Post-World War II Poland is a shambles. Bent on obliterating Polish culture, Nazi Germany murdered millions of Poles and sent millions more into forced labor camps in Germany. Catholic churches and schools are closed, clergy imprisoned. Much of the intelligentsia is either dead or in exile. Allied leaders hand large portions of Poland to the Soviet Union.
The Nazis' extermination of Jews and the Soviets' acquisition of territory result in a more ethnically and religiously homogenous Poland. Industrialization replaces agriculture as a state priority, and Poland shifts from an agrarian to an industrial society. As the state appropriates rural land, members of the landed aristocracy along with thousands of peasant farmers migrate to the cities.
The rural exodus leaves an aging farm population and spawns a government campaign to educate its new workforce. Thousands of lower-class workers and peasants earn college degrees, diversifying Poland's postwar intelligentsia and breaking down traditional class barriers. The state also provides health care, though services are limited in rural areas.
Newly educated laborers form workers' councils, and council leaders openly criticize the state's centralized economic policies. Workers enjoy unprecedented prestige and influence. Their unrest brings Communist Party moderate Wladyslaw Gomulka to power and presages the powerful labor movement that will eventually topple Poland's Communist Party.
Poles cool to the Gomulka regime when its reforms don't go far enough. Communism never captures the hearts and minds of the Polish people. For support and guidance, Poles rely instead on the Catholic Church, the family, and the dojscie, informal networks of family and friends credited with preserving Polish culture and helping citizens survive ongoing suppression and shortages.
Student and labor unrest in neighboring Czechoslovakia is met with bloody force. But members of Poland's new intelligentsia gradually infiltrate the Communist Party bureaucracy, where they exert a progressive influence, and student and labor ranks, where they encourage dissent. Women make up nearly half the Polish workforce. Underground presses print opposition literature.
From its pre-World War II elitism, the Catholic Church has evolved into a populist anticommunist force. When Karol Wojtyla, cardinal of Krakow, is elected pope, a coalition of clergy, students, workers, and intelligentsia rallies around him. Millions turn out for the new pontiff's 1979 tour of Poland. Underground presses continue to churn out opposition leaflets, pamphlets, journals, and books.
The government raises food prices. Gdansk shipyard workers, led by electrician Lech Walesa, walk off the job in protest. Thanks to support from Pope John Paul II, the defiant three-week strike by their fledgling Solidarity movement wins global support. Poland's Communist Party finally recognizes Solidarity, a grassroots group completely outside the regime's control.
Solidarity's success is short lived. The Communist Party declares martial law in December 1981, closing universities and underground presses, jailing Solidarity leaders, including Lech Walesa, and cracking down on all opposition. But Solidarity and the stubborn resistance to Communist rule survive.
Reformer Mikhail Gorbachev becomes leader of the Soviet Union. His liberal policies pave the way for the rise of organized opposition movements. Communist Party chief Jaruzelski unmuzzles the publishing industry and the press. In a historic step, he invites representatives from Solidarity, the Church, and other opposition groups to help craft a solution to the country's profound economic woes.
The Round Table Agreement produces free, multiparty elections. The agreement reserves a majority of parliamentary seats for Communist Party candidates, but at the polls voters give Solidarity a decisive victory.
The overnight shift to a market economy on January 1, 1990, is largely successful. New businesses create new jobs, and the standard of living rises. Candidate Lech Walesa makes anti-Semitic remarks during his heated presidential race with Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki. Once president, he apologizes.
Inexperienced Solidarity leaders struggle with an outdated bureaucracy and party infighting. The public's longstanding mistrust of government makes it difficult to maintain support for the sacrifices necessary to transform the economy. Change hits some sectors hard. Coal miners and automobile workers strike in 1992 to protest the lower wages brought on by market reforms.
In aggregate Poland is upwardly mobile, a success story of post-Communist transformation, with flourishing entrepreneurship and a vibrant political life. But unemployment and inequalities are high, breeding resentment and sometimes nostalgia. Corruption is still prevalent.
Poland is officially invited to join the European Union in 2004, with a referendum to approve accession scheduled for spring 2003. The urban political and business elite strongly favor E.U. membership, but there is some skepticism among farmers and industrial workers who fear their sectors will be uncompetitive and overexposed.
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