Poland Modern History

By | January 30, 2023

Poland is a country located in Eastern Europe. With the capital city of Warsaw, Poland has a population of 37,846,622 based on a recent census from COUNTRYAAH. After World War II, Poland ended up in the Soviet sphere of interest in the divided Europe, the communist eastern bloc. The liberation from communism in the 1980s was led by the trade union Solidarity with the leader Lech Wałęsa at the forefront. In 1990 he became the country’s first democratically elected president. In the following decade, the democracy movement was divided and Poland was ruled by weak governments. During the 1990s, the country struggled with high unemployment while the economy was progressing, especially after the 2004 EU entry.

During the end of the Second World War, at the Yalta Conference in February 1945, the United States and Britain agreed to the Soviet Union’s demand that Poland be included in the Soviet sphere of interest in post-war Europe. The Western powers recognized the communist Soviet-installed Lublin government as Poland’s legitimate government. The conference also decided that Poland’s borders would be moved west. Even today, the perception remains in Poland that the country was let down by the Western powers.

  • ABBREVIATIONFINDER: List of most commonly used acronyms containing Poland. Also includes historical, economical and political aspects of the country.

At the next major power conference, in Potsdam in the summer of 1945, the Allies decided that the former German territories east of the rivers Oder and Neisse (in Polish Odra and Nysa) should be placed under Polish administration. These territories (Lower Silesia, West Pomerania and southern Ost-Prussia) make up about a third of Poland’s current area. At the same time, the new Polish-Soviet border was established on the Bug river. Poland was allowed to resign about half of pre-war territory to the Soviet Union (today’s southwest Lithuania with the capital Vilnius, western Belarus and western Ukraine). Check best-medical-schools for more information about Poland.

After the end of the war, Poland was on three sides surrounded by Soviet or Soviet-dominated territory. The exception was the Baltic Sea coast in the north. The Moscow-controlled Polish Communists gained a monopoly on power. The power system was called “folk democracy”. The Communist Party’s takeover of power was not undramatic. At times, the country was on the brink of civil war. Formally, the power of the Communist Party was sanctioned in the 1947 election, which was characterized by cheating and abuse of the opposition.

Soviet control of Poland was further tightened in 1948, when Communist leader Władysław Gomułka, who advocated a so-called Polish path to socialism, was imprisoned. At the same time, the Communist and Socialist parties were merged into the Polish United Workers’ Party (PZPR). The party’s leader became Bolesław Bierut, who before World War II was an agent of the Soviet Security Service and Soviet leader Josef Stalin’s obedient tool.


Before World War II, Poland was predominantly an agricultural country. The war meant that 80–90 percent of the industries that existed were destroyed. Between 1945 and 1949, the forces concentrated on a reconstruction. Subsequently, the command economy, socialist planning economy was introduced after the Soviet model. The regime focused on massive industrialization, with emphasis on heavy industry including the weapons industry. Agriculture and consumer goods were neglected.

Stalin’s death in 1953 shook the Polish regime. After unrest among workers in Poznań in 1956, Gomułka returned as first party secretary. He succeeded in stopping a threatening Soviet invasion by explaining to Soviet leader Khrushchev that he was an old-fashioned communist who did not intend to take Poland out of the Warsaw Pact. A period of liberalization followed.

Gradually, Gomułka’s regime (called “Mała Stabilizacja”, the Little Stabilization) became increasingly dictatorial. In 1968, students around the country demonstrated democratization, but protests were turned down. About 100 people were imprisoned and thousands of intellectuals were forced to leave their jobs. The regime’s propaganda contained strong anti-Semitic elements and the purges also hit many Poles of Jewish burden who did not have to do with the protests. About 50,000 Polish Jews left the country.

In December 1970, the shipyard workers in Gdańsk and Szczecin striked in protest of sharp increases in food prices. Gomułka was forced to resign and succeeded Edward Gierek. The new regime has invested heavily in achieving greater stability by raising the population’s living standards, including by means of large loans from the West. Some liberalization towards dissimilar thinking could be felt as the dependence on credit from the West increased.

