The Painful road to Freedom
One factor that helped tame the worst excesses of the ruling communist regime in Poland was the first of the country's general strikes and street demonstrations, known as "Poznański Czerwiec," or the Poznań revolt.
The strike started on the morning of June 28, 1956 in the H. Ciegielski metalworks in Poznań and quickly developed into a general protest against the totalitarian government. The demonstrations were suppressed by more than 10,000 troops from both the army and the Internal Security Corps. Fifty-seven protesters died.
Stunned by the protests, the Central Committee of the Polish Communist Party (PZPR), at its eighth plenary meeting which began Oct. 19, decided to restore the moderate Władysław Gomułka to power. His appointment as First Secretary, and the thaw it promised after the bitter legacy of the Stalin years, were enthusiastically received.
The process of de-Stalinization of the Eastern Bloc, started in Poland, was epitomized by the decision of the city of Stalinogród to revert to its former name: Katowice. Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński, the Primate of Poland, was released from prison. Authorities questioned leading functionaries from the Ministry of Public Security about past abuses. Some 1,500 political prisoners were rehabilitated; 35,000 people unfairly imprisoned were set free. Plans to collectivize agriculture were shelved. The ban on possession of platinum, gold and foreign currency was lifted.
Some 29,000 Poles returned to Poland from the USSR, where some had been held since the start of World War II.
Gomułka's liberalization did not last long. In the closing months of 1956, the Polish communist leader attacked what he called "revisionists" and their efforts at liberalization. Over the next decade, the liberal media was disbanded, the policing system was expanded, censorship was increased, and there was a return to an anti-Church policy that forbade religious lessons in schools.
A student demonstration on Jan. 30, 1968, against the censorship of a performance in Warsaw's National Theater of Adam Mickiewicz's Dziady, with its anti-Russian allusions, was the next tinderbox. The Citizens' Militia attacked the demonstrators and arrested 35 of them. Another rally was staged March 6, this time at the University of Warsaw, in defense of students subjected to repression. Rallies followed in Wrocław, Łódź, Cracow, Poznań, Toruń and Gdańsk.
Earlier, in the summer of 1967, after the start of the Israeli-Arab six-day war, the USSR had condemned Israel and severed diplomatic relations with the country. The Polish communist government followed suit. Gomułka formulated a theory that Poland harbored a "Zionist Fifth Column" that supported Israeli aggression against Arab countries. An attempt to protest became the ideal pretext to start an anti-Semitic campaign that forced 20,000 people to leave Poland between 1968 and 1972.
The workers' revolt of Dec. 14-22, 1970 on the Baltic Coast was the bloodiest event in the history of the communist government in Poland. The strikes and demonstrations were the consequence of an average 17 percent hike in prices on Dec. 12 of meat, meat products and other foodstuffs. The population rose up to demand that the government cancel the price increases, raise wages and remove from power those responsible, including Gomułka himself as well as Prime Minister Józef Cyrankiewicz. Workers from the Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk went on strike on Dec. 14. A general strike was announced the next day, and other plants in Gdańsk joined in. This led to street fighting and the Communist Committee building was set ablaze. The government deployed tanks and armored cars, 5,000 militiamen and 27,000 soldiers, and authorized the use of firearms. On the morning of Dec. 16, the army opened fire on Gdynia shipyard workers attempting to return to work. Thirty-nine people were killed, another 1,164 people were injured, and over 3,000 were arrested.
As a result of the events, Gomułka and his team were removed from power and the post of the Communist Party's First Secretary was given to Edward Gierek on Dec. 20.
Another wave of protests took place in June 1976 after the government led by Piotr Jaroszewicz introduced drastic price increases of many consumer goods. Some prices were set to rise by 70 percent, the result of the dire economic situation triggered by Gierek's "building socialism" economic policies, which relied on massive borrowing from the West to stimulate consumer demand.
