Bookmarks: To the 10th Century... ● The Middle Ages ● Modern History ● The 19th Century: A Nation without a State ● The 20th Century: Between the Wars ● The 20th Century: Poland under Soviet Domination ● The Third Republic of Poland
The earliest signs of human activity in the basins of the Vistula and Oder date back to about 100 thousand BC. Neanderthal hunters crossed the area, especially present-day southern Poland. The earliest settlements of Homo Sapiens in Poland go back to the Mesolithic Age (8 thousand–5.5 thousand BC). These settlements were established by migrant peoples belonging to the Danubian Basin Culture.
With time (partly due to incursions by warrior tribes from Asia), the inhabitants of the present-day territories of Poland began to organise themselves into larger social groups and establish fortified strongholds. An example of this type of construction can be found in Biskupin (8th century BC), an island settlement surrounded by palisades, which had a population of around 1,000–1,200 people.
Later, from the 6th century BC onwards, Poland became the target of raids by Scythian and Sarmatian tribes from the east, and Celtic and Germanic tribes from the west. Often the invaders would assimilate with the indigenous inhabitants and settle in the conquered territories. Alongside the destruction, these invasions also brought the achievements of the civilised world and encouraged trade—the earliest traces of the "Amber Road", a trade route linking the Baltic Sea with Rome and the Mediterranean basin, date back to the 5th century BC.
In the mid-10th century the Piast dynasty, rulers of the Polanian tribe, adopted Christianity. The Vislanians had already established links with Christendom earlier. However, the Polanian Prince Mieszko decided that conversion to Christianity would raise his own and his country's status, not only at home—with a common religion for all the subject tribes, and supremacy for the anointed prince—but also in foreign affairs. Poland would join the civilised realms, and the German thrust to bring Christianity to the Slavs would be halted. The year 966, when Mieszko was baptised, is regarded as marking the origin of Poland as an independent, Christian, centralised state, following the model set up in Christian Europe.
The reigns of Mieszko I (?–992) and his son Bolesław Chrobry (Boleslaus the Brave), mark the period when the Polish tribes were brought together in a united and internally well-knit realm which made an active contribution to European politics. Assisted by the ecclesiastical authorities, between 972 and 990 the principality of Poland grew, absorbing Pomerania, Lesser Poland (Polonia Minor), and Silesia by way of military conquest, the pursuit of trade, marriage alliances, and the foundation of an administrative system. Most importantly, the new state gained a foothold on the international scene. The wars skillfully conducted by Mieszko and Boleslaus earned Poland not only new territories (the Strongholds of Czerwień and, temporarily, Moravia and Lusatia), but also the reputation of a power to be reckoned with even by the Holy Roman Emperor. The major success of early Piastian foreign policy was the Congress of Gniezno (1000), during which the Emperor Otto III recognised Boleslaus as the principal ally for his plan to unite Europe under the imperial rule, and approved the erection of an independent Polish metropolitan see, as well as Boleslaus' subsequent coronation (1025).
It was not until the reign of Casimir, Mieszko II's son, that stability was restored. The Restorer reunited the country administratively, recuperating Silesia, Mazovia and Pomerania thanks to the help of the Emperor Conrad and skilful alliances, especially with Kievan Rus. Poland rose in international standing. His son, Boleslaus the Bold, continued Casimir's policy.
Thanks to his military talents and the support he gave the Pope in the investiture conflict with the Emperor he managed to regain the crown. He influenced the installing of princes in Ruthenia (Kievan Rus) and Hungary, and halted the eastward expansion of the Holy Roman Empire. However, in 1079 he forfeited the throne in outcome of a rebellion supported by the Empire and Bohemia. Another contributing factor was the conflict between the King and Stanislaus, Bishop of Cracow, which resulted in the withdrawal of the Church's support for Boleslaus.
The reign of Boleslaus the Wry-mouthed (nephew of Boleslaus the Bold) could not stop the country's decline. The Wry-mouthed gained renown for his military achievements (victory against the Empire in 1109, and the defeat of Pomerania in 1113–1119), but on his deathbed in 1138 he divided up his realm, distributing a province to each of his sons. The period of feudal dismemberment lasted over a century and a half, during which Poland's status diminished, and would not be retrieved until the mid-14th century.
However, this was a period of social stability and rapid advancement, despite several devastating Mongol invasions. Issues of land tenure were regulated: knights were enfeoffed (granted property in exchange for feudal service to the prince); thousands of new villages and many towns were founded. Numerous settlers came from Germany, and some from the Low Countries settled on the Baltic coast. Scores of monasteries and priories sprang up, mostly Cistercian and Dominican foundations.
In the reigns of the last Piastian kings, Władysław Łokietek (Vladislaus the Elbow-high), and Kazimierz Wielki (Casimir the Great), most of the Polish lands were reunited.
Poland became a strong, well-managed kingdom, actively participating in the political, economic and cultural life of Europe. In 1364 a university was founded in Cracow, the second university foundation in Central Europe after Prague. Cracow served as a major diplomatic centre: in 1364 it played host to a congress of monarchs.
The main problem for the country lay in the incessant conflicts with the Czechs (disputes over Silesia) and, since 1226, the Teutonic Order, which had managed to set up a strong principality in Prussia and constantly threatened the Polish borders. Casimir had no heir in the male line, which spelled the end of the Piast dynasty (1370) and the Polish throne passed to allied relatives of the Piasts, the Hungarian branch of the House of Anjou (1370–1384; King Louis the Hungarian and his daughter Jadwiga). The threat from the Teutonic Order induced Poland to enter a treaty with Lithuania. The negotiations culminated in the marriage of Jadwiga, who had ascended the throne of Poland while still in her minority, with Jagiełło (Iogaila) Grand Duke of Lithuania, Lithuania's conversion to Christianity, and a personal union of both countries (Krewo, 1385).
For the next two hundred years the Jagiellonian dynasty ruled the joint state of Poland-Lithuania, some of the vastest dominions in Europe. At one point in the late 15th century, alongside Poland-Lithuania, Bohemia and Hungary also had a Jagiellonian monarch.
