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Poland is a large central European nation that borders on the Baltic Sea.  Warsaw is Poland's capital and largest city.

Poland is named for the Polane, who were a Slavic tribe that lived more than a thousand years ago in what is now Poland.  The name Polane comes from a Slavic word that means plain or field.  Flat plains and gently rolling hills cover most of the country.  Rugged mountains form part of the southern boundary, and thousands of small, scenic lakes dot the northern regions.

The people of Poland have a rich heritage that includes many folk traditions and a strong loyalty to the Roman Catholic Church.  But the 1900's brought many changes to Poland, and some old customs disappeared from everyday life.  Before World War II (1939-1945), Poland's economy depended heavily on agriculture.  Today, agriculture remains an important economic activity.  However, Poland has also developed into a major industrial nation, and most of its people live in cities and towns.

Poland has had a long and varied history.  At one time, the people of Poland ruled an empire that stretched across most of central Europe.  However, foreign powers conquered and divided Poland and brought an end to its existence as a separate nation.  After more than a hundred years of foreign rule, Poland became an independent republic in 1918.  Poland became a Communist country during the mid-1940's.  Its Communist Party controlled the Polish government and placed many restrictions on the freedom of the Polish people.  Non-Communists came to power in 1989, and restrictions on the freedom of the Polish people were lifted.


The 1952 Constitution of Poland established the country as a people's republic.  In theory, the working people of Poland held all political power.  But the Communist Party actually controlled the government until a coalition government was formed in 1989.

In addition to the Communist Party, the country allowed only a few other small parties, and they supported the Communist Party policies.  But in 1989, Poland held its freest parliamentary elections since the Communists took control.  Non-Communist groups were allowed to organize and endorse candidates.

Solidarity, a non-Communist organization of free trade unions, received overwhelming support in the elections.  Candidates endorsed by Solidarity were allowed to run for 35 percent of the seats in the lower house of parliament and all the seats in the upper house.  The remaining 65 percent of the lower house seats were reserved for members of the Communist Party and its allies.  Solidarity candidates won all the lower house seats they contested, and all but one of the upper house seats.  Solidarity leaders then formed a coalition government with the Communist Party and two smaller parties, and began to end Communist controls over society.

In 1990, the Communist Party dissolved itself.  New parliamentary elections were held in October 1991.  This time, all seats in Parliament were contested and none were reserved for members of any specific party.  The Democratic Union party, which was formed out of a branch of Solidarity, won the most seats in both the lower house and the upper house, called the Senate.

Parliamentary elections were held again in September 1993.  The Democratic Left Alliance and the Polish Peasant Party won the most seats.  The two parties established a coalition government.  The Democratic Left Alliance consists of a number of organizations, including the Social Democratic Party, which was formed by former Communist Party members.  The Polish Peasant Party also includes former Communists.

In 1997 parliamentary elections, Solidarity won the most seats, defeating the former Communists who were in control of the government.  Solidarity formed a new coalition government with the Freedom Union.

National government.  Poland's parliament, which is called the National Assembly, has two houses.  The lower house, or Sejm, has 460 members.  The upper house, or Senate, has 100 members.  The National Assembly's duties include passing laws, supervising all the other branches of the government, and electing the president.

The president is the head of state.  The president's executive powers include the ability to declare a state of emergency, to veto legislation (which may be overturned by the Sejm), and to dissolve the National Assembly.  The Sejm appoints a Council of Ministers, which carries out the operations of the government.  The Council of Ministers includes a prime minister and other ministers.  The prime minister is head of government.  The prime minister and the president are the most powerful leaders in Poland.

Local government.  Poland is divided into 49 voivodships (provinces).  The provinces are divided into urban and rural communities.  Each province and community elects a legislative body called a Council.  The Council elects a major or an executive council to serve as the executive body.

Courts.  The Supreme Court is the highest court of Poland.  The Council of State appoints Supreme Court judges to five-year terms.  The judicial system also includes province courts and county courts.

Armed forces.  About 280,000 men serve in Poland's army, navy, and air force.  Men may be drafted at age 19 to serve 18 months of active duty in the armed forces.


