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People's Republic of Poland

 This article is part of the
History of Poland series.
 Early history of Poland (until 1385)
 The Jagiellon Era
 The Noble Republic
 Partitioned Poland (1795-1914)
 Independence of Poland Regained
 History of Poland (1939-1945)
 People's Republic of Poland
 History of Poland (1989-present)

The People's Republic of Poland (Polska Rzeczpospolita Ludowa) was the official name of Poland from 1952 to 1989, during its period of rule by the Polish Communist Party, officially called the Polish United Workers' Party (Polska Zjednoczona Partia Robotnicza, or PZPR). The Communists were in effective control of the Polish government from 1944 onwards, but the new name was not adopted until the 1952 constitution came into effect.

Table of contents
1 Yalta and the Fate of Poland (1943-45)
2 Poland under Stalinism (1945-56)
3 The Failure of Reform Communism (1956-70)
4 From Crisis to Crisis (1970-1980)
5 The fall of Communism (1980-90)

Yalta and the Fate of Poland (1943-45)

At the Yalta conference in February 1945, Stalin was able to present his western allies, Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, with a fait accompli in Poland. His armed forced were in occupation of the country, and his agents, the Polish Communists, were in control of its administration. Stalin was in the process of unilaterally annexing the eastern regions of pre-war Poland which he had occupied between 1939 and 1941 (see Polish areas annexed by Soviet Union), with some minor variations in Poland's favour (the most important of which allowed Poland to retain Bialystok). In compensation, Stalin awarded Poland all the German territories in Pomerania, Silesia and Brandenburg east of the Oder-Neisse Line, plus the southern half of East Prussia.

Stalin was determined that Poland's new government would be controlled by the Communists, and therefore ultimately by him. He had severed relations with the Polish government-in-exile in London in 1943, but to appease Roosevelt and Churchill he agreed at Yalta that a coalition government would be formed. The Prime Minister of the government-in-exile, Stanislaw Mikolajczyk, resigned his post and with several other leaders of the Polish exiles went to Lublin in eastern Poland where the Communist-controlled provisional government had been established. This government was headed by a Socialist, Edward Osóbka-Morawski, but the Communists held a majority of key posts. It was recognised by the western Allies in July 1945. Stalin also agreed that Poland would receive $US10 billion in reparations money from Germany.

The Western Allies, and particularly Roosevelt, have been much criticised for their abandonment of Poland to Stalin. There is no doubt that Roosevelt was naive to accept Stalin's promises at Yalta. But is difficult in retrospect to see what effective action the Allies could gave taken. Stalin was in full physical control of Poland. Only the threat of force could have deterred him, and in the circumstances of 1945 this would have been an empty threat, as Stalin well knew. Public opionion in the west would not have accepted the possibility of a war with the Soviet Union at a time when the Soviets had just played the leading role in defeating Hitler, at a cost of 20 million Soviet dead.

Poland's old and new borders, 1945

It must be said also that the Polish legal government in London could not help Polish cause. The crucial issue was who would rule postwar Poland, not what its borders would be. But Mikolajczyk and his colleagues in the government-in-exile insisted on making their stand on the defence of Poland's pre-1939 eastern border, a position which was not defendable in practice when Stalin was in occupation of the territory in question. (For more on the Polish border issue, see Curzon line.) They refused to accept the proposed new Polish borders, and thus infuriated the Allies - in particular Churchill. This made the Allies less inclined to stand up to Stalin on the question of the composition of the postwar government. In the end the exiles lost on both issues: Stalin annexed the eastern territories, and controlled the new Polish government. At least Poland preserved its status as an independent state: some influential communists such as Wanda Wasilewska were in favour of Poland becoming a republic of the Soviet Union.

Poland under Stalinism (1945-56)

Boleslaw Bierut

Stalin had promised at Yalta that free elections would be held in Poland. But the Polish Communists, led by Wladyslaw Gomulka and Boleslaw Bierut, knew that they could never win a free election. They imposed themselves on the country through a reign of terror against the main non-Communist party, Mikolajczyk's Peasant Party, and also against the veterans of the wartime Home Army (AK) and of the Polish armies which had fought in the west. They also resorted to systematic vote-rigging, both in a referendum in June 1946 which legitimised the provisional government and in the January 1947 legislative elections, which returned a massive majority for the Communist-controlled "Democratic Bloc." (The Communists admitted in the last year of their rule that both elections had been rigged.) Mikolajczyk was forced to leave the country and Poland became a de facto one-party state. Two small parties, one for farmers and one for the intelligentsia, were allowed to exist, subordinated to the Communists.