One of the highlights of Vladislaus Jagiełło's reign was his victory over the Teutonic Order at Grunwald (1410). Unfortunately, Poland did not take full advantage: the Teutonic Order held its principal fortress at Marienburg (Malbork) and, in spite of further defeats in battle, kept much of its military power. Several decades later another war broke out (1454–1466) and only then did Poland succeed in recuperating the part of Pomerania near Gdańsk and put a stop to the threat from the Order. In 1525 the monastic principality was secularised and became a fief to the king of Poland. However, another danger was arising: the Grand Duchy of Moscow, an ascendant power which for the next 500 years would be inseparably tied to the fortunes of Poland. Neither were the Jagiellons able to save Hungary, which fell to the Turks and for 200 years remained under Ottoman rule.
By ancient custom the kings of Poland convened general assemblies calledsejm, attended by legati terrestres, representatives of the noble or equestrian (knights') estate. By the late 15th century under King Jan I Olbracht (Ioannes Albertus, John Albert) a national assembly had emerged consisting of King, Senate (or Royal Council), and the House of the legati terrestres regionally elected in public assemblies (sejmiki), and a few representatives for the richest cities. It was one of the oldest European parliaments.
As of the reign of Louis of Hungary and the Koszyce Privileges of 1374, kings of Poland solicited the support of the politically and economically ascendant nobility by granting privileges, especially tax exemptions and the famous Neminem Captivabimus Nisi Jure Victum (We Shall Not Imprison Anyone Unless He Be Proved Guilty by the Law) statute of 1432, which predated the English Habeas Corpus Act by 256 years. These privileges gradually curtailed the monarch's prerogatives, culminating in the Nihil Novi statute (1505), which prevented the King from making any important decisions without the approval of Sejm.
The Jagiellonian period witnessed tremendous cultural advancement. Poland became one of the centres of the Renaissance.
Spectacular achievements in the arts and sciences were made under Kazimierz Jagiellończyk (Casimir the Jagiellonian) and Zygmunt I Stary (Sigismund I). These were the times of Jan Długosz's Annals of the Kingdom of Poland, the works of sculptor Veit Stoss, Italian humanist writer "Callimachus" (Filippo Buonaccorsi), and the writings of native-born literati like Mikołaj Rej, Jan Kochanowski, and Andrzej Frycz Modrzewski. Copernicus'De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium,1543—itself a revolution in the sciences—reflected the high standards in Polish scholarship under the Jagiellons. Its luminaries made Polish the language of the educated in this part of Europe.
In the 15th and 16th centuries, Poland was a country open to new religious trends. Unlike other European countries, there were no religious wars here. Not only could heterodox religionists find sanctuary here, they were also protected by the kings and lords of Poland. As a result, culture and scholarship experienced an influx of new ideas and literary works, building up an image of Poland as a country of toleration. This was particularly true as regards the Warsaw Compact, ratified in 1573, which gave Protestants equal rights with Catholics. The last Jagiellonian monarch, Zygmunt August (Sigismundus Augustus), said in Sejm, "I do not rule your consciences." Not surprisingly contemporaries and later generations called the Jagiellonian era, especially the 16th century, their Golden Age.
As with the Piasts, the Jagiellonian dynasty became extinct through lack of a male heir (1572). In 1569 King Sigismundus Augustus effected the statutory union of Poland and Lithuania, up till then joined by a personal union. Henceforth the Kingdom of Poland and Grand Duchy of Lithuania would be an elective monarchy, with the entire noble (equestrian) estate enjoying the right to elect their king.
The first royal election was held in the spring of 1573. The contenders to the throne of Poland included Ivan IV the Terrible Tsar of Muscovy, Archduke Ernest Habsburg, and Henri de Valois, brother of Charles IX of France. Henri won, but turned out a bad choice. He did not understand the country he was expected to rule and as soon as he learnt of his brother's death, he fled from Poland after only four months, to assume the throne of France as Henri III. After a new interregnum lasting a year, the nobility elected Anna, sister of Sigismundus Augustus, to be the new monarch. She was required to marry the successful candidate in the royal election, Stephen Batory (István Báthory) of Transylvania. Batory proved an energetic ruler. After a swift campaign, he successfully concluded the conflict with Russia for the contested territory of Livonia. He also managed to put internal affairs in order and strengthen the royal powers.
The election after Batory's death went to the grandson of Sigismund I, Sigismund Vasa of Sweden, the first king of the Vasa dynasty on the throne of Poland. The Vasas—Sigismund III, Vladislaus IV, and Ioannes Casimirus (John Casimir)—ruled until 1668; and although they maintained Poland's status as an esteemed European power, they also entangled the kingdom in a series of wars, failed to prevent a civil war in Ukraine and tolerated the growth of the magnates' power.
From the early 17th century, Poland was in a constant state of war with one or other of its neighbours. Military successes (victory over Sweden at Kircholm in 1605, Russia at Kłuszyn in 1610, and Turkey at Chocim in 1621) were intertwined with disasters (failed intervention in Russia in 1612, disastrous defeat at the hands of the Turks in the Battle of Cecora in 1620, a series of setbacks during the Khmelnytsky (Chmielnicki) Cossack uprising in Ukraine in 1648).
The outcome at home was inevitable: the country was devastated, the treasury emptied, the nobility in ever-growing opposition to the royal prerogatives. As of 1652, several sejms were stopped by obstructionists. The nadir of disaster came with the Swedish Deluge (1655–1660), when the country had to face a simultaneous invasion by Swedish, Russian, Cossack, Prussian and Transylvanian armies. Although this war ended in victory, Poland emerged from it devastated and weakened internally. Religious toleration waned in a climate of the Counter-Reformation and the wars with heterodox neighbours (Orthodox Russia and Protestant Sweden). On several occasions the nobility withdrew fealty to the Crown. Finally, a civil war broke out in 1665, resulting in the abdication of Jan Kazimierz (1668).
