Poland never accepted communism easily but nonetheless experienced its ill effects on health. As elsewhere in the former socialist countries, mortality began rising for Polish males in the mid-1960s and was concentrated among middle-aged members of the working class. The end of communist domination came in 1989. Yet democracy did not bring an immediate halt to the downturn in life expectancy; rather, health conditions in Poland continued to deteriorate until recently. Whereas Poland’s general health pattern is similar to that in the other Soviet-bloc countries, there are some important differences in the Polish experience with communism.
Three of these differences are very fundamental: Poland’s religion, its Western orientation, and its free peasantry Poland remained staunchly Roman Catholic despite communist rule. About 96% of the population today is Catholic, making the nation one of the most Catholic countries in the world, which is underscored by the fact that the current Pope, John Paul II, is Polish. The news that Poland’s Cardinal Karol Wojtyla had been selected in 1978 as the first non-Italian pope in 455 years “burst like a joyous bombshell” among the Polish people and was a source of “pride and stature” for the population (Stokes 1993:33). Catholicism, therefore, served as an important presence in the daily life of the Polish people and functioned as a major counterweight to the atheistic influences of communism. According to Norman Davies (1984:11-12):
This chapter was written with the assistance of Antonina Ostrowska, Ph.D., Deputy Director, Institute of Philosophy and Sociology, Polish Academy of Sciences, Warsaw, Poland.