The third force in Polish politics, Józef Pilsudski's old party, the Polish Socialist Party, suffered a fatal split. One faction, which included Osóbka-Morawski, wanted to join forces with the Peasant Party and form a united front against the Communists. Another faction led by Józef Cyrankiewicz argued that the Socialists should support the Communists in carrying through a socialist program, while opposing the imposition of one-party rule. Pre-war political hostilities continued to influence events, and Mikolajczyk would not agree to a united front with the Socialists. The Communists played on these divisions by dismissing Osóbka-Morawski and making Cyrankiewicz Prime Minister. In 1948 the Communists and Cyrankiewicz's faction of Socialists merged to form the Polish United Workers Party.

The government, headed by Cyrankiewicz and the economic boss Hilary Minc, carried through a program of sweeping economic reform and national reconstruction. Private industry was nationalised, the land seized from the prewar landowners and redistributed to the peasants, and millions of Poles transferred from the lost eastern territories to the lands acquired from Germany. By 1950 5 million Poles had been settled in what the Poles called the Regained Territories. Warsaw and other ruined cities were cleared of rubble - mainly by hand - and rebuilt with remarkable speed. Many of the reforms were overdue and were in themselves welcomed, although most Poles continued to detest the Communist regime. They adopted an attitude which might be called resigned co-operation.

Before the war Poland had about 3.5 million Jews: about 100,000 of these survived Hitler's Holocaust inside Poland. Another 300,000 survived the war through having been deported to the Soviet Union. Their position in postwar Poland was precarious. Although all parties officially condemned anti-Semitism, the fact was that a substantial number of Jews returning from the Soviet Union were present in the Communist Party's leadership, such as Minc and the Party security and ideological chief Jakub Berman. In popular view, Jewish communists were Stalin's guarantee of the rule over Poland and were held responsible for crimes of the regime, since usually assigned to the security. Complicated conflicts of 2 competing groups of the regime resulted in the provocation in Kielce in July 1946, where the crowd attacked a building housing Jews who were preparing to emigrate to Palestine, killing 40 people. The fact, that the neighbouring house, that was housing communists Jews were never attacked and the peculiar circumstances around the missing child, that were in fact held at police station, where never officially explained due to the fact, that the independent investigation was possible only 40 years later. Directyl after, the Communists, the anti-Communists and the Catholic Church all blamed each other for this outbreak. The consequence was to hasten the emigration of Poland's remaining non-Communist Jews, and to add another chapter to the long tragedy of Polish-Jewish relations.

The new Polish government was controlled by Polish Communists who had spent the war in the Soviet Union. They were "assisted" - in some cases controlled - by Soviet "advisers," who were placed in every part of the government. The most important of these was Konstantin Rokossovsky (Rokossowski in Polish), the Defence Minister from 1949 to 1956. Although of Polish birth, he had spent his adult life in the Soviet Union and was a Marshall in the Soviet Armed Forces. The Polish Communists were divided into two informal factions, named "Natolin" and "Pulawy" after two towns where they had held meetings. Natolin consisted entirely of ethnic Poles and had a Polish nationalist tendency, of a peculiar Communist sort. Pulawy included most of the Jewish Communists and was more "internationalist" in outlook, meaning in practice that it supported Soviet domination over the Party.

Polish Communist propaganda poster

The Stalinist grip on Poland tightened in 1948, when the repercussions of Stalin's break with Tito reached Warsaw. As in the other eastern European satellite states, there was a purge of Communists suspected of nationalist or other "deviationist" tendencies. In September Gomulka, who had always been an opponent of Stalin's control of the Polish party, was dismissed from his posts and imprisoned, accused on "nationalistic tendency". But there was no equivalent of the "show trials" that took place in the other eastern European states, and Gomulka escaped with his life. Bierut replaced him as party leader.

