Poland’s history is an immense tale. Forever sandwiched between two powerful and aggressive neighbours, it has over the past millennium defended its freedom and sovereignty on innumerable occasions, only to be overrun and subjugated to occupation by foreign powers time and time again. It has gone from being the largest country in Europe to completely disappearing off the world map, and seen its population devastated in two world wars. Yet it is testament to the astounding resilience of the Polish people that Poland has not only bounced back from every crushing blow but also had the energy to hold strong to its own culture.
- Before the poles
- Slavic origins
- The first polish kingdom
- Kazimierz iii & reunification
- The jagiellonian dynasty (1382–1572)
- Eastward advance checked
- Poland’s golden age
- Royal republic (1573–1795)
- Alliances & expansion
- Eastern interlopers & the deluge
- The rise of russia
- The three partitions
- Polish resistance & resilience
- Wwi (1914–18)
- Rise & fall of the second republic
- Wwii (1939–45)
- Soviet invasion
- Government-in-exile & homegrown resistance
- The tide turns
- Postwar: soviet control
- Bread & freedom
- Martial law & its aftermath
- Collapse of communism
- Free market
- Lech wałęsa’s presidency
- Communist comeback
- Postcommunists in power
- Balance returned
- Towards europe
- Poland today
The lands of modern-day Poland have been inhabited since the Stone Age, with numerous tribes from the east and west calling its fertile plains home. Archaeological finds from both the Stone and Bronze Ages can be seen in many Polish museums, but the greatest example of pre-Slavic peoples resides in Biskupin; its fortified town from the Iron Age was built by the Lusatian tribe around 2700 years ago. The Celts, followed by the Germanic tribes and then the Baltic folk, all established themselves on Polish soil, but it wasn’t until the coming of the Slavs that Poland began to shape itself into a nation.
Although the exact date of the arrival of the first Slavic tribes is unknown, historians agree that the Slavs began settling the area between the 5th and 8th centuries. From the 8th century onwards, smaller tribes banded together to form greater conglomerations, thus establishing themselves more fully on the lands of the future Polish state. The country’s name derives from one of these tribes, the Polanie (literally, ‘the people of the fields, open-country dwellers’), who settled on the banks of the Warta River near present-day Poznań. Their tribal chief, the legendary Piast, managed to unite the scattered groups of the surrounding areas into a single political unit in the 10th century, and gave it the name Polska (later Wielkopolska, meaning Great Poland). It wasn’t until the coming of Piast’s great-great grandson, Duke Mieszko I, that much of Poland was united under one dynasty.
After Duke Mieszko I converted to Christianity, he did what most early Christian rulers did and began conquering the neighbours. Soon the entire coastal region of Pomerania (Pomorze) fell under his sovereignty, along with Śląsk (Silesia) to the south and Małopolska (Little Poland) to the southeast. By the time of his death in 992, the Polish state was established within boundaries similar to those of Poland today, and the first capital and archbishopric were established in Gniezno. By that time, towns such as Gdańsk, Szczecin, Poznań, Wrocław and Kraków already existed. Mieszko’s son, Boleslaw the Brave, continued his father’s work, even pushing the Polish border as far east as Kyiv. His son, Mieszko II, was less successful in the conquering department, and during his reign the country experienced wars in the north and a period of internal fighting within the royal family. The administrative centre of the country was moved from Wielkopolska to the less vulnerable Małopolska, and by the middle of the 11th century, Kraków was established as the royal seat.
When pagan Prussians, from the region that is now the northeastern tip of Poland, attacked the central province of Mazovia in 1226, Duke Konrad of Mazovia called for help from the Teutonic Knights, a Germanic military and religious order that had made its historic mark during the Crusades. The knights soon subjugated the pagan tribes but then bit the hand that fed them, building massive castles in Polish territory, conquering the port city of Gdańsk (and renaming it Danzig), and effectively claiming all of northern Poland as their own. They ruled from their greatest castle of all, at Malbork, and within a matter of decades became a major European military power.
Not until 1320 was the Polish crown restored and the state reunified. It was under the rule of Kazimierz III Wielki (Casimir III the Great; 1333–70) that Poland gradually became a prosperous and powerful state, despite concessions being made to Bohemia in the southwest and the Teutonic Knights in the north. Kazimierz Wielki regained suzerainty over Mazovia, then captured vast areas of Ruthenia (today’s Ukraine) and Podolia, thus greatly expanding his monarchy towards the southeast.
