Poland's written history begins with the reign of Mieszko I, who accepted
Christianity for himself and his kingdom in AD 966. Poland had hardly
begun to play a part in history when it acquired extraordinary power. This
was in the reign of the famous Boleslaw Chrobry (992-1025), the eldest
son of the first Polish ruler. His dominions included all the lands from
the Baltic to the country beyond the Carpathians, and from the River Oder
to the provinces beyond the Vistula. He had at his command, ready for instant
service, a well-equipped army of 20,000 men. In spite of his great power,
Boleslaw continued to pay the customary tribute to Germany. By his discreet
diplomacy he was successful in obtaining the consent of the pope, as well
as of the German emperor, to the erection of an archiepiscopal see at Gnesen,
and thus the Polish Church was relieved of its dependence upon German archbishops.
To emphasize Poland's independence of Germany, Boleslaw assumed the title
of king, being crowned by the newly created archbishop of Gnesen in 1024.
The clergy in Poland were at that time exclusively of foreign birth; intimate
relations between them and the people were therefore impossible. The latter
did not become enthusiastic about the new religion, nor yet did they return
to paganism, for severe penalties, such as knocking out the teeth for violating
the precept of fasting, maintained obedience to the clergy among the people.
After the death of Chrobry disaster befell the Poles. Their neighbours
attacked them on all sides. The son of Boleslaw, Mieczyslaw II (1025-34),
unable to cope with his enemies, yielded allegiance to the emperor and
lost the title of king. After his death there was an interregnum (1034-40)
marked by a series of violent revolutions. Hosts of rebellious peasants
traversed the country from end to end, furiously attacked castles, churches,
and convents, and murdered noblemen and ecclesiastics. In Masovia paganism
was re-established. Casimir, a son of Mieczyslaw II, surnamed the Restorer,
recovered the reins of government, with the aid of Henry VIII, restored
law and order, and rooted out idolatry. At his death the sovereignty devolved
upon his son, Boleslaw II, Smialy (1058-79). This ruler was favoured by
fortune in his warlike undertakings. His success at last led him to enter
upon a conflict with the emperor. Conditions at the time were favourable
to his securing political independence. The Emperor Henry IV was engaged
in a struggle for supremacy with Pope Gregory VII, who allied himself with
the vassal princes hostile to the emperor, among them Boleslaw Smialy,
to whom he sent the kingly crown. Poland revolted from the empire, and
the Polish Church began a reform in accordance with Gregory's decrees.
By the leading nobles Boleslaw was thoroughly hated as a despot; the masses
of the people murmured under the burden of incessant wars; the clergy opposed
the energetic reformation of the Church, which the king was carrying on,
their opposition being particularly directed against Gregory's decree enforcing
the celibacy of the clergy. The dissatisfied elements rose and placed themselves
under the protection of Bohemia, Bishop Stanislaw even placed the king
under the ban of the Church, while the king declared the bishop guilty
of high treason for allying himself with Bohemia and the emperor. The king's
sentence was terribly executed at Cracow, where the bishop was done to
death and hewn in pieces. In the civil war which ensued Boleslaw was worsted
and compelled to take refuge in Hungary.
After his death Poland had to pass through severe and protracted struggles
to maintain its independence. Towards the end of the eleventh century its
power was broken by the Bohemians and Germans, and it was once more reduced
to the condition of an insignificant principality, under the incompetent
Wladislaw Herman (1081-1101). At this period the clergy constituted the
only educated class of the entire population, but they were foreigners,
and the natives joined their ranks but slowly. At all events they are entitled
to extraordinary credit for the diffusion of learning in Poland. The convents
were at that time the centres of learning; the monks taught the people
improved methods of cultivating the soil, and built inns and hospitals.