This Stalinist turn meant that instead of the facade of democracy and a market economy which the regime preserved until 1948, Poland was now to be brought into line with the Soviet model of a "people's democracy" and a centrally planned socialist economy. Most importantly, the regime embarked on the collectivisation of agriculture, which, as in the Soviet Union and China, proved disastrous to productivity and produced a problem in food supplies which the regime was never able to solve. After the death of Stalin, the Communists further alienated themselves from the people by persecuting the Catholic Church. In 1953 the Primate of Poland, Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski was placed under house arrest, although he had been willing to go a long way to reach agreement with the government.

Despite the fact that Polish historians estimate that 200,000 to 400,000 people died during the postwar period, Polish Stalinism was not quite as severe as it was in the other satellite states. Many Poles, however, believed that the real reason was that Poland, unlike other Eastern European countries, did not need an additional phase of terror, because Polish society had already been brought to the edge of disintegration by the Nazi occupation. Warsaw and other cities lay in ruins. Many smaller towns, before the war populated largely by Jews, were empty. Half the pre-war Polish intelligentsia, mainly of Jewish or middle-class origins, were dead or in emigration. Children had gone six years without school. In these circumstances most people will willing to accept even Communist rule in exchange for the restoration of normal life. Even the Catholic Church considered any open resistance suicidal.

The new Polish Constitution of 1952 officially made Poland a People's Republic, ruled by the Polish United Workers' Party (PZPR), which since the absorption of the left-wing of the Socialist Party in 1948 had been the Communist Party's official name. The post of President was abolished and Bierut became effective head of state. When Bierut died in March 1956, he was succeded by Edward Ochab. By this time Nikita Khrushchev had come to power in the Soviet Union, and had denounced Stalin at the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party. Unrest among both intellectuals and workers was beginning to be felt in the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and Hungary.

Really crucial decisions were made in 1948 and in 1953. In 1948 United States announced the Marshall plan, one of the few genuine in history, the initiative to help rebuild Europe. Polish government initially welcome Polish participation, but under the pressure from suspicious Moscow, Poland together with Czechoslowakia and Hungary had to turn out their participation. Western european countries, that benefit from the plan, become later prosperous West European countries, that were edged from Eastern Europe by constantly growing gap. Todays partition of Europe for the rich and pour matches exactly the line that borders countries that participated in the Marshall plan from those that were excluded.

Situation on the area of Germany, which were divided on West Germany with netto surplus in foreign investment and East Germany, excluded from the foreign help and in addition under heave burden of indemnification for the most devastated Soviet Union and Poland, led to social unrest in July 1953, known as Berlin uprising. Following the events, Poland was forced by Soviet Union to resign from indemnification claims toward Germany 1953. Eventually, Germany never paid any significant indemnification for war damages, neither to Polish state nor Polish citizens. The only indemnification Poland got was in the property remaining after 1945 on the devastated Regained Territories.

The Communist regime also carried out major changes to the education system. The Nazis' massacre of the prewar Polish intelligentsia, and the emigration of many other intellectuals and skilled people, left Poland with a severe educational deficit. The Communist program of free and compulsory school education for all, and the establishment of new free universities, therefore had a lot of support. Universities from the lost eastern territories were evacuated to the Regained Territories: from Wilno to Torun and from Lwow to Wroclaw. Many new universities were founded, including the famous Film Univeristy of Lodz. All this gave the Communists an opportunity to create a new Polish educated class, taught in an educational system which they controlled.

The Failure of Reform Communism (1956-70)

Wladyslaw Gomulka

In June 1956, workers in the industrial city of Poznan went on strike. Demonstrations by striking workers turned into huge riots in which 80 people were killed. Cyrankiewicz at first tried repression, threatening that "any provocateur or lunatic who raises his hand against the people's government may be sure that it will be chopped off." But then the hard-liners realised they had lost the support of the Soviet Union, and the regime turned to conciliation: it announced wage rises and other reforms. Voices began to be raised in the Party and among the intellectuals calling for wider reforms of the Stalinist system. The disgraced "national Communist" Wladyslaw Gomulka re-emerged and placed himself at the head of the movement.