Kazimierz Wielki was also an enlightened and energetic ruler on the domestic front. Promoting and instituting reforms, he laid down solid legal, economic, commercial and educational foundations. He also passed a law providing privileges for Jews, thus establishing Poland as a safe house for the Jewish community for centuries to come. Over 70 new towns were founded, and the royal capital of Kraków flourished. In 1364 one of Europe’s first universities was established at Kraków, and an extensive network of castles and fortifications was constructed to improve the nation’s defences. There is a saying that Kazimierz Wielki ‘found Poland built of wood and left it built of stone’.
The close of the 14th century saw Poland forge a dynastic alliance with Lithuania, a political marriage that increased Poland’s territory five-fold overnight and that would last for the next four centuries. The union benefited both parties – Poland gained a partner in skirmishes against the Tatars and Mongols, and Lithuania received help in the fight against the Teutonic Knights. Under Władysław II Jagiełło (1386–1434), the alliance defeated the Knights and recovered eastern Pomerania, part of Prussia and the port of Gdańsk, and for 30 years the Polish empire was Europe’s largest state, extending from the Baltic to the Black Sea.
But it was not to last. Threat of invasion became apparent towards the end of the 15th century – this time the main instigators were the Ottomans from the south, the Tatars of Crimea from the east, and the tsars of Moscow from the north and east. Independently or together, they repeatedly invaded and raided the eastern and southern Polish territories, and on one occasion managed to penetrate as far as Kraków.
Despite this, the Polish kingdom’s power was firmly established and the country advanced both culturally and spiritually. The early 16th century brought the Renaissance to Poland and during the reigns of Zygmunt I Stary (Sigismund I the Old; 1506–48) and his son Zygmunt II August (Sigismund II Augustus; 1548–72), the arts and sciences flourished. This was Poland’s golden age, which spawned the likes of Nicolaus Copernicus.
The bulk of Poland’s population at this time was made up of Poles and Lithuanians but included significant minorities from neighbouring countries. Jews constituted an important and steadily growing part of the community and by the end of the 16th century Poland had a larger Jewish population than the rest of Europe combined.
On the political front, Poland evolved during the 16th century into a parliamentary monarchy with most of the privileges going to the szlachta (gentry, the feudal nobility), who comprised roughly 10% of the population. In contrast, the status of the peasants declined, and they gradually found themselves falling into a state of virtual slavery.
Hoping to strengthen the monarchy, the Sejm convened in Lublin in 1569, unified Poland and Lithuania into a single state, and made Warsaw the seat of future debates. Since there was no heir apparent to the throne, it also established a system of royal succession based on direct voting in popular elections by the nobility, who would all come to Warsaw to vote. In the absence of a serious Polish contender, a foreign candidate would be considered.
From the very beginning, the experiment proved disastrous. For each royal election, foreign powers promoted their candidates by bargaining and bribing voters. During this period, no fewer than 11 kings ruled Poland; only four were native Poles.
The first elected king, Henri de Valois, retreated to his homeland to take up the French crown after only a year on the Polish throne. His successor, Stefan Batory (Stephen Bathory; 1576–86), prince of Transylvania, was a much wiser choice. Batory, together with his gifted commander and chancellor Jan Zamoyski, conducted a series of successful battles against Tsar Ivan the Terrible and came close to forming an alliance with Russia against the Ottoman threat.
After Batory’s premature death, the crown was offered to the Swede Zygmunt III Waza (Sigismund III Vasa; 1587–1632), and during his reign Poland achieved its greatest extent ever, more than three times the size of present-day Poland. Despite this, Zygmunt is best remembered for moving the Polish capital from Kraków to Warsaw between 1596 and 1609.
The beginning of the 17th century marked a turning point in Poland’s fortunes. The increasing political power of the Polish nobility undermined the authority of the Sejm; the country was split up into several huge private estates, and nobles, frustrated by ineffective government, resorted to armed rebellion.
