People’s Republic Poland

  • name:                    Polska Rzeczpospolita Ludowa (PRL) 1952-1990
  • political system:    popular republic, communist state, parliamentary republic
  • population:            1990 – est. 37,970,155
  • area:                     1990 – 312,685 km2 (120,728 sq mi)








1. The origin

The beginning of the People’s Republic of Poland (PRL) de facto is deemed to July 22, 1944 – the date of announcement of the Manifesto of the Polish Committee of National Liberation, which announced a new Polish political system. De jure to July 5, 1945 – the day of international recognition of the Provisional Government of National Unity by Great Britain and USA and parallel withdrawal the recognition of the Polish Government in Exile

At the end of the war, in 1945, Poland had two governments:

  • in exile in London, continuer of the Second Republic government (not recognized by USSR)

Government in exile (1944); prime ministry Tomasz Arciszewski

  • the Provisional Government of the Republic, established since December 31, 1944 and controlled by communists (not recognized in the West)

Following recommendations of the conference in Yalta, representatives of both offices (with Stanislaw Mikolajczyk representing the exiles) formed the Provisional Government of National Unity, which had to organize and conduct free and unfettered elections for the Legislative Assembly. It appeared soon, however, that hopes for fair elections were futile. Holding real power and having the ministries of power (police and security apparatus) the communists conducted an intensive campaign against the opposition, including those related to the government in exile and significantly weakened it (many organizational structures were destroyed and activists were arrested). On the photo: Stalin and Molotov present Polish national emblem (November 15, 1944).

Preceded by referendum in 1946 (on the western border, socialist reforms and liquidation of the Senate – famous “3 x yes”) and conducted under supervision of security forces, Legislative Assembly elections of January 19, 1947 were rigged, and today it is impossible to figure out what were the real results. Anyway, they were considered by the West as legal.

Communist propaganda at the time of elections in 1947

In the new parliament, composed of 444 legislative members, 380 seats were given to the pro-communist party representatives, and Mikolajczyk and his opposite Polish Peasant Party got only 24 (threatened with arrest, that politician fled later secretly abroad). Thus, the socialist nature of Polish political system was sealed, and sealed with the constitutions of 1947 (Little) and 1952 (this one introduced the official name of the Polish People’s Republic), and the introduction of such a party system, with the Polish United Workers’ Party at the helm, which eliminated all opposition of political life.

2. Development of the Polish borders

The Polish post-war boundaries were established by representatives of Soviet Union (Prime Minister Joseph Stalin), Great Britain (Prime Minister Winston Churchill) and USA (presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman) during conferences in Tehran (1943), Yalta (1945) and Potsdam (1945). Proposals of the Polish side to reflect the will of the Poles, expressed by referendum or parliamentary decisions, were not taken into account.


Yalta: Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Jozef Stalin

Thus, in contrast to the situation after World War I, the Poles had practically no influence on the shape of their new state. It was Stalin who played the largest role in determining the boundaries – he managed to impose his western allies his own vision of the future Poland. Soviet leader decided to:

  • incorporate to USSR the lands grabbed in September 17, 1939 (it made the eastern border based on the so called Curzon line of 1920) but grant Poland with the eastern part of former East Prussia (Warmia and Masuria) and Pomerania (with Danzig and Stettin)
  • give Poland Upper and Lower Silesia
  • base the western boundary on the river Oder.

The findings of the conferences were as follows:

TEHRAN November 28 – December 23, 1943:

  • Soviet Union takes possession of the territories occupied since September 17, 1939 and half of the former East Prussia, the western Polish border is based on the rivers Oder and Neisse (without specifying which one: Neisse Klodzka or located further to the west Lusatian Neisse, which eventually was accepted)

YALTA February 4-11, 1945

  • confirmation of Tehran arrangements but still without decision about Neisse river (there were discrepancies between the Allies on the exact course of the eastern and western border, the UK and USA for example, wanted Lviv granted to Poland)
  • decision about expulsions of Germans from eastern lands of the Oder River (Lower Silesia)
  • the exact demarcation was to be made at the peace conference in Potsdam

POTSDAM July 17 – August 2, 1945

  • acceptance of the boundaries proposed by Stalin

The same the area of the new state has shrunk by about 76 000 km in relation to land the Second Republic. It should be mentioned that Poles adopted these findings with great disappointment.