Gomulka returned to the Party leadership in October 1956, after some tough bargaining with Khrushchev, who came to Warsaw to oversee the transfer of power. Hardline Stalinists such as Berman, and many other Jews, were removed from power, but no-one was put on trial for the crimes of the Bierut period. The Pulawy faction argued that mass trials of Stalin era criminals, most of them of Jewish origins, would incite animosity against Jews. Rokossovski and other Soviet advisors were sent home, and Polish Communism took on a more independent orientation. But Gomulka knew that the Soviets would never allow Poland to leave the Soviet orbit, because of its strategic position between the Soviet Union and Germany. He agreed that Soviet troops could remain in Poland, and that no overt anti-Soviet outbursts would be allowed. In this way Poland avoided the risk of the kind of Soviet armed intervention that crushed the revolution in Hungary in the same month.

Poland welcomed Gumulka's return to power with relief and even euphoria, despite his background as a lifelong Communist. Most Poles still rejected Communism, but they knew that the realities of Soviet power dictated that Poland could not escape from Communist rule. Gomulka, however, promised an end to police terror, greater intellectual and religious freedom, higher wages and the return of agricultural land to the peasants. These promises he carried out. But he also promised free elections, a promise he knew he could not keep without seeing his party defeated. At the January 1957 elections no opposition candidates were permitted. Voters were given the right to vote against official candidates, but Gomulka persuaded the Catholic Church to urge a vote of confidence in the government. By agreement, the PUWP won 237 seats out of 459: the rest went to satellite parties and a few independents.

After the first wave of reform, Gomulka's regime settled into a phase of "consolidation" in which the power of the Party, and Party control of the media and the universities, were gradually restored, and many of the younger and more reformist members of the Party were expelled. The reforming Gomulka of 1956 was replaced by the old authoritarian Gomulka. Poland enjoyed a period of relative stability over the next decade, but the idealism of the "Polish October" faded away. What replaced it was a cynical form of Polish nationalism, fuelled by a propaganda campaign against West Germany over its non-recognition of the Oder-Neisse frontier.

By the mid 1960s Poland was starting to experience economic as well as political difficulties. Like all the Communist regimes, the Polish regime spent too much on heavy industry, armaments and prestige projects, and too little on consumer production. Since the workers had nothing to spend their wages on, productivity declined. The end of collectivisation returned the land to the peasants, but their farms were mostly too small to be efficient, so productivity in agriculture were low. Economic relations with Poland's natural market, West Germany, were frozen because of the impasse over the Oder-Neisse Line. Gomulka chose to ignore these problems, and his increasingly autocratic style meant that no-one else had the authority to do anything.

Gomulka's Poland is generally described as one of the more "liberal" Communist regimes. Compared to East Germany, Czechoslavakia or Romania in this period, this is correct. Neverthless, under Gomulka Poles could still go to prison for writing political satire about the Party leader, as did Janusz Szpotanski, or for publishing a book abroad. Jacek Kuron, later to become a prominent dissident, was imprisoned for writing an "open letter" to other party members. As Gomulka's popularlity declined and his "reform Communism" lost its impetus, the regime became steadily less liberal and more repressive.

By the 1960s others in the leadership had begun to plot against Gomulka. His security chief, Mieczyslaw Moczar, a wartime communist partisan commander, formed a new faction, the Partisans, built on communists nationalism, and uderlined, that there were no Jewish communists among them. The Party boss in Upper Silesia, Edward Gierek, who unlike most of the Communist leaders was a genuine son of the working-class, also emerged as a possible alternative leader. The crisis came in June 1967 with the Six-Day War between Israel and the Arab states. Since the Arabs were seen as Soviet satellites, Poles cheered the Israelis.