Fight for democracy

Following strikes and demonstrations against new food price increases in June 1976, the Workers’ Defense Committee (KOR) was formed, where workers and intellectuals merged. Later, the KOR was transformed into an opposition group that demanded the democratization of the entire political system. KOR’s activities during the latter part of the 1970s were the beginning of a process that was crowned with the fall of the communist system 15 years later.

When the Gierek regime in June 1980 tried to raise prices again, a wave of strikes spread across the country. This time, with the support of the KOR advisers, the workers demanded not only a new economic and social policy but also increased democracy, and in particular the right to free trade unions and free opinion, but not free elections to Parliament. It was considered such a far-reaching requirement that the regime could not possibly agree to it.

On August 31, 1980, an agreement, the so-called Gdańsk Agreement, was signed. The workers were allowed to form a trade union movement from the party and the state, Solidarity (Solidarność), with Lech Wałęsa, electrician at the Leninvarvet in Gdańsk, as leader.

Gierek was replaced as leader of the Communist Party by Stanisław Kania, but he was allowed to leave General Wojciech Jaruzelski a year later. The Soviet Union, which had from the outset taken a hostile stance on the changes in Poland, subjected the country’s leadership to heavy pressure, including threats of military invasion, to end Solidarity. Jaruzelski, who was a party leader, head of government and defense minister, secretly prepared a military intervention. Solidarity, which at its first and only congress in September 1981 counted nearly ten million members, appeared increasingly clear as a basically political organization.

“State of war”

On December 13, 1981, an emergency permit, called a “war permit” was introduced in Poland. The “Military Council for the Rescue of the Nation,” a creation of Jaruzelski, took over all power. Thousands of people were imprisoned and all political and union activities were banned. However, solidarity was able to maintain certain activities in underground forms. Polish opinion has remained divided in the assessment of Jaruzelski and his state of war: for one camp, the state of war was “a minor evil” which saved Poland from Soviet march, on the other hand it was a brutal way of preserving the Communists’ power.

The state of emergency was formally abolished in July 1983, but the last political prisoners were not released until September 1986.

Towards the end of the 1980s, the communist power apparatus became increasingly demoralized and corrupt. The economy was in a state of dissolution. None of the economic problems that triggered the 1980-1981 crisis had been solved. The shortage of goods led to rations, queues and black trade. Inflation increased.

Some leading regime representatives, with Jaruzelski at the forefront, understood that the possibilities of the communist power were exhausted. Each change required an agreement with Solidarity. They assumed that the Soviet leadership (since 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev with the reform policy perestroika) would not oppose political and economic thinking. Jaruzelski, who was close friends with Gorbachev, perhaps even assumed that Gorbachev would welcome experiments in a satellite country.

Round-table deal

The so-called round table negotiations with the then still banned Solidarity began in February 1989 and lasted until April. Solidarity was represented by Lech Wałęsa and a number of recently released human rights fighters. It was agreed to hold partly free elections. They took place on June 4, 1989, the same day that the Communist Party of China ordered a bloody massacre at Tiananmen Square in Beijing. The purpose of the roundtable was to keep the Communist Party in ultimate control, including foreign policy, the police and the military, and Jaruzelski to get a newly created post as president. But the opposition forces would be prepared to sit in official political assemblies and gain influence over economic and social policies (taking responsibility for the “Ministries of Distress and Misery”).

Solidarity leaders saw the settlement as a first step towards complete democratization, but it would not be completed immediately, rather in a few years. They did not feel ready to take over responsibility for the country and did not think that the communists were prepared to relinquish power.

But the outcome of the first partially free elections in Eastern Europe surprised everyone. The elections became a referendum for or against communism. Solidarity won a smashing victory. Even some of the mandates earmarked for the Communist Party according to the preliminary settlement were won by candidates who were admittedly members of the party, but whom the party leadership could not trust. It was clear that a regime change could only be prevented by force.

The generals at the head of the Polish Communist Party – Jaruzelski, Interior Minister Czesław Kiszczak and the head of government Mieczysław Rakowski – were not prepared to roll out the tanks. They accepted the exit. They had to argue in the party’s political office against the forces that were prepared to defend their power at any cost. The newly elected members of the Soldiers in the Sejm (Parliament’s lower house) held their part of the agreement and made possible the election of Jaruzelski as president, which was done with the overweight of one vote. In August 1989, Jaruzelski was given the task of forming a government for Tadeusz Mazowiecki, adviser to Solidarity and Lech Wałęsa’s closest associate.