Meanwhile, foreign invaders were systematically carving up the land. Jan II Kazimierz Waza (John II Casimir Vasa; 1648–68), the last of the Vasa dynasty on the Polish throne, was unable to resist the aggressors – Russians, Tatars, Ukrainians, Cossacks, Ottomans and Swedes – who were moving in on all fronts. The Swedish invasion of 1655–60, known as the Deluge, was particularly disastrous.
The last bright moment in the long decline of the Royal Republic was the reign of Jan III Sobieski (John III Sobieski; 1674–96), a brilliant commander who led several victorious battles against the Ottomans. The most famous of these was the Battle of Vienna in 1683, in which he defeated the Turks and checked their advancement into Western Europe.
By the start of the 18th century, Poland was in severe decline and Russia had evolved into a mighty, expansive empire. The tsars systematically strengthened their grip over the flailing country, and Poland’s rulers effectively became puppets of the Russian regime. This became crystal clear during the reign of Stanisław August Poniatowski (1764–95), when Catherine the Great, empress of Russia, exercised direct intervention in Poland’s affairs. The collapse of the Polish empire was just around the corner.
As Poland languished, Russia, Prussia and Austria gained in strength. The end of the 18th century was a disastrous period for the country, with the neighbouring powers agreeing to partition Poland on no fewer than three separate occasions in a span of 23 years. The First Partition led to immediate reforms and a new, liberal constitution, and Poland remained relatively stable. Catherine the Great could tolerate no more of this dangerous democracy though, and sent Russian troops into Poland. Despite fierce resistance the reforms were abolished by force and the country was partitioned a second time.
Enter Tadeusz Kościuszko, a hero of the American War of Independence. With the help of patriotic forces, he launched an armed rebellion in 1794. The campaign soon gained popular support and the rebels won some early victories, but Russian troops, stronger and better armed, defeated the Polish forces within a year. Resistance and unrest remained within Polish borders, which led the three occupying powers to the third and final partition. Poland disappeared from the map for the next 123 years.
Despite the partitions, Poland continued to exist as a spiritual and cultural community, and a number of secret nationalist societies were created. Since revolutionary France was seen as their major ally in the struggle, some leaders fled to Paris and established their headquarters there.
In 1815 the Congress of Vienna established the Congress Kingdom of Poland, but Russian oppression continued. In response, armed uprisings broke out, the most significant of which occurred in 1830 and 1863. An attempted insurrection against the Austrians also occurred in 1846.
In the 1870s Russia dramatically stepped up its efforts to eradicate Polish culture, suppressing the Polish language in education, administration and commerce, and replacing it with Russian. However, it was also a time of great industrialisation in Poland, with cities like Łódź experiencing a booming economy. With the outbreak of WWI in August 1914, the fortunes of Poland changed once again.
WWI resulted in Poland’s three occupying powers going to war. On one side were the Central Powers, Austria-Hungary and Germany (including Prussia); on the other, Russia and its Western allies. Most of the fighting was staged in Polish lands, resulting in staggering losses of life and livelihood. Since no formal Polish state existed, there was no Polish army to fight for the national cause. Even worse, some two million Poles were conscripted into the Russian, German or Austrian armies, and were obliged to fight one another.
Paradoxically, the war eventually brought about Polish independence. After the October Revolution in 1917, Russia plunged into civil war and no longer had the power to oversee Polish affairs. The final collapse of the Austrian empire in October 1918 and the withdrawal of the German army from Warsaw in November brought the opportune moment. Marshal Józef Piłsudski took command of Warsaw on 11 November 1918, declared Polish sovereignty, and usurped power as the head of state.
Poland began its new incarnation in a desperate position – the country and its economy lay in ruins, and an estimated one million Poles had lost their lives in WWI. All state institutions – including the army, which hadn’t existed for over a century – had to be built up from scratch.
The Treaty of Versailles in 1919 awarded Poland the western part of Prussia, providing access to the Baltic Sea. The city of Gdańsk, however, was omitted and became the Free City of Danzig. The rest of Poland’s western border was drawn up in a series of plebiscites, which resulted in Poland acquiring some significant industrial regions of Upper Silesia. The eastern boundaries were established when Polish forces defeated the Red Army during the Polish-Soviet war of 1919–20.
When Poland’s territorial struggle ended, the Second Republic covered nearly 400, 000 sq km and had a population of 26 million. One-third was of non-Polish ethnic background, mainly Jews, Ukrainians, Belarusians and Germans.