During the whole of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries Poland was in
a most unfortunate condition. Boleslaw III, Krzywousty (1112-39), at his
death divided the country into principalities, which were bequeathed to
his sons as hereditary possessions. The eldest son was to receive the territory
of Cracow, with his capital at Cracow, and to be the overlord of the whole
country. In course of time the other sons again divided their lands among
their children, and thus Poland was split up into smaller and smaller principalities
-- a process which proved fatal. The overlords were unable to effect permanent
reforms; Wladislaw II (1139-46), Boleslaw the Curly-haired (1146-73), Mieczyslaw
the Old (1173-77), Casimir II the Just (1177-94), Mieczyslaw the Old (supreme
for the second time, 1194-1202), Wladislaw III (1202-06). The only spiritual
bond that held the dismembered parts of Poland together was the Church.
With this in mind Leszek the Wise (1206-27) increased popular respect for
the clergy by giving them the right to elect their bishops, and territorial
jurisdiction over church lands. His brother, Prince Conrad of Masovia,
about this time summoned the knights of the Teutonic Order. The heathen
tribes on the borders of Poland -- Jazygians, Lithuanians, and Prussians
-- were constantly making predatory incursions into the country. The Prussians,
who had settled east of the Vistula, were active in these raids.
The condition of Poland, meanwhile, was disastrously affected by another
cause: it was subdivided into about thirty small states, and the supreme
princes, Henry I the Bearded (1232-38), Henry II the Pious (1238-41), Boleslaw
(1243-79), Leszek the Black (1279-88), Henry Probus (1288-90), Przemyslaw
II (1290-95), and Waclaw II (1290-1305), could find no remedy for the evil.
Moreover, in the years 1241 and 1259 the Tatars invaded the country, completely
devastated it, and carried off vast multitudes into captivity. The territories
thus depopulated were then occupied by well organized colonies from Germany.
The Polish state reached its zenith under the Jagiellonian dynasty in
the years following the union with Lithuania in 1386 and the subsequent
defeat of the Teutonic Knights at Grunwald in 1410. The monarchy survived
many upheavals but eventually went into a decline, which ended with the
final partition of Poland by Prussia, Russia, and Austria in 1795.
Independence for Poland was one of the 14 points enunciated by President
Woodrow Wilson during World War I. Many Polish Americans enlisted in the
military services to further this aim, and the United States worked at
the postwar conference to ensure its implementation.
However, the Poles were largely responsible for achieving their own
independence in 1918. Authoritarian rule predominated for most of the period
before World War II. On August 23, 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union signed
the Ribbentrop-Molotov nonaggression pact, which secretly provided for
the dismemberment of Poland into Nazi and Soviet-controlled zones. On September
1, 1939, Hitler ordered his troops into Poland. On September 17, Soviet
troops invaded and then occupied eastern Poland under the terms of this
agreement. After Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, Poland
was completely occupied by German troops.
The Poles formed an underground resistance movement and a government
in exile, first in Paris and later in London, which was recognized by the
Soviet Union. During World War II, 400,000 Poles fought under Soviet command,
and 200,000 went into combat on Western fronts in units loyal to the Polish
government in exile.
In April 1943, the Soviet Union broke relations with the Polish government
in exile after the German military announced that they had discovered mass
graves of murdered Polish army officers at Katyn, in the U.S.S.R. (The
Soviets claimed that the Poles had insulted them by requesting that the
Red Cross investigate these reports.) In July 1944, the Soviet Red Army
entered Poland and established a communist-controlled "Polish Committee
of National Liberation" at Lublin.
Resistance against the Nazis in Warsaw, including uprisings by Jews
in the Warsaw ghetto and by the Polish underground, was brutally suppressed.
As the Germans retreated in January 1945, they leveled the city.
During the war, about 6 million Poles were killed, and 2.5 million were
deported to Germany for forced labor. More than 3 million Jews (all but
about 100,000 of the Jewish population) were killed in death camps like
those at Oswiecim (Auschwitz), Treblinka, and Majdanek.
Following the Yalta Conference in February 1945, a Polish Provisional
Government of National Unity was formed in June 1945; the U.S. recognized
it the next month. Although the Yalta agreement called for free elections,
those held in January 1947 were controlled by the Communist Party. The
communists then established a regime entirely under their domination.