After the short reign of Michał Korybut Wiśniowiecki, the throne of Poland passed to Lord Hetman Jan (John) Sobieski, hero of the Turkish wars. He had to rule a country rent by rival factions of magnates and territorially diminished by a temporary Turkish occupation of Podolia. Though from the military standpoint he was the glorious victor at the relief of Vienna, 1683, he could not meet the challenge of putting the affairs of the state in order. He was not successful on the diplomatic front, either (loss of half of Ukraine to Russia, shaky alliances with France and Austria). With Sobieski's death in 1696, the Sarmatian period of the Polish Noblemen's Commonwealth wound to a close. From then on, the predominant role in the country would be played by factions of magnates. Polish military triumphs also became a thing of the past.
The reigns in Poland of Augustus the Strong and Augustus III, Electors of Saxony of the House of Wettin, brought further military and political decline. Poland's involvement in the Northern War (1702–1721) was the next calamity, the time when neighbouring powers started to meddle in Poland's internal affairs (e.g. the Swedish "nomination" of Stanisław Leszczyński to the Polish throne, 1704–1709). However, in a situation where maintaining neutrality in the face of a Russo-Swedish conflict proved impossible, the Wettins not only managed to keep the country intact territorially, but also prevented its social and cultural degradation. Although weak and dependent on her neighbours, Poland was still a dynamically developing European state. However, any attempts to remedy the domestic situation were doomed to fail not only due to behind-the-scene interventions by Russia, Prussia and Austria, but most of all because of the feuding factions of the great lords (the Potocki, Czartoryski, and Sapieha), who looked more and more to foreign powers for (mostly financial) support.
The reign of Stanisław August Poniatowski, last king of Poland-Lithuania, was full of contradictions. On the one hand he was submissive towards Russia, to whose support he owed his victory in the elections, and depended on the Czartoryski Familia; on the other he let Poland flourish culturally. His reign saw the publication of the works of history by Adam Naruszewicz, the satires and novels of Bishop Ignacy Krasicki, the launch of the national theatre (established by Wojciech Bogusławski). Warsaw, Poland's capital since the times of Sigismund III, became one of the centres of the Neo-Classical style, as exemplified by the king's residence at Łazienki. Michał Ogiński contributed to Diderot's famous Encyclopedia. The political writings of the times, by men of the Enlightenment like Stanisław Staszic and Hugo Kołłątaj, spread ideas which could be encountered in England or France. The Enlightenment period witnessed educational reform conducted under the supervision of what was the world's first modern ministry of education (created in 1773).
The debilitated state was not capable of defending itself against attack by the neighbouring powers. In 1772, against a backdrop of increasing internal chaos, Russia, Prussia and Austria accomplished the First Partition of Poland, which lost 1/3 of its territory. In the 1790s Poland underwent radical domestic reform. The Constitution of the Third of May was passed (1791). Alarmed at the prospect of a strong Poland, Russia and Prussia decided to intervene.
Despite its resistance, Poland was vanquished by an overwhelming military force, which resulted in the Second Partition in 1793. This time, the aggressors were assisted by domestic traitors united under the banner of the Targowica Confederacy of magnates.
The final blow to Polish independence was dealt after the failure of the Kościuszko Insurrection, an anti-Russian uprising (1794). After several initial successes, the popular and brave National Leader, General Tadeusz Kościuszko (a hero of the American War of Independence, like his compatriot General Kazimierz Pułaski ) lost the decisive battle at Maciejowice and was taken prisoner by the Russians.
In 1795, Russia, Prussia, and Austria divided what remained of Poland-Lithuania among themselves, forcing Stanisław August to abdicate. From that moment, the name Poland disappeared from the maps of Europe for over a century.
The turn of the 19th century brought hopes for the restoration of independence, in the wake of Napoleon's military triumphs. The Polish Legions formed in Italy fought in many of Napoleon's battles (Trebia, Hohenlinden, Marengo).
Meanwhile Prince Adam Czartoryski, then Russia's foreign minister, was planning the restoration of the Polish state under the rule of the Russian Tsar Alexander I. This split into supporters of co-operation with the West and with the East lasted for decades and affected Polish history on numerous occasions. Napoleon did partly fulfil the hopes vested in him. After defeating Austria and Prussia, he created the Duchy of Warsaw out of part of the former Polish territories. He helped the Poles to raise their own army, under Prince Józef Poniatowski, nephew of the last king. The Polish army fought in all the campaigns and major battles, including Borodino and Leipzig, where Prince Poniatowski was drowned. However, the disastrous invasion of Russia (1811–12) and Napoleon's downfall changed the fate of Poland and indeed all of Europe. The Duchy of Warsaw was replaced by a Kingdom of Poland attached to Russia by personal union (the Tsar of Russia was made "King of Poland"), with its own constitution, sejm, army and treasury. The remaining lands were put in a Grand Duchy of Poznań under Prussian rule, and the Free City of Cracow, "supervised" by the 3 partitioning powers.
The Poles did not abandon the hope of full independence. Already in 1830, on the surge of general European protest against the decisions of the Congress of Vienna, an armed insurrection, the November Uprising, broke out in the Russian Partition on 29 November 1830. The Tsar was dethroned and a National Government was created. Despite initial success, it ended in failure. The Kingdom was dismantled and put directly under the Russian Empire, and the economic and political concessions of 1815–1830 were lost. Sejm was disbanded.
Subsequent uprisings brought more disasters. One occurred in Cracow in 1846. The authorities put it down with the help of Polish peasants, and the Free City was annexed by the Austrian Empire. Another uprising in 1848, in Greater Poland, was crushed as well. During the Revolution of 1848, Poles were present wherever battles were fought against the the Holy Alliance: in Italy (under the leadership of Adam Mickiewicz and Wojciech Chrzanowski), Germany (Wiktor Heltman, Ludwik Mierosławski, and Franciszek Sznajde), Austria (Józef Bem) and in Hungary (Bem, Henryk Dembiński, Józef Wysocki). In the debate whether to fight or co-operate with the aggressors, the idea of an uprising carried the day again in the 1860s. Yet again the January Uprising (1863–1865) met with a defeat so severe that the vision of restoration by military means was subsequently shelved for many years.