After Piłsudski retired from political life in 1922, the country experienced four years of unstable governments until the great military commander seized power once again in a military coup in May 1926. Parliament was gradually phased out but, despite the dictatorial regime, political repression had little effect on ordinary people. The economic situation was relatively stable, and cultural and intellectual life prospered.
On the international front, Poland’s situation in the 1930s was unenviable. In an attempt to regulate relations with its two inexorably hostile neighbours, Poland signed nonaggression pacts with both the Soviet Union and Germany. Nevertheless, it soon became clear that the pacts didn’t offer any real guarantee of safety.
On 23 August 1939 a pact of nonaggression between Germany and the Soviet Union was signed in Moscow by their foreign ministers, Ribbentrop and Molotov. This pact contained a secret protocol defining the prospective partition of Eastern Europe between the two great powers. Stalin and Hitler planned to carve up the Polish state between themselves.
WWII began at dawn on 1 September 1939 with a massive German invasion of Poland. Fighting began in Gdańsk (at that time the Free City of Danzig) when German forces encountered a stubborn handful of Polish resisters at Westerplatte. The battle lasted a week. Simultaneously, another German line stormed Warsaw, which finally surrendered on 28 September. Despite valiant resistance there was simply no hope of withstanding the numerically overwhelming and well-armed German forces; the last resistance groups were quelled by early October. Hitler’s policy was to eradicate the Polish nation and Germanise the territory. Hundreds of thousands of Poles were deported en masse to forced-labour camps in Germany, while others, primarily the intelligentsia, were executed in an attempt to exterminate spiritual and intellectual leadership.
The Jews were to be eliminated completely. At first they were segregated and confined in ghettos, then shipped off to extermination camps scattered around the country. Almost the whole of Poland’s Jewish population (three million) and roughly one million Poles died in the camps. Resistance erupted in numerous ghettos and camps, most famously in Warsaw.
Within a matter of weeks of the Nazi invasion, the Soviet Union moved into Poland and claimed the country’s eastern half. Thus, Poland was yet again partitioned. Mass arrests, exile and executions followed, and it’s estimated that between one and two million Poles were sent to Siberia, the Soviet Arctic and Kazakhstan in 1939–40. Like the Nazis, the Soviets set in motion a process of intellectual genocide; see below for more information.
Soon after the outbreak of war, a Polish government-in-exile was formed in France under General Władysław Sikorski, followed by Stanisław Mikołajczyk. It was shifted to London in June 1940 as the front line moved west.
The course of the war changed dramatically when Hitler unexpectedly attacked the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941. The Soviets were pushed out of eastern Poland by the onslaught and all of Poland lay under Nazi control. The Führer set up camp deep in Polish territory, and remained there for over three years.
A nationwide resistance movement, concentrated in the cities, had been put in place soon after war broke, to operate the Polish educational, judicial and communications systems. Armed squads were set up by the government-in-exile in 1940, and these evolved into the Armia Krajowa (AK; Home Army), which figured prominently in the Warsaw Rising.
Amazingly, considering the Soviet treatment of Poles, Stalin turned to Poland for help in the war effort against the German forces advancing eastwards towards Moscow. The official Polish army was re-formed late in 1941, but was largely under Soviet control.
Hitler’s defeat at Stalingrad in 1943 marked the turning point of the war on the eastern front, and from then on the Red Army successfully pushed westwards. After the Soviets liberated the Polish city of Lublin, the pro-Communist Polish Committee of National Liberation (PKWN) was installed on 22 July 1944 and assumed the functions of a provisional government. A week later the Red Army reached the outskirts of Warsaw.
Warsaw at that time remained under Nazi occupation. In a last-ditch attempt to establish an independent Polish administration, the AK attempted to gain control of the city before the arrival of the Soviet troops, with disastrous results. The Red Army continued its westward advance across Poland, and after a few months reached Berlin. The Nazi Reich capitulated on 8 May 1945.
At the end of WWII, Poland lay in ruins. Over six million people, about 20% of the prewar population, lost their lives, and out of three million Polish Jews in 1939, only 80, 000 to 90, 000 survived the war. Its cities were no more than rubble; only 15% of Warsaw’s buildings survived. Many Poles who had seen out the war in foreign countries opted not to return to the new political order.
