This year, Poland is celebrating 100 years since it declared independence after World War I. The past century has featured both successes and hard times, in every aspect of life
By Kamila Wajszczuk
Here’s a picture many Poles have of November 10, 1918. Józef Piłsudski – a socialist politician and founder of the Polish Legions military corps – arrives in Warsaw. A day later, Poland declares independence. November 11 is be celebrated as Independence Day from then on.
Piłsudski took power and led efforts to form an independent Polish state after World War I and after more than a century of foreign rule. Within a couple of months, the country had a parliament and a provisional constitution, but it would not have fixed borders for another four years. Ukrainians were not willing to give up Lviv, Silesia was land that Germany had claims to, Vilnius was to be taken by a “rogue” Polish general and the east was under threat from the Bolsheviks. The border in Silesia was settled after the Upper Silesia plebiscite and three uprisings. The eastern border was confirmed by way of the Riga peace treaty in 1921. Only in 1923 did the international community officially accept Poland’s new geographical shape.
INDEPENDENCE AND HOPE
This was, however, not the only challenge the Polish authorities had to face. Political tension was high. The country’s first president, Gabriel Narutowicz, elected in accordance with the so-called March Constitution, was assassinated by a nationalist party supporter only a few days after the swearing-in ceremony. Less than four years later, Piłsudski and his supporters carried out the so-called May Coup, seizing power from a democratically elected government. Piłsudski did not assume any official post but remained influential until his death in 1935, the same year that a new constitution was pushed through. Governments changed but Poland’s two presidents from this period – Stanisław Wojciechowski, a cooperative movement activist, and Ignacy Mościcki, a chemical engineer – are well remembered.
Adding to Poland’s political problems was its ethnic composition. About one third of the country’s population were non-Poles. The mainstream narrative was patriotic Polish, fueling existing conflict. Nevertheless, in many towns and cities, various nationalities led a peaceful coexistence. Several regional politicians stood out with more modern ideas of dealing with ethnic minorities, but on a national level the situation was increasingly tense.
“The country’s first president, Gabriel Narutowicz, was assassinated by a nationalist party supporter only a few days after the swearing-in ceremony.”
The economy was initially in a difficult situation too, especially in the first decade of independence. It took years before a currency reform put an end to hyperinflation. The reform’s designer, Władysław Grabski, is a major figure of his time, as is Eugeniusz Kwiatkowski, the initiator of the Gdynia port facility. The small village of Gdynia was to become Poland’s “window to the world” and an economic icon. Other notable investments included the steelworks in Stalowa Wola – at the core of what was to be named the Central Industrial Region – and the chemical plant in Tarnów.
Housing problems were another issue, especially in the largest cities. The need to solve this problem was one of the factors behind the development of the cooperative movement, a new form of ownership, targeted at the less wealthy. The movement also flourished in other areas, such as farming and food processing.
We all know what happened next. September 1939 brought an end to the era of a young, independent Poland. Nazi Germany invaded from the west and the Soviet Union followed shortly from the east. Times of occupation were difficult for almost all Polish citizens and life-threatening for those of Jewish origin. The city of Warsaw was ruined, and the area of the ghetto was razed to the ground after the famous uprising.
Liberation from Hitler’s army came from the Soviets, who had become allies with the West. A pro-Soviet government was formed in July 1944, marking the dawn of a new era, in a new geographical shape. Following talks in Teheran and Yalta, Poland was “shifted” to the west. Its former eastern borderlands were transferred to the Soviet republics of Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine. At the same time, land that had been in the east of Germany – with cities such as Stettin (now Szczecin) and Breslau (now Wrocław) became Polish.
A NEW SYSTEM
The new communist government was backed from the outside but had to cope with resistance from its own citizens. The Stalinist period, terror included, started in the late 1940s and was only fully over in late 1956 when Władysław Gomułka took over as first secretary of the communist party.
In economic terms, the new regime would change almost everything. Private ownership of almost anything but personal belongings was banned, factories were nationalized. Land was also taken from owners of large estates but, unlike in the USSR, collective farms were to become only a small part of total agricultural land.
Whoever was in the way risked their freedom or life. Farmers had to give up set quotas of their produce. Small businesses were marginalized. Working in a state-owned enterprise was not fully safe either. The regime needed to blame someone for its lack of efficiency. In a now notorious trial of 1965, people were sentenced to death for fraud in the meat processing sector.
Regardless of that, the communist party liked to proclaim success in many economic areas. Rebuilding much of the country, especially its capital, after the war was indeed an effort. New industrial plants and new cities were to come next. The most talked-about example was Nowa Huta, a town built to house steelworks employees, which later became part of Kraków.
Then, in another blame game, the nationalist wing of the party surfaced in 1968 and forced a large number of Poles with Jewish origins to leave the country. The so-called March events were some of the final notes of Gomułka’s reign. Yet he was to be overthrown only in late 1970. After price hikes, workers protested in the north of Poland. Reacting to the demonstrations, the regime had the military shoot into a defenseless crowd.
Poland’s communist authorities claimed they represented the “worker-peasant masses,” yet those same proletarians were among the least satisfied. State propaganda could easily decry protest letters from intellectuals, but what was it supposed to do with strikes and protests by workers in Poznań in 1956, Gdańsk and Gdynia in 1970, Radom and Ursus in 1976, and finally across the country in 1980. The latter strikes were the spark that started the Solidarity movement, the beginning of
the end for communism in Poland.
The 1970s are remembered by some Poles as a decade of economic comfort. Unfortunately, all investment was financed from debt that the country was unable to handle and, in 1981, Poland was declared partly insolvent. The 1980s – colorful in the West – were predominantly dull and gray in Poland, especially after martial law was declared. Store shelves were often empty and ration stamps were gradually introduced for most consumer goods.
ANOTHER FORM OF INDEPENDENCE
The only hope for a dysfunctional economic system was a regime change and that is what came as a result of the Round Table talks of 1989. The communist party gradually gave up power but made sure its members would not be jailed.
Following advice from Western economists, liberal-oriented finance minister Leszek Balcerowicz pushed through a set of radical reforms now known as the Balcerowicz Plan. These changes set Poland on a path towards market economy, but they also caused a wave of bankruptcies and increasing unemployment. It took years before the economic system became stable enough to withstand crises. What may be surprising is that it now is hailed as being based on small and medium-sized companies, a huge change compared with what it was in the breakthrough year.
Poland’s political system was initially equally unstable, with parliamentary elections every couple of years. Political fighting led to divisions within the post-Solidarity political grouping and it was only a few years after the Round Table of 1989 that the post-communist party rose to power again and formed a government. In 1997, the country received its current constitution.
The 2000s were years of rapid growth, increasing prosperity and deepening ties with the West, marked by Poland’s accession to the European Union in 2004. The young market economy, with less than two decades under its belt, was in fact robust enough to withstand the tides of the 2008 global financial crash. It was the only European country to maintain positive growth throughout the downturn.
The current decade has seen continued economic development, but it has not been without certain political turbulences. In 2010, the Smolensk air crash killed President Lech Kaczyński and more than 90 other people. It also changed political discourse for years to come.
Today, Poland is struggling with political and social challenges, but in many ways it is more modern than anyone could have imagined in 1918 or even in 1989. It boasts a modern banking industry, many innovative start-ups and a computer gaming sector that sells its products worldwide. All this thanks to its most important asset – the people who never give up.