Population and ancestry.  About 97 percent of the people of Poland are Poles.  They are descended from Slavic tribes that settled on the Vistula and Warta rivers several thousand years ago.  Polish, the official language, is related to Czech and other Slavic languages.

Minority groups make up about 3 percent of Poland's population.  The largest groups are Germans, Ukrainians, and Belarusians.

After World War II ended in 1945, many Poles began moving from rural areas to cities and towns.  Today, about 62 percent of the people live in urban areas, compared with only about 35 percent in 1950.  Warsaw, Poland's capital, is also the country's largest city.

Way of life in Poland has changed in many ways during the 1900's.  Before World War II, Poland was largely agricultural, and most of the people were poor farmers.  After the war, Poland developed into an industrial nation.  Many people took jobs in the cities. In the cities, most Polish families live in simple two- or three-room apartments.  Small brick or wooden cottages provide housing in rural areas.

Bread, pork, sausages, potatoes, apples, and dairy products are favorite Polish foods.  The Polish people enjoy meaty stews, hearty beet or cabbage soup, and mushrooms.  Rich pastries and fish are eaten, especially on holidays.

Many old traditions have disappeared from everyday life in Poland.  For example, folk costumes are worn only for special occasions or festivals.  Most Poles, especially young people and city dwellers, prefer Western styles of dress.

But some traditions remain important.  Religion, in particular, has had a strong influence on Polish life for more than a thousand years.  For many Poles, social life centers around the church and family gatherings.  Religious holidays, especially Christmas and Easter, are observed with festive celebrations.

Camping and hiking are some of the popular recreational activities in Poland.  Poles also enjoy soccer and other sports.

Religion.  The Poles adopted Christianity in A.D. 966.  Throughout their history, they remained loyal to the Roman Catholic Church, though people in neighboring countries practiced Protestant or Eastern Orthodox religions.  During the 1800's, when Poland did not exist as a separate nation, loyalty to the Roman Catholic Church helped hold the Polish people together.

In the late 1940's and early 1950's, Poland's Communist leaders tried to destroy the influence of the Roman Catholic Church in Poland.  Religious practices were restricted, and many priests were imprisoned.  Polish Catholics resisted these efforts, however, and after antigovernment riots in 1956, the Polish government discontinued most of its policies against the Roman Catholic Church.  Today, Poles have complete freedom of religion.

A large majority of all Poles are Roman Catholics.  There are about 15,000 Roman Catholic churches in Poland and about 18,000 religious instruction centers.  The Roman Catholic Church also operates the Academy of Catholic Theology in Warsaw and the Catholic University of Lublin.  In 1978, Karol Cardinal Wojtyla, a Polish cardinal, became pope of the Roman Catholic Church.  The first Polish pope in history, he took the name of John Paul II. Religious minority groups in Poland include Protestants, Jews, and members of various Eastern Orthodox Churches.

Education.  Poles have a long tradition of respect for education.  Polish scholars, such as the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, have made important contributions in many fields.  The first Polish university, the University of Krakow (now Jagiellonian University), was founded in 1364.  Poland established a government ministry of education as early as 1773.  Until the 1900's, however, education was reserved for only a small, privileged section of the population.

Today, about 98 per cent of all Poles 15 years of age or older can read and write.  Most students attend free, goverment-operated schools.  But an increasing number of students are enrolling in private schools.  The law requires children from age 7 to 15 to attend school.  After completing the elementary school program, students may attend vocational schools or four-year secondary schools.  Secondary school graduates must then pass entrance examinations for entry into schools of higher education.  Poland has 10 universities, as well as many technical institutes and other specialized schools.

The arts.  Poland has produced many outstanding artists, musicians, and writers.  Cultural life in Poland flourished during the 1400's and 1500's.  In the 1500's, the poets Mikolaj Rej and Jan Kochanowski were among the first writers to use the Polish language for their works.

Polish culture flourished during the 1800's, when the Polish national identity was threatened by the Germans and Russians.  The paintings of Jan Matejko portrayed scenes from Polish history.  The composer Frederic Chopin wrote many works based on Polish dances, such as the mazurka and the polonaise.  Another composer and pianist, Ignace Jan Paderewski, also became a leading Polish statesman.  Outstanding Polish writers of the 1800's included the poet Adam Mickiewicz, the playwright Stanislaw Wyspianski, and the novelist Henryk Sienkiewicz.  Sienkiewicz won a Nobel Prize in 1905 for his works, which included Quo Vadis?  Another Polish novelist, Wladyslaw Reymont, won a Nobel Prize in 1924 for The Peasants and other novels.