After each uprising a wave of political exiles left the Polish territories. After the November Uprising, more than 10 thousand were forced to emigrate. This tide was called the Great Emigration on account both of its volume and the intellectual potential of the émigrés, who included the statesman Prince Adam Czartoryski, the national bards Adam Mickiewicz and Juliusz Słowacki, the composer Frédéric Chopin, historian Joachim Lelewel, and almost the entire general staff of the Uprising. Most of the émigrés became involved in European politics, while continuing to strive for Polish independence. Some, like Prince Czartoryski, tried to further the cause by diplomatic means, others by military service, others still by participating in secret European organisations like Young Europe. The best-known masterpieces of Polish literature were created in France, notably the national epic Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz. Poles were ever present in world events, not only as soldiers or politicians: Ignacy Domeyko laid the foundation of geology in Chile; Ernest Malinowski built railways in Peru; Paweł Edmund Strzelecki explored Africa and Australia for the British Crown. There were also the Polish writers and artists: Joseph Conrad (Józef Konrad Korzeniowski) made a mark in world literature, Henryk Rodakowski won gold medals at Paris art exhibitions, while in music Frédéric Chopin and Ignacy Paderewski are world-famous as composers and virtuoso performers.
After the January Uprising, more oppressive measures were piled on the Russian zone of partitioned Poland, and another wave of politicians, artists and soldiers was forced to emigrate. As efforts intensified to turn the Poles into Russians, Polish was removed from more and more schools and institutions. It was a similar story in the territories under Prussia, where the authorities sometimes resorted to brutal methods in a drive to Germanise the population. The Catholic Church was severely oppressed both in Russia and Prussia. Only Galicia (the Austrian partitional zone) enjoyed a measure of autonomy after 1867, with its own national assembly, and a Polish administrative and educational system. But unlike the Prussian and, to an extent, Russian partitional zones, it was deeply impoverished and, except for the cities, economically depressed.
The second half of the 19th century saw a more vibrant Polish political life. Not only did Poles participate in the politics of the three occupying empires—Polish deputies held seats in their parliaments—and were appointed to the highest offices (Kazimierz Badeni was Prime Minister of the Austro-Hungarian Empire), they also set up their own, modern political parties (e.g. the Proletariat, 1882; the Polish Socialist Party, 1892; the National-Democratic Party, 1897; the People's Party, 1895, to name but a few). These groups made a signal impact on partitioned Poland, and would affect future developments on the restoration of independence.
Thanks to the struggle to keep the national spirit alive, and the dissemination of the ideal of work for the good of society, in the late 19th century Polish culture enjoyed a period of dynamic growth. This was an age highlighted by the work of writers like Bolesław Prus, Eliza Orzeszkowa, Stefan Żeromski, and Adam Asnyk, and painters like Jan Matejko, Józef Chełmoński, Henryk Siemiradzki, Stanisław Wyspiański, who was also an outstanding playwright. In 1905 Henryk Sienkiewicz received the Nobel Prize in literature. Advances were being made in science: Zygmunt Wróblewski and Karol Olszewski were the first to liquefy atmospheric oxygen and nitrogen (1886). In 1853 Ignacy Łukasiewicz developed an industrially efficient method for the distillation of petroleum oil and constructed the world's first practicable paraffin lamp, and Ludwik Zamenhof created Esperanto and published his manual for this language. The crowning achievement by a Polish scientist was the discovery of radioactivity and isolation of the first radioactive isotopes by Maria Skłodowska Curie (in collaboration with her husband Pierre), for which she was awarded two Nobel Prizes (1903 and 1911).
The dream of independence returned with the 1905 Revolution in Russia. Although no significant political changes were achieved within the Kingdom (Polish Partition) or in Russia itself, Polish hopes and memories of bygone national uprisings revived. Some political groups opted for an armed struggle for independence, while others preferred a policy of negotiations with the partitioning powers. However, everybody knew that it would take a Pan-European conflict, a war between the partitioning powers, for a chance for the Polish cause to succeed. The main problem lay in the choice of an ally; some campaigners (Józef Piłsudski and the independence group) called for co-operation with Austria and Prussia; others (Roman Dmowski and the nationalist groups) saw an opportunity in an alliance with Russia and the Entente Powers (France, Great Britain, and later the United States).
The First World War brought the solution to the Polish Question. Józef Piłsudski, Commander of the Polish Legions, put forward a political concept calling for a pro-Austrian orientation, which proved to be the most effective. He put his bets on Germany and Austria-Hungary beating Russia, and then in turn being defeated by France and Great Britain. Then, out of the ruins of the partitioning powers, an independent Poland would rise. This was indeed what happened: after the Revolution of 1917 Russia withdrew from the War, and Germany and the Austrian Empire capitulated. The Treaty of Versailles, which ended the Great War, sanctioned Poland's independence. By October 1918 Polish forces were already disarming German and Austrian units. On 7 November, the first Polish interim government was created under the leadership of the Socialist Ignacy Daszyński. Following Piłsudski's return (he had been arrested by the Germans in July 1917), the army and the interim government deferred to the Commander of the Legions. Piłsudski was appointed National Commander (Naczelnik).
Fighting broke out in Ukraine already in 1918, and an anti-German uprising in Greater Poland (27 December 1918–14 February 1919) led to that region's return to Poland. Under the Treaty of Versailles, Poland was granted access to the Baltic Sea (Gdańsk was to remain a Free City). A plebiscite was held in the contested territories of Upper Silesia and Mazuria, which went against Poland (1920 and 1921). Eventually three uprisings induced the League of Nations to grant 30% of Silesia to Poland. Another danger loomed in the east: in the Polish-Soviet war of 1920 Bolshevik Russia narrowly missed the chance for an imminent "revolutionary march across Europe", having reached the outskirts of Warsaw. The battle fought there (13–18 August) was dubbed " the eighteenth decisive battle of the world" by Lord D'Abernon, a British diplomat. The people of Poland called it the "Miracle on the Vistula". The war was concluded with a peace treaty, which proved relatively favourable for Poland (Riga, 18 March, 1921).
