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Poland since 1918: a turbulent century

Poland regained its sovereignty after World War I when independence leader Jozef Pilsudski took charge. He stepped down in 1922 but after his successor was assassinated he returned in a coup in 1926, remaining in power until his death in 1935
AFP

Paris (AFP) – Poland was partitioned and wiped off the map for 123 years before it regained independence in 1918. The drama-filled century that followed saw it live through brutal Nazi occupation, decades of Soviet domination and clashes with the European Union, which it joined in 2004.

Here is some background.

– Independence –

Split between the German, Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires, Poland regained its sovereignty after World War I when independence leader Jozef Pilsudski took charge in 1918.

In 1919 the victorious Allied powers granted Poland access to the sea. Its borders provoked clashes with Bolshevik Russia, which Poland defeated in 1920.

Pilsudski stepped down in 1922 but when his successor was assassinated he returned in a coup in 1926 and remained in power until his death in 1935.

He signed non-aggression pacts with the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany twice during his leadership, in 1932 and 1934.   

– German invasion –

Adolf Hitler invaded from the west on September 1, 1939. Soviet forces attacked from the east 17 days later under a secret pact with Germany. The capital Warsaw surrendered on September 28. 

Russia and Germany divided up the country before the Nazis attacked the Soviets in 1941, taking over their share of Polish territory.

Nazi Germany set up a number of concentration and death camps in occupied Poland including the notorious Auschwitz site, making it the epicentre of the Holocaust.

Jews from across Europe were killed in Germany’s death camps, and Warsaw’s Jewish ghetto was wiped out in 1943.

The resistance that emerged in August 1944 in Warsaw was crushed. 

On January 17, 1945, Soviet troops entered the city in ruins after the Nazi retreat.

– Soviet period –

The February 1945 Yalta Conference established Poland’s borders but also put it within the Soviet sphere of influence, angering Poles who had hoped for full independence.

Communist Boleslaw Bierut became president in 1947 with Moscow’s backing and the country followed Soviet policies of nationalisation and collectivisation. 

On May 14, 1955, the Warsaw Pact cemented its place within the Eastern bloc.

A workers’ revolt broke out in the city of Poznan in June 1956. It marked the beginning of what became known as the Polish October, when the country distanced itself from the Soviet Union. 

– Protests –

In March 1968 student and intellectual movements protested against the communist regime’s tightened grip, including greater censorship. 

There was also an outcry against its anti-Semitic campaign which had sent several thousand Jews into exile.

Polish troops were part of the August 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, which crushed the Prague Spring movement seeking more freedoms.

In 1970 communist leader Wladyslaw Gomulka was replaced by the more conciliatory Edward Gierek, who pursued a thaw, but fresh protests sparked by the high cost of living were suppressed in 1976.  

In 1978 Karol Wojtyla became the first Polish pope, known as John Paul II. His first trip to Poland as pontiff took place the following year, when he visited Auschwitz. 

– Solidarity, union triumph –

After strike action in 1980, an independent union called Solidarnosc (Solidarity) was officially recognised — a first in the communist bloc.

This rattled the Polish government, which imposed martial law in December 1981 and arrested Solidarnosc leader Lech Walesa. 

Taking advantage of the upheaval in the Soviet Union, a major strike movement enabled Solidarnosc and democracy to return. 

Walesa won the 1990 presidential election and Poland entered the market economy.

– Part of NATO, EU –

Poland joined NATO in 1999 and the European Union in 2004.

In October 2005 Catholic conservative Lech Kaczynski was elected president. 

A month earlier his twin brother, Jaroslaw, the leader of their Law and Justice party (PiS), had won legislative elections.

The PiS then lost snap elections in 2007 to the liberal Civic Platform led by Donald Tusk, who served as prime minister for two terms.

Lech Kaczynski was killed in a plane crash in 2010 near the Russian air base of Smolensk, along with several top officials.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski ran for president that year but lost to liberal candidate Bronislaw Komorowski.

The PiS returned to power in 2015.

The government has since locked horns with the European Union, unhappy with its judicial reforms, and has threatened to remove its right to vote. 

But Hungary has supported Poland and prevented the European Council from imposing sanctions. 

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