Independence and Occupation in Poland since 1918

Following the Second World War, a Soviet-imposed communist regime was established in Poland. [1] Using the themes of consumption and the informal economy, livings standards, and social welfare, it is possible to shed light on the nature of this socialist regime, and the extent of its impact on the lives of ordinary people. These themes reveal that whilst in some periods, the communist regime was progressive in nature, thereby allowing its citizens to experience an enhanced life; it was also backward and corrupt, as a result of the various governments’ command economies, and industrialisation schemes.

At the same time, these themes also shed light on the extent of the socialist regime’s impact on the lives of ordinary citizens. These themes reveal that the regime’s impact could be negative or positive, minimal, and large at different times. These themes will each be examined in turn, firstly looking at the nature of the regime, and then the extent of its impact on citizens. Consumption and the informal economy firstly shed light on the nature of the regime and the extent of its impact on ordinary citizens.

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Whilst the theme of consumption highlights that the regime was slightly progressive, it principally reveals that it was corrupt, unpopular and backward, and a large, and negative influence on peoples’ lives. At the same time, the theme of the informal economy reveals that the regime also had a lesser impact on the lives of the citizens. [3] Consumption revealed that the state was progressive to a small extent, as despite food shortages and queues, many people found that state shops still sold certain alcohols like vodka, which most people subsequently spent 70% of their incomes on. 4] The fact that most people could still access alcohol is important in shedding light on the regime’s progression, as it demonstrates that despite times of economic hardship, the country did not represent complete stagnation, as people could still at least access certain goods. However, despite these small hints of progression, consumption nevertheless reveals the regime was predominantly corrupt, unpopular and backward in nature.

Consumption reveals the corrupt nature of the regime by the way that certain consumer goods were reserved only for communist party members, and not for the masses. [5] This was particularly illustrated by Krystyna Bialek, a 65 year old Polish woman, when she went to visit a hotel in Warsaw, and asked to buy alcohol: I remember being at this hotel in Warsaw and asking for a whisky or a French coffee with cognac, and the waiter looking at me in amazement, and saying ‘we haven’t got any whisky or cognac’.

So I said, ‘what is that gentleman in the corner doing sitting with a bottle of whisky on his table’. The waiter said, ‘ah, well that gentleman works for the Government. ’ So he obviously had access to things like that, and we obviously didn’t. [6] Krystyna’s testimony illustrates the corruption of the regime by the way that whilst government members were allowed to drink expensive alcohols like whisky, the majority of the population were not. 7] The fact that a majority of the population were not allowed to drink these substances is important because it demonstrates that the communist regime, far from creating an egalitarian system, actually exacerbated the social differences between the upper and middle classes, and the working-classes. By exacerbating social differences between these two groups, the communist regime’s legitimacy quickly eroded. At the same time, the theme of consumption also reveals the regime had very little appeal to most of its citizens.

This was because the population found western consumer goods such as perfume, jeans and beauty products more attractive than the drab, low-quality products provided by the regime’s command economy. [8] The fact everyday citizens were attracted more to western products rather than their own products is important in shedding light on the regime’s limited impact on the population, since it demonstrates that most Poles were dissatisfied with living in the Eastern Bloc, and therefore wanted to live like people in countries like France, America and Britain. 9] Consumption also reveals the backward nature of the regime due to food shortages and queues, which came about as a result of the communist party’s centralized system. The communist party had a centralized system, which geared its economy towards firstly the Three Year Industrialisation Plan (from 1947-1949), and secondly the Six Year Plan in July 1950, which nationalised shops, and therefore brought them under state control. [10] This had a large, negative impact on society, as it created food and product shortages which only served to aggravate the masses. 11] As Kathy Burrell notes, “food shortages and consumer frustrations were at the heart of the historical narratives of the regime. ”[12]

Burrell’s assertion that food shortages and a lack of consumer goods were part and parcel of everyday life is correct, as this was further illustrated by Krystyna Bialek, who stated that: Things were bad. There was nothing in the shops. I mean we went into a crystal shop. There were only 3 crystal ash trays in the shop. We then went into a material shop, and there were only two rolls of material. There was just nothing to buy. 13] Krystyna Bialek’s testimony reveals the situation in Poland was really bad. The fact that Krystyna mentions in her visits to the crystal shop and material shop that there were only 3 ash trays is important, as it demonstrates the regime was very backward economically and that people found they were limited in the amount of goods they could buy. [14] The fact people were limited in the amounts of products was further revealed in the 1970s and 1980s, as most supermarkets became practically empty, with the only available products being bottles of vinegar.