Territorial changes of Poland after World War II

Recognition of the western Polish border by German states was not an easy process. The first which did it was the German Democratic Republic (DDR), who signed on July 6, 1950 an appropriate treaty in Zgorzelec. The Federal Republic of Germany (BDR), which could not reconcile with the loss of significant areas to the east, for twenty years was delaying the recognition of the new frontier. The first official acceptance of the provisions of the Yalta-Potsdam – the Treaty of Warsaw from December 7, 1970  – was a result of intensive efforts of Wladyslaw Gomulka diplomacy but became possible only after assuming the power in the FRG by the SPD-FDP coalition with Willy Brandt at the head. The final acceptance of the western Polish border however took place only after the unification of Germany, at a session of the Bundestag parliament on December 16, 1991. The German parliament decision became final on 16 January 1992.

Decisions about new Polish border were accompanied by provisions for the people living in the associated territories, which have caused huge changes in the structure of Polish society. They were as follows:

  • the German population living in areas granted to Poland (so-called Regained Territories) was expelled to Germany, and their place was taken by the Poles from former Polish eastern territories who have decided to stick with Poland


German displaced persons

  • Lemkos and Ukrainians living in the south-eastern territories of present-day Poland (Bieszczady Mountains and eastern Małopolska) were forcibly resettled in the Regained Territories in the so-called Action “Wistula” (the goal was eliminating Ukrainian nationalism and its organisations but this decision is seen by many historians as very controversial)

Abandoned Orthodox Church in non-existing village Królik Wołoski

The issue of expulsions of Germans to this day casts a shadow on Polish-German relations because of the existence of various types of compatriot organizations, with the Association of Exiles (Bund Deutscher vertriebenen) at the head. For years they denied the Oder and Neisse rivers border, cultivated a sense of injustice and demanded compensation for lost properties in Eastern Europe. A particularly thorny issue is the proposal to establish a Centre Against Expulsions (Zentrum gegen Vertreibungen), aimed at documenting the forced displacement of population in the 20th century, with particular emphasis on the resettlement of Germans after World War II from areas of Central and Eastern Europe (Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania).

There is also a tension between Poland and Lithuania, caused by discrimination against the Polish minority in Lithuania, which conisists of 212 000 people (6.6% of the population, data from 2011). The Lithuanian authorities don’t allow placing Polish street name plates in regions densely populated by Poles, and forbid Polish spelling of Polish names. They also gradually eliminate subjects taught in minority languages in the schools, what leads to hot protests from the Lithuanian Poles.

Polish community in Lithuania

3. Years 1945–1956

The period 1945–1956 is the introduction and consolidation of the socialist transformations in the country, accepted by many as a chance of social advancement. In the economic field it was the land reform, by which peasants received land from the estates which had been parceled (the class of the gentry in Poland ceased to exist), and the nationalization of industry, which had to be rebuilt and expanded. It is necessary to say however that many landowners and noble families were just expelled from their properties and try nowadays to gain their estates back. In the photo: transfering lands into villagers’ hands.

The years 1944-1947 were associated with the mass migration of population. On one hand, from the lost eastern territories about 1.2 million Polish citizens arrived to Poland, the so called repatriates, who did not want to live in the territory of the USSR. They were settled mainly on the Regained Lands, which were incorporated into Poland under provisions of Yalta and Potsdam. In subsequent years to Poland also arrived Poles which were sent to the east of Russia after September 17, 1939 and this process continues even today.

 Displaced from the East

On the other hand, Germans were displaced, and – as requested by the USSR – also Ukrainians, Lithuanians and Belarusians. As a result of these changes Poland became a country of practically one nation.

Politically years 1945-1956 marked the period of repression against the opposition, people associated with the government in exile and the soldiers of the free Polish Armed Forces in the West, who returned to the country. Many were arrested, tortured, and some even lost their lives, such as general August Emil Fieldorf “Nil”, the head of diversion of Home Army.

On the photo: the process of captain (rotmistrz) Witold Pilecki, a member of AK. In the years 1940 to 1943 Pilecki on its own initiative entered the Auschwitz concentration camp to conduct intelligence activities there and organize a resistance. He was also a soldier of the 2nd Polish Corps. In 1947 he was arrested and accused of espionage activities in favor of Gen. Władysław Anders and preparing a coup for a group of security officials. He was executed in 1948 in 1995 was posthumously awarded the Commander’s Cross of de Orde Polonia Restituta.

The Church was also persecuted. The power in this darkest period of Polish post-war time was held by people sent to Poland by Stalin. Just to name a few, the most infamous: President Boleslaw Bierut, Defence Minister and the Marshal of Poland and Soviet Union (!) Konstantin Rokossowski, deputy Jacob Berman, Defence Minister Michal Rola-Zymierski. In the photo: Boleslaw Bierut.


Reconstruction of Warsaw

 Propaganda posters from the 40s and 50s.