Beginning in the late 1940's, Poland's Communist leaders restricted cultural activity that did not promote Communist goals.  But a series of antigovernment protests from the 1950's to the 1980's resulted in increases in cultural freedom.  Today, there are few restrictions on cultural activities.  The government has encouraged the preservation of traditional folk arts and music.  Many Poles have won fame in the graphic arts, especially in poster design.  Movies are also a popular art form.  Czeslaw Milosz, a Polish poet, won a Nobel Prize for literature in 1980.

Land and climate

Land regions.  Poland can be divided into seven land regions: (1) the Coastal Lowlands, (2) the Baltic Lakes Region, (3) the Central Plains, (4) the Polish Uplands, (5) the Carpathian Forelands, (6) the Sudeten Mountains, and (7) the Western Carpathian Mountains.

The Coastal Lowlands extend in a narrow strip along the Baltic coast of northwestern Poland.  Sandy beaches line much of the generally smooth coastline.  The coast forms natural harbors at Gdansk, Gdynia, and Szczecin.  These three ports are the only major cities located in the lowlands.

The Baltic Lakes Region covers most of northern Poland.  This scenic, hilly area has thousands of small lakes.  Forests and peat bogs (swamps made up of decayed plants) cover parts of the area.  Most of the land is not good for farming, though some farmers raise potatoes and rye.  Lumbering is the area's most important industry.  The Baltic Lakes Region is thinly populated.  It is a popular vacation spot, where many Poles enjoy camping, hiking, and fishing.

The Central Plains stretch across the entire width of Poland south of the Baltic Lakes Region.  The low-lying plains make up Poland's major agricultural area, though other regions have richer soil.  Farmers in the plains grow potatoes, rye, sugar beets, and other crops.  The plains region has several of Poland's most important cities, including Poznan, Warsaw, and Wroclaw.

The Polish Uplands consist of hills, low mountains, and plateaus that rise south of the plains region.  The densely populated uplands contain most of Poland's mineral wealth and much of its richest farmland.  One of the world's largest coal fields lies around the city of Katowice.  Coal-mining and metal-processing industries have made the Katowice area the most highly industrialized region in Poland.  Copper, lead, and zinc are also found in the uplands.  Fertile soil covers much of the area, especially in the east.  Corn, potatoes, and wheat rank among the region's major crops.

The Carpathian Forelands lie within the branches of the Vistula and San rivers in southeastern Poland.  Much of this region is densely populated.  Crops thrive in the rich soil that covers parts of the gently rolling forelands.  Iron and steel industries have developed in the area around Krakow, the region's most important manufacturing center.

The Sudeten Mountains border southwestern Poland.  Forests cover the rounded peaks of the Sudetens, most of which are located less than 5,000 feet (1,500 meters) above sea level.  The valleys and foothills are used for crops and pastureland.  Textile industries operate in a large number of the small cities and towns of the Sudeten Mountains.

The Western Carpathian Mountains form the southernmost region of Poland.  These steep, scenic mountains rise up to 8,199 feet (2,499 meters) at Rysy peak, the highest point in Poland.  Rural towns and villages are scattered throughout the region.  Bears, wildcats, and other animals live in the thickly forested mountains, and the region has several national parks.

Rivers and canals form a network of navigable waterways in Poland.  The longest river, the Vistula, flows 675 miles (1,086 kilometers) from the Western Carpathians to the Baltic Sea.  Other important rivers include the Bug, the Oder, and the Warta.

Climate varies greatly from one part of Poland to another.  In general, the coast has milder weather than the inland regions, and the mountainous zones are cooler than the lowlands.  Temperatures throughout Poland average 26 °F (-3 °C) in January and 73 °F (23 °C) in July.  The average annual precipitation (rain, snow, and other forms of moisture) totals 24 inches (61 centimeters).