Communist Party Domination
In October 1956, after the 20th ("de-Stalinization") Soviet Party Congress
in Moscow and riots by workers in Poznan, there was a shakeup in the communist
regime. While retaining most traditional communist economic and social
aims, the regime of First Secretary Wladyslaw Gomulka liberalized Polish
In 1968, the trend reversed when student demonstrations were suppressed
and an "anti-Zionist" campaign initially directed against Gomulka supporters
within the party eventually led to the emigration of much of Poland's remaining
Jewish population. In December 1970, disturbances and strikes in the port
cities of Gdansk, Gdynia, and Szczecin, triggered by a price increase for
essential consumer goods, reflected deep dissatisfaction with living and
working conditions in the country. Edward Gierek replaced Gomulka as First
Fueled by large infusions of Western credit, Poland's economic growth
rate was one of the world's highest during the first half of the 1970s.
But much of the borrowed capital was misspent, and the centrally planned
economy was unable to use the new resources effectively. The growing debt
burden became insupportable in the late 1970s, and economic growth had
become negative by 1979.
In October 1978, the Bishop of Krakow, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, became
Pope John Paul II, head of the Roman Catholic Church. Polish Catholics
rejoiced at the elevation of a Pole to the papacy and greeted his June
1979 visit to Poland with an outpouring of emotion.
In July 1980, with the Polish foreign debt at more than $20 billion,
the government made another attempt to increase meat prices. A chain reaction
of strikes virtually paralyzed the Baltic coast by the end of August and,
for the first time, closed most coal mines in Silesia. Poland was entering
into an extended crisis that would change the course of its future development.
The Solidarity Movement
On August 31, 1980, workers at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk, led by
an electrician named Lech Walesa, signed a 21-point agreement with the
government that ended their strike. Similar agreements were signed at Szczecin
and in Silesia. The key provision of these agreements was the guarantee
of the workers' right to form independent trade unions and the right to
strike. After the Gdansk agreement was signed, a new national union movement--"Solidarity"--swept
The discontent underlying the strikes was intensified by revelations
of widespread corruption and mismanagement within the Polish state and
party leadership. In September 1980, Gierek was replaced by Stanislaw Kania
as First Secretary.
Alarmed by the rapid deterioration of the PZPR's authority following
the Gdansk agreement, the Soviet Union proceeded with a massive military
buildup along Poland's border in December 1980. In February 1981, Defense
Minister Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski assumed the position of Prime Minister
as well, and in October 1981, he also was named party First Secretary.
At the first Solidarity national congress in September-October 1981, Lech
Walesa was elected national chairman of the union.
On December 12-13, the regime declared martial law, under which the
army and special riot police were used to crush the union. Virtually all
Solidarity leaders and many affiliated intellectuals were arrested or detained.
The United States and other Western countries responded to martial law
by imposing economic sanctions against the Polish regime and against the
Soviet Union. Unrest in Poland continued for several years thereafter.
In a series of slow, uneven steps, the Polish regime rescinded martial
law. In December 1982, martial law was suspended, and a small number of
political prisoners were released. Although martial law formally ended
in July 1983 and a general amnesty was enacted, several hundred political
prisoners remained in jail.
In July 1984, another general amnesty was declared, and 2 years later,
the government had released nearly all political prisoners. The authorities
continued, however, to harass dissidents and Solidarity activists. Solidarity
remained proscribed and its publications banned. Independent publications
Roundtable Talks and Elections
The government's inability to forestall Poland's economic decline led
to waves of strikes across the country in April, May, and August 1988.
In an attempt to take control of the situation, the government gave de
facto recognition to Solidarity, and Interior Minister Kiszczak began talks
with Lech Walesa on August 31. These talks broke off in October, but a
new series, the "roundtable" talks, began in February 1989. These talks
produced an agreement in April for partly open National Assembly elections.
The June election produced a Sejm (lower house), in which one-third of
the seats went to communists and one-third went to the two parties which
had hitherto been their coalition partners. The remaining one-third of
the seats in the Sejm and all those in the Senate were freely contested;
virtually all of these were won by candidates supported by Solidarity.
The failure of the communists at the polls produced a political crisis.
