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Poland: 100th Anniversary of Independence

100 years ago, Poland regained its independence: we take a look at the turbulent history of a country that has always longed for freedom.

Spotlight on Poland at the Elbphilharmonie

From 10 September to 25 November 2018

To the concerts

Poland is celebrating 100 years of independence with a whole variety of events in 2018. The Elbphilharmonie takes the opportunitiy to place Poland in the spotlight: for three months, the NDR ensembles and a variety of Polish artists and groups present the many different facets of Polish music.

Poland can look back on over a thousand years of history, but the year 1918 stands out as particularly memorable: this was the year when the country freed itself from the foreign yoke and made a new start as an independent republic. However, it wasn't long before the dream of freedom was shattered again, and the Polish people had to wait until 1989 for renewed independence.


The Three Partitions of Poland
The Three Partitions of Poland © John Nennbach


In the three Partitions of Poland in 1772, 1793 and 1795, Russia, Prussia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire divided the territory of Poland up amongst themselves. After the third Partition, nothing was left of Poland: the country had vanished from the map. A humiliation and a trauma with lasting effect. After the Polish state had ceased to exist, many politicians emigrated, among them Józef Wybicki. In exile in Italy, he wrote the text of the song»Poland is not yet lost« (Jeszcze Polska nie zginęła) in 1797, which is now the Polish national anthem. Political activists continued to fight for Polish independence, and there were numerous uprisings, but all of them failed.

Józef Piłsudski (middle) 1926 in Warsaw
Józef Piłsudski (middle) 1926 in Warsaw © Marian Fuks


»An independent Polish state should be erected which should include the territories inhabited by indisputably Polish populations…« – in January 1918, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson outlined his proposals for a postwar peace settlement in Europe with a 14-point plan, of which this was the 13th point. On 11 November 1918, the future Polish head of state Józef Piłsudski took military control of German-occupied Warsaw and proclaimed the Republic of Poland. But the borders of the new, independent state were not clearly defined, which resulted in repeated conflicts with neighbouring countries in the following years.

Boy in the Rubble of Warsaw 1939
Boy in the Rubble of Warsaw 1939 © Julien Bryan


As a result of the pact that Hitler and Stalin entered into in 1939, Poland once again found itself in between the millstones of the two major powers of the Soviet Union and the German Reich. After Germany invaded it in 1939, Poland disappeared from the map once more, and an era of prolonged suffering began for the Polish people. The Polish government fled to Great Britain, whence it organised the resistance movement, partly via the Polish Home Army, the largest military resistance organisation during World War Two.


A total of 5 million inhabitants of Poland lost their lives during the Second World War, with many of them, such as the Jewish community and the country's elites, being deliberately executed. The capital city, Warsaw, lay in ruins in 1945. After the war, Poland's borders once again shifted, and some two million people were resettled. Although Poland was on the side of the victors at the end of World War Two, the country fell under the influence of the Soviet Union, and communism was established as the political system.

Manifest of the »Polish Committee for National Liberation«, which was supported by the Soviet Union.
Manifest of the »Polish Committee for National Liberation«, which was supported by the Soviet Union.


The rebuilding of Poland after the Second World War took place under difficult conditions: the political and cultural isolation, an anti-democratic leadership and an inefficient economic system meant that reconstruction took longer than in other European countries. Agriculture was collectivised, political freedom and the media subjected to restrictions, the economy stagnated, and everyday products and foodstuffs were frequently in short supply. Social unrest and resultant protests regularly affected the People's Republic.

Lech Walesa
Lech Walesa


In 1980 the living conditions of many Poles worsened. The country was facing an economic crisis, and food prices rose drastically. A crane operator at a Danzig shipyard, Anna Walentynowicz, was fired, and her colleagues responded by calling a strike and occupying the shipyard. An electrician by the name of Lech Walesa was voted leader of the strike committee. Striking factories all over Poland came out in solidarity, and Lech Walesa became head of Solidarność. This, the country's first independent trade union, marked a decisive turning point. The Soviet Union refused to accept Solidarność and banned it in 1981, but the rulers in Moscow were unable to hold the mass movement back.

Warsaw Skyscraper
Warsaw Skyscraper

1989 – TODAY

After the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, Poland once again became a democratic republic. Far-reaching reforms were introduced without delay, replacing the one-party system with political pluralism and the state-controlled economy with a free market. Dependency on the East was followed by an opening-up to the West. Lech Walesa became Poland's first democratically elected president in 1990. Poland became a member of NATO in 1999, and joined the European Union in 2004. At the 2015 parliamentary election, the right-wing conservative party PiS (Law & Justice) won an absolute majority, and has since been governing alone.

Author: François Kremer