World War I pits Poland's occupiers (Russia, Germany, Austria) against each other. Russia joins the Allied Forces against Germany and Austria; Polish troops fight on both sides. After the Allies defeat Germany, Poland's Socialist Party leader, Józef Pilsudski, becomes the provisional president of Poland, independent for the first time in 123 years.
The ravages of war, the legacy of occupation, and territorial disputes bedevil the Second Polish Republic. Boundary disputes are resolved by skirmishes with the Red Army in the Ukraine and by the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, which creates the Danzig Corridor, a strip that affords Poland access to the Baltic Sea. The new government adopts a constitution and revives Poland's economy and culture.
Politics and raging partisanship in Poland's legislature lead to the resignation of President Pilsudski and the assassination of his successor, Gabriel Narutowicz, in 1922. Pilsudski retakes the presidency in a 1926 coup. He signs a political and military alliance with France, but France fails to defend its allies in the face of German expansionism under Adolf Hitler.
Germany occupies neighboring Czechoslovakia. When Warsaw rebuffs Hitler's demand for Polish territory along the Baltic Sea, he joins forces with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, and the new allies overrun Poland.
The Soviet Union and Germany divide Poland. Both regimes are brutal. In June 1941, after successfully invading the Soviet Union, Germany assumes control of Poland. Despite strong resistance from the Polish underground, Nazis slaughter nearly six million Poles, including three million Jews. Poland is home to infamous death camps at Auschwitz and Treblinka.
The Soviet Red Army drives the last German troops from Polish soil. At end-of-war conferences in Yalta and Potsdam, Allies award the Soviets large portions of Poland. Polish communists loyal to Soviet leader Joseph Stalin hold sway in the 1947 parliamentary elections, and Poland becomes a Russian satellite once again.
Poland's new communist government nationalizes industry, censors the press, persecutes the Roman Catholic Church, and strictly enforces Soviet rules. The Soviet grip loosens after Joseph Stalin's death in 1953. In 1956, following Polish worker protests and over the strong objections of Moscow, the Polish Communist Party picks moderate Wladyslaw Gomulka as its leader.
Poles are pleased with the seeming openness of the new Communist Party leadership, but frustration grows when government reforms stop short of disowning Stalinism. Polish students demonstrate in Warsaw. Workers strike in Gdansk. Hundreds are killed in government crackdowns.
Edward Gierek replaces Wladyslaw Gomulka as Communist Party chief. Polish cardinal Karol Wojtyla, a staunch anticommunist, succeeds the late John Paul I as pope and takes the name John Paul II. The new pope's support and the determination of labor leader Lech Walesa usher in the Solidarity movement.
To neutralize Solidarity's growing influence, new party leader Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski declares martial law in 1981 and jails Solidarity leaders. Martial law is lifted in 1983, the year Lech Walesa wins the Nobel Peace Prize. Reformer Mikhail Gorbachev assumes leadership of the Soviet Union in 1985.
With the economy close to collapse, Gen. Jaruzelski convenes national "Round Table" talks. One outcome is free elections that are open to Solidarity candidates. Communists are swept from power. Gorbachev tells Poland's defeated Communist Party to abide by the election results. Lech Walesa becomes president of Poland.
Rejecting arguments for a gradual transition, Poland's new leadership moves overnight to a market economy. January 1, 1990, becomes known as the "big bang," the day prices are deregulated, currency devalued, and taxes reformed.
The 1990 reforms are generally successful and spark rapid growth and a thorough transformation of the economy. By 1994, the country is a major destination for U.S. exports. By 1997, new businesses have created more than two million new jobs. Old industrial sectors, however, struggle to adapt.
Walesa loses his 1995 reelection bid to leftist Aleksander Kwasniewski. Solidarity retains leadership of the governing coalition, and all major parties remain committed to free market and democratic principles. Poland's economic performance is the strongest in Central Europe. Ties with the European Union grow in economic and political importance.
Poland enjoys full membership in NATO and expects to join the European Union in 2004. The Solidarity movement wanes. Prime Minister Leszek Miller heads a center-left coalition of the former Communist Party and the Peasants Party. Certain key industries remain under state control, but Poland continues to attract more foreign investment than any Central European country.
The global economic slowdown hits Poland, and growth stalls while unemployment surges. Prime Minister Miller is tarnished by a corruption scandal involving a major media holding company. European Union membership is on track, with Poland invited to join in 2004; if approved by a referendum in 2003, membership will transform political and economic life.
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