1st May offcial parade

Acts of terror and suppression of freedoms and deterioration of living conditions led to a deep disillusionment with the new government and first objections and demonstrations. In June 1956 Poland witnessed a wave of strikes and protests in Poznan, which had been violently suppressed by authorities (it is estimated that 57 people were killed) but finally led to changes in authorities. (The main ruler in communist Poland was not a government but the communist party.)

Poznań, June 1956, worker’s demonstration under the slogan “We demand bread”

4. Years 1956–1970

The years 1956–1970 were the period of Wladyslaw Gomulka, a communist activist, who himself was victimized and imprisoned for opposing the monopoly of the communist party in political life. By the public he was welcomed with big enthusiasm and hope for liberalization of social relations and political reforms. He also gave hope for getting some independence from Soviet Union. Those hopes vanished, however, quite quickly when political atmosphere of the thaw (related to the death of Stalin) among others gave way to re-tightening relations with the USSR, deterioration in the relations with the Church and the liquidation of democratic freedoms. A manifestation of this was a non-issue in March 1968 the drama “Dziady”, written by the 19th century poet Adam Mickiewicz, where Russia is depicted as a tyrant. This led to the so-called March events – student’s demonstrations and then the government campaign against intelligentsia and Jews, many of whom were forced to leave Poland forever. In the pic above: Władysław Gomułka.

Students protests during March events 

Gomulka’s defeat and stepping down as secretary of the communist party was sealed by the worsening economic situation and the rise of food prices, which in December 1970 (it was announced few days before Christmas) led to outbreak of massive protests on the coast, which were again brutally suppressed by armored forces (the number of victims is 41).

Gdańsk, December 1970

The biggest success of this politician was having recognized the Polish western border by the Federal Republic of Germany. The official agreement was signed on December 7, 1970.

5. The 70s

The 70s are the era of Edward Gierek, who in his youth worked in the mines of France and Belgium, spoke French and Flemish, and decided to modernize Poland and open it to the West. Just like Gomulka, Gierek was greeted by Polish people with high hopes, which were to be implemented by Western loans.

Edward Gierek during the 1st May parade, on the left – Prime Ministry Piotr Jaroszewicz

The first years of his rule were a period of intensive industrial development and an increase in wages for which Poles could buy imported goods (such as Coca-Cola). Apartments and cars became aviable, people could go abroad (mainly to other people’s democracies, however), there was no shortage of work, and inflated propaganda tried to convince the Poles that Polish economy was the 10th in the world. On the photo: fiat 126 p, in the common use in 70. and 80., informally called “the soap dish”.

For many this period is remembered as a period of relative prosperity, but in the middle of this decade it became clear that this prosperity was not due to real economic success, but to the loans, the repayment of which became increasingly a big burden on the Polish economy – the total amount of debts was 60 billion dollars. (The last installment of 886 million dollars was given to the Paris Club in 2009 and the last small debt has been paid in 2012.)

Metalurgy combinate “Huta Katowice”, a big proud of the Gierek era, now the property of  Arcelor Mittel Polen, foto: Petr Stefek

In 1975 economy collapsed dramatically, which again led to protests (strikes in the Warsaw factory Ursus and in the city Radom in June 1976), and in consequence – to the arrangement of organized opposition called the Workers’ Defense Committee. Its most dedicated activists were recruited later to the establishment of a free and democratic Poland.

“I don’t like Monday” (1971) – a satirical picture of the communist Poland

Gierek’s period of decline is a period of escalating economic crisis, as was evidenced by a food shortage and the introduction of ration cards for sugar (1976-1985). He himself was forced to resign from the position of First Secretary of the ruling party as a result of strikes taken in 1980 on the coast. He was replaced by general Wojciech Jaruzelski.

Strikes in the shipyard in Gdansk, August 1980   

An important event of the decade was for many Poles the first pilgrimage of the Pope John Paul II, which took place on June 2-10, 1979 to celebrate the 900th anniversary of the martyrdom of Bishop Stanislaus (read: The biggest mystery). The authorities tried to impede the arrival of the Pope and downplay this event for propaganda, but were not able to resist the enthusiasm of the crowds. The first visit started the next series, which primarily took place every four years, and then much more frequently. On the photo: John Paul II during his first visit to Poland.

6. The 80.

The 80s prepared the ground for a change of the political system and of the commitment of the state power by the communist government, which finally became aware of a growing gap with the public and no way out of economic crisis without necessary changes to the economy. These significant changes were started by strikes in July and August 1980, which culminated in the signing on August 31, 1980 of the agreement at the Gdansk shipyard. The so called “August Agreements” established free trade union NSZZ “Solidarnosc” (Independent Self-governing Trade Union “Solidarity”). On his head on October 2, 1981 stood Lech Walesa. (Read also: Secrets of Danuta Walesa.)

