The Red Army's strong performance in the war's final days gives Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin leverage when Allied leaders meet at Yalta and again in Potsdam to divide up the spoils. After convincing two U.S. presidents and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill that he'll allow free elections in any Soviet-occupied part of Poland, Stalin wins control over a large portion of the country.
A provisional government of communists and Western-style democrats is formed. Communist Boleslaw Bierut becomes president. Communists enjoy strong Soviet support, and Soviet authorities gradually frustrate the opposition. After a stage-managed referendum nationalizes the economy and eliminates the upper house of Parliament, the Communists win a large majority in the Sejm, or lower house.
Communists co-opt the socialist-leaning Peasant Party and become the Polish United Workers' Party (Polska Zjednoczona Partia Robotnicza, or PZPR). As leadership gradually clamps down on political, economic, and social life, the Catholic Church stands firm against repression. In 1949 the Vatican excommunicates Catholic PZPR members. In 1953 outspoken Catholic prelate Stefan Wyszynski is arrested.
Growing unrest and the 1956 death of party leader Boleslaw Bierut bring PZPR moderate Wladyslaw Gomulka to power. Gomulka promises a more "Polish road to socialism." His "Polish October" reforms curb secret police and free political prisoners, including now Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski. But Gomulka's reforms are about quelling opposition to the party, not displacing it.
As disenchantment with Gomulka's rule grows, students take to the streets in Warsaw. Inspired by the ill-fated Prague Spring uprising in neighboring Czechoslovakia, they demand more intellectual freedom. Gomulka calls out the militia, and bloody clashes result.
Workers at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk strike to protest another government price increase. The strike spreads to other Baltic coast factories. Misinterpreting the work stoppages as the prelude to a major insurrection, Gomulka reacts with deadly force. The party forces Gomulka to step down.
Gomulka's successor is party technocrat Edward Gierek. In an effort to revitalize and modernize Poland's economy, Gierek secures huge loans and new technologies from Western governments. The strategy briefly raises the standard of living. But Poland's cumbersome bureaucracy and a global recession stymie the recovery and leave its economy still ailing and burdened with foreign debt.
The 1975 Helsinki Accords, which spotlight global human rights abuses, forge a loose coalition of workers, students, clergy, and intellectuals. In 1978 popular Polish cardinal Karol Wojtyla becomes Pope John Paul II. A vocal anticommunist, the pope rallies the Church behind Polish dissidents. His triumphant 1979 tour of Poland focuses international attention on the country's plight.
Pope John Paul II's support and more price increases propel Gdansk shipyard workers off the job again in August. Thousands of Polish workers join them, and behind Gdansk electrician Lech Walesa they form the Solidarity movement. Three weeks into the strike, the government relents, legalizing labor unions and granting workers the right to strike. Edward Gierek steps down.
Playing the strike card effectively, Solidarity exerts a strong influence over government affairs. But infighting weakens the movement. When hard-line Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski takes over as Communist Party leader, he declares martial law, bans Solidarity, and jails thousands of its leaders, including Lech Walesa.
Martial law is lifted in July 1983, shortly before Lech Walesa, who remains under house arrest, wins the Nobel Peace Prize. The award buoys Solidarity, which has managed to survive underground. In 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev assumes leadership of the Soviet Union; his liberal policies of glasnost and perestroika open the door for major reforms in Soviet satellite states.
A historic "Round Table" of labor, Church, PZPR, and opposition agrees to restore basic freedoms, revive the Senate, and hold free parliamentary elections. The agreement reserves 60 percent of lower house seats for PZPR, but voters defiantly cross off PZPR candidates and give Solidarity an overwhelming victory. Jaruzelski remains president, but Walesa ally Tadeusz Mazowiecki is prime minister.
Mazowiecki builds a coalition government and pursues dramatic democratic and free-market reforms. The PZPR formally dissolves. Tension builds between Mazowiecki and Walesa. A constitutional amendment mandates that the Polish president be elected by popular vote. Walesa defeats Mazowiecki and four others in a runoff to become the first popularly elected Polish president.
The bitter presidential battle sullies Walesa's image and weakens Solidarity. The 1992 "Little Constitution" clarifies the largely ceremonial role of president and that of the prime minister. Walesa's term is hobbled by ongoing feuds with a fragmented Sejm (lower house of Parliament). Four prime ministers in two years fail to overcome gridlock between executive and legislative branches.
Walesa loses his 1995 reelection bid to young ex-Communist Aleksander Kwasniewski. But Solidarity's influence persists in the 1997 parliamentary elections when two parties with roots in the movement form a coalition committed to free market and democratic principles. Polish citizens ratify a new constitution in 1997.
Though the Democratic Left Alliance comes close with 41 percent of the popular vote, no party wins an outright majority in Poland's September 2001 elections. President Aleksander Kwasniewski and Prime Minister Leszek Miller preside over a coalition government formed by Miller's Democratic Left Alliance (the former Communist Party) and the Polish Peasants Party.
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