Before World War II (1939-1945), Poland's economy depended largely on agriculture, which employed about 60 percent of all Polish workers.  After the war, the country's Communist leaders stressed the development of industry.  New industrial regions were established around Krakow, Warsaw, and other cities.  Today, industry employs about 36 percent of all Polish workers, and agriculture employs about 25 percent.

Most of Poland's industrial output consists of capital goods, such as factory equipment.  The country does not produce enough consumer goods, such as clothing and furniture, to satisfy the people's demands.  As a result, the people of Poland have a lower standard of living than do the people of most other nations that are industrialized.

Natural resources.  Poland's most important natural resource is coal.  One of the richest coal fields in the world lies in southern Poland.  Poland also has deposits of copper, lead, salt, silver, sulfur, and zinc.

Farmland covers more than three-fifths of Poland.  But much of the soil is of poor quality and must be fertilized.  Forests cover about a fourth of the land.

Industry.  The Communists established a system of government-owned industries in Poland.  In 1990, the new government led by Solidarity began a program to sell these industries to private owners.  Many government industries were sold during the early and mid-1990's.

The chief manufactured products of Poland include chemicals, food products, iron and steel, machinery, ships, and textiles.  Poland ranks among the leading countries in the production of coal and silver.

Agriculture.  Poland ranks among the world's leading producers of potatoes and rye.  Other important crops include barley, sugar beets, and wheat.  Farmers throughout Poland raise hogs.  Cattle and sheep are raised mainly in the hilly regions of the south.

In 1948, the Polish Communist government began to take control of much farmland.  Farmers were forced to give up their land and join collective farms that were managed by the government.  However, many farmers resisted, and the collectivization program ended in the 1950's.  Today, private farms occupy more than 75 percent of Poland's farmland.  Most of the rest of the farmland is owned by the government and is leased to private individuals.  The average size of the private farms is about 12 acres (5 hectares).

Service industries are those economic activities that produce services, not goods.  The leading employer among service industries in Poland is the community, social, and personal services group.  It includes such economic activities as education, engineering, and health care.  The second largest employer among Polish service industries is trade.  Other service industries include transportation and communication, government, and finance and insurance.

Transportation and communication.  Railroads provide the chief means of transportation in Poland.  The railroad network links most Polish cities and towns.  Poland has an extensive system of roads.  The country has an average of about 1 automobile for every 10 people.  The chief seaports in Poland are Gdansk, Gdynia, and Szczecin.  Polish Airlines (LOT), the country's only airline, operates both domestic and international flights.  Poland's chief airport is at Warsaw.

About 40 daily newspapers are published in Poland.  The country has an average of about 1 radio for every 2 people and 1 television set for every 3 people.

Foreign trade.  Poland's leading trading partners include many Western European countries, such as Austria, Britain, Germany, and Italy.  Its chief exports include coal, food products, machinery, ships, and sulfur.  Poland imports cotton, food products, iron ore, machinery, natural gas, petroleum, wool, and other goods.


Slavic tribes probably lived in what is now Poland as early as 2000 B.C. During the A.D. 800's, several of the tribes united under the Polane, one of the largest groups in the area.

The early Polish state.  Members of the Piast family became the first rulers of Poland.  By the mid-900's, Prince Mieszko I ruled over most of the land along the Vistula and Oder rivers.  His son, Boleslaw I, conquered part of what is now the Czech Republic, and parts of what are now Germany, Slovakia, and Ukraine.  In 1025, Boleslaw was crowned the first king of Poland.  After his death later that year, Poland went through periods of warfare and disunity.  By the mid-1100's, the country had broken up into several sections, each ruled by a different noble.

During the 1200's, various peoples invaded and conquered parts of Poland.  Most of the country was finally reunified in the early 1300's.  Casimir the Great, the last Piast monarch, ruled Poland from 1333 to 1370.  Casimir formed a strong central government, strengthened the economy, and encouraged cultural development.

The Polish empire.  In 1386, Queen Jadwiga of Poland married Wladyslaw Jagiello, the Grand Duke of Lithuania.  Jagiello ruled Poland and Lithuania as king, but each country remained largely self-governing.

