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May 19, 2024

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Timeline of Polish Freedom

WARSAW, POLAND– June 4th, the anniversary of the partially free 1989 elections, was celebrated as the silver anniversary of Poland’s regained independence. In actuality, that event was but one of the stages leading to freedom. It could not have occurred were it not for Solidarity’s peaceful revolution, the regime’s 1981 martial-law crackdown and the resurgence of labor unrest in the late 1980s which finally brought the communists to the bargaining table.

But why did Solidarity emerge in the first place? What was it rebelling against and why? Answers to those questions go back many decades to World War II and its aftermath which turned Poland into a Soviet-controlled puppet state, satellite or captive nation.

The following timeline will hopefully help put those events into sharper focus.


1939: On September 1st, Nazi Germany attacks Poland marking the start of War World II, the bloodiest conflict in the annals of mankind. On September 17, Soviet Russia invades eastern Poland and Hitler and Stalin divide up the country roughly in half.

1944: The Poles victory over the Germans at Monte Cassino, Italy, uplifts the nation’s spirits. On August 1st, freedom-fighters launch the Warsaw Uprising against the German occupation forces. The two-month insurrection is crushed after the advancing Red Army, which in July had already set up a Soviet puppet regime in Lublin, refuses to aid the insurgents.

1945: At a February meeting at the Soviet Black Sea resort of Yalta, FDR and Winston Churchill consign Poland to the post-war “Soviet sphere of influence”, inaugurating 45 years of the country’s Soviet subjugation.

1945-1955: A decade of hard-line Stalinist rule attempts to Societies the Polish nation by killing and jailing Polish patriots, nationalizing private property, collectivizing agriculture, destroying the Church and breaking the will of the Polish people.

1956: June “bread and freedom” riots in Poznan usher in a period known as the “the thaw”: Stalinist abuses are exposed, Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński is released from custody, forced collectivization is abandoned and attempts are made to create a “socialism with a human face.”

1968: Polish nationalist communists win a power struggle against Jewish Stalinists, and most of Poland’s Jews are forced to emigrate in the resultant anti-Semitic purge.

1970: Bloody worker riots on the Baltic coast topple the regime of strait-laced Wladyslaw Gomułka and usher in a decade of rule by the more pro-Western Edward Gierek who gets the country into debt by obtaining excessive Western credits.

1976: New price-hike protests erupt in Ursus and Radom; leftist dissidents set up the Worker Defense Committee (KOR) to assist sacked and jailed workers and their families.

1980-1981: A strike at the Gdansk Shipyard spreads across the country and leads to the emergence of Solidarność, the Soviet bloc’s first independent trade union. A 10-million-strong movement of Poles from all walks of life seeks to democratize the country but is crushed when martial law is declared in December 1981.

1982-1988: Troops and tanks patrol the streets, some 10,000 Solidarność activists are jailed and major industry is militarized as General Wojciech Jaruzelski’s seeks to restore Soviet-style communist rule. But an underground opposition movement continues to defy the regime, a new strike wave erupts in 1988, forcing the authorities to negotiate with Solidarność.

1989: Roundtable negotiations between the communist regime and Solidarność lead to an agreement to hold partially democratic elections. Despite the restrictions, Solidarność scores a surprise victory at the polls in June, leading to the emergence of Poland’s first non-communist post-war government several months later. The Polish example leads to the domino-like collapse of one communist regime after another across Europe.

1990: Over the next decade, joining European Union and NATO are Poland’s top foreign-policy priorities. Lech Wałęsa becomes Poland’s first popularly elected president.

1993: Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia sign an association treaty with the EU which is expected to lead to full membership by 2000. The same year Soviet troops pull out of Poland. Former communists now calling themselves social democrats win the parliamentary election.

1995: Wałęsa loses his presidential re-election bid to former communist Aleksander Kwaśniewski. The surprise upset sends shock waves across Poland and Polonia.

1997: The Solidarity-led government of Jerzy Buzek carries out four major reforms; they include replacing the country’s 49 tiny voivodships (provinces) with 16 big ones.

1999: Despite Moscow’s opposition, Poland together with the Czech Republic and Hungary join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Polish troops set up joint forces with Ukrainians and Lithuanians which are still not NATO members.

2003: A high-powered pro-EU propaganda campaign tries to convince Poles that membership in the EU will mean freedom to travel, study and work throughout the community, economic and civilizational advancement and many other advantages. Poles approve their country’s membership in a June referendum.

2004: Poland and nine other countries officially join the EU on May 1st. Celebrations marking the occasion cannot hide the fact that only three EU countries have opened their job markets to Poles. Passports and visas are no longer necessary and Poles can now travel across EU borders with only their ID cards, but their cars can still be searched.

2005: Pope John Paul II, regarded as the greatest Pole of all times, dies after a prolonged agony. His funeral at St Peter’s Square is one of the largest such send-offs in history. The conservative Law and Justice party, headed by Jarosław Kaczyński, wins parliamentary elections, but lacks a majority and creates a coalition with two smaller parties. His twin brother Lech is elected President of Poland.

2007: Unable to govern with his two contentious coalition partner, Jarosław Kaczyński calls for new elections hoping to improve his party’s showing. But his party loses to the liberal Civic Platform party of Donald Tusk which forms a coalition with the small Polish Peasant Party.

2010: A Polish presidential airliner crashes in Smolensk, Russia killing all 96 people on aboard including President Kaczyński and his wife and many leading political figures and military leaders.

Bronisław Komorowski is elected president in earlier elections called to fill the vacancy.

2011: Pope John Paul II, regarded by his countrymen as the greatest Pole who ever lived, is beatified in Rome. Tusk’s Civic Platform becomes the first party to get re-elected since Poland adopted democratic rule 1989. He is again joined by the Polish Peasant Party as junior coalition partner.

2012: For the first time ever, Poland plays host to European Championship Soccer Finals; the event is co-hosted by neighboring Ukraine. A train crash near Szczekociny kills 16 people and injures several dozen others.

2013: The new Pope Francis, who replaces the abdicating Benedict XVI, continues fast-track canonization proceedings for Poland’s John Paul II.

2014: Turmoil in neighboring Ukraine dominates Poland’s political scene, as Russia annexes Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula and pro-Russian separatists destabilize the country. Pope John II is declared a saint of the Catholic church at a canonization ceremony attended by an estimated one million pilgrims; he is co-canonized with Pope John XXIII. Poland celebrates its 15th year in NATO and a decade in the European Union, the 25th anniversary of regained independence and the 70th anniversary of the 1944 Battle of Monte Cassino and the Warsaw Uprising.

 By Robert Strybel, Warsaw Correspondent