Poland's Meshkowritten history begins with the reign of Mieszko I, who accepted Christianity for himself and his kingdom in AD 966. The Polish state reached its zenith under the Jagiellonian dynasty following the union with Lithuania in 1386 and the subsequent defeat of the Teutonic Knights at Grunwald in 1410. The monarchy survived many upheavals but eventually ended with the third and final partition of Poland by Prussia, Russia, and Austria in 1795.

Poland regained its independence in 1918, after President Woodrow Wilson called for the restoration of Polish independence in his Fourteen Points. Authoritarian rule predominated for most of the period before World War II. On August 23, 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union signed the Ribbentrop-Molotov nonaggression pact, which secretly provided for the dismemberment of Poland into Nazi and Soviet-controlled zones. On September 1, 1939, Hitler ordered his troops into Poland and on September 17, Soviet troops invaded and occupied eastern Poland. After Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, German troops occupied all of pre-war Poland. The Poles formed an underground resistance movement and a government in exile, first in Paris and later in London. As many as 600,000 Polish soldiers in exile served under Soviet or British command on the Eastern and Western fronts.

In April 1943, the Soviet Union broke relations with the Polish government in exile following the latter's call for investigation of the mass graves of murdered Polish army officers discovered at Katyn in the U.S.S.R. In July 1944, the Soviet Red Army entered Poland and established a communist-controlled "Polish Committee of National Liberation" at Lublin, which nominally governed areas the Soviet Army had liberated.

The Nazi occupiers brutally suppressed resistance in Warsaw, including the 1943 uprising by Jews in the Warsaw ghetto and the 1944 Polish underground uprising. As the Germans retreated in January 1945, they leveled the city.

During the war, about 6 million Poles were killed, and 2.5 million were deported to Germany for forced labor. More than 3 million Jews (all but about 100,000 of the pre-war Jewish population) were killed in Nazi death camps like those at Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Sobibor.

The Yalta Conference in February, 1945, called for the formation of a Polish Provisional Government of National Unity to be followed by free parliamentary elections. Although the allied powers recognized this government, the London government in exile did not. The Communist Party-dominated "Democratic Bloc" prevailed in the subsequent January 1947 parliamentary elections, which featured falsified results and persecution of the opposition.

Communist Party Domination

Kruschev's denunciation of Stalin at the 20th Soviet Party Congress in Moscow in February 1956, coupled with worker riots in Poznan in October, led to some changes in the communist regime. While retaining most traditional communist economic and social aims, First Secretary Wladyslaw Gomulka's reforms liberalized Polish internal life.

In 1968, the liberalizing trend reversed when the government suppressed student demonstrations and launched an "anti-Zionist" campaign in the wake of the Six-Day War. In December 1970, a price increase for essential consumer goods brought about protests and strikes in the port cities of Gdansk, Gdynia, and Szczecin, reflecting deep dissatisfaction with living and working conditions.

Fueled by large infusions of Western credit, Poland's economic growth rate was one of the world's highest during the first half of the 1970s. But much of the borrowed capital was misspent, and the centrally planned economy was unable to use the new resources effectively. The growing debt burden became insupportable in the late 1970s, and economic growth had become negative by 1979.

In October 1978, the Archbishop of Krakow, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, became Pope John Paul II, head of the Roman Catholic Church. Polish Catholics rejoiced at the elevation of a Pole to the papacy and greeted his June 1979 visit to Poland with an outpouring of emotion.

In July 1980, with the Polish foreign debt at more than $20 billion, the government made another attempt to increase meat prices. A chain reaction of strikes virtually paralyzed the Baltic coast by the end of August and, for the first time, closed most coal mines in Silesia. Poland was entering an extended crisis that would change the course of its future development.

The Solidarity Movement

On August 31, 1980, striking workers at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk, led by an electrician named Lech Walesa, signed a 21-point agreement with the government that guaranteed workers the right to form independent trade unions and the right to strike. As a result of the signed agreement, a new national union movement--"Solidarity"--swept Poland.

