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The Warsaw Voice » Other » September 2, 2009
Marking 70 years since WWII broke out
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70 Years in the History of the Polish Population
September 2, 2009   
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By Professor Józef Oleński, President of Central Statistical Office (GUS), General Census Commissioner for National Agricultural Census (PSR) 2010 and National Population and Housing Census (NSP) 2011

This year marks 220 years since the first census was taken in Poland and the first efforts were made in the field of statistics. One can say that the history of statistics is closely associated with the history of censuses.

On the eve of the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II, below we outline the history of censuses conducted in 1939-2009 in Poland.

Seventy years ago, we were also preparing a national census, which was scheduled for September 1941. It was supposed to be the third census in an independent Poland after those taken in 1921 and 1931. But the war brutally changed the fate of the country and its population as well as geography. All these developments had an impact on the history of statistics and statisticians.

The population changes that have taken place over the past 70 years show that the country has undergone an enormous transformation. According to approximate data, on Aug. 31, 1939, there were 35.1 million people in Poland, of which only 8.8 million, or 25.1 percent, lived in towns and cities. In 1921-1939, Poland's population increased by over 8.5 million, from 26.6 million to 35.1 million. This was a rapid growth, especially in cities, whose population increased almost three-and-a-half times during this period.

The census planned for 1941 was not conducted but we have an unique source of statistical information-a publication entitled A Concise Polish Statistical Yearbook September 1939-June 1941. The publication shows that a total of 22.1 million people found themselves under German occupation. An additional 13.2 million lived in territories annexed by the Soviet Union. Although the 1941 census was not conducted, statisticians collected shocking information about the most serious consequences of German occupation for the Polish population.

At that time, 72.6 percent of the population lived in rural areas-in territories occupied by Germany the figure was 67.2 percent, while in those occupied by the Soviet Union the figure was 80.8.

This information shows that Poland under occupation had its own statistical system for collecting, aggregating and verifying population data. A well-developed underground state was in operation that collected and processed statistical data and sent them to the London-based Polish government-in-exile. The collected information included data on population size, births, deaths, migration figures and above all deportations and mass extermination, which were the greatest tragedy of the Polish population at the time.

Immediately after the war, Polish statistical services, which had registered the pitiful plight of the nation under occupation, made an attempt to assess the country's new demographic situation resulting from geopolitical and population changes. The Central Statistical Office (GUS) was reinstated on March 12, 1945. Work on preparing a population census started a few weeks later. In November and December 1945, a decision was made to conduct the first postwar census. As we could not afford a full census, a provisional population count was made on Feb. 14, 1946. Its findings were shocking as they revealed that only 23.9 million people lived in Poland within its new boundaries. This means that Poland lost over 11 million people as a result of the war. This was due to territorial changes, political emigration and above all the high loss of civilian population and soldiers during the war. Seventy percent of the population lived in rural areas.

The next census, taken in 1950, showed that the overall population increased to 25 million while the urban population increased to 38 percent. The census revealed that the nation was emerging from the disaster of war and was beginning to develop, which was best reflected by the growth of the urban population. The census confirmed the great importance of censuses in monitoring population changes and describing their scope. The government proved its ability to carry out a large-scale research project like this.

The 1960 census recorded another increase in the Polish population, to 29.8 million. The percentage of the urban population increased to 47.7 percent. This was a period of rapid economic development pursued in line with the costly communist model of urbanization and industrialization. But regardless of its political determinants, the census testified to the development of statistical knowledge and services of the time. Statisticians were better organized, better prepared and better equipped to do their job than ever before. Slogans and posters calling on people to take part in the census may seem ludicrous today but they illustrate the fact that a population census was the only way to document what a country was like, what kind of population it had, and how these people lived.

The 1970 census coincided with the tragic events of December when police brutally suppressed worker protests, killing many people. The census clearly showed that the socioeconomic situation of the country and its population was far from that promoted by communist propaganda.

The country's population had grown to 32.6 million and for the first time, Poland's urban population was larger than the rural population, having increased to 52.2%. In statistical terms, the census was of special significance because it provided the largest amount of data on the country's social, cultural, economic, welfare and technical infrastructure ever collected in a population census in Poland. Despite the technological constraints of the time, for the first time, the census was followed by reports with data for individual districts. It still amazes us today how, in the difficult economic and political conditions of that period, it was possible to publish millions of pages of statistical tables and print tens of thousands of publications.

Another census was conducted in 1978, earlier than initially planned because the authorities wanted to obtain information they needed for political and economic planning. The decision to hold the census ahead of schedule was quite unfortunate and disturbed the census program for many years.

In 1978, there were 35.1 million residents in Poland, of which 57.3 percent lived in cities. The census played an important role in preparing and conducting social research in the 1980s. It was to a large extent based on international experience thanks to an International Statistical Institute congress held in Warsaw in 1975.

The 1988 census was the last one taken in communist Poland. Well organized and prepared, it largely met international standards and, importantly, was not subject to any drastic forms of political influence. According to the census, Poland had a population of 37.8 million, of which 61.2 percent lived in urban areas.

For the next census we had to wait until 2002. It was a special undertaking because two censuses were conducted at the same time: a National Population and Housing Census and a National Agricultural Census. It was a modern project, in which OCR (optical character recognition) technology, modern census documentation production and advanced registration and computing technology were used for the first time. A report from the census was published less than a year later and successive volumes containing data from individual parts of the survey were gradually made available to the public. Data for individual districts, provinces and the country as a whole are still available on the internet. The census was preceded by an extensive information campaign in the press, radio, television and internet.

Overall, the statistics and censuses of 1939-2009 documented the changes that have taken place in the country over the past 70 years. Interestingly, each census contributed new data, experience and findings, expanding our knowledge and census documentation resources. According to the latest census, in 2002, Poland had a record population of 38.23 million, of which 61.8 percent lived in urban areas.

The censuses scheduled to take place in the coming years, the National Agricultural Census (PSR) 2010 and the National Population and Housing Census (NSP) 2011, will be conducted on the basis of existing administrative records in line with Eurostat and UN methods and meeting 21st-century standards. The censuses will place a minimum burden on the population because they will rely heavily on electronic means of communication and an IT data collection and processing system.
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