In March 1968 student demonstrations broke out when the government banned the performance at Warsaw University of a play by Adam Mickiewicz (Dziady or "Godfather's Eve," written in 1824), on the grounds that it contained "anti-Soviet references). One of the students imprisoned over this affair was Adam Michnik, whose Jewish parents were at Stalin times convinced Stalinists. Moczar used this affair as a pretext to launch an anti-Zionist press campaign. By the 1968 most of Jews were already assimilated to Polish society, only about 30,000 underlined their jewishness, but over the next year they became the centre of a centrally organised campaign, that put equal sign between Jewish origins and sympathy toward the state of Israel. Most of them lost their jobs and were forced to emigrate. The campaign, despite being ostensibly directed at Jews who had held office during the Stalin era and their families, affected most of the remaining Polish Jews whatever their backgrounds. Gomulka could have resisted this campaign, but instead allowed it to run, hoping it would burn itself out. The campaign damaged Poland's reputation abroad, particularly in the United States, where many never tried Stalin era criminals could present themselves as the victims of ethnic based persecutions. Many Polish intellectuals, however, opposed the campaign, some openly, and Moczar's security apparatus became as hated as Berman's had been.

There were several outcomes of the March 1968 events. One was an official approval for showing Polish national feelings, including the scaling down official criticism of the prewar Polish regime and of Poles who had fought in the anti-Communists wartime partisan movement, the AK. The second was the complete allienation of the regime from the leftist intelligentsia, who were disgusted at the promotion of official anti-Semitism. The third was that some of the people who emigrated to the West at this time founded organisations which encouraged leftist opposition inside Poland.

Two things saved Gomulka's regime at this point. The Soviet Union, now led by Leonid Brezhnev, made it clear it would not tolerate political upheaval in Poland at a time when it was trying to deal with the crisis in Czechoslovakia (the "Prague Spring"). In particular, the Soviets made it clear they would not have Moczar, whom they suspected of anti-Soviet nationalism, as leader. Secondly, the workers refused to rise up against the regime: partly because they distrusted the intellectual leadership of the protest movement and partly because Gomulka bribed them with higher wages. The Catholic Church, although it protested against police violence against demonstrating students, was also not willing to support a confrontation with the regime.

In August 1968 the Polish army took part in the invasion of Czechoslovakia. Some Polish intelectuals protested, and Ryszard Siwiec burned himself alive during the official national holiday celebrations. Polish participation in crushing Czech liberal Communism further alienated Gomulka from his former liberal supporters. But in 1970 Gomulka won a political victory when he gained West German recognition of the Oder-Neisse Line. The German Chancellor, Willy Brandt, asked on his knees for forgiveness for the crimes of the Nazis: the gesture was understood in Poland as being addressed to Poles, although it was actually at the site of the Warsaw Ghetto and was thus directed more to the Jews.

Gomulka's temporary political success could not mask the economic crisis into which Poland was drifting. Although the system of fixed, artificially low food prices kept urban discontent under control, it caused stagnation in agriculture and made more expensive food imports necessary. This was unsustainable, and in December 1970 the regime suddenly announced massive increases in the prices of basic foodstuffs. It is possible that the price rises were imposed on Gomulka by his enemies in the Party leadership who planned to manoeuvre him out of power. The rises were a fatal miscalculation, for they turned the urban workers against the regime. Gomulka believed that the agreement with West Germany had made him more popular, but in fact most Poles appear to have felt that since the Germans were no longer a threat to Poland, they no longer needed tolerate the Communist regime as a guarantee of Soviet support for the defence of the Oder-Neisse border.

Demonstrations against the price rises broke out in the northern coastal cities of Gdansk, Gdynia, Elblag and Szczecin. Gomulka's right-hand man, Zenon Kliszko, made matters worse by ordering the army to fire on the workers as they tried to return to their factories; he was afraid of sabotage. Another leader, Stanislaw Kociolek, appealed to the workers to return to work. But in Gdynia the soldiers had orders to stop workers returning to work, and they fired into the crowd of workers emerging from their trains: hundreds of workers were killed. The protest movement then spread to other cities, leading to strikes and occupations.

The Party leadership met in Warsaw and decided that a full-scale working-class revolt was inevitable unless drastic steps were taken. With the consent of Brezhnev in Moscow, Gomulka, Kliszko and other leaders were forced to resign: if the price rises had been a plot against Gomulka, it succeeded. Since Moscow would not accept Moczar, Edward Gierek was drafted as the new leader. The price rises were reversed, wage rises announced, and sweeping economic and political changes were promised. Gierek went to Gdansk and met the workers, apologised for the mistakes of the past, and said that as a worker himself he would now govern for the people.