Alarmed by the rapid deterioration of the authority of the Polish United Workers’ Party (PZPR) following the Gdansk agreement, the Soviet Union carried out a massive military buildup along Poland's border in December 1980. In February 1981, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski became Prime Minister while also retaining his previous portfolio as Defense Minister. By the end of the year, he had also assumed the title of PZPR First Secretary. Meanwhile, Solidarity elected Lech Walesa as its national chairman in October, 1981.

On December 12-13, the regime declared martial law, enabling the army and special riot police to suppress the union, arresting or detaining nearly all Solidarity leaders and many affiliated intellectuals. The United States and other Western countries responded by imposing economic sanctions against Poland and the Soviet Union. The government suspended martial law in December 1982, and released a small number of political prisoners.

Roundtable Talks and Elections

The government's inability to forestall Poland's economic decline led to waves of strikes across the country in April, May, and August 1988. In an attempt to take control of the situation, the government gave de facto recognition to Solidarity, and Interior Minister Kiszczak began talks with Lech Walesa on August 31. In April 1989, the "roundtable" talks produced an agreement allowing partially open National Assembly elections. These elections took place in June. One-third of the seats in the Sejm (lower house), went to communists and one-third went to other parties allied with the communists. The remaining one-third of the seats in the Sejm and all those in the Senate were freely contested; candidates supported by Solidarity won nearly all of these seats.

Communist failure at the polls produced a political crisis. The roundtable agreement called for a communist president and on July 19 the National Assembly, with the support of some Solidarity deputies, elected General Jaruzelski to office. Two attempts by the communists to form governments failed, however.

On August 19, President Jaruzelski asked journalist and Solidarity activist Tadeusz Mazowiecki to form a government; on September 12, the Sejm voted approval of Prime Minister Mazowiecki and his cabinet. For the first time in more than 40 years, a non-communist led the Polish government.

In December 1989, the Sejm approved the “Balcerowicz Plan”--named after Minister of Finance and Deputy Prime Minister Leszek Balcerowicz--to transform the Polish economy rapidly from central planning to a free-market, amended the constitution , and renamed the country the "Republic of Poland." The PZPR dissolved itself in January 1990, creating in its place a new party, Social Democracy of the Republic of Poland.

The Republic of Poland

The Republic of Poland in the early 1990s made great progress toward achieving a fully democratic government and a market economy. In November 1990, Lech Walesa was elected President for a 5-year term. Jan Krzysztof Bielecki, at Walesa's request, formed a government and served as its Prime Minister until October 1991, introducing world prices and greatly expanding the scope of private enterprise.

Poland held its first free parliamentary elections in 1991. Those and subsequent parliamentary and presidential elections have been conducted freely and fairly. Incumbent governments have transferred power smoothly and constitutionally in every instance to their successors. The post-Solidarity center-right and post-Communist center-left have each controlled the parliament and the presidency since 1991.

In 2005, Poles elected Law and Justice (PiS) candidate Lech Kaczynski to a five-year term as President, and gave a plurality of votes to PiS in the parliament. In mid-2006, the President's twin brother, PiS party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski took over as Prime Minister from Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz. After parliamentary elections in 2007, Donald Tusk of the Civic Platform (PO) became Prime Minister in a governing coalition with the Polish People’s Party (PSL). In a snap election after the 2010 plane crash in Smoleńsk that killed President Kaczynski, Bronisław Komorowski defeated the late President's brother Jaroslaw to become President.

In parliamentary elections in October, 2011 PO again won a plurality of seats (207 of 460), enabling Donald Tusk to continue his party's governing coalition with PSL and to become the first Polish Prime Minister to be elected for a second consecutive term since the fall of communism. The 2011 election marked the emergence of a new political party, "Palikot Movement" (RP), which received 10% of the vote and became the third largest party in the Sejm after PO and PiS.

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