The roundtable agreement called for a communist president, and on July
19, the National Assembly, with the support of some Solidarity deputies,
elected General Jaruzelski to that office. Two attempts by the communists
to form governments failed, however.
On August 19, President Jaruzelski asked journalist/Solidarity activist
Tadeusz Mazowiecki to form a government; on September 12, the Sejm voted
approval of Prime Minister Mazowiecki and his cabinet. For the first time
in more than 40 years, Poland had a government led by noncommunists.
In December 1989, the Sejm approved the government's reform program
to transform the Polish economy rapidly from centrally planned to free-market,
amended the constitution to eliminate references to the "leading role"
of the Communist Party, and renamed the country the "Republic of Poland."
The Polish United Workers' (Communist) Party dissolved itself in January
1990, creating in its place a new party, Social Democracy of the Republic
of Poland. Most of the property of the former Communist Party was turned
over to the state.
The May 1990 local elections were entirely free. Candidates supported
by Solidarity's Citizens' Committees won most of the races they contested,
although voter turnout was only a little over 40%. The cabinet was reshuffled
in July 1990; the national defense and interior affairs ministers--hold-overs
from the previous communist government--were among those replaced.
In October 1990, the constitution was amended to curtail the term of
President Jaruzelski. In December, Lech Walesa became the first popularly
elected President of Poland.
Poland in the 1990s
Poland in the early 1990s made great progress toward achieving a fully
democratic government and a market economy. In November 1990, Lech Walesa
was elected President for a 5-year term. Jan Krzysztof Bielecki, at Walesa's
request, formed a government and served as its Prime Minister until October
1991, introducing world prices and greatly expanding the scope of private
Poland's first free parliamentary elections were held in 1991. More
than 100 parties participated, representing a full spectrum of political
views. No single party received more than 13% of the total vote. After
a rough start, 1993 saw the second group of elections, and the first parliament
to actually serve a full term. The Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) received
the largest percentage of votes.
After the election, the SLD and PSL formed a governing coalition. Waldemar
Pawlak, leader of the junior partner PSL, became Prime Minister. Relations
between President Walesa and the Prime Minister remained poor throughout
the Pawlak government, with President Walesa charging Pawlak with furthering
personal and party interests while neglecting matters of state importance.
Following a number of scandals implicating Pawlak and increasing political
tension over control of the armed forces, President Walesa demanded Pawlak's
resignation in January 1995. In the ensuing political crisis, the coalition
removed Pawlak from office and replaced him with the SLD's Jozef Oleksy
as the new Prime Minister.
In November 1995, Poland held its second post-war free presidential
elections. SLD leader Aleksander Kwasniewski defeated Walesa by a narrow
margin--51.7% to 48.3%. Soon after Walesa's defeat, Interior Minister Andrzej
Milczanowski accused then-Prime Minister Oleksy of longtime collaboration
with Soviet and later Russian intelligence. In the ensuing political crisis,
Oleksy resigned. For his successor, the SLD-PSL coalition turned to Deputy
Sejm speaker Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz--who was linked to, but not a member
of, the SLD. Polish prosecutors subsequently decided that there was insufficient
evidence to charge Oleksy, and a parliamentary commission decided in November
1996 that the Polish intelligence services may have violated rules of procedure
in gathering evidence in the Oleksy case.
In 1997 parliamentary elections two parties with roots in the Solidarity
movement--Solidarity Electoral Action (AWS) and the Freedom Union (UW)--won
261 of the 460 seats in the Sejm and formed a coalition government. Jerzy
Buzek of the AWS was the Prime Minister. The AWS and the Democratic Left
Alliance (SLD) held the majority of the seats in the Sejm. Marian Krzaklewski
was the leader of the AWS, and Leszek Miller led the SLD. In June 2000,
UW withdrew from the governing collation, leaving AWS at the helm of a
minority government. Poland's September 2001 parliamentary elections saw
the center-left Democratic Left Alliance (SLD--successor to the communist
party twice removed), triumph and form a coalition with the Polish Peasant
Party (PSL) and leftist Union of Labor (UP), with Leszek Miller (SLD) as
* Portions of this text are from the print 1907 Catholic Encyclopedia.