Three months after independence, the Legislative Sejm opened its session. The Small Constitution had already been passed (February 1919), agricultural reform introduced, national administrative bodies created, and the educational system and war-damaged industry were being reconstructed by the time the Silesian Uprisings and the war with Soviet Russia erupted. By March 1921 Poland could boast a modern constitution. However, in the first years of independence the domestic situation was uneasy. Gabriel Narutowicz, the first President of the Republic, was assassinated one week after his election (16 December 1921) by an ultra-conservative fanatic. Numerous political conflicts and a growing economic crisis brought about a loss of credibility for the state authorities. Even the radical and successful state finance reform of 1924 did not alleviate the tensions.
In May 1926, with the assistance of loyal military units, Józef Piłsudski, who had kept out of politics for four years, carried out what has come down in history as the May Coup. His adherents, the Sanacja group, intended to "sanify the country" (hence the name). After several days of fighting President Wojciechowski and the Cabinet of Prime Minister Witos resigned. Although Piłsudski was elected President by the Sejm, he turned down this option, and put forward the candidacy of Professor Ignacy Mościcki. Poland entered a period called the Sanacja régime or the "government of the colonels", as most of Piłsudski's colleagues in this government were either active or retired army officers.
The Sanacja régime brought Poland economic stability, but also meant a shift from democracy to authoritarianism. Marshal Piłsudski governed with a heavy hand, tolerated no opposition, and did not hesitate to use drastic methods to curb defiant politicians (as exemplified by the bringing of police into the Sejm assembly hall in March 1928). This state of affairs was manifest especially in the 1930s, when Poland was affected by the crash on the New York stock market, and the ensuing economic crisis brought a tense atmosphere. In September 1930 Piłsudski disbanded Parliament and had many members of the opposition arrested, sentencing them to prison terms during a "trial" that was a travesty of justice. In 1934 a camp was set up at Bereza Kartuska, where "individuals who posed a threat to security and order" were to be detained. Before his death on 12 May 1935 Piłsudski managed to approve the authoritarian April Constitution which significantly curtailed the powers of Sejm in favour of the president's prerogatives. After Piłsudski's death, the Sanacja group split up into two rival factions (the followers of Marshal Śmigly-Rydz and the supporters of President Mościcki). Deputy Prime Minister Eugeniusz Kwiatkowski proved to be the only outstanding Sanacja member; he was the creator of an economic development project for Poland, involving the Central Industrial Region and the new port of Gdynia.
Alongside the political and economic unrest, interwar Poland also experienced a veritable outburst of the arts. In 1924 Władysław S. Reymont received the Nobel Prize in literature for his novel Chłopi (tr. The Peasants, 1924–25). The jury also considered the candidacy of Stefan Żeromski, another novelist. In music, Poland was represented by Ignacy Jan Paderewski and Karol Szymanowski. But perhaps the greatest claim to international fame was staked by the actress Pola Negri (Apolonia Chałupiec), who captivated Hollywood and silent movie fans.
The existence of the Second Republic of Poland was interrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War. On 1 September 1939, Germany invaded Poland, and on 17 September the Soviet Union attacked from the east. After a month of fighting, Germany and the USSR enacted another partition of Poland. Part of the territory was transformed into what was known as "das General-Gouvernement", and part was annexed directly onto Nazi Germany. Warsaw during the Warsaw Uprising, 1944. The eastern territories remained under Soviet occupation. Both powers applied a policy of systematic extermination of the Polish population, albeit in different ways: German concentration camps and Soviet labour camps filled up, Polish intellectuals were massacred in the Palmiry woods, at Wawer, and many other execution sites. 21 thousand officers, officials and intellectuals were executed on Stalin's orders, in Katyn, Kharkov, and elsewhere in the USSR. The Nazis murdered 3 million Polish citizens of Jewish ethnicity, and over 2 million non-Jewish Poles. Over quarter of a million Polish civilians of all ethnic backgrounds were deported east by the Soviet authorities, where many of them died. From 1939 to 1945 the entire territory of Poland was subjected to ruthless ethnic cleansing. The Polish Government did not give up the struggle. President Władysław Raczkiewicz, and General Władysław Sikorski, who was Prime Minister and Commander-in-Chief, were in exile in London, from where the government in exile ran the underground organisations at home. A fully operational clandestine Polish administrative system known as the "Underground State" was established and conducted its affairs, including an extensive system of undercover education at the secondary (grammar school) and university level, as the Nazis had closed down all education for Poles except for the elementary schools. The ranks of the armed resistance movement reached over 400 thousand combatants, and their sabotage operations and undercover campaigns were carried out on the largest scale in occupied Europe.