At the Yalta Conference in February 1945, Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin agreed to leave Poland under Soviet control. They agreed that Poland’s eastern frontier would roughly follow the Nazi–Soviet demarcation line of 1939. Six months later, Allied leaders set Poland’s western boundary along the Odra (Oder) and the Nysa (Neisse) Rivers; in effect, the country returned to its medieval borders.
The radical boundary changes were followed by population transfers of some 10 million people: Poles were moved into the newly defined Poland while Germans, Ukrainians and Belarusians were resettled outside its boundaries. In the end, 98% of Poland’s population was ethnically Polish.
As soon as Poland formally fell under Soviet control, Stalin launched an intensive Sovietisation campaign. Wartime resistance leaders were charged with Nazi collaboration, tried in Moscow and summarily shot or sentenced to arbitrary prison terms. A provisional Polish government was set up in Moscow in June 1945 and then transferred to Warsaw. General elections were postponed until 1947 to allow time for the arrest of prominent Polish political figures by the secret police. After rigged elections, the new Sejm elected Bolesław Bierut president; Stanisław Mikołajczyk, accused of espionage, fled back to England.
In 1948 the Polish United Workers’ Party (PZPR), henceforth referred to as ‘the Party’, was formed to monopolise power, and in 1952 a Soviet-style constitution was adopted. The office of president was abolished and effective power passed to the first secretary of the Party Central Committee. Poland became an affiliate of the Warsaw Pact.
Stalinist fanaticism never gained as much influence in Poland as in neighbouring countries, and soon after Stalin’s death in 1953 it all but disappeared. The powers of the secret police declined and some concessions were made to popular demands. The press was liberalised and Polish cultural values were resuscitated.
In June 1956 a massive industrial strike demanding ‘bread and freedom’ broke out in Poznań. The action was put down by force and soon afterward Władysław Gomułka, a former political prisoner of the Stalin era, was appointed first secretary of the Party. At first he commanded popular support, but later in his term he displayed an increasingly rigid and authoritarian attitude, putting pressure on the Church and intensifying persecution of the intelligentsia. It was ultimately an economic crisis, however, that brought about his downfall; when he announced official price increases in 1970, a wave of mass strikes erupted in Gdańsk, Gdynia and Szczecin. Again, the protests were crushed by force, resulting in 44 deaths. The Party, to save face, ejected Gomułka from office and replaced him with Edward Gierek.
Another attempt to raise prices in 1976 incited labour protests, and again workers walked off the job, this time in Radom and Warsaw. Caught in a downward spiral, Gierek took out more foreign loans, but, to earn hard currency with which to pay the interest, he was forced to divert consumer goods away from the domestic market and sell them abroad. By 1980 the external debt stood at US$21 billion and the economy had slumped disastrously.
By then, the opposition had grown into a significant force, backed by numerous advisers from the intellectual circles. When, in July 1980, the government again announced food-price increases, the outcome was predictable: fervent and well-organised strikes and riots spread like wildfire throughout the country. In August, they paralysed major ports, the Silesian coal mines and the Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk.
Unlike most previous popular protests, the 1980 strikes were nonviolent; the strikers did not take to the streets, but stayed in their factories.
On 31 August 1980, after long, drawn-out negotiations in the Lenin Shipyard, the government signed the Gdańsk Agreement. It forced the ruling party to accept most of the strikers’ demands, including the workers’ right to organise independent trade unions, and to strike. In return, workers agreed to adhere to the constitution and to accept the Party’s power as supreme.
Workers’ delegations from around the country convened and founded Solidarity (Solidarność), a nationwide independent and self-governing trade union. Lech Wałęsa, who led the Gdańsk strike, was elected chair.
It wasn’t long before Solidarity’s rippling effect caused waves within the government. Gierek was replaced by Stanisław Kania, who in turn lost out to General Wojciech Jaruzelski in October 1981. However, the trade union’s greatest influence was on Polish society. After 35 years of restraint, the Poles launched themselves into a spontaneous and chaotic sort of democracy. Wide-ranging debates over the process of reform were led by Solidarity, and the independent press flourished. Such taboo historical subjects as the Stalin-Hitler pact and the Katyń massacre could, for the first time, be openly discussed.