Communism is falling

This appointment marked the end of the Communists’ 45-year power monopoly in Poland and became the start signal for liberation throughout Eastern Europe. Two months later, the Berlin Wall fell. Soviet leader Gorbachev publicly called on the Polish communists to find themselves in power.

The Mazowiecki Ministry, which took office on September 12, 1989, was a coalition government that also included four communist ministers. Its historical contribution was to peacefully implement the transition to democracy and to lay the foundations for a modern rule of law. The other major task was to abolish the planning economy and introduce a market economy. This was accomplished by Finance Minister Leszek Balcerowicz through his radical shock therapy – albeit at the price of great social tensions. The Communists in the government and the Sejm voted for these changes.

The Communist Party dissolved in January 1990 and the communist ministers disappeared from the government a few months later. General Jaruzelski, who was elected for a five-year term, resigned prematurely in the fall of 1990. He left the field free of Lech Wałęsa, who in a direct election became the country’s first democratically elected president.

Mazowiecki, who was running for Wałęsa in the presidential election, resigned as prime minister in December of that year. The presidential campaign marked the end of unity in the anti-communist camp. Growing unemployment and increasing social divisions contributed to dissatisfaction. The disappointment that the positive effects of the reforms were delayed turned against the politicians in Solidarity. Democracy could be introduced overnight. But the effects of the market economy had to wait a long time.

The democracy movement is shattered

The Mazowiecki government was replaced by a government hand-picked by Wałęsa. Prime Minister Jan Krzysztof Bielecki, the leader of a small liberal group in Gdańsk, became without any real support in the Sejm. The first completely free election in the fall of 1991 led to a right-wing but divided parliament with 17 parties and ten independent members. The two following government coalitions, led by Jan Olszewski and Hanna Suchocka respectively, had fragile support in Parliament and survived for six and 14 months respectively.

A recent election in 1993 led to a grand victory for the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) with the Reformed Communist Party at the forefront. Solidarity and several small parties failed to reach the newly introduced five per cent barrier to the Sejm. Two years later, Solidarity also lost the presidential post when Wałęsa lost the election to SLD’s young and dynamic leader Aleksander Kwaśniewski, a pragmatic and opportunistic politician within the former Communist Party.

Solidarity returned in the 1997 elections, which was won by the solidarity party Solidarity’s election campaign (Akcja Wyborcza Solidarnósci, AWS), which included Solidarity. The Prime Minister became Jerzy Buzek, an influential activist in Solidarity and later President of the European Parliament (2009–2012). The new government wanted to speed up and complete the transformation in the country through extensive social and economic reforms. Buzek led his government to the term of office, 1997-2001, but failed to implement all his ambitions. Growth was weakening, unemployment and social gaps were growing. In 2000, Kwaśniewski was re-elected president.

In the 2001 parliamentary elections, AWS was swept away. SLD regained power and Leszek Miller became prime minister. The government focused primarily on accelerating growth, including by reducing public spending and the budget deficit, as well as finalizing negotiations on Polish membership in the EU.

A referendum on EU membership was held in June 2003. The Yes side won with 77.5 percent of the vote. The following year, Poland joined the EU.

Poland becomes an EU member

Soon, however, SLD’s and Prime Minister Miller’s popularity began to decline. The reason was mainly corruption scandals, but also rising unemployment (up to almost 20 percent) and cuts in the welfare system.

SLD’s holding of power came to an end in the parliamentary elections in the fall of 2005. With low turnout, twins Lech and Jarosław Kaczyński’s middle-right party Law and Justice (PiS) won by a marginal margin over the liberal Citizens’ Platform (PO), led by Donald Tusk. Jarosław Kaczyński became head of government. Lech Kaczyński defeated Donald Tusk in the presidential election held at the same time.

PiS formed government together with two small parties: the populist rural self-defense party and the ultranationalist Polish Families Association (LPR). The political ambition of the Kaczyński brothers was to begin a new era in the history of Poland; now all the remnants of the communist era would be cleared. A foreign policy with an emphasis on Poland’s national interests, including the use of veto in the EU, would end the former concession policy towards the major European countries. The new policy would give Poland higher status internationally. But Kaczyński’s lack of diplomatic knowledge made larger and larger voter groups feel dissatisfied.

