People's Republic of Poland

People's Republic of Poland
People's Republic of Poland
Polska Rzeczpospolita Ludowa
Satellite state of the Soviet Union

Flag Coat of arms
Mazurek Dąbrowskiego
Capital Warsaw
Language(s) Polish
Government Popular Republic,
Communist State
Parliamentary republic (1990)
First Secretary
 - 1944-1948 (first) Władysław Gomułka
 - 1981-1990 (last) Wojciech Jaruzelski
Head of State
 - 1944-1952 (first) Bolesław Bierut
 - 1985-1990 (last) Wojciech Jaruzelski
Historical era Cold War
 - Provisional Governm. 1944
 - Constitution July 22, 1952
 - Amendments restoring democracy December 30, 1989
 - 1990 312,685 km2 (120,728 sq mi)
 - 1946 est. 23,930,000 
 - 1990 est. 37,970,155 
     Density 121.4 /km2  (314.5 /sq mi)
Currency Old Polish złoty

The People's Republic of Poland (Polish: Polska Rzeczpospolita Ludowa, PRL) was the official name of Poland from 1952 to 1990.[1] Although the Soviet Union took control of the country immediately after the liberation from Nazi Germany in 1944, the name of the state was not changed until eight years later. From 1944 to 1952 Rzeczpospolita Polska (The Republic of Poland) was the name of the Polish state.

The Soviet Union had much influence over internal affairs and foreign affairs, and Red Army forces were stationed in Poland (1945 - 500,000; until 1955 - 120,000 to 150,000, until 1989 - 40,000 ). In 1945, Soviet generals and advisors formed 80% of the officer cadre of Wojsko Polskie. The Polish United Workers' Party became the dominant political party, officially making the PRL a Communist state.



The Palace of Culture and Science, Warsaw was built by the Communists and resembles the Seven Sister Towers in Moscow

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 forces were in occupation of the country, and his agents, the communists, were in control of its administration. The USSR was in the process of incorporating the lands in eastern Poland which it had occupied between 1939 and 1941.

In compensation, the USSR awarded Poland all the German territories in Pomerania, Silesia and Brandenburg east of the Oder-Neisse Line, plus the southern half of East Prussia. These awards were confirmed at the Tripartite Conference of Berlin, otherwise known as the Potsdam Conference in August 1945 after the end of the war in Europe. Stalin was determined that Poland's new government would become his tool towards making Poland a Soviet puppet state controlled by the communists. 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 communists held a majority of key posts in this new government, and with Soviet support they soon gained almost total control of the country, rigging all elections.

Their opponents, led by Stanisław Mikołajczyk, managed only one victory, but it was a substantial one: Poland preserved its status as an independent state, contrary to the plans of some influential communists such as Wanda Wasilewska, who were in favour of Poland becoming another republic of the Soviet Union. This important victory would be their last, however, as the communists, tightening their grip on power, began political persecution of all opposition. Many of their opponents decided to leave the country, and others were put on staged trials and sentenced to many years of imprisonment or execution.

In June 1946 the "Three Times Yes" referendum was held on a number of issues—abolition of the Senate of Poland, land reform, and making the Oder-Neisse line Poland's western border. The communist-controlled Interior Ministry issued results showing that all three questions passed overwhelmingly. Between then and the January 1947 general elections, the opposition was subjected to ruthless persecution, and many opposition candidates were prevented from campaigning. The Polskie Stronnictwo Ludowe (PSL) party in particular suffered harsh persecution; it had opposed the abolition of the Senate as a test of strength against the government. Although it supported the other two questions, the Communist-dominated government branded the PSL "traitors".

This massive repression was overseen by the leader of the Polish Workers' Party, Władysław Gomułka. He was assisted by the provisional president, Bolesław Bierut.

Gomułka then took advantage of a split in the Polish Socialist Party. One faction, which included Prime Minister Edward 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 Mikołajczyk would not agree to form a united front with the Socialists. The Communists played on these divisions by dismissing Osóbka-Morawski and making Cyrankiewicz Prime Minister.