Led by firms from Radom, Ursus and Płock, workers from 97 companies went on strike on June 25. The strike in Radom almost precipitated a general strike between June 26-30 after the authorities made brutal attempts to suppress it and arrested its organizers. The local government announced a state of emergency and temporarily closed all businesses. That night, crowds of people gathered on the streets and set fire to the Communist Party's provincial committee building. Numerous divisions of the Motorized Citizens' Militia used live ammunition, tear gas and water cannon to suppress unrest in the city.
According to a report ordered by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, 112 firms went on strike in 12 provinces and over 80,000 people took part in them. The communist government quickly withdrew the price increases and granted financial compensation based on earnings-a move that further fueled inflation.
August 1980: The Birth of Solidarity
The summer of 1980 saw a mass wave of strikes along the Baltic Coast. The most important of these started on Aug. 14 in the Gdańsk shipyard, when about 16,000 employees stopped work and occupied the grounds to protest the firing of Anna Walentynowicz, editor of an underground newspaper. The Gdynia shipyard and the Gdańsk city transport system joined the strike on Aug. 15, and a general strike committee was formed the next day. On Aug. 17, the strikers drew up a list of 21 economic and political demands. The Szczecin shipyard went on strike on Aug. 18; the Gdańsk Polytechnic, the University of Gdańsk and the city's Opera and Philharmonic weighed in on Aug. 20. A government delegation came to Gdańsk on Aug. 23 and talks began during which Lech Wałęsa, the leader of the Gdańsk shipyard strike, stood at the head of the strikers. After several days of nervous negotiations, an agreement was signed on Aug. 31 between the Inter-Enterprise Strike Committee or MKS, which represented over 700 plants, and a government delegation headed up by Deputy Prime Minister Mieczysław Jagielski. The result was the registration on Nov. 10, 1980, of Solidarność (Solidarity), the first independent trade union in any communist country.
Martial Law: An End to the Dream
The introduction of martial law, on Dec. 13, 1981, was the longest and largest operation involving force by the communist regime in Poland. Some 70,000 Polish army soldiers, 30,000 functionaries of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, 1,750 tanks, 1,400 armored cars, 500 personnel carriers and 9,000 cars were sent out onto the streets of Polish cities. At midnight, the ZOMO riot police began a nationwide roundup of opposition activists. Some 10,000 ZOMO functionaries were tasked with detaining, in specially prepared prisons and internment centers, persons named on a previously drawn-up list of "threats to public order."
Martial law was announced on Polish Radio at 1 p.m. in a speech by Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, the commander of the Military Council of National Salvation (WRON), a non-constitutional entity that became the de facto governing body in Poland.
All telephone communications were severed and correspondence was censored. Once phone communications were reinstated, conversations were monitored and censored. A 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew was introduced and people were not allowed to change residences without first informing the authorities. Media publication was limited to two government newspapers, Trybuna Ludu and Żołnierz Wolności. Foreign travel was banned. Poland's borders and civilian airports were closed and schooling was temporarily suspended. Foreign radio stations transmitting in Polish were again jammed, as in Stalinist times. The reason given for martial law was the worsening economic situation. In reality, the communist regime feared losing power linked to its failure to control the independent trade union movement. The regime warned of the threat of armed intervention by the remaining members of the Warsaw Pact, the military alliance grouping Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and the Soviet Union that was founded in the Polish capital in 1955. To this day historians cannot agree on whether the invasion threat was real.
The fiercest resistance came from Silesian coal miners. On Dec. 15, a ZOMO division opened fire in the Manifest Lipcowy mine, injuring four miners. Then, on Dec. 16, ZOMO functionaries shot and killed nine miners during protests at the Wujek mine in Katowice, Silesia. Workers' protests were the longest at the Ziemowit mine, lasting until Dec. 22 and the Piast mine, where 1,000 miners remained underground from Dec. 14-28. It was the longest strike in the history of Poland's postwar mining sector.
During the first week of martial law, 5,000 people found themselves in prisons and internment camps. Altogether during the whole period of martial law, 10,000 people were interned in 49 centers. These were mainly Solidarity leaders, trade union advisors, intelligentsia linked to the trade unions, and members of the democratic opposition.
Martial law officially lasted until July 22, 1983, at which time WRON ceased to exist.