The air crash in Smolensk

The twins came to rule Poland for two years. Internal tensions caused the government coalition to collapse in the summer of 2007 and Kaczyński announced new elections, which PiS lost. The two coalition parties, LPR and Self-Defense, failed to pass the five percent barrier to the Sejm and dissolved shortly thereafter. The winner of the election instead became the Citizens’ Platform (PO), which received 209 seats against 166 seats for PiS. PO leader Donald Tusk was appointed prime minister. PO then formed government together with the small Polish Peasant Party (PSL).

On April 10, 2010, President Lech Kaczyński was killed in a plane crash on Russian territory near Smolensk along with 95 other people, including his wife, the military leadership, the Governor of the Riksbank and members of the Sejm from various parties (but no government members). The plane was on its way to a commemorative ceremony for 22,000 Polish officers who were arched on order by Stalin in 1940. The President’s tasks were taken over by Parliament’s President Bronisław Komorowski of the PO. In the summer of 2010, he won the presidential election against PiS candidate Jarosław Kaczyński for a few months.

After the 2011 election, Prime Minister Donald Tusk began controversial austerity measures to bring down the state’s budget deficit. The spring 2012 decision to raise the retirement age to 67 for all led to reduced support for PO and public opinion success for Jarosław Kaczyński’s PiS, whose voters largely come from Catholic working class. Liberal labor legislation with reduced job security also aroused stronger trade union protests. In addition, scandals in and near the government parties contributed to growing support for the opposition and declining popularity for the government.

But the economy has long been a trump card for the PO-led government. Tusk was the only prime minister in the EU to manage his country through the financial and euro crises in the latter part of the 21st century without recession (economic downturn; see Finance). It strengthened Poland’s position in Brussels, and Tusk pursued an active EU policy that had domestic policy implications.

The PiS-led opposition benefited from nationalist and EU-skeptical sentiments among the Poles, and in the wake of the 2010 euro crisis, the Tuscan government was low with plans for a Polish euro accession (see Economy). While around 60 percent of Poles previously supported a Polish euro membership, nearly 70 percent were against 2012.

Hardening contradictions

Kaczyński and PiS also attracted those affected by two decades of social transformation. Unemployment rose in the wake of the financial crisis, and in conjunction with the austerity measures in 2012, the pace of economic growth slowed. In the fall, large demonstrations were held in Warsaw against the government. The protests continued during 2013.

Tusk’s coalition tried to shift its focus from austerity to plans for investments in communications and energy supply. Tusk also proposed extended maternity allowance in an attempt to meet Kaczyński’s promises of increased support for families. Otherwise, there was a conflict between the PO government’s liberalism and the opposition’s conservatism in the family policy, the issue of abortion and the attitude towards same-sex marriage. Kaczyński’s rhetoric is in line with the Catholic Church’s message and attracts ultra-conservative Radio Maryja’s listeners, a core voter group for PiS.

Strong feelings had been stirred up in Poland by the plane crash in Russian Smolensk in 2010. Jarosław Kaczyński claimed that it was not an accident. His theory was supported by about a third of Poles, who believe the aircraft was blown up in a Russian attack. The vast majority of this group were supporters of PiS, and like Kaczyński, they accused Prime Minister Tusk of bowing to Russia and hiding the truth about the crash.

Tusk rejected the charges but was hard pressed by the consequences of the tragedy, and the opposition demanded his departure. Most Poles seemed to accept the official Russian and Polish declaration that the crash was an accident with human error in dense fog, but a majority still wanted an international investigation.

In the sometimes bitter political climate, President Bronisław Komorowski acted as a calming force. Despite his background in Tusk’s liberal PO, he won the support of many conservatives by focusing on national symbols and emphasizing the importance of the family. In a 2013 opinion poll, 70 percent said they had confidence in the president.

In the fall of 2014, Tusk left Polish policy to become President of the European Council, the EU’s “President” instead. His party mate Ewa Kopacz, who was the Speaker of Parliament, took over the post of Prime Minister.

Poland Modern History