The official results of the election showed the Communist-dominated Democratic Bloc (the PPR, Cyrankiewicz' faction of the PPS, and the Democratic Party) with 80.1 percent of the vote—an implausibly high total that could have only been obtained through massive fraud. The Communists and its allies were awarded 394 seats to only 28 for the PSL. Mikołajczyk immediately resigned, and fled to the United Kingdom in April rather than face arrest. This point marked the beginning of undisguised Communist rule in Poland, though it was not officially transformed into the People's Republic of Poland until the adoption of the 1952 Constitution. However, Gomułka never supported Stalin's control over the Polish Communists, and was soon replaced as party leader by the more pliable Bierut.

In 1948, the Communists consolidated their power, merging with Cyrankiewicz' faction of the PPS to form the Polish United Workers' Party (known in Poland as 'the Party'), which would monopolise political power in Poland until 1989. In 1949, Soviet Marshal Konstantin Rokossovsky became Polish Minister of National Defence, with the additional title Marshal of Poland, and in 1952 he became Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers (deputy premier). Over the coming years, private industry was nationalised, the land seized from the pre-war landowners and redistributed to the peasants, and millions of Poles were transferred from the lost eastern territories to the lands acquired from Germany. Poland was now to be brought into line with the Soviet model of a "people's democracy" and a centrally planned socialist economy. The government also embarked on the collectivisation of agriculture, although the pace was slower than in other satellites: Poland remained the only Soviet bloc country where individual peasants dominated agriculture.

Bierut died in March 1956, and was replaced with Edward Ochab. In June, workers in the industrial city of Poznań (Posen) went on strike. Voices began to be raised in the Party and among the intellectuals calling for wider reforms of the Stalinist system. Eventually, power shifted towards Gomułka, who replaced Bierut as party leader. Hardline Stalinists were removed from power and many Soviet officers serving in the Polish Army were dismissed. This marked the end of the Stalinist era. However, by the mid 1960s Gomułka's reformist veil had long since fallen off, and Poland was starting to experience economic as well as political difficulties.

1970s and 1980s

The next stage of Polish history began in December 1970. Gomułka's government had decided to prop up the failing economy by suddenly announcing massive increases in the prices of basic foodstuffs. The resulting widespread violent protests resulted in a number of deaths. They also forced another major change in the government, as Gomułka was replaced by Edward Gierek as the new First Secretary. Gierek's plan for recovery was centered on massive borrowing, mainly from the United States and West Germany, to re-equip and modernize Polish industry, and to import consumer goods to give the workers some incentive to work.

While it boosted the Polish economy, and is still remembered as the "Golden Age" of socialist Poland, the obvious repercussion in the form of massive debt is still felt in Poland even today. This Golden Age came to an end after the 1973 energy crisis. The failure of the Gierek government, both economically and politically, soon led to the creation of opposition in the form of trade unions, student groups, clandestine newspapers and publishers, imported books and newspapers, and even a "flying university."

Queue waiting to enter a store, a typical view in Poland in 1950s and 1980s

At this juncture, on 16 October 1978, Poland experienced what many Poles believed to be literally a miracle. The Archbishop of Kraków, Cardinal Karol Wojtyła, was elected Pope, taking the name John Paul II. The election of a Polish Pope had an electrifying effect on what had been, even under Communist rule, one of the most devoutly Catholic nations in Europe. Gierek is alleged to have said to his cabinet, 'O God, what are we going to do now?' or, as occasionally reported, "Jesus and Mary, this is the end." When John Paul toured Poland in June 1979, half a million people heard him speak in Warsaw. 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.

A new wave of strikes undermined Gierek's government, and in September Gierek, who was in poor health, was finally removed from office and replaced as Party leader by Stanisław Kania. However Kania was unable to find an answer for the fast-eroding support of communism in Poland. Labour turmoil led to the formation of the independent trade union Solidarity (Polish Solidarność) in September 1980, originally led by Lech Wałęsa. In fact Solidarity became a broad anti-communist social movement ranging from people associated with the Roman Catholic Church, to members of the anti-socialist left. By the end of 1981, Solidarity had nine million members—a quarter of Poland's population and three times as many as the PUWP had. Kania resigned under Soviet pressure in October and was succeeded by Wojciech Jaruzelski, who had been defence minister since 1968 and premier since February.

