Industrialisation within the territory of today’s Poland was extremely disparate as repeated partitioning of this nation occurred during the decisive 150 years in which Europe’s first textile works, coal mines and railways were built. During those years, parts of today’s Poland belonged to the neighbouring powers, and their development varied correspondingly.
The largest of these was "Congress Poland" with Warsaw as its capital, a construct that was created at the Vienna Congress of 1815 and subject to the Czar of Russia. As in many European nations, population growth generated a large reservoir of labour here. However, even after the changes following the liberation of the peasants in 1864, the agricultural sector remained inefficient and failed to produce the yields that in other countries fed their expanding industrial societies. As capital was lacking, investment had to come from abroad: a core problem under which the Polish economy suffered until well into the 20th century.
Only the city of Łodz developed in a similar way to western European industrial centres, and it became known as the "Polish Manchester" on account of the boom in the cotton textile industry there starting in 1820 – with all the adverse side effects: exploitation of workers and dramatic environmental pollution. At about the same time, a major centre of heavy industry emerged in Dabrowa-Becken (Zagłębie Dąbrowskie), which bordered on the former Prussian Province of Upper Silesia, based on mining and processing of local coal and iron ore reserves.
In Warsaw (Warszawa), which was long dominated by its military function as a fortress, the population density increased significantly from the mid-19th century. With the emergence of metal and food industries, wool and linen working, the city developed into a major industrial centre. This was further driven by the railways that linked Warsaw first with Vienna and then with St Petersburg and Moscow. The most important factor, however, was that the industries were not forced to compete with Western Europe: as part of an economically extremely backward empire, Congress Poland primarily served the Russian market, and ultimately became Russia’s most powerful economic region.
Industrialisation took an unusual course in Upper Silesia, in that it was triggered early by state initiatives. The Prussian King Friedrich II, who won this territory rich in natural resources from Austria in the Silesian Wars, appointed experts who brought in state-of-the-art British technology. Coal mining in Silesia commenced as early as the end of the 18th century, and 1788 saw the commissioning of the first steam engine in the revitalised silver and lead mining operations in Tarnowitz (Tarnowskie Góry). The first coke-fired blast furnace went into operation in Gleiwitz (Gliwice) in 1796. Scotsman John Baildon introduced British puddle furnaces in Katowice which produced extremely tough wrought iron, and succeeded in establishing a steam engine works in Gleiwitz. Also, the deposits of zinc ore around Katowice were quite significant. During the 19th century the output of zinc from Upper Silesia exceeded that of all other European regions. Even the amount of sulphuric acid obtained as a byproduct was so high that it became difficult to sell. On the whole though, the chemical industry of the region remained on a relatively modest level.
Once state-sponsored industry had set the process in motion, Silesian landowners became the primary financiers for the expansion of heavy industry. Astonishingly, the industrialisation of the mixed Polish-German population of Upper Silesia did not trigger a wave of nationalism as it did in Bohemia: here, social classes formed the main divisions. This first German industrial region gradually began to decline toward the end of the century, as more and more ore had to be imported.
The primarily agrarian Lower Silesia made headlines in 1844 when the mechanisation of textile production triggered the well-known weavers’ uprisings. Agriculture was also predominant in West Prussia and the region surrounding Posen (Poznan), dubbed "South Prussia", both of which fell to Prussia with the partitioning of Poland at the end of the 18th century. Danzig (Gdansk) at least became home to shipyards and arms makers, while in the rural regions only factories for foodstuffs and farming equipment thrived.
After the First World War, the diverse economic structure of the various regions weighed heavily on the reconstituted Polish nation. Additionally, the established trade ties dissolved after 1918. It was thus not possible to compensate for the structural weaknesses, particularly the dependence on foreign capital, before Black Friday 1929 triggered a new crisis.
Chozow. Königshütte Ironworks