In this lesson, we explore the history of Poland after WWII, from its occupation by the Soviet Union and subsequent Soviet influence upon Polish government to the Solidarity movement and Lech Walesa.
Have you ever worked an entry-level job before? Whether you were filing papers or flipping burgers, you surely had a boss telling you what to do all the time, and maybe you even had more than one. For Poland after WWII, despite technically being its own country, its leaders were similarly ordered around like low-level employees. Indeed, after WWII, Poland became a communist Soviet client state similar to the rest of Eastern Europe.
Prior to WWII, Poland already had a relatively tumultuous history. Indeed, in the late 18th century, Poland was wiped clear off the map in three separate partitions by Austria, Russia and Prussia. Poland was only able to become a functional political entity again after the end of WWI in 1918 with Germany and Austria-Hungary defeated and Russia in disarray in the throes of the Russian Revolution. Poland expanded beyond the bounds of its original state in the first few years, fighting Soviet Russia for new territory.
Afterward, the Polish state existed peacefully for nearly two decades, before the Soviet Union and Adolf Hitler's newly aggressive Germany secretly agreed to divide Poland up among themselves. The subsequent German invasion of Poland began WWII and divided Poland yet again. In Eastern Poland, controlled by the Soviet Union, the middle and upper classes of society were persecuted by the Soviet government, including the massacre of 22,000 Polish military officers ordered by Soviet premier, Joseph Stalin. In the West, Poland was turned into a killing ground by Germany, who placed some of the most notorious concentration and extermination camps of WWII in Western Poland. Poles living in the area were often forced into hard labor, building these camps and other German installations.
After the defeat of Germany in WWII, Poland remained more of a concept than a reality. Under staunch Soviet control and with borders already somewhat amorphous, the victorious allies had to decide what to do with Poland. In the end, the United Kingdom and the U.S. agreed to the Soviet Union's plans to annex the eastern territories of Poland to the Soviet Union, and in recompense, Poland received East Prussia and other German territories, roughly 80% of the size of the territory it lost in the East to the Soviet Union. Poland was also recognized as being part of the Soviet 'sphere of influence' within Eastern Europe.
The Polish people had no voice in the discussions and certainly were not asked if they preferred being under Soviet influence or not. Regardless, millions of Poles were directly affected by the new borders, as the Soviet Union forced the mass migration of Poles from the formerly Polish territory in the new Soviet borderlands. It relocated many of these Poles to the lands the new Polish state had received from Germany, where the Soviet Union also expelled millions of Germans. In all, nearly six million Poles were relocated by 1949. Furthermore, despite the arbitrary nature with which these borders were drawn, they largely remain the borders of the Polish state today.
Soviet Puppet State
As the closest state to the Soviet Union and well within the U.S. and U.K.-recognized Soviet sphere of influence, Poland stood little chance of gaining complete control over its own affairs after WWII. Indeed, the Polish government was reconfigured to foster the growth of communism and increase Soviet control. For instance, in 1946, the Polish provisional government held a national referendum which approved the nationalization of Polish industries and created a single-house representative assembly - one that the communists could easily dominate. The results of this referendum were likely doctored by Soviet officials.
In the first post-war elections in 1947, the communist government, led by the Soviet-backed Wladyslaw Gomulka, won a vast majority of the seats in the Polish government, though this was largely engineered through fraudulent election results and intimidation of opposing politicians. Gomulka promised to lead Poland to socialism and communism slowly, in a way that aligned with Polish values and needs. The true extent of Soviet control in Poland was displayed the following year, however, when the Soviet Union decided Gomulka's plans were too slow moving. In 1948, Gomulka was removed from the leadership of the Polish communist party in favor of Boleslaw Bierut, who initiated a more rapid communization of Poland.
As a result, Poland became increasingly integrated into the Soviet economy along with the rest of Eastern Europe. The country was rapidly industrialized and agricultural land was collectivized and nationalized. The Soviet-backed Polish government even began instituting Six-Year Plans in 1950, mimicking the Five-Year Plans the Soviet Union used to set goals for industrial output.
Unrest and Protest
Poles did not necessarily flock to communist principles in the way the Soviet puppet government hoped, and by the mid-1950s, unrest was sparked when some 15,000 industrial workers rioted over the failure to be paid properly. The riot was initially put down by troops, killing dozens of demonstrators. Whereas in the past the Soviet regime would have mercilessly quelled the rebellion, the new Soviet regime of Nikita Khrushchev negotiated with Gomulka, who was returned as leader of the Polish government during the crisis. Gomulka reassured Khrushchev he could successfully end the strike and riots without further bloodshed.
Cycles of protest and riot remained a problem for the Polish communist government over the following decades. In 1968, riots broke out in Warsaw after an anti-Russian play was banned from being performed, and Gomulka only staved off Soviet invasion by lending Polish troops to the Soviet Union to be used in the Soviet repression of demonstrations in Czechoslovakia. Only two years later, riots again broke out across Poland's major cities when food prices rose dramatically.
The riots spread to the countryside and Gomulka was removed from power. His successor managed to quell the unrest only through placing strict price controls on food. These piecemeal measures only led to a concurrent rise in foreign debt, which nearly bankrupted Poland, and by 1976, strikes and riots again broke out when food prices jumped 60% because the price controls bankrupting the country were removed.
Lech Walesa and the End of Communism
The economic depression and unrest led to the creation of Solidarity in 1980. Solidarity was a trade union independent of the government founded in Gdansk with Lech Walesa proclaimed the leader. The Solidarity movement quickly gained popularity throughout the country, and in 1981, the communist government declared martial law and outlawed Solidarity.
Unfortunately for the Polish communists, at the same time Mikhail Gorbachev was relaxing controls on political freedoms in the Soviet Union, which undermined the communists' attempts to clamp down on Solidarity. With the newfound ability to speak relatively openly about politics from the mid-1980s onwards, Poles began discussing the nature of Polish communism and the best way forward for Poland. In 1988, the country held a Soviet-sanctioned free election, which returned a massive majority for the Solidarity movement and calls immediately began for a return to democracy in Poland. In December 1990, Solidarity's leader, Lech Walesa, was sworn in as President of the new Polish democracy.
Poland has a long history of foreign intervention. Whether it's being wiped off the map in the 18th century or again in WWII, Poland has often been persecuted by its neighbors. Even after WWII when Poland emerged as its own country, its borders were manipulated without its consent and it was recognized as being under Soviet influence. The Soviet Union used this internationally recognized influence to foist communism and a single party political structure upon Poland, regardless of the will of the people.
However, the will of the Polish people did manifest itself in the various strikes and riots that took place throughout Poland during the communist period. In the 1980s, as the Soviet Union itself weakened and allowed more political expression, Poles flocked to the Solidarity movement and its leader Lech Walesa, whose winning of Poland's first truly free post-war elections allowed Poland to finally become a true democracy.
After you complete this lesson, you might achieve these objectives:
- Participate in a discussion about the changing borders of Poland over the last 100 years
- Provide information about the partition by the Allies and Axis powers after WWII of Eastern Europe
- Recall Poland's contentious years as a communist state
- Report on the rise of Solidarity and Lech Walesa as Poland became a democracy
- Discuss the protests in Warshaw in 1968