On December 13, 1981, Jaruzelski proclaimed martial law, suspended Solidarity, and temporarily imprisoned most of its leaders. This sudden crackdown on Solidarity was reportedly out of fear of Soviet intervention (see Soviet reaction to the Polish crisis of 1980–1981). The government then banned Solidarity on October 8, 1982. Martial law was formally lifted in July 1983, though many heightened controls on civil liberties and political life, as well as food rationing, remained in place through the mid- to late-1980s. Jaruzelski stepped down as prime minister in 1985 and became president (chairman of the Council of State).

This did not prevent Solidarity from gaining more support and power. Eventually it eroded the dominance of the PUWP, which in 1981 lost approximately 85,000 of its 3 million members. Throughout the mid-1980s, Solidarity persisted solely as an underground organization, but by the late 1980s was sufficiently strong to frustrate Jaruzelski's attempts at reform, and nationwide strikes in 1988 were one of the factors that forced the government to open a dialogue with Solidarity.

Round-table talks

From February 6 to April 15, talks of 13 working groups in 94 sessions, which became known as the "Roundtable Talks" (Polish: Rozmowy Okrągłego Stołu) saw the PUWP abandon power and radically altered the shape of the country. The semi-free June elections brought a victory for the Solidarity movement that took all contested (35%) seats in the Sejm, the Parliament's lower house, and all but one seat in the fully free elected Senat.

The Communists' longtime satellite parties, the United People's Party and Democratic Party, broke their alliance with the Communists and threw their support to Solidarity. Left with no other choice, Jaruzelski, who had been named president in July, appointed a Solidarity-led coalition government with Tadeusz Mazowiecki as the country's first non-Communist prime minister since 1948.

On December 29 the Parliament amended the Constitution to formally restore democracy, the rule of law and civil liberties. This began the Third Polish Republic and effectively ended the Communist Party's hold on the government. PZPR was finally disbanded on January 30, 1990, even if Wałęsa could be elected as President only eleven months after.

Government and politics

PZPR logo

The government and politics of the People's Republic of Poland were dominated by the Polish United Workers' Party (Polska Zjednoczona Partia Robotnicza, PZPR). Even if, strictly speaking, Poland was not a single-party state because of the presence of two minor parties, the People's Party and the Democratic Party, in effect it followed a communist ideology, dependent on the USSR to the extent of being its satellite state. From 1952 the PRP's highest law was the Constitution of the People's Republic of Poland, and the Polish Council of State replaced the presidency of Poland. Elections were held on the single lists of the Front of National Unity.


Early years

Poland suffered tremendous economic losses during World War II. In 1939, Poland had 35.1 million inhabitants, but the census of 14 February 1946 showed only 23.9 million inhabitants. (The difference was partially the result of the border revision.) The losses in national resources and infrastructure amounted to 38%. Compared to Western European nations, including Germany, Poland was still mostly an agricultural country. The implementation of the immense tasks involved with the reconstruction of the country was intertwined with the struggle of the new government for the stabilisation of power, made even more difficult by the fact that a considerable part of society was mistrustful of the communist government. The liberation of Poland by the Red Army and the support the Soviet Union had shown for the Polish communists was decisive in the left gaining the upper hand in the new Polish government. Poland was under Soviet control, both directly (Red Army, NKVD, Soviet concentration camps in Poland, deportations to the SU) and indirectly (NKVD created the Polish political police UB).[citation needed]

As control of the Polish territories passed from occupying forces of Nazi Germany to the Red Army, and from the Red Army to Polish communists, Poland's new economic system began moving towards a communist centrally planned economy. One of the first major steps in that direction involved the agricultural reform issued by the PKWN government on 6 September 1944. All estates over 0.5 km² in pre-war Polish territories and all over 1 km² in former German territories were nationalised without compensation. In total, 31,000 km² of land were nationalised in Poland and 5 million in the former German territories, out of which 12,000 km² were redistributed to peasants and the rest remained in the hands of the government. (Most of this was eventually used in the collectivization and creation of sovkhoz-like Państwowe Gospodarstwo Rolne (PGR).) However, the collectivization of Polish farming never reached the same extent as it did in the Soviet Union or other countries of the Eastern Bloc.[2]

