Thursday, November 12, 2009

Berlin Wall Season: Poland

Poland is perhaps the most unlucky of those countries in eastern Europe in the 20th century. It was, after all, the country Britain went to war for. It was Hitler's next step after having being appeased over Czechoslovakia. Poland had the bad luck of not only facing the onslaught, occupation and murder of the Nazis, but got little better from Stalin and lived under the jackboot of Moscow for another 50 years.

Of course the Nazis didn't takeover Poland on their own. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact saw the Red Army invade from the east in "defence" of Germany, after Germany staged a Polish "invasion". An action so improbable it is a wonder Hitler bothered.

Under the Nazis the Poles suffered dreadfully, with widespread plans to kill or deport most, with a small minority to remain as slaves. The words Warsaw Ghetto tell a tale of their own about the abysmal fate of Jews in Poland. Of 3 million Jews in Poland, 50,000 remained by 1945. The story of how the Soviets treated Poland during the war is less well known, but similarly brutal, with religion suppressed, mass executions and imprisonment, and a Stalinist totalitarian form of military rule imposed. The Katyn Massacre by the Soviet NKVD killed around 22,000 Poles.

Ultimately Germany broke with the pact with Moscow and invaded the USSR, and as losses mounted up Poland ended up being under total Red Army control at the end of the war. Stalin keenly instituted a communist government, annexing some eastern lands for the USSR, but in return taking some from Germany to give to a newly "independent" Poland.

Stalin promised free elections in Poland, but as support for the communists was low, vote rigging saw a carefully staged takeover of government, so that by 1949 there was legally a communist monopoly on power. Forced collectivisation and nationalisation progressed, although agriculture remained dominated by peasant farms. Art was forced to be Socialist Realist, education became Marxist-Leninist dominated, and a "communist" Catholic Church was sought to be created in order to undermine the strong Catholicism of the population, while oppressing the true church.

After the death of Stalin, tensions emerged between the pro-Stalinist and the more reformist wings of the party. It came to a head in 1956 with the Poznan strike , which followed the death of Stalinist PM Bolesław Bierut. 80 were killed at Poznan. The reformist wing of the party took hold, and it was agreed to raise wages, and reduce the degree of Stalinist control. As a result reformist Władysław Gomułka became party First Secretary, who condemned and expelled a Soviet Marshal, who ordered that troops open fire on the Poznan strikers, from the government. Gomulka made it clear Polish troops would resist if Soviet troops sought to overthrow the government.

Khrushchev saw this as the rumblings of revolution, but Gomulka took much effort to say Poland was not withdrawing from the Warsaw Pact, and it was not abandoning communism. Khruschev relented, but it was the news of this backdown by Soviet troops that inspired the events of the Hungarian uprising later that year. Gomulka's thaw saw an easing of repression against the church and less state control of the arts, culture and education. However, with the removal of Khrushchev, Soviet pressure grew and Gomulka relented in the 1960s. Persecution of the church, intellectuals and suspected opponents grew. This included an anti-semitic purge removing tens of thousands of Jews from their jobs, coinciding with the Six Day War. Polish troops also assisted in the suppression of the Prague Spring revolution. It culminated in protests in 1970 against massive price rises which were brutally suppressed, with 40 dead and many more injured.

Gomulka was removed, and replaced with Edward Gierek who sought and gained loans and aid from the West to subsidise a programme of supplying more consumer goods to the population. However, this proved unsustainable with massive price rises in 1976 seeing riots and protests. Opposition groups emerged which the regime did not seriously repress, aided significantly by Pope John Paul II being selected, providing a rallying point for many Poles in the church. This proved to be one of the significant steps toward unravelling the regime. Although the Carter Administration propped it up with a US$500 million loan in 1979, which undoubtedly helped sustain it. Although at the time it was clearly seen as the most moderate of the communist governments, given the growth of opposition organisations.

The Gdansk shipyards and Lech Walesa became the next trigger point for reform, with Walesa signing the now much forgotten Gdansk Agreement, which legalised Solidarity as an independent trade union, formally allowed freedom of speech to criticise government policy. By 1981 a quarter of the population had joined Solidarity, three times the number who were members of the Polish United Workers Party. However, the government was stuck. Prices had to rise because of the poor state of the economy and the inability to afford consumer goods otherwise, but this would have provoked widespread revolution.

So instead Poland got martial law under General Jaruzelski. Riot Police brutally suppressed protests, Solidarity was banned, and a tight control on speech, the media and association was implemented. The clock had gone back 25 years. The main justification for martial law was fear of Soviet invasion, which would indicate what would happen some years later when Gorbachev made it clear that Soviet allies would govern their own affairs. The economy stagnated, as Pole faced ration cards and declining living standards, until 1988 when martial law having been lifted some time before, the party opened talks with representatives of Solidarity.

Solidarity was legalised in April 1989, as talks progressed to significantly liberalise Polish political life, culminating in elections in June 1989 when a minority of Parliamentary seats were open to other parties. However that election demonstrated how unpopular the communists were, as Solidarity won all seats it contested and the communists failed to gain many votes in those it had reserved. The pressure built up for far reaching reform so that a Solidarity led government was sworn into office in September 1989, implementing radical reforms with the first fully free elections in 1990, with the end of the People's Republic of Poland.

Finally, after 60 years, Poland would be free. In 1999 Poland would join NATO and in 2004 the European Union. It had secured itself out of the Soviet/Russian sphere and would not look back. It being clear for so long that Poles had little appetite for communism and dictatorship, and that it only took the eyes of Moscow to turn away for Poles to be themselves.


real estate agent in Toronto said...

Yeah, Poland seems to have been a country with a little luck. Thanks a lot for the history lesson, by the way. Even though I feel like I have a good education, Canadian schools surely are not concentrated on happenings in Europe as much as the European ones.


Anonymous said...

Or New Zealand it would seem.

ZenTiger said...

In spite of the brutal suppression from Germany and Russia, Poland gave the Catholic Church a truly great Pope, whose humanitarianism was a testament to living a Catholic faith through so much hardship.

And Poland wasn't just "unlucky" in World War II, she was betrayed and abandoned by her allies. Given what she went through, an extremely unjust result having "won" the war.