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National Exhibit
National Exhibit
History
Communism in Poland: A Brief History of Its Collapse

In 1943-4 the Home Army peaked at about 400,000, making it the largest resistance force in Nazi-occupied Europe and second only to the Yugoslav partisans. The pro-communist partisans were estimated at about 10,000. While the Home Army initially cooperated with the Soviets, the relations quickly deteriorated, and took an irreversible course after the Soviets decided not to relieve Warsaw. Perceived by the communists as a threat, Home Army soldiers were treated like terrorists. Many were held in prison or camps, including the Nazi death camp Majdanek. Summary executions took place, but the majority of those arrested, about 60,000, ended up in cattle cars bound for the Gulag.

Recognizing that the nationalists had a significant following and legitimacy and, while weakened, still presented a military threat, the communist “provisional” government acted slowly to consolidate their power, often depending on Soviet NKVD to do the dirty work. For many soldiers of the Home Army, who overnight became enemies in their own country, the post-war situation created civil war conditions, with a significant portion of the population opposing the communist regime. Even though armed struggle was unwinnable, with a million Soviet troops on Polish territory, when it became clear that the communists did not intend to cede power or form a coalition, guerilla warfare turned on the communists.

Home Army quickly became an anathema, replaced by “the people’s partisans.” When the communists announced a sham amnesty in 1947, about 53,000 nationalist resistance fighters surfaced, but many anticipated a provocation. The communists arrested General Emil Fieldorf, Deputy Commander in Chief of the Home Army, and executed him on trumped up charges in 1951. Estimates based on records of combat deaths range from 6000 to 10,000, excluding executions by the Soviets, but probably reached 30,000. Some nationalist “cursed soldiers” fought throughout the forties and fifties, when their numbers dwindled to the hundreds. Józef Franczak is considered the last partisan, killed in a firefight on October 21, 1963 near Lublin.

As the mastermind of the Solidarity strike in Gdańsk 1980, Bogdan Borusewicz observed, “deleted pages of history were the best recruiters for the democratic opposition.” The official interpretation of history and communist propaganda diverged sharply from personal experience and what you learned at home, making Poland a unique country in the former Soviet bloc in which significant opposition to the communists always existed, even in the darkest days of Stalinism.

Before Stalin’s death secret police kept six million suspect files, or about a third of the adult population. In the 50s, prisons swelled to about 20,000 to 50,000 inmates per year. About half a million people were imprisoned between 1944-1956; many were brutally tortured, many executed. The victims were seen as a direct threat, like former members of the Home Army. Among those executed was a war hero, cavalry captain Witold Pilecki, who volunteered to penetrate the Auschwitz death camp from which he eventually escaped. Pilecki’s reports of atrocities were not believed in London and his plans for an Auschwitz inmate escape were scuttled.

The “workers state” did not look out for the well-being or safeguard workers’ rights. The desire to rebuild the country inspired some workers to produce above quota, like the first Polish Hero of Socialist Labor [Stahanovite] coalminer Wincenty Pstrowski, from Zabrze in Silesia, now regarded as a victim of the communist system dying at 44 of exhaustion. The pint-sized Gdańsk shipyard Stahanovite welder Anna Walentynowicz ended up a leader of the opposition and her firing inspired the 1980 Solidarity strike. As early as 1946 strikes broke out in about 100 working establishments throughout the country and worker protests persisted even during the darkest days of Stalinism.

The Roman Catholic Church was a major impediment to Communism. When it failed to co-opt the Church, the regime tried to contain its influence by assigning the security police to keep a watchful eye on the clergy, including the recruitment of priests as informants or agents. Only about 15% of the priests were won over, which compares favorably with other professions, such as journalists and professors, or clergy in the other Soviet client states. Throughout the Communist period, the Church competed with the Party for the hearts and minds of the people.

Post-war Poland experienced relatively few “show trials” and public executions as in Hungary or Czechoslovakia. At the same time, Polish communist leadership was conformist even after Stalin’s death in March 1953. Two days after Stalin’s death the Council of Ministers changed the name of Silesian provincial seat Katowice to Stalinogrod, to be reversed in 1956. Poland’s Primate Stefan Cardinal Wyszyński was imprisoned six months after Stalin’s death and only released three years later. In the countryside, the pressure to collectivize farms persisted and only eased with the 1956 thaw.

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Poland
Location:  Eastern Europe
Capital:  Warsaw
Communist Rule:  1944-1989
Status:  Abolished - 19.07.89
Victims of Communism:
2 million