Jagiellonian kings ruled Poland for nearly 200 years.  Under their leadership, Poland expanded its territory and made important advances in its cultural, economic, and political development.  The Polish empire reached its height during the 1500's, when it covered a large part of central and eastern Europe, including Ukraine and Belarus.  In 1493, the first national parliament of Poland was established.  Poland and Lithuania were united under a single parliament in 1569.

The decline of Poland.  In spite of the advances of the Jagiellonian period, signs of strain developed in Poland after the mid-1500's.  The monarchy began to lose power to the nobles, who dominated the parliament.  After the death of the last Jagiellonian monarch in 1572, Polish kings were elected by the nobles.  Some of the elected kings were foreigners, and these kings proved to be ineffective rulers.  Rivalries among the nobles weakened the Polish parliament, and costly wars ruined the economy.  Poland lost much of its territory in Ukraine as a result of a rebellion there in 1648.  In 1655, Sweden won control over most of Poland's Baltic provinces.  A series of wars with Turkey finally ended with a Polish victory at the Battle of Vienna in 1683.

The partitions.  Poland's decline continued into the 1700's.  In 1772, Austria, Prussia, and Russia took advantage of Poland's weakness and partitioned (divided) Polish territory among themselves.  Austria seized land in southern Poland.  Prussia took land located in the west part of Poland.  Russia took land in the east.  As a result, Poland lost about a third of its territory and half its population.

After the first partition, the Polish government adopted a series of reform measures to stop the country's decay.  In 1791, a new constitution restored the hereditary monarchy.  But the reforms came too late.  In 1793, Prussia and Russia seized additional territory in eastern and western Poland.  This second partition led to an uprising among Poles in 1794.  Polish forces under Tadeusz Kosciuszko fought Russian and Prussian troops but were defeated.  Austria, Prussia, and Russia carried out the third partition of Poland in 1795, dividing what remained of the country among themselves.  Poland no longer existed as a separate country.

After 1795, many Poles joined the French forces of Napoleon Bonaparte to fight against Austria and Prussia.  In 1807, Napoleon gained control of Prussian Poland and made it into a Polish state called the Grand Duchy of Warsaw.  But after Napoleon's final defeat in 1815, Poland was again divided among Austria, Prussia, and Russia.  A small, self-governing Kingdom of Poland was established under Russian control.

The struggle against foreign rule.  In 1830, Poles in the Kingdom of Poland rebelled against the Russians.  But Russia crushed the revolt.  Other unsuccessful revolts were launched against Austria and Prussia.  After a second revolt in the Kingdom of Poland in 1863, Russia tried to destroy Polish culture by making Russian the official language there.  After 1871, when Prussia formed the German Empire, Poles under Prussian control were forced to adopt the German language.

Poles under Austrian rule won some self-government in the late 1800's.  In the 1880's and 1890's, Polish political parties formed in all three parts of Poland.  Leading politicians included Jozef Pilsudski and Roman Dmowski.

World War I and independence.  After the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Pilsudski led Polish forces on the side of Austria against Russia.  The Russians were driven out of most of Poland by 1915, and the following year, Austria and Germany established a small Polish kingdom under their protection.  In 1917, Dmowski formed the Polish National Committee in Paris to win Allied support for an independent Poland.  After the Allied victory in 1918, an independent Polish republic was proclaimed.  Pilsudski became the first chief of state.

Under the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, Poland regained large amounts of territory from Germany.  The port of Gdansk was made the Free City of Danzig under the supervision of the League of Nations (see VERSAILLES, TREATY OF).  The return of land in Pomerania, a region along the Baltic coast, gave Poland access to the sea.  In the east, Poland tried to reestablish its prepartition boundary with Russia.  This led to a war with Russia in 1919 and 1920.  The 1921 Treaty of Riga represented a compromise.  It established a border that gave Poland some of its prepartition land.

Rebuilding the Polish nation.  The new Polish state faced many problems.  Its leaders had to unify three regions that had been separate for more than 100 years.  About a third of its population consisted of minority groups, some of whom resented Polish rule.  In addition, the partitions and World War I had disrupted the country's economy.  During the 1920's and 1930's, Poland slowly rebuilt its economy and developed uniform systems of government, transportation, and education.

