A country in central Europe which developed a strong sense of cultural nationhood in the absence of statehood between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries, at a time when Poland was a victim of its aggressive European neighbours.
Foreign rule (up to 1918)
Poland lost its independence in the three Polish partitions (1772, 1793, 1795), when it was carved up between Russia, Prussia, and Austria‐Hungary. To fight these powers, many Poles signed up to fight for Napoleon, who established a Grand Duchy of Warsaw in 1807; but after the Vienna Congress much of its territory was governed as the kingdom of Poland in personal union with the Emperor (Tsar) of Russia. Several uprisings (1830–1, 1846, 1863) were brutally repressed, though increasing attempts to ‘Russianize’ or ‘Germanize’ the Poles in the respective occupied areas strengthened the nationalist movement towards the end of the nineteenth century. When World War I broke out, most Poles joined Pilsudski to fight with Austria‐Hungary against Russia, in order to secure the independence of the kingdom. The Treaty of Versailles, which was based on Wilson's principle of national self‐determination, finally recognized the independent Poland which had been proclaimed in 1918.
Interwar Poland (1918–39)
Even though Poland was to be an independent state from now on, for most of the century this independence was at best incomplete. From 1918, it took another five years until all the borders of a state which had been out of existence for so long were fully determined. Most significantly, in the Russo‐Polish War Poland extended its borders to the east to include large areas of Belorussia (now Belarus) and the Ukraine. Poland was engaged in a series of border disputes with Czechoslovakia over Teschen, and with Lithuania, whose territory around Vilnius it had acquired in 1920 and incorporated in 1922.
Given the resentments its acquisitions of formerly German territories had created in Germany, by 1924 Poland had thus managed to offend all of its neighbours bar Romania. As problematic was the need to integrate the new national minorities, which now composed over 30 per cent of the population, and to harmonize communication and cultural structures in a country which had doubled in size, 1918–24. This task was made particularly difficult through the relatively backward state of Poland's agriculture, which employed almost 70 per cent of the working population. The state thus lacked the tax revenue to enable it to encourage a programme of economic consolidation. Finally, state‐building was made all but impossible through the weakness of state institutions, which had been modelled on the French Third Republic. Governments changed frequently, thanks to a fragmented parliament in which parties represented particular national, social, or cultural interests.
In 1926 Pilsudski carried out a coup and established a dictatorship. He distributed power among his associates such as Beck and Smigly‐Rydz, but the lack of a popular base made it even more difficult to carry out reforms, even if they had been attempted. Given the growing threat presented by the Soviet Union and Germany, Poland was unable to rally support from its hostile central European neighbours to present a common front against Hitler and Stalin.
World War II
In September 1939 the unreformed Polish army was unable to prevent the country's invasion by Germany and the USSR which inaugurated World War II in Europe. The German occupying forces, which ruled over all of Poland from 1941, inflicted unimaginable terror on the Polish people, as hundreds of thousands of Poles were shot, and almost its entire Jewish population of three and a half million people was systematically murdered in the concentration camps of Auschwitz and elsewhere. Perhaps as many non‐Jewish Poles lost their lives in the war. Together with the total destruction of its industries and cities, the war left deep scars on Polish society. No treatment of Poles by any power could remotely compare to the atrocities committed by the Germans. At the same time, Russian occupation of Poland during the nineteenth century, the Hitler–Stalin Pact of 1939, subsequent atrocities such as the Katyn Massacre, and the appalling idleness of the Red Army during the Warsaw Rising made it difficult for most to see the advance of Soviet troops in 1944 as a ‘liberation’.
Communist rule (1944–89)
After the war, the country was subject to Soviet control. By 1947 the hegemony of the Communist Party was established under Bierut, who proceeded to introduce Stalinist policies. Perhaps the most important figure in Communist Poland, however, was Gomulka, who ruled the country from 1956 to 1970. He appreciated that Marxism‐Leninism needed to be adapted to the specific conditions of Poland. In particular, he came to a modus vivendi with Cardinal Wyszinski, whose toleration was crucial as the Roman Catholic Church had traditionally been a bearer of Polish national identity, and still played an important role in the lives of most people. Gomulka also appeased the majority of Poles still living in the countryside by continuing to allow private ownership there.
Polish society thus achieved considerable degrees of freedom unmatched by its neighbours in East Germany, the USSR, or Czechoslovakia after 1968. Despite the failings and inefficiency of the planned economy, the country was industrialized and urbanized, while there were significant improvements in literacy levels and life expectancy. Unfortunately, the rapid expansion of heavy industry, and the concurrent urbanization, could only be achieved at the permanent expense of the production of consumer goods. Thus the standard of living remained low as there were few luxury items to buy, which caused discontent to mount against a political and economic system few Poles had actually chosen.
