A History of Poland
Poland’s early history follows closely the westerly movements of a set of early Slavic peoples known as the Polanie tribe. These predecessors of modern-day Poles emerged as the most powerful group of Slavs in the region in the latter part of the tenth century. Their King, Miezko I, became a convert to Catholicism after his marriage to a Czech princess. Catholicism took hold very early on in Polish history.
Miezko was succeeded by Boleslav the Bold. King Boleslav’s ambitious leadership formed the foundation of a dynasty that governed over a territory very similar to that of present-day Poland.
From the reign of Boleslav at the turn of the first millennium until the years preceding World War II, Poland experienced nearly ten centuries of unrest. Wars were fought, invaders raped and pillaged, governments came and left. Only from the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries, when Poland united with Lithuania under the Jagiellonian dynasty, did the country find stability and wield political power in Europe. This union made it one of the most powerful forces in the region at the time.
Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the map of Poland changed drastically several times. In fact, from 1795 until the end of World War I, Poland did not exist on the map of Europe.
Poland declared its independence as a modern republic in November of 1918, on Armistice Day. Independence did not, however, have a settling effect over the country. War with Russia ensued in 1920, ending in a victory for Poland which resulted in annexation of some of the territory from what is now the Ukraine and Belorussia. Expansion did not make for peace and quiet either, though. Political instability and unrest led up to military rule, which lasted until the beginning of World War II.
The Second World War ravaged Poland’s territory and decimated its population. The Nazis invaded from the west in 1939 at the beginning of the war. Over the course of six years of war, more than 20 percent of the entire population – six million people – perished. Of the six million, half were Jewish, murdered at the hands of the Nazis during the Holocaust. Poland suffered in other ways, too, losing much of its territory and material wealth. Over a third of all its industrial and agricultural resources were lost.
The destruction of Warsaw during the war serves as an analog to the rest of Poland’s wartime experience. After the Jewish ghetto uprising of 1944, Hitler and the Nazis retaliated by deporting all 750,000 residents of the city to various destinations in the countryside. Jews were sent to the concentration camps, while the entire city was systematically leveled with dynamite. Warsaw was reduced to rubble in a matter of a few weeks, with virtually no buildings left standing – Poland’s proud capital was nearly wiped from the map on orders from Adolf Hitler.
The period that followed the Second World War brought continued unrest for Poland. Given the widespread destruction and lack of any solid political infrastructure, rebuilding the country was not an easy task for the Poles. After being liberated by the Soviets at the end of the war, Poland fell into the Soviet sphere of influence.
Though the Soviets wielded power over the Poles, their centralized form of government did not take hold in Poland in the same way it did in the other countries of the Soviet bloc. Acts of rebellion were organized against the communist authorities over the course of the four decades of Soviet domination in Central Europe. The Poles simply did not comply with many Soviet demands. Agricultural production was never successfully collectivized, and an independent intellectual life thrived under the auspices of the Catholic Church leadership. The Poles continued to demonstrate their independent ambitions through the late seventies and early eighties when the Solidarity labor union was formed. The strikes initiated by Lech Walesa and his Solidarity union in the Gdansk shipyards did much for the revolutionary causes in Central and Eastern Europe by attracting the attention of the rest of the world. In fact, the Solidarity movement was so successful at creating civil unrest that marshal law was declared in 1981 by General Jaruzelski. The Solidarity union leaders were jailed and their activities declared illegal.
Though the Solidarity movement did much to bring Poland to the brink of revolution and eventual political reform, the communist party leadership made significant contribution to their own downfall. By accumulating massive foreign debt over the years, the communists had sowed the seeds of eventual economic collapse. The cost of operating an enormous, inefficient centralized bureaucracy combined with the energy required to stifle the reform-oriented demands of an irrepressible population, forced the communists to bargain with the leaders of Solidarity, which resulted in General Jaruzelski’s resignation and eventual national presidential elections.
In 1990, the new government in Poland instituted an economic program that was designed to “shock” the system into a speedy conversion to a free market economy. Though evidence suggests that this method of economic reform is the most effective means of economic conversion, it is by no means painless. After the new system was instituted, the standard of living fell and the country settled into a dreary economic funk. Unemployment rose above ten percent and inflation rates skyrocketed.
All is not lost, though. From the rubble of the old system, a burgeoning private sector is emerging. On the positive side, Poland has the advantage of having a relatively young, well-educated population, especially when compared to the other countries of Central and Eastern Europe. This bodes well for the future because many of these young people were not raised on the communist system, making it much easier for them to assimilate a new work ethic and lifestyle more adaptable to the demands of a free-market economy.