Not surprisingly, the 10 million Solidarity members represented a wide range of attitudes, from confrontational to conciliatory. By and large, it was Wałęsa’s charismatic authority that kept the union on a moderate and balanced course.
The government, however, under pressure from both the Soviets and local hardliners, was loath to introduce any significant reforms and systematically rejected Solidarity’s proposals. This only led to further discontent and, in the absence of other legal options, more strikes. Amid fruitless wrangling, the economic crisis grew more severe. After the unsuccessful talks of November 1981 between the government, Solidarity and the Church, social tensions increased and led to a political stalemate.
When General Jaruzelski unexpectedly appeared on TV in the early hours of the morning of 13 December 1981 to declare martial law, tanks were already on the streets, army checkpoints had been set up on every corner, and paramilitary squads had been posted to possible trouble spots. Power was placed in the hands of the Military Council of National Salvation (WRON), a group of military officers under the command of Jaruzelski himself.
Solidarity was suspended and all public gatherings, demonstrations and strikes were banned. Several thousand people, including most Solidarity leaders and Wałęsa himself, were interned. The spontaneous demonstrations and strikes that followed were crushed, military rule was effectively imposed all over Poland within two weeks of its declaration, and life returned to the pre-Solidarity norm.
In October 1982 the government formally dissolved Solidarity and released Wałęsa from detention, but the trade union continued underground on a much smaller scale, enjoying widespread sympathy and support. In July 1984 a limited amnesty was announced and some members of the political opposition were released from prison. But further arrests continued, following every public protest, and it was not until 1986 that all political prisoners were freed.
The election of Gorbachev in the Soviet Union in 1985 and his glasnost and perestroika programmes gave an important stimulus to democratic reforms all through Eastern Europe. By early 1989 Jaruzelski had softened his position and allowed the opposition to challenge for parliamentary seats.
Semifree elections were held in June 1989, in which Solidarity succeeded in getting an overwhelming majority of its supporters elected to the Senat, the upper house of parliament. The communists, however, reserved for themselves 65% of seats in the Sejm. Jaruzelski was placed in the presidency as a stabilising guarantor of political changes for both Moscow and the local communists, but the noncommunist prime minister, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, was installed as a result of personal pressure from Wałęsa. This power-sharing deal, with the first noncommunist prime minister in Eastern Europe since WWII, paved the way for the domino-like collapse of communism throughout the Soviet bloc. The Party, haemorrhaging members and confidence, historically dissolved itself in 1990.
In January 1990 the government’s finance minister Leszek Balcerowicz introduced a package of reforms to change the centrally planned communist system into a free-market economy. His shock-therapy economics allowed prices to move freely, abolished subsidies, tightened the money supply, and sharply devalued the currency, making it fully convertible with Western currencies.
The effect was almost instant. Within a few months the economy appeared to have stabilised, food shortages became glaringly absent, and shops filled up with goods. On the downside, prices skyrocketed and unemployment exploded. The initial wave of optimism and forbearance turned into uncertainty and discontent, and the tough austerity measures caused the popularity of the government to decline.
In November 1990 Wałęsa won the first fully free presidential elections and the Third Republic of Poland was born. During his statutory five-year term in office, Poland witnessed no fewer than five governments and five prime ministers, each struggling to put the newborn democracy back on track.
After his election, Wałęsa appointed Jan Krzysztof Bielecki, an economist and his former adviser, to serve as prime minister. His cabinet attempted to continue the austere economic policies introduced by the former government but was unable to retain parliamentary support and resigned after a year in office. No less than 70 parties contested the country’s first free parliamentary elections in October 1991, the result of which placed Prime Minister Jan Olszewski at the head of a centre-right coalition. Olszewski lasted only five months, falling prey to a no-confidence vote, and was replaced by Hanna Suchocka of the Democratic Union in June 1992. Suchocka was the nation’s first woman prime minister, and became known as the Polish Margaret Thatcher. Her coalition government managed to command parliamentary majority, but was in increasing discord over many issues, and failed to survive a no-confidence vote in June 1993.
The impatient Wałęsa stepped in, dissolving parliament and calling a general election. His decision was a gross miscalculation, with the postcommunist opposition succeeding in swaying public opinion with accusations of mismanagement and indifference to the social cost of reforms by the Solidarity-led coalition. The pendulum swung to the left, and the election resulted in a coalition between the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) and the Polish Peasant Party (PSL), both reformed Communist parties from the pre-1989 era.
