The 20th century is now history, as we face a new millennium. To Poles and Polonians world-wide, it was an era of great achievements and tragic defeats — a period of unprecedented heroism and unspeakable horror. Let us take a closer look at some of the events experienced and contributions made by Poland and its people over the last 100 years.
– As a new century dawned, the machine age and ragtime were in full swing, and the mood of the gay ’90s was still going strong. Colonial empires were expanding, and immigrants were flocking to America, the land of promise. But independent Poland did not exist, having been carved up more than a century earlier by Russia, Prussia and Austria. Whereas for many countries the 19th century had been a era of economic, military and cultural expansion, for Poles it had been a time of enslavement, forced de-Polonization and failed insurrections.
– Polish scientist Maria Sklodowska-Curie (better known in the English-speaking world as ‚Madame Curie’) and her French husband Pierre Curie receive the Nobel Prize in physics for their radiation research.
– A wave of strikes and revolutionary upheavals in major Polish cities of the Russian partition zone gave rise to hopes that Poland would free itself of tsarist enslavement. The Russians eventually quashed the rebellion but were forced to make certain concessions, including permission for Polish to be used as the language of instruction in private schools.
– Novelist Henryk Sienkiewicz is awarded the Nobel Literary Prize for his novel ‚Quo Vadis’, at one time the world’s largest-selling book apart from the Holy Bible.
– Maria Sklodowska Curie (following the death of her husband in 1905) receives a Nobel Prize in chemistry for her work on radium and polonium.
– The Polish Legions are formed as part of the Austrian Army and include Józef Pilsudski’s famous 1st Brigade. They eventually were to become the nucleus of Poland’s fighting forces during and after World War I.
– Poland regains its independence after 123 years of foreign enslavement, when military leader Józef Pilsudski assumes power as commander-in-chief on November 11th. But plebiscites, uprisings and wars with its neighbors will continue for several more years before the country can secure stable borders.
– The defeat of the Russian Red Army at the gates of Warsaw is regarded as one of most crucial battles in world history and widely believed to have prevented a bloody Bolshevik revolution from engulfing Europe.
– Poland annexes the old Polish city of Wilno and the surrounding region which had been awarded to Lithuania, thereby souring relations between the two countries for decades.
– Novelist Wladyslaw Reymont receives the Nobel Literary Prize for his novel ‚The Peasants’ (‚Chlopi’).
– Economist Wladyslaw Grabski reforms Poland’s currency by scrapping the inflated Polish mark and introducing the zloty which soon becomes one of Europe’s most stable currencies.
– The modern Baltic port of Gdynia is opened to give Poland access to the sea, independent of the largely German-controlled Free City of Gdansk.
– Pilsudski stages a coup d’état against what he calls ‚sejmocracy’ (the rule of a squabbling parliament and weak cabinets) and introduces a more authoritarian style of government. Some 400 soldiers die and 1,000 are wounded in the fighting.
– Peasant party leader Wincenty Witos and several other of Pi3sudski’s left-leaning political foes are found guilty of subversion and sentenced to from 1.3 to three years in prison, but leave the country (in 1933) rather than going to prison.
– Following the murder of cabinet member Bronis3aw Pieracki by a Ukrainian fanatic, the government sets up an isolation camp for terrorists, communists and other dangerous subversives at Bereza Kartuska.
– Pilsudski dies in May and is given a hero’s funeral as the nation mourns the military leader and statesman widely regarded as the architect of free Poland. He never lived to see the implementation of the Constitution adopted a month earlier which introduced a strong executive branch and limited the free-wheeling parliamentarianism that had led to chaos prior to his 1926 coup.
– Poland’s arch-enemies, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, implement a secret pact and carry out the fourth partition of Poland, unleashing World War II. The Polish government flees to France and subsequently moves to England.
– Stalin orders the murder of some 22,000 Polish officers, jud-ges and other officials which has become known as the Katyn Forest Massacre; the bodies of about 7,000 have never been found. The Germans execute the first prisoners of their Auschwitz concentration camp, all of them ethnic Poles.
– Polish underground organizations, which began springing up soon after the 1939 invasion, unite under the name of ‚Armia Krajowa’ (AK) or Home Army, which eventually becomes occupied Europe’s largest resistance movement; is part of an underground state directed by the London-based Exile Government and includes a clandestine administration, courts and school system.
– The 63-day Warsaw Uprising is the biggest such anti-Nazi insurrection in occupied Europe; the Russians stand idly by on the opposite bank of the Vistula as the Germans level the city to the ground.
– Following Big Three conferences in Teheran, Yalta and Potsdam, Poland finds itself an unwilling Soviet satellite that emerges from World War II with 30% less population and about 20% less territory than it in 1939.
– The regime orchestrates an anti-Jewish pogrom in Kielce to draw world attention away from a rigged referendum, allegedly showing that Poles approve the communist take-over.
– The Stalinization of Poland is stepped up through large-scale nationalization of private property, attempts to collectivize farming, a war on religion and brutal reprisals including death sentences, torture and long prison terms against anyone opposed to their country’s forced Sovietization.
– Poland narrowly avoids a Soviet invasion following Poznan’s ‚Bread and Freedom’ riots which usher in the ‚thaw’, a more liberal form of communist rule. Wladyslaw Gomulka, a communist jailed for his pro-Polish leanings, returns to power, Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski is freed from house arrest, collectivization is stopped, the dreaded UB (secret police) is disbanded and censorship becomes less severe.