From Crisis to Crisis (1970-1980)

Edward Gierek

Gierek, like Gomulka in 1956, came to power with a raft of promises that now everything would be different: wages would rise, prices would remain stable, there would be freedom of speech, those responsible for the violence at Gdynia and elsewhere would be punished. Although Poles were much more cynical than they had been in 1956, Gierek was believed to be an honest and well-intentioned man, and his promises bought him some time. He used this time for a new economic program, one based on importing some of the prosperity of the booming Western economies to Poland - without, of course, importing the capitalist system that made that prosperity possible. He did this by massive borrowing, mainly from the United States and West Germany, to re-equip and modernise Polish industry, and to import consumer goods to give the workers some incentive to work.

For the next four years Poland enjoyed rapidly rising living standards and an apparently stable economy. Real wages rose 40% between 1971 and 1975, and for the first time most Poles could afford to buy cars, televisions and other consumer goods. Poles living abroad, veterans of the Home Army and the Anders armies, were invited to return, and to invest their money in Poland, which many did. The peasants were subsidised to grow more food. Poles were able to travel, mainly to Germany, Sweden and Italy, with little difficultly. There was also some cultural and political relaxation. Provided the "leading role of the Party" and the Soviet "alliance" were not criticised, there was freedom of speech. With the workers and peasants reasonably happy, the regime knew that a few grumbling intellectuals could pose no challenge.

The paradox of this "consumer Communism" was that it was built on the back of the continuing prosperity of the capitalist West. This changed suddenly in 1974, when the effects of the oil shock resulting from the 1973 Arab-Israeli War produced an inflationary surge followed by a recession in the West. This meant a sharp increase in the price of the consumer goods Poland was importing, coupled with a decline in demand for Polish exports, particularly coal. Poland's foreign debt rose from US$100 million in 1971 to US$6,000 million in 1975, and continued to spiral. This made it harder and harder for Poland to go on borrowing. Once again comsumer goods began to disappear from Polish shops.

In 1975 Poland, together with almost all European countries, became a signatory of the Helsinki accords and a member of Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the creation of which marked the high point of the period of "detente" between the Soviet Union and the United States. Despite the regimes claims that the freedoms mentioned in the agreement would be implemented in Poland, there was little change, but Poles become gradually more aware of the rights they were being denied.

With the government increasingly unable to borrow, it had no alternative but to raise prices, particularly for basic foodstuffs. But the government was so afraid of a repeat of the 1970 worker rebellion that it had kept prices frozen at the 1970 levels rather than allowing them to rise gradually. Then, in June 1976, under pressure from Western creditors, the government again introduced price rises: butter by 33%, meat by 70%, sugar by 100%. The result was an immediate nationwide strike wave, with violent demonstrations and looting at Plock and Radom. Gierek backed down at once, dismissing Prime Minister Piotr Jaroszewicz and repealing the price rises. This left the government looking economically foolish and politically weak, a very dangerous combination.

The 1976 disturbances and the subsequent arrests and dismissals of worker militants brought the workers and the intellectual opposition to the regime back into contact. A group of intellectuals led by Jacek Kuron and Adam Michnik founded the Committee for the Defence of the Workers (KOR), which published an underground paper, Robotnik ("The Worker"): the same title as Jozef Pilsudski's underground paper, as every Pole knew. The aim of KOR was simply to assist the worker victims of the 1976 repression, but it inevitably became a political resistance group. It marked an important development: the intellectual dissidents accepting the leadership of the working class in opposing the regime.

These events brought many more Polish intellectuals into active opposition. As a result of the events of 1968, left-wing intellectuals, many of them of Jewish origin, felt that the modern Catholics are no more anti-Semitic monsters described by the official propaganda, while the communist regime is able to sanction xenophoby, that were never officially possible even by the right wings governments of pre-war Poland. Eventually the complete failure of the Gierek regime, both economically and politically, led many of them to join or rejoin the opposition, which they found to be mostly moderate, patriotic and liberal people. During this period new opposition groups were formed, such as Movement for the Defence of the Right of the Citizen (ROPCIO) and the Confederation for an Independent Poland.

