constitutionally defined agreement to move toward democracy. In June 1989 the first partially free elections were held, resulting in Solidarity's Citizen's Committees gaining the entire 35 percent of openly electable Sejm seats (the other 65 percent was reserved for the PZPR and its coalition partners), and 99 out of 100 Senate seats. In September 1989 the first non-communist government in the Soviet satellite countries was formed, although still including communist members and within a constitutional arrangement in which Gen. Jaruzelski was elected by both houses of parliament as president. Headed by Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the new cabinet had to start immediate and radical action to stabilize the economy-later called "shock therapy" or the "Balcerowicz plan," after the deputy prime minister and finance minister.


The feeling of normality which can be felt in Poland increasingly is a reward for the last decade. Despite the need to overcome enormous economic, social and political problems, the country has become stable for the first time in many years. Presidential, parliamentary and local government elections are regularly held-a benchmark. Although the frequency of governmental changes remains somewhere close to the Italian rate, it has a decreasing impact on social and economic life. The country's acceptance into the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the fact that it is among the first five states from the post-Soviet bloc which were admitted to negotiations on joining the European Union stand testimony to its economic success. This year, Poland heads the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Its negotiations on joining NATO are nearing an end, as the treaty's enlargement ratification procedures are over in 15 out of 16 member states. It is planned that Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic will be accepted into NATO in April 1999.

Poland has turned out to be one of the most stable countries in the new Europe. None of Poland's neighbors in 1990-the Soviet Union, the German Democratic Republic and Czechoslovakia-exists today. At present the country borders on seven states-Russia, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Germany-and it's worth stressing that it has signed treaties with all of them, resolving almost all basic bilateral issues.

Poland is now known as Europe's tiger economy. But not only has it grown and developed successfully, it has also so far defended itself against the dangers of the financial crises in the world economy.

Piotr Golik
Witold Żygulski
November 8, 1998