The 1921 Constitution of Poland provided for a democratic government.  But many political parties competed for power, and the government was unstable.  In 1926, Pilsudski led a military overthrow of the government.  He then took control.  In 1935, Poland adopted a new constitution that confirmed many of Pilsudski's unrestricted powers.  Pilsudski died in 1935.  But his successors continued the policy of absolute rule.

In the 1930's, Poland began to be threatened by the growing military strength of Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. (The U.S.S.R. had been formed in 1922 under Russia's leadership, and it existed until 1991.) In 1939, Adolf Hitler demanded that Danzig (Gdansk) be given to Germany.  He also demanded transportation rights across eastern Pomerania.  The Poles resisted Hitler's demands and formed an alliance with Britain.  Britain and France, which had signed an alliance pact with Poland in 1921, pledged to defend Poland if its independence were directly threatened.

World War II.  In August 1939, Germany and the U.S.S.R. signed a treaty in which they secretly planned to divide Poland between themselves.  On September 1, Germany attacked Poland.  Britain and France then declared war on Germany.  The U.S.S.R. invaded Poland on September 17.  The Poles fought bravely, but were defeated within a month.  Germany and the U.S.S.R. then divided Poland.  In 1941, Germany attacked the U.S.S.R. and seized all of Poland.

Shortly after the fall of Poland, a Polish government-in-exile was formed in Paris.  Later, it was moved to London.  Polish armed forces joined Allied forces in many campaigns.  In addition, an underground Home Army operated inside Poland against the Germans.

After the German attack against the U.S.S.R. in 1941, Polish Communists formed an exile center in the U.S.S.R. Poles under the command of the U.S.S.R. fought against Germany on the eastern front.  The Communists also formed their own small underground movement.  In 1942, they established the Polish Communist Party.  Wladyslaw Gomulka became the party leader in 1943.

In 1944, the army of the U.S.S.R. invaded Poland and began to drive out the Germans.  Also in 1944, the Home Army staged an uprising against the Germans in Warsaw.  But after two months of fighting, the Home Army had to surrender.  That same year, a Polish Committee of National Liberation was formed in Lublin.  The U.S.S.R. recognized the committee, which consisted almost entirely of Communists, as the provisional government of Poland.  At the 1945 Yalta Conference, the Allies agreed to recognize the committee after it was expanded to include representatives of the London government-in-exile and other non-Communist groups (see YALTA CONFERENCE).

Poland suffered widespread death and destruction during the war.  Much of Warsaw and other cities were destroyed.  Millions of Poles, including most Polish Jews, were put into concentration camps when the U.S.S.R. and Germany occupied Poland.  Between 1939 and 1945, over 6 million Poles died.  About half were Jews.

Agreements reached at the end of the war shifted Poland's borders westward, and millions of Poles were resettled.  The U.S.S.R. kept most of eastern Poland.  In return, Poland received the German lands east of the Oder and Neisse rivers, including major industrial regions.

Communist rule was opposed by most Poles.  But the Communists used police power and other methods to crush resistance.  Communist-controlled elections in 1947 gave them a large majority in the new legislature.  By 1948, Communist rule was firmly established.

During the late 1940's, the U.S.S.R. gained increasing influence over the Polish government.  In 1949, a U.S.S.R. military officer, Konstantin Rokossovsky, was made Poland's defense minister.  Polish Communists suspected of disloyalty to the U.S.S.R. were removed from power.  They included Wladyslaw Gomulka, who, as first secretary, held the most powerful post in Poland.  He was removed from his post in 1948 and imprisoned in 1951.  In 1952, Poland adopted a constitution patterned after that of the U.S.S.R. The government took control of industries and forced farmers to give up their land and work on collective farms.  As part of an antireligion campaign, the Communists imprisoned Stefan Cardinal Wyszyski, head of the Roman Catholic Church in Poland.

During the 1950's, many Poles began to express discontent with government policies and resentment of domination by the U.S.S.R. In 1956, workers in Pozna and other cities staged antigovernment riots.  Wladyslaw Gomulka was then freed from prison and again became head of the Communist Party.  He ended the forced take-over of farmland and eased the campaign against religion.  Cardinal Wyszyski was released from prison, and defense minister Rokossovsky was dismissed.