Nationalization also began in 1944, with the government taking control of German industries in the newly acquired territories. As nationalization was unpopular, the communists delayed the nationalization reform until 1946, when after the 3xTAK referendums they were fairly certain they had total control of the government and could deal with eventual public protests. However some semi-official nationalisation of various private non-German industries had begun back in 1944.

In 1946, all enterprises with over 50 employees were nationalised, with no compensation to Polish owners.[3]

The punishment of Germany for the war was intended to include large-scale reparations to Poland. However, those were truncated into insignificance by the break-up of Germany into east and west. Poland was then to receive her share from the GDR. Even this was attenuated, however, as the Soviets pressured the Polish Government to cease receiving the reparations far ahead of schedule, as a sign of 'friendship' between the two new communist neighbors and, therefore, now friends.[4][5] Thus, without the full deserved reparations and without the massive Marshall Plan, Poland's postwar recovery was much harder than it could have been.

Late years

During the Gierek era, Poland borrowed large sums of Western money. 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 and coal, to service its massive debt, which would reach US$23 billion by 1980. By 1978, it was therefore obvious that eventually the regime would again have to raise prices and risk another outbreak of labor unrest.

During the chaotic Solidarity years and the imposition of martial law, Poland entered a decade of economic crisis, officially acknowledged as such even by the regime. Rationing and queuing became a way of life, with ration cards (Kartki) necessary to buy even such basic consumer staples as milk and sugar. Access to Western luxury goods became even more restricted, as Western governments applied economic sanctions to express their dissatisfaction with the government repression of the opposition, while at the same time the government had to use most of the foreign currency it could obtain to pay the crushing rates on its foreign debt.[6]

In response to this situation, the government, which controlled all official foreign trade, continued to maintain a highly artificial exchange rate with Western currencies. The exchange rate worsened distortions in the economy at all levels, resulting in a growing black market and the development of a shortage economy.[7] The only way for an individual to buy most Western goods was to use Western currencies, notably the U.S. dollar, which in effect became a parallel currency. However, it could not simply be exchanged at the official banks for Polish złotys, since the government exchange rate undervalued the dollar and placed heavy restrictions on the amount that could be exchanged, and so the only practical way to obtain it was from remittances or work outside the country. An entire illegal industry of street-corner money changers emerged as a result. Cinkciarze gave clients far better than official exchange rates and became wealthy from their opportunism, albeit at great risk of punishment—which, however, was greatly diminished by wide scale bribery of police.

A Pewex shop

As money came into the country by these channels, the government in turn attempted to gather it up by various means, most visibly by establishing a chain of state-run Pewex stores in all Polish cities where goods could only be bought with hard currency. It even introduced its own ersatz U.S. currency (bony in Polish). This paralleled the financial practices in the GDR at the time. These trends led to an unhealthy state of affairs where the chief determinant of economic status was access to hard currency. This situation was incompatible with any remaining ideals of socialism, which were soon completely abandoned.

In this desperate situation, all development and growth in the Polish economy slowed to a crawl. Most visibly, work on most of the major investment projects that had begun in the 1970s was stopped. As a result, most Polish cities acquired at least one infamous example of a large unfinished building languishing in a state of limbo. While some of these were eventually finished decades later, most, such as the Szkieletor skyscraper in Kraków, were never finished at all, wasting the considerable resources devoted to their construction. Polish investment in economic infrastructure and technological development fell rapidly, ensuring that the country lost whatever ground it had gained relative to Western European economies in the 1970s. To escape the constant economic and political pressures during these years, and the general sense of hopelessness, many family income providers traveled for work in Western Europe[citation needed], particularly West Germany (Wyjazd na saksy)[citation needed]. During the era, hundreds of thousands of Poles left the country permanently and settled in the West[citation needed], few of them returning to Poland even after the end of socialism in Poland[citation needed]. Tens of thousands of others went to work in countries that could offer them salaries in hard currency, notably Libya and Iraq[citation needed].