– The government attacks the Polish Episcopate for forgiving German wrongs and asking forgiveness in a letter to West Germany’s bishops.
– Church-state tensions intensify over Poland’s anniversary celebrations which the Church is commemorating as ‚the Millennium of Poland’s Christianity’ and the communist regime as ‚1,000 Years of Polish Statehood.’
– Nationalist-leaning Gentile communists get the upper hand in the regime and unleash an anti-Semitic purge of Jewish Stalinists in which many innocent citizens of Jewish extraction are maligned, lose their jobs and are forced to emigrate; ordinary Poles are dubbed anti-Semites by world-wide Jewry even though the crackdown was the result of a communist power struggle.
– Gomulka is swept from office in the wake of pre-Christmas food-price riots on the Baltic Coast, similar to those that brought him to power 14 years earlier. The new leader, Edward Gierek, promises a more liberal, pro-Western brand of communism.
– Food-price increases again spark worker protests, the most serious in Ursus near Warsaw and Radom; police reprisals against protesters lead to the emergence of the dissident Workers’ Defense Committee (KOR) which provides legal and material aid to jailed workers and their families.
– Church-bells sound and euphoria engulfs Poland and Polonia when Card. Karol Wojtyla, the Archbishop of Kraków, becomes John Paul II, the first non-Italian pope in four and a half centuries.
– The Polish-born Pontiff’s first triumphal homecoming to his native land, the first ever papal visit to Poland, gives fresh hope and a spiritual uplift to his dispirited countrymen.
– A meat-price hike leads to a nation-wide strike wave which gives birth to Solidarity, the Soviet bloc’s first independent union; a 16-month tug-o-war between the Soviet-backed regime and Lech Walesa’s freedom-minded Solidarity movement follows.
– Polish émigré poet Czeslaw Milosz receives the Nobel Literary Prize.
– An assassination attempt on John Paul II in Rome and the death of Cardinal Wyszynski in Warsaw plunge Poland into national mourning. As the year draws to a close, military strongman Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski declares martial law in an attempt to crush Solidarity; phone lines are cut, curfews and travel bans are imposed, industry is militarized and some 10,000 anti-communist activists are jailed.
– Lech Walesa is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for leading Solidarity’s peaceful democratic revolution; fearful that the regime may not let him back into Poland, he sends his wife Danuta to Oslo, Norway, to collect the prize.
– The murder of popular Solidarity chaplain Father Jerzy Popieluszko by the hated secret police (SB) triggers nation-wide outrage and injects new life into the faltering Solidarity un-derground movement.
– A wave of Solidarity-led strikes coupled with a deepening economic crisis forces the ruling communists to the bargaining table where they agree to a round-table conference on Poland’s future.
– A round-table conference between the communist regime and the Solidarity opposition leads to the latter’s victory in partially democratic elections and the country’s first post-war non-communist government headed by Catholic journalist Tadeusz Mazowiecki.
– Lech Walesa becomes Poland’s first popularly elected president; Poles begin feeling the sting of Finance Minister Leszek Balcerowicz’s painful pro-market economic reforms which include slashed buying power, bankruptcies of unprofitable state companies and growing unemployment.
– With the blessing of parliament, the government of Jan Olszewski is overthrown after releasing files alleging the collaboration of leading opposition figures with the former secret police, including Wa3esa himself.
– Shock and disbelief rock Poland and Polonia when the ex-communists, now calling themselves Social democrats, are voted back into office in democratic elections; the return to power of people associated with the former regime is seen as a public backlash against the constant squabbling of right-wing Solidarity-linked parties.
– Ex-communist Aleksander Kwasniewski narrowly defeats incumbent Lech Wa3esa to become Poland’s second popularly elected president; the Polish economy begins improving: the gross domestic product and foreign investments are growing, while inflation and unemployment are dropping.
– Solidarity leader Marian Krzaklewski succeeds in melding two dozen small right-leaning parties into a loose federation called the Solidarity Electoral Action (AWS) which wins parliamentary elections; the new government of former Solidarity underground Solidarity acti-vist Jerzy Buzek will soon launch a program of major reforms of the country’s administrative map, education, health and social security.
– Poetess Wislawa Szymborska is awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
– Poland (together with Hungary and the Czech Republic) becomes a full-fledged member of NATO; the decision follows a major lobbying campaign by America’s organized Polonia in favor of Poland’s admission.
– Following disagreements with the AWS (Solidarity), which favors a people-friendly market economy, its junior coalition partner, the hard-nosed pro-capitalist Freedom Union (UW), leaves the cabinet, forcing it to carry on as a minority government. Ex-communist in-cumbent Aleksander Kwasniewski is re-elected to another 5-year term after winning more than 52% of the vote, compared with a humiliating 15.5% for AWS leader Marian Krzaklewski.
The above key dates will hopefully provide a better understanding of what our ancestral homeland has gone through between 1900 and the start of 2001. The early years of the 21st century will most likely be largely a continuation of Free Poland II, the decade of the 1990s when for the second time this century our ancestral homeland was a free and independent state. Admission to the European Union, widely expectedly to occur some time between 2003 and 2006, is likely to profoundly affect Poland’s economy, government policies and social development — both for better and worse. Fears have been voiced that nearly all of Poland’s economy will soon be controlled by foreign interests. But the specific challenges, problems and pitfalls that lie ahead as well as the extent to which they affect the lives of our overseas countrymen in the years and decades ahead remain anyone’s guess.