In addition to this, the food shortages in state shops also revealed that the regime in turn had a large, detrimental impact on the lives of ordinary people, as many were forced to moderate the amount of food products they bought. [16] Rather than spending time buying luxuries, people focussed their attention on buying essential food products, such as bread, meat and butter. [17] As Slavenka Drakulic notes, “there developed a culture of need rather than like and want. [18] Drakulic’s assertion that the situation called for a new culture, one based on buying essential products such as bread and meat rather than luxuries is correct, as rather than buying food in state shops, they needed to find food elsewhere, and therefore find a way to adjust to the regime. [19]

Furthermore, the queues which became part of daily life as a result of the food shortages also sheds light on the nature of the regime, as it shows that the regime was very unpopular. 20] As Krystyna Bialek further explained when she was trying to buy a loaf of bread, during the late 1980s: “You know to get a loaf of bread, me and my relatives would probably have to queue up for half a day, which seems ridiculous in this day and age. We got extremely tired of it eventually. ”[21] Krystyna’s account of her frustrations lining up in a queue for bread sheds light on the unpopularity of the regime, especially during the 1980s. It is important that this revealed the regime was unpopular because it demonstrated the regime not only became inefficient overtime.

However, it also demonstrated it lost its appeal among the masses. The fact that the regime lost its appeal amongst its population only served to highlight contradictions in the regime’s objectives to create a socialist society, full of happy citizens. However, although these food shortages and queues illustrate that the regime had a large impact on the population, thereby forcing its citizens to make lifestyle changes, the informal economy simultaneously reveals that the regime had a limited impact on the population, as it failed to gain complete control over Poland’s commodities. 22] As David Crowley and Susan Reid argue, “the state, despite its policies of nationalisation, did not have a monopoly over the exchanges of commodities in Poland. ”[23]

Crowley’s assertion that the state did not have a monopoly over commodity exchanges is correct because although many people suffered economic hardship in the form of food shortages and queues in the 1970s and 1980s, nevertheless some people found their own ways of living, via the informal or second economy, thereby forming outside communities and exchange services, known as ‘zalatwione’ or ‘blat’. 24] Zalatwione could take a variety of forms such as people providing goods for goods, or goods for services. [25] Zalatwione proved to be a very important mechanism in illustrating the ways in which the informal economy had very little impact on its citizens, as it demonstrated that even by experiencing the upmost difficulties in everyday life, people always found strategies to cope. [26] Living standards also reveals that the regime was both progressive and backward.

The regime proved to be progressive and had a positive effect on the population, especially during the 1970s and 1980s, as living standards rose to almost the same scale of those in the West. [27] As Bulent Gokay notes, “standards of living rose more markedly, substantially more than anywhere else in Eastern Europe. ”[28] Gokay’s assertion that living standards rose massively is correct because during the 1960s and 1970s, there was an affluence of consumer goods, full employment and a rise in average life expectancy. 29] There was a rise in consumer goods, especially cars and televisions. [30] Whilst car ownership grew from 450,000 to over 2 million between 1970 and 1980, the number of television sets in homes grew to 2,300,000 by 1966, with an estimated ten million viewers. [31] Similarly, there was a rise in full employment and the average life expectancy. [32] The regime had a large impact on people’s lives where life expectancy was concerned because whilst the average life expectancy rose by 59 years in the early 1950s, by the 1970s this had rose to between 67 and 75 for both genders.

The regime also had a large impact on employment because by 1979 there were 232,000 people employed in industries. [34] It was important there was a rise in full employment, consumer goods and the average life expectancy, as it demonstrated the communist regime was progressive and tried its best to create a modern society. However, although living standards revealed the communist regime was progressive to some extent; it was also at the same time backward, thereby mirroring a society in decline. 35] The communist regime was in decline by the fall in real wages and birth rates. [36] Real wages slumped from over 8% between 1973 and 1975 to 3. 6% in 1976, whilst birth rates fell below the rates reached during the pre-communist era. [37] It was important that both these aspects fell substantially because it demonstrated that even at a late stage in the communist era, the regime failed to live up to its credentials to create a better society. As a result, it highlighted the regime’s decreasing legitimacy.