Destinations > Europe > Poland

Poland History

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Poland's written history begins with the reign of Mieszko I, who accepted Christianity for himself and his kingdom in AD 966. The Polish state reached its zenith under the Jagiellonian dynasty in the years following the union with Lithuania in 1386 and the subsequent defeat of the Teutonic Knights at Grunwald in 1410. The monarchy survived many upheavals but eventually went into a decline, which ended with the third and final partition of Poland by Prussia, Russia, and Austria in 1795.

Independence for Poland was one of the 14 points enunciated by President Woodrow Wilson during World War I. Many Polish Americans enlisted in the military services to further this aim, and the United States worked at the postwar conference to ensure its implementation.

However, the Poles were largely responsible for achieving their own independence in 1918. Authoritarian rule predominated for most of the period before World War II. On August 23, 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union signed the Ribbentrop-Molotov nonaggression pact, which secretly provided for the dismemberment of Poland into Nazi and Soviet-controlled zones. On September 1, 1939, Hitler ordered his troops into Poland. On September 17, Soviet troops invaded and then occupied eastern Poland under the terms of this agreement. After Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, Poland was completely occupied by German troops.

The Poles formed an underground resistance movement and a government in exile, first in Paris and later in London, which was recognized by the Soviet Union. During World War II, 400,000 Poles fought under Soviet command, and 200,000 went into combat on Western fronts in units loyal to the Polish government in exile.

In April 1943, the Soviet Union broke relations with the Polish government in exile after the German military announced that they had discovered mass graves of murdered Polish army officers at Katyn, in the U.S.S.R. (The Soviets claimed that the Poles had insulted them by requesting that the Red Cross investigate these reports.) In July 1944, the Soviet Red Army entered Poland and established a communist-controlled "Polish Committee of National Liberation" at Lublin.

Resistance against the Nazis in Warsaw, including uprisings by Jews in the Warsaw ghetto and by the Polish underground, was brutally suppressed. As the Germans retreated in January 1945, they leveled the city.

During the war, about 6 million Poles were killed, and 2.5 million were deported to Germany for forced labor. More than 3 million Jews (all but about 100,000 of the Jewish population) were killed in death camps like those at Oswiecim (Auschwitz), Treblinka, and Majdanek.

Following the Yalta Conference in February 1945, a Polish Provisional Government of National Unity was formed in June 1945; the U.S. recognized it the next month. Although the Yalta agreement called for free elections, those held in January 1947 were controlled by the Communist Party. The communists then established a regime entirely under their domination.

The Solidarity Movement

On August 31, 1980, workers at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk, led by an electrician named Lech Walesa, signed a 21-point agreement with the government that ended their strike. Similar agreements were signed at Szczecin and in Silesia. The key provision of these agreements was the guarantee of the workers' right to form independent trade unions and the right to strike. After the Gdansk agreement was signed, a new national union movement--"Solidarity"--swept Poland.

The discontent underlying the strikes was intensified by revelations of widespread corruption and mismanagement within the Polish state and party leadership. In September 1980, Gierek was replaced by Stanislaw Kania as First Secretary.

Alarmed by the rapid deterioration of the PZPR's authority following the Gdansk agreement, the Soviet Union proceeded with a massive military buildup along Poland's border in December 1980. In February 1981, Defense Minister Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski assumed the position of Prime Minister as well, and in October 1981, he also was named party First Secretary. At the first Solidarity national congress in September-October 1981, Lech Walesa was elected national chairman of the union.

On December 12-13, the regime declared martial law, under which the army and special riot police were used to crush the union. Virtually all Solidarity leaders and many affiliated intellectuals were arrested or detained. The United States and other Western countries responded to martial law by imposing economic sanctions against the Polish regime and against the Soviet Union. Unrest in Poland continued for several years thereafter.

In a series of slow, uneven steps, the Polish regime rescinded martial law. In December 1982, martial law was suspended, and a small number of political prisoners were released. Although martial law formally ended in July 1983 and a general amnesty was enacted, several hundred political prisoners remained in jail.

In July 1984, another general amnesty was declared, and 2 years later, the government had released nearly all political prisoners. The authorities continued, however, to harass dissidents and Solidarity activists. Solidarity remained proscribed and its publications banned. Independent publications were censored.

Roundtable Talks and Elections

The government's inability to forestall Poland's economic decline led to waves of strikes across the country in April, May, and August 1988. In an attempt to take control of the situation, the government gave de facto recognition to Solidarity, and Interior Minister Kiszczak began talks with Lech Walesa on August 31. These talks broke off in October, but a new series, the "roundtable" talks, began in February 1989. These talks produced an agreement in April for partly open National Assembly elections. The June election produced a Sejm (lower house), in which one-third of the seats went to communists and one-third went to the two parties which had hitherto been their coalition partners. The remaining one-third of the seats in the Sejm and all those in the Senat were freely contested; virtually all of these were won by candidates supported by Solidarity.

The failure of the communists at the polls produced a political crisis. The roundtable agreement called for a communist president, and on July 19, the National Assembly, with the support of some Solidarity deputies, elected General Jaruzelski to that office. Two attempts by the communists to form governments failed, however.

On August 19, President Jaruzelski asked journalist/Solidarity activist Tadeusz Mazowiecki to form a government; on September 12, the Sejm voted approval of Prime Minister Mazowiecki and his cabinet. For the first time in more than 40 years, Poland had a government led by non-communists.

In December 1989, the Sejm approved the government's reform program to transform the Polish economy rapidly from centrally planned to free-market, amended the constitution to eliminate references to the "leading role" of the Communist Party, and renamed the country the "Republic of Poland." The Polish United Workers' (Communist) Party dissolved itself in January 1990, creating in its place a new party, Social Democracy of the Republic of Poland. Most of the property of the former Communist Party was turned over to the state.

The May 1990 local elections were entirely free. Candidates supported by Solidarity's Citizens' Committees won most of the races they contested, although voter turnout was only a little over 40%. The cabinet was reshuffled in July 1990; the national defense and interior affairs ministers--holdovers from the previous communist government--were among those replaced.

In October 1990, the constitution was amended to curtail the term of President Jaruzelski. In December, Lech Walesa became the first popularly elected President of Poland.

The Republic of Poland

The Republic of Poland in the early 1990s made great progress toward achieving a fully democratic government and a market economy. In November 1990, Lech Walesa was elected President for a 5-year term. Jan Krzysztof Bielecki, at Walesa's request, formed a government and served as its Prime Minister until October 1991, introducing world prices and greatly expanding the scope of private enterprise.

Poland's first free parliamentary elections were held in 1991. More than 100 parties participated, representing a full spectrum of political views. No single party received more than 13% of the total vote.

Since 1991, Poland has conducted six general parliamentary elections and four presidential elections--all free and fair. Incumbent governments have transferred power smoothly and constitutionally in every instance to their successors. The post-Solidarity center-right and post-Communist center-left have each controlled the parliament and the presidency since 1991. Most recently, Poles elected Law and Justice (PiS) candidate and Mayor of Warsaw Lech Kaczynski to a 5-year term as President. Kazcynski narrowly defeated Civic Platform (PO) candidate Donald Tusk and was sworn in December 23, 2005.

Information by U.S. Department of State


Poland Gallery

Warsaw, the Old Town Warsaw, the Royal Castle Wroclaw, Ostrow Tumski Wroclaw, Market Square 

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