Polish forces fought on every European front during the Second World War (Narvik, the French campaign and the Battle of Britain in 1940, Tobruk in 1941/42, Normandy and Monte Cassino in 1944). The biggest Polish Army unit in the West was General Anders' Second Corps which fought in Italy, This unit was created in 1941 in the USSR, following an agreement between Sikorski and Stalin, and consisted mainly of Polish prisoners and deportees freed from Stalin's camps. Poles made a major contribution to the Allied effort in intelligence (two Polish mathematicians deciphered the German Enigma code). But for the future of Poland, the political decisions were the most important. Diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union were broken off after the discovery of the Katyn massacre, and the death of Gen. Sikorski in a mysterious plane crash (1943) weakened the Polish position on the international arena. Neither Prime Minister Mikołajczyk nor Commander-in-Chief Sosnkowski managed to successfully put Poland's case to Churchill and Roosevelt, who left Poland under Soviet influence in exchange for the USSR's participation in the war against Nazi Germany. The military campaigns of the Polish underground movement in the eastern territories were of no avail in securing a favourable attitude from the Western powers, and neither was the Warsaw Uprising (63 days of fighting). The Allied conferences in Tehran (1943) and Yalta (1945) decided the fate of Poland: the Republic's eastern territories were ceded to the USSR, and Poland found itself in the Soviet sphere of influence. The only concession on the part of Stalin was his agreement to grant Poland territories along the River Oder, together with part of former East Prussia. It was a sop to the government of Polish Communists, which was being formed in the USSR under Stalin's tutelage (two Polish armies were fighting side by side with the Red Army under Russian command). Once again, a war between the superpowers left Poland devastated (a loss of 1/5 of its pre-war territory; a population diminished by a third, and the national economic assets depleted by 38%)
With the help of Polish Communists, the Soviet authorities quickly managed to crush all the overt opposition. Combatants who were members of the AK ("Home Army") and WiN ("Freedom and Independence") independent underground resistance organisations were killed, deported to Russia, or sent to prisons or labour camps; their leaders were imprisoned in Moscow and tried in a showcase trial. A condition was formally set by the Western Allies that democratic elections be held, but members and associates of Mikołajczyk's PSL independent peasants' party were arrested, intimidated, and murdered. The results of a referendum of 30 June 1946 and parliamentary elections in January 1947 were rigged. Mikołajczyk, Deputy Prime Minister of the Interim Government, fled the country.
Thereupon Poland would be ruled by the PPR ("Polish Workers' Party," which in 1948 forcibly absorbed a pre-war socialist party and changed its name to PZPR, the "Polish United Workers' Party" ). Between 1948 and 1956, the Stalinist era, Poland was under the absolute rule of the PZPR Communist Party assisted by the secret police and "Soviet advisers". Repressive measures were directed not just against political opponents, but the general public. Former AK combatants and Catholic priests filled the prisons. Cardinal Wyszyński, Primate of Poland, was interned in 1953. Inconvenient PZPR members (like Party Secretary Władysław Gomułka) were imprisoned too. Poland was a satellite of the USSR. There was next to no private business, and economic specialists were all Communists; there was an attempt to collectivise the agriculture; and enforced industrialisation caused significant drop of the standard living and severe discontent.
The people of Poland had to wait until 1956 for the political terror to wane. That was when Stalinism was officially repudiated in the USSR, and after the death of the PZPR leader Bolesław Bierut and workers' strikes and protests in Poznań (28 June), changes occurred in the regime.
In October of that year, after a sharp conflict within the Party and difficult negotiations with the USSR, Władysław Gomułka once again became leader of the Party and head of state, initially with the support of the nation. The new First Secretary used the new situation to reduce Poland's dependence on the USSR. Gradually political prisoners were released from jail, the Primate was freed from house arrest. Enforced agricultural collectivisation was dropped; a negligible volume of private business was tolerated. Recovering from the wartime devastation, Poland now entered the "small stabilisation" period. However, Gomułka soon backed out of the liberal course. The PZPR was still the absolute power in Poland. The conflict between the government and society became more and more patent. The clash between State and Church during Poland's millennium celebrations (1966), and student strikes (March 1968), as well as the anti-Semitic campaign started by the Party in 1968 underpinned the nation's disenchantment with the Gomułka government.
The end of Gomułka's rule, much like his rise to power in 1956, was brought about largely due to workers' discontent.
In December 1970, after a price rise, there were strikes in several coastal cities, and street fights between dockers and the police and army, in which several dozen protesters were killed. Eventually, an opposition group within the Party removed Gomułka and appointed Edward Gierek the new First Secretary. In the 1970s the People's Republic of Poland enjoyed a period of phoney prosperity. Thanks to foreign credit, the shops were full of consumer goods, new companies sprang up and the standard of living rose. The first sign of crisis came in 1976, with riots in Radom and at the Ursus industrial plant. The Communist economy was highly inefficient, and real wages fell and the supply of consumer goods dwindled. More strikes and workers' protests followed. Repressions directed against the 1976 rioters led to the creation of an illegal workers' defense committee (KOR). Other illegal opposition groups and clandestine publications began to appear. The Church played a significant role, organising widespread educational activities and addressing the most urgent social needs. Widespread strikes also engulfed other regions, especially Szczecin and the coal mines of Silesia. Throughout the country, the totalitarian regime found itself in serious danger. This was the beginning of a general strike.
The end of the "propaganda of success" period (as Gierek's decade was dubbed) came in 1980.
An extremely strong wave of strikes engulfed Poland after another price increase, and the working people of Gdańsk organised a trade union strike committee. This time the Party did not resort to violence, and the subsequent negotiations resulted in the signing of the August Agreements (31 August 1980) and the emergence of Solidarity, an independent trade union organisation, headed by a Gdańsk shipyard worker, Lech Wałęsa. Edward Gierek was forced to resign, and replaced by Stanisław Kania and later, as of October 1981, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski. Events in the Catholic Church also prompted the atmosphere of freedom and change, and the rising courage of the working people. In 1978, Cardinal Karol Wojtyła, Metropolitan Archbishop of Cracow, was elected Pope, assumed the name John Paul II, and 8 months later made a pilgrimage to his home country. The millions who participated in the meetings with the Pope experienced a religious rebirth and an increased sense of social identity.
They realised their collective strength. Solidarity quickly became a widespread social movement uniting over 9 million members, including a large number from the ruling Communist Party. It was an unprecedented phenomenon in the entire Soviet bloc, essentially irreconcilable with the political system. Despite the fact that, in general, it did not express any revolutionary political goals and only called for the "rationalisation of the existing system", it enjoyed widespread support of political and trade-union circles in the West, and became an inspiration to the independent milieux within the Communist bloc. A symbolic event in 1980, also for the Solidarity movement, was the award of the Nobel Prize for literature to an émigré Polish poet, Czesław Miłosz.