The replacement of Gomulka with Gierek (1970) offered a temporary reprieve through increases in economic production of up to 10 per cent per year, though again little was done to produce more consumer goods. These growth rates were largely achieved through foreign, hard‐currency loans, and did not indicate a general improvement in economic competitiveness. In the absence of lasting improvements to the standard of living, Polish society continued to be extremely volatile in its response to increases in the price of basic foodstuffs, which had become a regular trigger for popular discontent by the 1970s.
This was no different in 1980, when unannounced increases in the price of bread and meat caused demonstrations of such a scale as to take the Communist leadership by surprise and cause the dismissal of Gierek. A group of leaders around Wałeęsa managed to channel the disparate protests into the demand for the legalization of an independent trade union, Solidarność. Once this had been allowed, protesters used Solidarność as a vehicle for political opposition. Under pressure from his hardline Communist neighbours, Jaruzelski declared martial law in late 1981 and banned trade union activity.
The Communist government proved unable to suppress the political opposition, for three reasons.
1. Solidarność had established such a strong footing among the Polish people that it was able to develop a flourishing underground movement.
2. The visits of the Polish Pope, John Paul II, in 1979, 1983, and 1987, were a crucial outlet for public hostility to the regime. They also demonstrated the continued importance of the Church (which had aligned itself with the Solidarność movement at the grass roots), as it was able to reach areas beyond the purview of the Communist state.
3. The ascendancy of Gorbachev in the Soviet Union: in particular, Gorbachev made it clear that the USSR would no longer intervene to shore up a Communist system against the will of its people.
Jaruzelski was thus forced to enter into negotiations with the opposition led by Solidarność, which led to the election in 1989 of Poland's first non‐Communist Prime Minister since 1945, Thadeusz Mazowiecki (b. 1927). The capitalist transformation of the moribund Polish economy resulted in an economic roller‐coaster ride. Industrial production declined by 24 per cent, while inflation shot up to almost 600 per cent in 1990. By 1994 industrial production had grown again by 13 per cent, while inflation had been reduced to less than 50 per cent. Nevertheless, the tremendous levels of hardship endured by much of the population during this period sharply reduced the popularity of the Solidarność movement, which was further weakened by numerous internal divisions.
In 1990, Wałeôsa managed to be elected President, but in the 1991 parliamentary elections Solidarność won but 5 per cent of the vote, less than 2 per cent more than the Polish Party of the Friends of Beer. By contrast, the reformed Communists, under the banner of the Federation of the Democratic Left (SLD), and the Agrarian Party (PSL) went from strength to strength. They formed a coalition government after winning the 1993 parliamentary elections, while Wałeôsa was humiliated when he lost the 1995 presidential elections to a former Communist minister, Aleksander Kwasniewski.
The parliamentary elections of 1997 resulted in a victory for the ‘Electoral Action Solidarity’, led by Jerzy Buzek. With its parliamentary allies it passed a law whereby all candidates for political office had to be investigated for their links to the Polish secret service under the former Communist regimes. This helped destabilize the government, as a number of prominent members had to resign when their secret connections to the former dictatorship were revealed. An administrative reform reduced the centralization of the political system by creating a more federative structure of sixteen administrative districts. Meanwhile, Poland continued in its efforts to prepare for membership of the EU, through often painful institutional, social, and legal reform. In 1999 the health system was reformed. Economic growth was relatively stable at over 4 per cent per year, but much of this was distributed very unevenly. Poland's structural imbalances, especially its overblown agricultural sector, continued, while a dramatic budget deficit and the state's continued public indebtedness led to highly unpopular spending cuts. Buzek's Electoral Action Solidarity became very unpopular, and scraped into parliament with 5.6 per cent of the popular vote in 2001.
Contemporary politics (since 2001)
The 2001 elections saw a return of the SLD, whose leader, Leszek Miller, became Prime Minister. Under Miller, the government continued to carry out unpopular structural reforms in preparation for EU accession, which materialized in 2004. At this historic point, Miller had become extremely unpopular, so that he resigned. In 2005, parliamentary and presidential elections saw victory for the Law and Justice Party, led by twins. Lech Kaczynski became President, with Jaroslaw Kaczynski becoming Prime Minister, in 2006. The Kaczynski brothers had been elected on a populist platform, and in office they pursued a militant policy of promoting Polish interests in the EU. They were criticized for forming an alliance with an anti‐Semitic Peasant Party, while frequent criticisms of Germany have led to a cooling of relations with its western neighbour.