The new government, headed by PSL leader Waldemar Pawlak, continued with general market reform, but the economy began to slow. Continuous tensions within the coalition caused its popularity to fall, and its running battles with the president brought further change in February 1995, when Wałęsa threatened to dissolve parliament unless Pawlak was replaced. The fifth and final prime minister of Wałęsa’s presidential term was Józef Oleksy, yet another former Communist Party official.
Wałęsa’s presidential style and his accomplishments were repeatedly questioned by practically all political parties and the majority of the electorate. His quirky behaviour and his capricious use of power prompted a slide from the favour he had enjoyed in 1990 to his lowest-ever level of popular support in early 1995, when polls indicated that only 8% of the country preferred him as president for the next term. Despite this, Wałęsa manoeuvred vigorously and, in a miraculous comeback, went close to achieving a second term.
The November 1995 election was essentially a tight duel between the anticommunist folk figure, Lech Wałęsa, and the much younger, one-time communist technocrat and SLD leader, Aleksander Kwaśniewski. Kwaśniewski finished ahead, but only by a margin of 3.5%.
Włodzimierz Cimoszewicz, another former Communist Party official, took the post of prime minister. In effect, the postcommunists gained a stranglehold on power, controlling the presidency, government and parliament – a ‘red triangle’, as Wałęsa warned. The centre and the right – almost half of the political nation – effectively lost control over the decision-making process. The Church, much favoured by Wałęsa during his term in the saddle, also lost out and didn’t fail to caution the faithful against the danger of ‘neopaganism’ under the new regime.
By 1997 the electorate apparently realised things had gone too far. Parliamentary elections in September were won by an alliance of about 40 small Solidarity offshoot parties, collectively named the Solidarity Electoral Action (AWS). The alliance formed a coalition with the centrist liberal Freedom Union (UW), pushing ex-communists into opposition. Jerzy Buzek of AWS became prime minister, and the new government accelerated the country’s privatisation.
President Kwaśniewski’s political style sharply contrasted with that of his predecessor, Wałęsa. Kwaśniewski brought political calm to his term in the post, and was able to cooperate successfully with both the left and right wings of the political establishment. This gained him a remarkable degree of popular support, and paved the way to another five-year term in office.
No fewer than 13 people contested the presidential election in October 2000, but none came close to Kwaśniewski, who won a sweeping victory, capturing 54% of the vote. The centrist businessman Andrzej Olechowski came a distant second, with 17% support, while Wałęsa, trying his luck for the third time, suffered a disastrous defeat, collecting just 1% of the vote.
On the international front, Poland had been granted full NATO membership in March 1999, while back home the September 2001 parliamentary election changed the political axis once again. SLD staged its great second comeback, taking 216 seats in the Sejm, just 15 short of an outright majority. The party formed a coalition with the PSL, repeating the shaky alliance of 1993, and former senior Communist Party official Leszek Miller took up the position of prime minister.
Poland’s biggest move in the 21st century was its inclusion into the EU fold on 1 May 2004. The next day, Miller resigned due to a string of corruption scandals and amid mounting popular unrest over high unemployment and poor living standards. His replacement, respected economist Marek Belka, lasted until elections in September 2005, when the conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party and the liberal-conservative Citizens Platform (PO) party swept to power. Combined, the two gained 288 out of the 460 Sejm seats; in comparison, SLD won only 55. PiS member Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz was nominated prime minister, and one month later another PiS member, Lech Kaczyński, secured the presidential seat.
Unsurprisingly, Marcinkiewicz didn’t last long, resigning in July 2006 over a reputed rift with PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński. Jarosław, the twin brother of the president, was quickly appointed to the position. The new prime minister soon set about upsetting both Russia and Germany, attempting to derail the EU’s reform treaty, loading public media with his supporters, and alienating many young Poles with his national rhetoric. However, his reign was short-lived – in a snap election in October 2007 Jarosław lost out to the more liberal and EU-friendly Donald Tusk and his Civic Platform party.
Despite the myriad reforms and coalitions, Poland is still floundering in the political and economic stakes, and looks as though it will for some years to come. But considering its tumultuous past, the country has found some stability, and is relishing its self-governance and peace.