Monday, May 22, 2017
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Reflections from the Great Depression in Poland (1930-1936)

Current economic crisis encourages us to reflect on economic depression of the 30s. In Poland the economic crisis started slightly later than in the US, but it lasted longer: 1930-1935.  From the perspective of the World War II which followed Poles tend to see thirties as good years. But the big economic crisis brought lots of misery and poverty, especially in the regions which were poor already, mainly in Southeastern Poland. 

Both of my parents were born in 1930. They were still children in the pre-war times.

My father came from relatively rich family, he was the only child. He grew up partly in the country. He still remembers that the cheap food products made farmers very poor.  But the real misfortune did not affect his family until the WW II when his mother died on tuberculosis, which was accelerated due to the poor diet. They ate mainly rapeseed soup and rye bread. During the war the medical care was also inadequate.  My father became semi-orphan as 12 years old boy. 

My mother was the youngest from seven children in a miner's family in Katowice, Upper Silesia. When she was born the whole family lived in a house which consisted from a kitchen and two rooms, but they only has the access to one room. Like many Poles they had also a small farm with geese, chicken and goats and a small field and garden. Her father, a miner, was forced for early retirement during the Great Depression. He lost much his savings in a bank bankruptcy. Still, my mother's parents were able to expand the house adding the upper floor. Of course, during this time they had to save on food, so the meat or buttered bread was only served on Sundays.

My mother remembers that during the crisis her family had to guard against the thieves. They were sitting in the fields nearby smoking cigarettes. One could see the small blinking lights from their cigarettes. These thieves sometimes stole a chicken or goat. Once they even stole a family dog after they put him to sleep.

There were many poor people and beggars asking for help. My grandmother has never sent anybody away without anything to eat. There were also men who were collecting rags in exchange for some small gifts. My mother remembers to get a child ring for some old rags her family gave away.

In general, years 1926-1928 were successful for Polish economy. The export grew, especially coal export due to the long strike of British miners. The unemployment was low. But the economic crisis affected Poland quite soon after the New York stock crash. Foreign banks withdrew credits given for development of Polish economy, the foreign investments stopped. The crisis affected the most agriculture which was giving jobs to 60% of Poles. In 1929 Polish economy was in 79% agrarian and in 21% industrial. This was one of the main reasons why Polish crisis was longer than in industrially developed countries.

The first sign of the crisis was a drastic decrease of the food prices due to overproduction and decrease of the consumption by urban population. Farmers had to sell much more products to pay taxes, buy tools, cloths, salt or matches. The lower food prices and higher supply caused further decrease of food prices and more hardship for farmers. With a time it led to a high inequality between food, very cheap, and industrial products, very expensive. 

The industrial slow down caused rapid decrease in production. This led to the development of monopoles which limited the competition and led to increase in prices.

economical crisisThe total industrial production in 1932 was about 40% less than in 1928. 1932 was the worst year for Polish economy, the unemployment beyond farming was estimated at 44%.

Initially Polish government did very little to improve the economic situation besides fighting for duty barriers for imported products and for easing of barriers for Polish products. The course of Polish currency was kept high, the access to the credit was low, the investments were low and the budget expenses were cut. This led to lower industrial production, lower prices and lower standard of life of population. The more complex program to fight the crisis was introduced at the end of 1932. It helped to increase the value of farming products and to lower the prices of industrial goods, especially these produced by monopoles. The government initiated steps against unemployment and to increase the export. People were hired for public works. My mother remembered that some barracks which were build for temporary road workers. The safe work for many people was a job in public institutions. The lowering unemployment decreased the number of strikes. Many corporations become public, since they were unable to repay their credits.

Industrial projects were kicked off to alleviate differences between better developed western and central Poland, so called "Poland A" and poor "Poland B" which included Easter and Southeastern regions, predominantly a farmland inhabited by minorities. The biggest project was so called Central Industrial Region (COP) was initiated in 1936 in the central Poland just between Poland A and Poland B. The COP project was interrupted by the outbreak of War World II in September 1939. One has to wonder how Poland would look like in the present time if not the biggest human and economic devastation and then forty years of communism brought by the war and Soviet occupation.

Baba Jaga Corner,

I recommend:

The Polish Way: A Thousand-Year History of the Poles and Their Culture, By Adam Zamojski

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