For the rest of the 1970s resistance to the regime grew, in the form of trade unions, student groups, clandestine newspapers and publishers, imported books and newspapers, even a "flying university." The situation recalled earlier periods of Polish resistance to foreign occuption, such as Russian rule in the 19th century and the German occupation of 1939-44, except that the regime made no serious attempt to suppress the opposition. Gierek was interested only in buying off worker unrest and keeping the Soviet Union convinced that Poland was a loyal ally. But the Soviet alliance was at the heart of Gierek's problems. Because of Poland's strategic position, across the lines of communication between the Soviet Union and Germany, the Soviets would never allow Poland to drift out of its orbit as Yugoslavia and Romania had done. Nor would they allow any fundamental economic reform that would endanger the "socialist system."

In fact, however, Poland was part of the capitalist system, and the fact that the West would no longer give Poland credit meant that living standards began to sharply fall again as the supply of imported goods dried up, and as Poland was forced to export everything it could, particularly food, to service its massive debt, which would reach US$23 billion by 1980. By 1978 it was therefore obvious that sooner or later the regime would again have to raise prices and risk another outbreak of labour unrest.

At this juncture, on 16 October 1978, Poland experienced what many Poles believed to be literally a miracle. The Archbishop of Krakow, Karol Wojtyla, was elected Pope, taking the name John Paul II. The election of a Polish Pope had an electrifying effect on what was by the 1970s the last really devoutly Catholic country in Europe. When John Paul toured Poland in June 1979, half a million people heard him speak in Warsaw, and about a quarter of the entire population of the country attended at least one of his outdoor masses. Overnight, John Paul became the de facto leader of Poland, leaving the regime not so much opposed as ignored. John Paul did not call for rebellion, instead he encouraged the creation of an "alternative Poland" of social institutions independent of the government, so that when the next crisis came the nation would present a united front.

By 1980 the Communist regime was completely trapped by Poland's economic and political dilemma. The regime had no means of legitimising itself, since it knew that the PUWP would never win a free election. They had no choice but to make another attempt to raise consumer prices to realistic levels, but they knew that to do so would certainly spark another worker rebellion, much better organised than the 1970 or 1976 outbreaks. In July 1980 they bit the bullet and announced a system of gradual but continuous price rises, particularly for meat. A wage of strikes and factory occupations began at once, co-ordinated from KOR's headquarters in Warsaw.

The regime made little effort to intervene. By this time Polish Communists had lost the Stalinist zealotry of the 1940s: they had grown corrupt and cynical during the Gierek years and and had no real taste for bloodshed. The country waited to see what would happen. In early August the strike wave reached the politically sensitive Baltic coast, with a strike at the Lenin Shipyards in Gdansk. Among the leaders of this strike was an electrician called Lech Walesa, who soon became a national figure. The strike wave spread along the coast, closing the ports and bringing the economy to a halt. With the assistance of the activists from KOR, the workers occupying the various factories, mines and shipyards across Poland came together.

The regime was now faced with a choice between repression on a massive scale and an agreement that would give the workers everything they wanted, while preserving the outward shell of Communist rule. They chose the latter, and on 31 August Walesa signed the Gdansk Agreement with Mieczyslaw Jagielski, a member of the PUWP Politburo. The Agreement acknowledged the right of Poles to associate in free trade unions, abolished censorship, abolished weekend work, increased the minimum wage, increased and extended welfare and pensions, abolished Party supervision of industrial enterprises. Only the facade of Party rule was preserved, which everyone recognised was necessary to prevent Soviet intervention. The fact that all these economic concessions were completely unaffordable escaped attention in the wave of national euphoria which swept the country.

The fall of Communism (1980-90)

This section is awaiting development

In September Gierek, who was in poor health, was removed from office and replaced as Party leader by Stanislaw Kania. Kania made the same sort of promises that Gomulka and Gierek had made when they came to power. But whatever goodwill the new leader gained by these promises was even shorter-lived than it had been in 1956 and 1971, because there was no way the regime could have kept the promises it made at Gdansk even if it had wanted to. The regime was still trapped between economic necessity and political reality. It could not revive the economy without abandoning state control of prices, but it could not do this without triggering another general strike. Nor could it gain the support of the population through political reform, because of the veto power of the Soviet Union.

see also Waldemar Frydrych, Solidarity.