Gdansk shipyard strikes and Lech Walesa

 Signing of the August Agreement

Initially mostly economic demands of the Solidarity began gradually transformed into political demands – political pluralism, respect for basic civil liberties, the introduction of worker and territorial self-management.

The deep radicalization of trade unionists expressed by some slogans that “instead of leaves on the trees there will hang communists” (as was), and the escalation of the strikes in the industry led the authorities to withdraw the Solidarity-won freedoms and to the introduction of the martial law on December 13, 1981. The legitimacy of that decision, motivated by fear of a Soviet intervention, is still the subject of bitter disputes. The martial law (December, 13, 1981 – July 22, 1983) significantly reduced civil liberties, suspended operation of the Solidarity Trade Union (which, however, had not ceased operations, but it was ran in the conspiracy), introduced censorship, the curfew, the military controls over the work places, and appeared in the streets in tanks and armored cars. Opposition activists were interned. Unfortunately, this time also was not without bloodshed – on December 16, 1981 at the coal mine “Wujek” in Katowice militarized forces killed 9 miners. On the photo: General Jaruzelski announces introduction of the martial law, December 13, 1981.

Tanks in Zbąszyń

 Martial law 1981; a song “It is dark” by Andrzej Kołakowski

In subsequent years the communist authorities tried to save the economy from a collapse, which best symbol were empty shelves in the shops and the rationing of food, but reforms undertaken by them have not yielded the expected results. Rising prices of goods and services aroused high discontent and in 1988 the country was swept by another wave of strikes that finally led to initializing contacts between  government and opposition. On the photo: food coupon.

Reconstruction of the typical shop in 80., exhibition “Roads to freedom” Gdansk

On August 31, 1988 there was a meeting of the Minister of Internal Affairs general Czeslaw Kiszczak with Lech Walesa and they discussed the possibility of talks with the opposition about reforms. Preliminary discussions were conducted in a government conference center Magdalenka, and the result was an agreement on the timing and the form of the talks. The deliberations of the so called Round Table were to begin at the beginning of 1989.

7. The most joyful hut in a camp

The Polish People’s Republic – so called “pe-er-el” here – is an epoch that cannot be presented in uniformly black or white colors. On one hand it was a period of continuous hopes and disappointments expressed by repeated protests, the period of poverty and deprivation, in which the problem was, for example, getting a toilet paper, time when food was assigned to the food vouchers and the biggest dream was to get flimsy apartment and car Fiat 125p or 126p.

Typical socialist apartment block, Lublin (the present view)

No less worrisome was the lack of national sovereignty, the need to ask for a passport, the stifling freedom of the press and the media, the harassment of the opposition (with some political murders) and the deepening civilization gap between Poland and the western countries from behind the “iron curtain”. On the pic: reconstruction of the cell for oppositionist activists (“Roads to freedom”, Gdansk).

On the other hand, millions of peasants’ and workers’ children got the possibility of free studies and associated social advancement. Employees of large industrial plants received welfare and free housing, and their children could leave every year on vacation for a little money. The relation to PRL is varied, ranging from hatred to sentimental, one thing is there however without any doubt – having media under control, authorities never shut people’s mouth. Poles had never been intimidated and were not afraid to speak. There were a lot of great comedies and cabarets laughing at absurdities of the era and showing resourcefulness of a society that had performed well with the deception of “their” government. On the photo: propaganda poster from 50.

All kinds of political allusions and letting the eye to the audience were for people (and even authorities itself, too) perfectly legible. Sense of humor was always present in Poland and this is why Poles liked to call their country “the most joyful hut in a socialist camp”.

It was in this era that the most valuable movies, including the production of the famous Polish school of the 50s were made, television programs (“Cabaret of Old Men”) and series, which until today remain extremely popular and are a permanent repertoire of the TV stations. From this period comes the greatest generation of Polish actors, which achievements and possibilities of art are only a dream for contemporary generation, forced to play mostly in TV soap operas and series. Not to mention musicians and other artists. On the photo: popularOlga Lipinska Cabaret”.

Football fans may add that the 70s it was the time Poland had the greatest football team ever, coached by irreplaceable Kazimierz Gorski.

Golden “11” of the coach Kamierz Górski

The Polish people can be ridiculous, pathetic, sentimental and backward, but they are also stubborn and steadfast in their ongoing fight for freedom. They had a wonderful staff of intellectuals who, in collaboration with the workers, prepared the country for a great change. It was just the ordinary people of Poland who took out the first stone from the wall what started in Eastern Europe the avalanche of changes and terminated this unsuccessful experiment called “socialism”. (Read also: Land of absurdities.)

 PRL (montage)

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