Poland under Totalitarianism

Historical Background of Totalitarianism in Poland – An Overview

On 1st September Germany invaded Poland without formal declaration of war. In mid-September German troops took over half of the country. Simultaneously on 17th September the USSR commenced military operations in East Poland. On 28th September 1939 the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact was signed in Moscow which set future partition of Poland. Thus, Poland was violated by two hostile states: the USSR and Nazi Germany.

Terror was the outcome of German occupation. Totalitarian German government had planned to fully exterminate the Polish elites, reduce education to the lowest possible level. The ultimate goal was to obliterate Poland and her children. Repression was omnipresent and all Poles experienced it: belongings and property were ravaged, production limitations and quota were imposed upon farmers, many Poles were made to work by force, ‘raids’ were frequent (random people were caught in the streets, households, public facilities), approximately 2 million Poles were sent to forced labour camps in Germany. Concentration camps were set up on the territory of Poland, some of them turned into death camps – both forms of totalitarian constraint were to annihilate their prisoners. The Germans often slaughtered people in public places and their names displayed in street bills. The Holocaust was another form of totalitarianism. Since the very first day of war the Germans started to issue anti-Jewish regulations. The Jews were supposed to wear the Star of David on their clothing, give place to Germans. Their belongings were looted and they were isolated in ghettoes. Approximately 400 ghettoes were founded during the occupation. In ghettoes the living conditions were extremely poor. Hitler’s goal was the total annihilation of the Jews.

The Soviet government terrorised people living in the regions controlled by them via martial law. The ultimate aim of such actions was swift sovietisation of the Polish nation. Catholic and Greek-Catholic Church was eradicated, the elites were persecuted, belongings were ravaged, people got arrested if they were believed to be a menace to the communist system. If they did get arrested, they were sent to the USSR to work hard in extreme conditions. Whole families got deported, relatives of the arrested. It is estimated that about 400,000 Polish citizens were deported and another 200,000 compulsorily integrated into the Red Army. In total, 1 million Polish citizens were affected by the repressions of the Soviet totalitarian state.

Interestingly, during German and Soviet occupation the Polish Underground State was active all the time, the government on emigration was founded as well as Polish Forces (beyond the occupied Poland) – on the strength of deals with Great Britain and France. The Resistance operated in the occupied country as well carrying out various actions.

The period of occupation and totalitarian reign ended when the Second World War was declared over. The newly marked out borders shrank the territory of Poland by 20%. Due to post-war arrangements Poland remained under the influence of the Soviet state.

On 30th June 1946 a people’s referendum was conducted. It concerned the following issues: the dismantling of the Senate, acknowledging the socio-economic reforms and the new borders of Poland (along the Baltic, the Oder and the Nysa Łużycka). Its results were fabricated by the communist Security Service in order to strengthen the ruling communist power, which was dependent on the USSR. Bulgaria, Romania and Czechoslovakia remained also under the influence of the USSR. On the territory of these states, including Poland, the Soviet Army garrisoned and its Security Service worked. All of them were dependent and subordinate to the Soviet sovereignty.

Another phase of the Soviet totalitarian reign was the time when the Polish United Workers’ Party was conceived on 15th December 1948 with its chairman Bolesław Bierut, who was totally dependent on Joseph Stalin. This event marked the beginning of Stalinism in Poland (1949-1956). Stalinism was present in all aspects of life: culture, education, economy, science, the army and it was based on the reign of one party, propaganda, centrally planned economy and the dictatorship of Joseph Stalin – the head of the USSR. The communist state had almost all aspects of life under its control, sustaining the psychosis of fear of the onset of the Third World War, which allowed them to do what they wished. The beginning of the 50s marks the high spot of Stalinism in Poland. Joseph Stalin died 5 March 1953.

After his death Poland still remained under the influence of the USSR and its consecutive leaders. The communist government carried on undertaking various actions of repressive character in order to maintain its position and control over the citizens.

As time passed by and rising demand for more liberties and independence different movements and organisations of anti-party opposition appeared. Strikes and demonstrations began to break showing growing dissatisfaction of the society (1956, 1968, 1970, 1971, 1976, 1980, 1981, 1982, 1984, 1988).

On 4th and 18th June 1989 elections were held which marked the fall of Communism in Poland. In October 1989 the first free parliamentary elections in 60 years were held.



  • Robert Śniegocki „History – turbulent XX century” Nowa Era Publishing House Edition 9 Warsaw 2012