In the 1960's, Polish intellectuals protested against government limits on freedom of expression, and new disputes erupted between the government and the Catholic Church.  In 1970, strikes and riots broke out in Gdask and other cities.  Thousands of Poles demanded better living conditions and economic and political reforms.  After days of riots, Gomulka resigned, and Edward Gierek became the Communist Party leader.

Recent developments.  Gierek's leadership brought better relations between the government and the Catholic Church.  Although Poland remained a loyal ally of the U.S.S.R., its government took steps during the 1970's to improve relations with non-Communist countries.

In 1978, Karol Cardinal Wojtyla, a Polish cardinal and the archbishop of Krakow, was elected pope of the Roman Catholic Church.  He took the name of John Paul II. He became the first Polish pope in history and the first non-Italian pope since 1523.  He visited Poland in 1979, 1983, and 1987.  John Paul II called on Poland's government to allow greater freedom to its people.

Poland has struggled with high prices and shortages of food and consumer goods since the mid-1970's.  In 1976, Poles rioted after the government announced big increases in food prices.  Government leaders then deferred the increases.  Economic conditions worsened in the late 1970's.  In the summer of 1980, thousands of workers in Gdask and other cities went on strike.  They demanded higher pay, free trade unions, and political reforms.  Communist leaders promised to meet many of the demands.  In September, the Central Committee forced Gierek to resign and elected Stanislaw Kania to replace him.  In November, the Polish government recognized Solidarity, an organization of free trade unions.  This was the first time a Communist country recognized a labor organization that was independent of the Communist Party.  Lech Walesa headed Solidarity.

Economic problems, including food shortages, increased.  In October 1981, the Central Committee made Kania resign and elected Wojciech Jaruzelski, an army general, head of the Communist Party.

Jaruzelski's government faced continuing economic problems and demands by the people for economic improvements and greater political freedom.  In December 1981, Jaruzelski imposed martial law, suspended Solidarity's activities, and had Walesa and hundreds of union leaders held as prisoners.  In October 1982, the government officially outlawed Solidarity.  Walesa and some Solidarity members were released in late 1982.  The remaining prisoners were released over the next several years.  Jaruzelski's government formally ended martial law in July 1983.  But many controls over the people's freedom were retained.

In 1989, the government reached an agreement with Solidarity that led to the legalization of the union and to changes in the structure of the government.  Under the agreement, a Senate was added to the parliament and an office of president with broad powers was created.  Non-Communist candidates were allowed to compete for all Senate seats and some lower house (Sejm) seats.  The remaining lower house seats were reserved for members of the Communist Party and its allies.  Candidates backed by Solidarity were the most successful in the elections, the freest in Poland since the end of World War II.  After the elections, parliament elected Jaruzelski president.  Parliament appointed Tadeusz Mazowiecki, a Solidarity leader, as prime minister.  He became Poland's first non-Communist prime minister since World War II.  The new government began to end Communist controls over the lives of the people.

Also in 1989, the government began a program to sell government-owned industries to private owners.  Much progress was made in this program in the 1990's.  In 1990, Poland's Communist Party was dissolved.

In June 1990, Solidarity split into two opposing groups.  One group supported Mazowiecki, and the other supported Walesa.  In November, Mazowiecki, Walesa, and Stanislaw Tyminski ran in a presidential election.  Mazowiecki finished third and then resigned as prime minister.  Walesa won a runoff election against Tyminski in December and became Poland's president.  After the election, Walesa resigned as head of Solidarity.  Parliamentary elections were held in October 1991.  The 1989 system of reserving lower house seats for members of specific parties was abolished starting with the 1991 election.  The Democratic Union, a party that formed out of Mazowiecki's branch of Solidarity, won the most seats in both the lower house and the Senate.

By 1993, many people were discouraged by economic hardship brought on by the change to a free-market economy.  Elections were held in 1993.  The Democratic Left Alliance and the Polish Peasant Party won the most seats in parliament.  Both parties include many former Communist Party members.  The parties formed a coalition government and said they would continue economic reforms.  In 1995, Aleksander Kwasniewski, a former Communist leader, was elected president.

In 1997 elections, Solidarity won the most seats in parliament and defeated the former Communists who were in control.  Solidarity formed a new coalition government with the Freedom Union.