After several years of the situation continuing to worsen, during which time the socialist government unsuccessfully tried various expedients to improve the performance of the economy—at one point resorting to placing military commissars to direct work in the factories — it grudgingly accepted pressures to liberalize the economy. The government introduced a series of small-scale reforms, such as allowing more small-scale private enterprises to function. However, the government also realized that it lacked the legitimacy to carry out any large-scale reforms, which would inevitably cause large-scale social dislocation and economic difficulties for most of the population, accustomed to the limited social safety net that the socialist system had provided. For example, when the government proposed to close the Gdańsk Shipyard, a decision in some ways justifiable from an economic point of view but also largely political, there was a wave of public outrage and the government was forced to back down.

The only way to carry out such changes without social upheaval would be to acquire at least some support from the opposition side. The government accepted the idea that some kind of a deal with the opposition would be necessary, and repeatedly attempted to find common ground throughout the 1980s. However, at this point the communists generally still believed that they should retain the reins of power for the near future, and only allowed the opposition limited, advisory participation in the running of the country. They believed that this would be essential to pacifying the Soviet Union, which they felt was not yet ready to accept a non-communist Poland.


TV series


  • Minorities in Poland after the War
  • Changes in Polish society between 1945 and 1989
  • Historical demographics of Poland - after the Second World War


Poland's old and new borders, 1945.

After World War II, Poland's borders were redrawn, following the decision taken at the Teheran Conference of 1943 at the insistence of the Soviet Union. Poland lost 77,000 km² of territory in its eastern regions (Kresy), gaining instead the smaller but much more industrialized (however ruined) so-called "Regained Territories" east of the Oder-Neisse line.

The People's Republic of Poland was divided into several voivodeships (the Polish unit of administrative division). After World War II, the new administrative divisions were based on the pre-war ones. The areas in the East that were not annexed by the Soviet Union had their borders left almost unchanged. Newly acquired territories in the west and north were organised into the voivodeships of Szczecin, Wrocław, Olsztyn and partially joined to Gdańsk, Katowice and Poznań voivodeships. Two cities were granted voivodeship status: Warsaw and Łódź.

In 1950 new voivodeships were created: Koszalin - previously part of Szczecin, Opole - previously part of Katowice, and Zielona Góra - previously part of Poznań, Wrocław and Szczecin voivodeships. In addition, three other cities were granted the voivodeship status: Wrocław, Kraków and Poznań.

In 1973, Poland voivodeships were changed again. This reorganization of administrative division of Poland was mainly a result of local government reform acts of 1973 to 1975. In place of three level administrative division (voivodeship, county, commune), new two-level administrative division was introduced (49 small voidships and communes). The three smallest voivodeships: Warsaw, Kraków and Łódź had a special status of municipal voivodeship; the city president (mayor) was also province governor.

Administrative divisions of the People's Republic of Poland


  1. ^ [1]
  2. ^ [2]
  3. ^ [3]
  4. ^ [4]
  5. ^ [5]
  6. ^ Neier, Aryeh (2003). Taking Liberties: Four Decades in the Struggle for Rights. Public Affairs. pp. p. 251. ISBN 1891620827. 
  7. ^ Jackson, John E; Jacek Klich, Krystyna Poznanska (2005). The Political Economy of Poland's Transition: New Firms and Reform Governments. Cambridge University Press. pp. p. 21. ISBN 0521838959. 


  • Ekiert, Grzegorz (March 1997). "Rebellious Poles: Political Crises and Popular Protest Under State Socialism, 1945-89". East European Politics and Societies (American Council of Learned Societies) 11 (2): 299–338. doi:10.1177/0888325497011002006. 
  • Kuroń, Jacek; Żakowski, Jacek (1995) (in Polish). PRL dla początkujących. Wrocław: Wydawnictwo Dolnośląskie. pp. 348 pages. ISBN 83-7023-461-5. 

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