In the face of economic crisis and the growing influence of Solidarity, and under pressure from the USSR, General Jaruzelski decided on a violent solution. On 13 December 1981 Martial Law was introduced in the People's Republic of Poland. Several thousand opposition campaigners were interned, and strikes were crushed with the help of the army and special riot police units. On 16 December nine miners were killed in the Wujek Coal Mine. Many members of the opposition and underground trade-unionists were sentenced to prison terms, others were forced to emigrate. Martial Law, which was officially lifted in July 1983, had not resolved Poland's problems. The Polish economy still could not emerge from the crisis; opposition against the government did not diminish, but was kept up by the Pope's subsequent pilgrimages, in 1983 and 1987 and award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Lech Wałęa, Solidarity's leader (1983), none the less Solidarity structures had significantly weakened, and many succumbed to intimidation. Nevertheless the trade union continued to operate illegally under Wałęsa's leadership, which was reflected in the regular publication and distribution of several hundred clandestine periodicals and bulletins. Solidarity campaigners received support from the Church, which kept its strong position in society. By 1983 the scale of the repressions as well as of the opposition activities was relatively moderate compared to the earlier phase.
In 1988, PZPR Communist party leaders started negotiations with representatives of the then unofficial opposition.
In the early months of 1989, as a result of the Round Table talks, an agreement was signed calling for partially free elections to the Parliament. The opposition was to have 35% of the seats in Sejm, and an entirely free election to Senate. The election held on 4 June 1989 brought a landslide victory to Solidarity. It was clear that the Communist Party would not be able to continue to govern in the face of such massive opposition from the people. Although the Parliament returned, dubbed the "contractual Parliament", elected Gen. Jaruzelski President of the Republic, the office of Prime Minister was entrusted to a Solidarity candidate, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, who had been chief adviser to the Gdańsk strike committee in 1980. On 29 July 1989 the Parliament changed the country's name and constitution. The People's Republic of Poland became a thing of the past. The age of the Third Republic of Poland commenced. The events in Poland precipitated the fall of the entire Communist block. The Yalta arrangement collapsed. The Round Table compromise and peaceful transfer from the Communist system to a democratic system were possible thanks to the fundamental changes in the policy of the USSR, which in the period between 1986 and 1988 began to implement the ideas of glasnost and perestroika—political and economic openness to the outside world.
The main difficulty faced by the independent country was solving its economic problems: Poland was ravaged by hyperinflation (over 500% in 1990), while a huge foreign debt precluded investment. The situation was made worse by phenomena like hidden unemployment, an obsolete and inefficient industry, and a backward agriculture.
The enterprise laws of 1988 and the deregulation of prices in July 1989 did not bring the expected results. Poland decided to implement the Balcerowicz Plan, devised by the then Minister of Finance. The Plan called for a liberal domestic price policy, increased imports, tougher wage control and financial policy regarding companies; it introduced interest rates higher than inflation; made the złoty a convertible currency and stabilised its exchange rate against the US dollar. As a result the Polish economy stabilised and opened up to the world. Its banking system and monetary credit policy were reformed. Capital and labour markets were created. In July 1990 Sejm passed the privatisation laws. The next years saw the introduction of personal income tax (July 1991) and VAT (1992). Other important developments were privatisation, company self-sufficiency, and the encouragement of competitiveness. Privatisation, free market principles and a radical reduction of the budget deficit started bringing results. By1992 inflation had dropped to 43% and in the next years went down to single digits (by the end of 2001 it fell below 4%). The economic successes of consecutive cabinets persuaded Poland's creditors to reduce the country's foreign debt by 50%, and encouraged Western companies to invest in Poland. The Warsaw Stock Exchange was opened in 1991, accompanied by a growth in GDP (4% in 1993, 7% in 1995).
The now fully convertible złoty was revalorised in 1995 (1 PLN = 10 thousand old złoty) and the success of the Polish reforms stabilised the złoty/dollar exchange rate. Poland is now a country with a stable political system, a developing economy, actively operating international organisations (Poland is a member of the WTO, OECD, CEFTA, and other bodies). Although it has slowed down recently, economic growth is steady and has a foundation in the profound social reforms including health care and pension system reforms. For a decade Poland has been adjusting its laws and economic institutions to the EU regulations. Today, the EU is Poland's most important trade partner. 70% of Polish exports are sent to the EU, 60% of the imports originate in EU countries. The changes due to the process of transformation, which began in 1989, have caused a significant shift in values in all aspects of economic life. Their main premise was the now accomplished implementation of free-market principles, based on the dominant and steadily growing position of private enterprise. The private sector became the main agent of Poland's economic growth, while privatisation stimulated the ascendancy of the most competitive structures within the economy itself. In 2001, the private sector produced over 75% of the Gross Domestic Product, employing over 70% of all the professionally active persons.
As in the European Union countries, heavy industry, with its high social significance, proved to be the hardest to privatise and restructure. The process of privatisation of large companies in the steel, chemical and heavy engineering industries is underway; so is the privatisation of the power industry (with a quickly rising interest on the part of foreign investors), the gas industry, transportation (mostly Polish Railways), and the mining industry. Privatisation and the required market modes of operation called for the creation of a suitable legal framework to develop real and effective competitiveness. This process culminated in the late 1990s in the passing of laws relating to the freedom of business activity, regulations for the granting and monitoring of public assistance, as well as for the implementation of the acquis communautaire (the legal order of the European Union) with regard to the free flow of goods (a national system for the control of standards, manufacturer's responsibility for production and product safety ). The new company law in effect since 2001 is fully compatible with the EU regulations regarding the principles of company registration and operations. After over a decade, the level of deregulation in the Polish economy is comparable with the EU figure, and thanks to the systematic legislative transformation the last differences in the way economic entities are treated—the final vestiges of the command economy—have now disappeared. A company's ownership type, size, its business, or the nationality of its owner no longer bear any significance.
The last few years have been a period of development, with Poland becoming a country governed by a modern legislature. After 1989, the people of Poland had to learn the democratic procedures they had no opportunity to experience in the previous 50 years. New parties formed, split, combined and split up again. This was an understandable reaction to half of a century without political freedom. The collapse of the existing political system happened fast: the PZPR was dissolved in January 1990. A multi-party system was introduced, with a full spectrum of political freedoms. In the years that followed, rival parties emerged out of the Solidarity group. The office of President as head of state was restored in 1989. In December 1990 Lech Wałęsa won the presidential general election. This office was later held by Aleksander Kwaśniewski, who was elected for his second term in 2000. From December 23, 2005 the President of Poland is Lech Kaczyński.
In domestic affairs, the past 12 years can be regarded as a success. Poland has a modern constitution (passed in 1997), which reorganised not only the political scene, but above all various aspects of public life. Poland is a democratic country: a multi-party republic with a two-chamber Parliament. The basics of the system reflect values typical of European countries characterised by respect for the law: sovereignty of the People, sovereignty and independence of the State, a system of law, political pluralism and freedom of political parties, separation of the three branches of power, respect for human dignity, the upholding of the system of law and personal freedom. The successful administrative reform (1999) introduced a territorial division into gmina districts as a tertiary level of local government, and reduced the number of voivodeships from 49 to 16. Relations with ethnic minorities, churches and religious associations were regulated. A number of institutions whose aim is to facilitate the exercise of civil rights were created or had their powers broadened. Constitutional rights and freedoms follow the pattern adopted by Western democracies and included in the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. Non-governmental organisations are developing quickly, having become a permanent aspect of public life. The reform of the health, pension, and educational systems has begun.
After the Second World War, Poland was left dependent on the USSR and for nearly half a century was deprived of the right to decide its political alliances independently. It was not until the collapse of the Soviet Bloc that Polish ambitions to play an active role within the sphere of Western civilisation and to participate in the Euro-Atlantic structures became feasible. The process of European integration, based on the principles of democracy, protection of human rights, and a market economy became Poland's models of civilisational development. The European Union countries are Poland's main partners in the creation of a free market and the formation of new conditions for external security. After the collapse of the old alliances (dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and COMECON), Poland became a member of the European Council in 1991 and of the OECD in 1996, assuming the leadership of this organisation in 1998. Poland is integrating with the Western European countries and establishing relations with its neighbours.
Following the changes in the balance of powers within Central and Eastern Europe, joining NATO became Poland's main political aim. Extending NATO eastwards meant changing Poland's geo-political position. Its admission to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation on 12 March 1999 constitutes one of the most important events in its contemporary history. Poland became a part of a defense alliance, which guarantees security and grants conditions for stable development. Apart from NATO membership, Poland is pursuing a security policy as an associate member of the European Union and participating in the political dialogue within the framework of the European Union Common Foreign and Security Policy. Poland is also actively participating in the anti-terrorist campaign initiated and carried out by the United Nations (in March 2002 Poland assumed leadership of the UN Commission on Human Rights for the term of a year). The priority issue in Polish foreign policy was accession to the European Union. Poland entered its structures in 2004. Joining the Union meant a guarantee for the permanent character of the changes begun in 1989 and speeding up of civilisational development. Since 1989 Poland has devoted much of its attention to the development of bilateral and neighbourly relations based on bilateral treaties. Alongside its close cooperation with the Euro-Atlantic countries, including the USA with regard to the anti-terrorist operations, Poland wants to maintain the current dynamic relations with its principal European partners: Germany, France and Great Britain.
One of the events symbolic of Poland's return to the family of democratic states was the meeting of the Ministers of Foreign Affairs: Krzysztof Skubiszewski of Poland, Hans Dietrich Genscher of Germany, and Roland Dumas of France, which took place in Weimar in August 1991. It began the trilateral cooperation between Poland, Germany, and France, known as the Weimar Triangle. The Weimar meeting was preceded by the signing of the Friendship and Solidarity Treaty between Poland and France on 9 April 1991 and the Treaty on Neighbourly Relations and Cooperation between Poland and Germany in June of the same year. The Polish authorities, both at the central and regional levels, regard the progress of trans-border relations as an effective tool of mutual understanding, helping people to stop thinking in stereotypes. The achievement of one of the strategic aims of EU policy—the pursuit of good neighbourly relations with Eastern European countries—is very much in Poland's interest. As a country neighbouring directly on Russia via the Kaliningrad District, Poland welcomes all initiatives to promote cooperation, including the development of economic cooperation. Poland declares its strong support for Ukraine in that country's efforts to join the institutions of the Euro-Atlantic zone. After the collapse of the Communist system, the mutual experiences of the past and the awareness of new political, social and economic challenges convinced the countries in the region—Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia—to tighten their cooperation. In February 1991, the Visegrad Group was created, becoming a significant element of regional cooperation, strengthening the position of the four partners in the process of European integration. The signing in 1993 of the Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA), which was initiated by the Visehrad Group, offers a signal testimonial of the regional approach to economic problems.
Other forms of regional cooperation, treated by Poland as key elements of the process of European integration, include the Central European Initiative and the Council of the Baltic Sea States. Initiated in 1989, the CEI is a platform for the cooperation of Eastern and Central European countries. Poland has participated in CEI activities since 1991. Despite the diverse positions of the member countries, the Initiative remains a platform of political dialogue on regional issues and a forum for cooperation between the Central European countries for the continent's integration. In turn, the aim of the Council of the Baltic Sea States is to coordinate efforts in the environmental protection of the Baltic Sea, the development of the power and transportation infrastructure, closer cooperation among the Baltic countries, and with the European Union. The members of this organisation, established in 1992, are the countries of the Baltic Sea basin. With its democratic foundation, Poland is deeply engaged in the promotion of friendly and partner relations with its neighbours. Since the early 1990s, following the ratification of the basic documents for trans-border cooperation (the European Framework Convention of Cross-Border Cooperation, the European Charter of Local Government and the European Charter of Border and Cross-Border Regions), Poland has been actively cooperating in the creation of Euro-regions, the objective of which is to develop economic cooperation and infrastructure, environmental protection, tourism, cultural and educational activities.